Skip to main content.

Hurt: The impact of father-absence on the mental health of black boys

Fellowship Story Showcase

Hurt: The impact of father-absence on the mental health of black boys

Picture of Lottie Joiner

Lottie L. Joiner is the senior editor of The Crisis. This article was produced as a project for the National Health Journalism Fellowship, a program of the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.

Other stories in the series include:

The impact of absent fathers on the mental health of black boys

Kecia Brighthaupt has had a difficult time raising her son Jamari, 15, alone. She wants his father to be more involved in his life.
The Crisis Magazine
Tuesday, April 19, 2016

It’s the week before Christmas and the Brighthaupt family is in its weekly therapy session. Kecia Brighthaupt, 37, grabs a piece of paper from the center of the dining room table in her apartment and reads the word on it.

“Hopeful,” Kecia Brighthaupt says. “I feel hopeful that Jamari is going to graduate.” 

She, her 15-year-old son Jamari, and their counselor, Ayize Ma’at, sit at one end of the glass rectangular table. A tan carpet covers the floor. Photos of relatives, including Kecia’s deceased grandfather, cover the white walls. A picture of the Obama family hangs there, too, in this cozy two-bedroom in Southeast Washington, D.C.

“Why do you feel hopeful?” Ma’at asks.

“He’s turned around tremendously in school,” Kecia says. “Jamari is now taking his education seriously. He comes home and does homework. He knows there are certain things he has to do to meet the criteria to graduate.”

Kecia is a petite woman with a warm demeanor. Her black hair is pulled up into a loose bun. And after a long day, she sits comfortably in black spandex pants and a black T-shirt with the words “Bye Felecia.”

It’s Jamari’s turn to pull a word.

“Hurt,” he says.

“When one of my friends died, that’s when I felt hurt.”

“How did he die?” Ma’at asks.

“Shot. Killed,” Jamari answers.

Kecia and Jamari continue pulling words — angry, comfortable, disrespected, understood, ashamed, neglected, comfortable and loved.

They have been in court-ordered family counseling for two years. Jamari has been in and out of the criminal justice system since the age of 10. He has been diagnosed with attention deficit disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder and an emotional disorder, his mother says.

“He just gets mad. He gets really, really angry,” Kecia says. “It would be a big difference in his behavior and certain things he does if his dad was more involved and hands on.”

According to the Census Bureau’s latest Current Population Survey, 23.6 percent of children under age 17 live with their mother only. About 50 percent of Black boys live with their mother only compared with 16 percent of their White counterparts.

In 2014, President Obama announced the My Brother’s Keeper Initiative, a mentoring program in a long line of mentoring programs meant to improve the educational and life outcomes of boys and young men of color, many of whom are living without their fathers. Obama famously wrestled with the issue himself during his youth. Social scientists say father-absence can contribute to crippling hurdles such as truancy, delinquency, poor academic performance and substance abuse.

But behavior is an outward manifestation of the “hurt” left in the wake of father absenteeism. The so-often deeply buried emotional pain — and for some boys, their mental health – are not getting the attention required to help them heal and be made whole. Besides mentoring, what are the tools and resources African American boys growing up without their fathers need to confront the hole left in their hearts? It’s a hole that, as Obama can attest, may never be fully filled but can be managed and overcome.


“That’s the tough part,” says Ron Mincy of Columbia University’s School of Social Work.

He notes that sociologists and economists often can point to the adverse behaviors associated with father absenteeism; the psychologists and developmentalists are now trying to figure out why.

“The ‘why’ seems to be that father absence is associated with lower levels of self-esteem among Black boys,” says Mincy, director of Columbia’s Center for Research on Fathers, Children and Family Well-Being.

A father sets boundaries — discipline and training — Mincy points out, as well as provides a sense of protection. Boys without fathers lack the paternal support they need to respond to the things that life brings them. There are certain questions a boy would never ask a female, he says.

“At some point in their life every man is vulnerable,” Mincy explains. “You have circumstances in your life that you need to be able to go to a man to debrief. So it’s this insecurity, it’s that fear, it’s that absence of someone who loves me, who cares about me and I can go and I can ask anything.”

Psychologist Fred Phillips explains it a step further.

“Connectedness is a biological imperative,” says Phillips, senior adviser and psychologist at the Progressive Life Center, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit mental health organization focused on helping urban communities. “We have a biological need to connect to other human beings for survival, for physical survival and emotional survival.”

Losing that connection can be traumatizing, Phillips adds.

“The male energy has to be shaped, in different ways a different developmental stages,” he says.

For example, Phillips points out, how does a developing young man learn how to be in healthy relationships and balance the emotions of tenderness and assertiveness? Without guidance and direction, young men will more than likely ignore, sabotage or deny their emotions, “because they don’t know what to do with them in the context of this environment, which has a certain image of males. If it’s not directed, if it’s not shaped, then [this energy] gets out of control, and that’s what we see. That’s the critical piece. Emotions are energy. Emotions are biochemical, and they’re electricity. That energy, whether it is pain, whether it’s hurt, whether it’s anger, has to go somewhere.”

Phillips notes that when an adolescent acts out, it’s usually a form of communication. They are expressing their pain, he explains. That’s why school systems are bringing in more social workers and therapists to help educators address students’ emotional needs.

It should be emphasized, however, that the country is filled with healthy and whole men who have been raised by single mothers, notes Wizdom Powell, associate professor of health behavior at the University of North Carolina’s Gillings School of Global Public Health.

But Powell says there’s no denying that a healthy male influence can play a significant role.

Children learn from their parents how to cope, regulate emotion and deal with stress, she says.

“I think that what fathers provide, and I think this is really critical, is a model for how to emote and form relationships with women, and with other men, and I think what boys learn from having fathers around, that they probably can’t get from mothers, is how men do that and do that successfully,” Powell says.

“Boys are watching the way that men relate to other people who are important to them, and they’re picking up on cues on how to form healthy functional relationships with another human being. They’re also learning messages about masculinity and manhood that mothers can also provide, but through a different kind of lens.”

Powell says boys are learning the social rules around masculinity, and manhood, and how men in their lives, particularly their fathers, either respond to and accept those rules, and then how they also push back on them to modify and create new forms, or ways, of being men in the world.

“And while women can talk about that, and can try to impart that kind of knowledge to boys, they’re not living it in the same way that men are, and so, the opportunities for modeling that kind of behavior are limited for women, because we can’t model for boys how to look, to be, and act, and function in the world as a man, so there are many parts of the developmental process that I think women can’t be stand-ins for,” Powell says. “We can help boys negotiate rules around masculinity more effectively, but we can’t model them in the same way that men can model them for their sons, and also for their daughters.”

What are the tools and resources African American boys growing up without fathers need to confront the “hole” left in their hearts - a hole that even Obama can attest to, is never fully filled but can be managed, can be lived with and overcome?


Jamari pulls the word “sad.”

“I feel sad when I gotta go to court,” he says. “I felt sad when I couldn’t get on probation.”

Jamari’s black jeans hang below his waist. His jacket and T-shirt are also black and fit loosely on a tall, slim frame. He’s wearing the latest Air Jordan sneakers – the Sevens -and a wool multi-colored scarf around his head.

“What about in relationship to your family?” asks Ma’at.

“I feel sad for them when I make a lot of money and they gon’ ask,” says Jamari.

“You’re going to give them the cold shoulder?”

“Who you see here? I don’t see nobody ringing my phone, ringing her phone,” Jamari says referring to his mother.

“Will it be that way with your father?”

 “No, because of the simple fact that he’s my father. If he wasn’t my father yeah,” says Jamari. “That’s my father. I ain’t gone never knock what he did do for me, but I ain’t gone focus on all the stuff he didn’t do for me. That’s still my father and I still love him even though he do stuff I don’t like.”

This is Ma’at’s tenth session with the Brighthaupt family. He is the functional family therapy supervisor at the Hillcrest Children and Family Center in Washington, D.C. The center is a more than 200-year-old private, nonprofit organization that provides behavioral health treatment and support services to more than 1,500 individuals and families with emotional and substance abuse issues.

Children and adolescents who need mental health services are referred to Hillcrest through the juvenile justice system, school system or a parent. Its mission is to provide “comprehensive, culturally responsive, family and community focused services, education and advocacy.

”The Brighthaupt family is participating in the center’s functional family therapy (FFT) program. A therapist meets with a family on a weekly basis over several months, taking them through different phases– engagement motivation phase, behavior-change phase and the intervention phase. Some tools used during the intervention phase include breathing techniques and mindfulness activities, says Ma’at.

“We look at behaviors such as drug use, truancy and emotional dysregulation (e.g., temper tantrums, outbursts, mood swings) in the home and we put in place a therapeutic approach that looks at how we can actually help the family better engage in their communication, conflict management skills and anger management skills,” Ma’at explains.

He supervises a team of six therapists who do one-on-one counseling with families at their homes. He also takes on about 100 cases a year. He works with African American boys between ages 10-18. About 90 percent of his clients don’t have fathers in the home.

“The absenteeism when it comes to the father figure has a major impact on a child,” says Ma’at.

“It impacts them emotionally and it impacts the way they engage in relationships, whether it be with their peers or the people of the opposite sex. So they consciously and also unconsciously make a decision to detach and not be willing to be vulnerable when it comes to those relationships.”

Ma’at notes, however, that if there’s a way to get a young man to tap into his emotional intelligence then there’s a greater likelihood that he would achieve academic and financial success later in life. Through hands-on exercises, which may include drawing or role-play, Ma’at says he attempts to help his clients understand the importance of tapping into their emotions.

“One of the key points of FFT is to reduce the negativity in the home and increase the hope,” says Ma’at. “With African American boys and with families in general where there isn’t a father, sometimes the hope is just lost. One of the ways in which I work with the boys is that I engage in some self-disclosure, so I speak about my own personal and unique experiences being a Black man.”

Ma’at sees clients with various mental health diagnoses, including ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder), ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder) and bipolar disorder. But what he sees the most, he says, is major depressive disorder. Some young men numb their pain through destructive behavior such as substance abuse, gang involvement or sex.

“We look at our youth and say that they’re bad. I like to say they’re hurting,” says Ma’at. “Their behaviors are behaviors of them acting out pain... They’re just trying to meet a need — the need to be included, to be loved, to be welcomed, respected and wanted. Everybody wants to be wanted.”


Shortly before New Year’s day, Kecia rushes in to make dinner. She takes three buses to get to her job as a community support worker at a DC social service agency.

The heat is blasting, but Jamari is sitting at the kitchen table with his jacket on.

“Ma, what we gone eat for dinner?” he asks.

“You want some pork chops? What about chicken breasts?” his mother asks, pulling things from the freezer. “What about this?”

“What’s that?” Jamari asks.

“It’s pasta with garlic shrimp and vegetables,” says Kecia. Jamari nods. He was in court earlier for a urine test. Probation requires he do this weekly. Later, a D.C. Corrections van will stop by to make sure Jamari is home.

He must be in by 8 p.m.

“Okay I’ll make this,” Kecia says and gets out a skillet to start the meal.

She knows court days can be tough emotionally on her son.

Sheer brown curtains shield white plastic blinds in the kitchen. The words Harmony, Happiness and Tranquility are printed on the outside of the curtains.

In the living room is a photo of Kecia and Jamari.

“This is at his tenth birthday party. I did the house really nice. It was a Halloween theme. The kids wore their own costumes,” says Kecia, holding the picture. “You can tell he was happy. We bought him the Kinect for his Xbox. I spoiled him rotten that day.”

Jamari and his father were “two peas in a pod” back then, she says.

“When Jamari was really, really young his dad used to take him to work with him all the time. They used to do everything together,” remembers Kecia.

But after his father lost his job and moved to another part of town, things got tough for the Brighthaupt family. Jamari saw less of his dad and he also began losing friends to violence. His behavior began to change. Kecia was battling her own issues of substance abuse and depression.

Jamari was still just 10 when he was arrested for attacking his mother during an argument. The family was referred to Youth Villages, a family-based mental health treatment that offers intensive in-home services for troubled children and their families. The private nonprofit organization serves more than 23,000 children in more than 20 states and the District of Columbia using Multisystemic Therapy (MST).

The MST model is built on the notion that a child’s behavioral problems are influenced by a number of factors including family, peer group, school, community or individual characteristics. As a result, MST therapies involve a multi-strategy approach that addresses all those areas.

“The multi-systemic therapy is more focused on the parent and teaching them a lot of structure in the home and different parenting styles,” explains Ma’at. “It’s a more parent-centered approach.”

Kecia needed the help.

“He used to go off on me, used to fight, all of that,” Kecia recounts. “He was a ticking time bomb.” “My mother said some hurtful, disrespectful things to me too,” Jamari says.

“I did,” Kecia admits.

“Told him I wish he was not my child. I mean, that’s the worst thing a mother could probably say to a child, but I was angry and my emotions was running high. I explained to him that I was very angry at the time. Also that’s the time that I was really, really using drugs too. Not making an excuse, but it’s to show you that it numbed me a little bit.”

Her own childhood was also troubled. She was in the foster care system from age 7 to 21. Depression and drugs became routine.

A year after attacking his mother, Jamari was incarcerated again, this time for threatening to kill a young neighbor. He was put in a shelter home, a halfway house for youth, for nearly a month.

It’s been this way for the last five years, in and out of the criminal justice system. Jamari has been locked up for various charges, including smoking marijuana, car theft and violating curfew.

“He would come in whenever he felt like it. I mean, what 12-year-old you know come in at three, four, six o’clock in the morning like they grown?” asks Kecia, a former security officer. “It got to the point where Jamari just felt like he was much more macho than me. He felt like, you know, I was weak.”

Jamari admits he was out of control, at home and at school.

“I was just angry,” he says. “I don’t know why. I was just angry.”

Eventually the court referred the family to Hillcrest. A family counselor visited the home for about three months. After Jamari’s latest run-in with the law, Kecia requested a male therapist.

“I wanted a male therapist because I needed somebody to reach out and understand about being a boy growing up at Jamari’s age, that can relate to him and what he might be going through and what his struggles are,” says Kecia.

The reality is that for many Black boys, the issue of absent fathers is just part of the challenge. Too many of them are navigating a world that is hostile to Black men – focused on negatively in school, facing negative encounters with police, and generally moving through the world under suspicion.

This reality is what Howard Pinderhughes describes as structural violence, which he defines as “the harm that individuals, families and communities experience when the economic and social structures, social institutions in relation to power, privilege and inequality and inequity harm people and communities by preventing them from meeting their basic needs.”

The persistent structural violence that Black boys face can lead to toxic stress and trauma, Pinderhughes notes.

“If you don’t have a father in the home who can act as a source of support and one of your pillars for your formation of resilience then you’re less likely to be resilient in the face of a lot of sources of trauma,” says Pinderhughes, an associate professor at the University of California San Francisco. “It becomes a question of what are the ways in which young people can cope and deal with those exposures and those conditions. Do they have the resilience to be able to come through it?”

Phillips has a number of patients like the Brighthaupt family — single mothers raising sons. They want a male therapist, he says because “they recognize that they’re doing all that they can do, but something is missing.”

“A lot of single-parent mothers are very successful until the child gets to be about 8 years old, 8 to 10, and that’s where things can get a little out of control,” says Phillips, who once conducted a Rites of Passage program for African American boys in Washington, D.C. “Once they start getting past that, that’s where an understanding, sensitive, caring adult male is more needed.”

Phillips uses an African-centered service delivery model of intervention with psychotherapy and counseling for his patients. He’s also the senior advisor for the Baltimore-based Adolescent Clubhouse, which provides a comprehensive afterschool program six days a week for youth between the ages of 12 to 17. The Adolescent Clubhouse features counseling, educational and vocational support, structured activities, life skills, recreational and family activities.

LeRoy Reese, Associate Professor of Community Health and Preventive Medicine at Morehouse School of Medicine, has a similar clientele — African American mothers raising sons alone. Reese conducts outpatient therapy and individual and family therapy.

“I tell parents there are five things kids need in terms of structure,” says Reese. “You need discipline, be consistent, be predictable, be loving and nurture the talents, abilities and interests of your children.

“Parents, regardless of your circumstances if you’re able to kind of do those things, more times than not your kids are going to be okay.”

However, in working with Black males, Reese says a lot of “transference issues come up” — issues of abandonment, estrangement, trauma and detachment related to their birth fathers.

“Some of the depression that we see in Black men when we go from boys to teens to men is a byproduct of the traumas that they experienced that were never resolved,” Reese says. “So there is the insult of being a Black male in this country, the constant micro and macro assaults on the Black male. Then there’s the other trauma related to my daddy didn’t love me enough to invest in my life. So then what do you get?”


“Ma, do I need to put butter in this?” Jamari is asking about the shrimp and garlic dish.

“Hold on a second,” Kecia says, checking herself. “Yeah, put a little bit in it.”

Among the crowded literature on the refrigerator is a Valentine’s Day letter Jamari wrote to Kecia in 2010 while incarcerated:

Dear Ma: Happy Valentine’s Day Ma.

Thank you for taking care of me and caring and being a great mother. You does your best to help me in life and teaching me how to be a respectful young man. It has been times you could have given up on me but you didn’t and I thank you for that. I love you ma for helping me with life skills and how to talk to girls sometimes. I apologize for stressing you out and causing you pain but I love you for that ma. Happy Valentine’s day ma. I love you a lot. You are my #1 lady. Thank you Ma.”

Kecia has taken over the cooking.

“I tell his dad it’s not even about what you do,” says Kecia. “I just want you to come over, spend time with him like you all used to. Even if you come over just to watch TV or just talk to him, something. Just come over here more often.

“If Jamari was doing something bad, he’ll come, versus him [saying] ‘Come on, man. Let’s go out. Let’s go spend some time together.’”

The last time Jamari saw his father, he says, was a week before Christmas, at one of his court dates.

“He [Jamari] wanted to go boxing. He wanted his dad to take him. His dad was supposed to take him and he never took him,” says Kecia. “He couldn’t even make Christmas.”

Jamari has grown accustomed to things as they are, he says. But he yearns for the way things used to be.

“We used to go to the movies,” says Jamari, wistfully. “But I don’t trip no more. I don’t care. I don’t need him. The only person I need is my mom.”

Then he thinks about it.

“I just want him to be around, stop lying,” says Jamari. “He ain’t hardly around.”

Jamari wants to add chicken to the dish on the stove.

“Okay,” says Kecia, patting his shoulder.

“I don’t want to bring other men in and have them teach my son. You know?” Kecia says. “I want his dad to do that.

You can’t leave another man to take on your responsibility when it comes to your son.”

And though fatherhood advocates note that a positive male figure or mentor can be just as effective as a father in a boy’s life, Phillips notes that most males will tell you their real role model was their father.

“I don’t care about a male figure in my life,” says Jamari. “I care about my father.”

“There are five things kids need in terms of structure,” says LeRoy Reese of Morehouse. “You need discipline, be consistent, be predictable, be loving and nurture the talents, abilities and interests of your children. If you’re able to kind of do those things more likely than not your kids are going to be okay.”


“I know some of it is me,” says Jamari’s father, Steve Victor, about his son’s behavior problems. “I’m trying to do what I can.”

Victor is tall, medium build with brown skin and bright eyes. He’s joined Jamari and Kecia on a late Thursday evening for the family’s weekly therapy session. The day before, he tried to explain his absence from his son’s life.

 “I’m going through some stuff right now,” said Victor, 37. “I’m trying to get myself together so I can spend some time with my son. I can’t do [anything] with him if I don’t have myself together. I told his mother you’re going to have to do it on your own until I get myself together. You and Jamari are going to have to work with me.”

Victor currently lives with his sister across town and only works on weekends at a restaurant. During the week, he says, he helps his sister with his niece and nephew.

“When I do have time, I go over there and see him,” said Victor. “I call him whenever I get a chance. I pay his phone bill every month. I haven’t given him [any money] lately because I [haven’t had any].”

Victor tries to make Jamari’s court dates whenever he can.

“I don’t know what’s up with my son,” Victor said. “I tell him ‘Man, stay out of trouble. Stop hanging with the wrong crowd. Go to school. Learn.’ He should be trying to get himself together to go to college. If you don’t want to go to college, get a good job. Make some money. College [isn’t] for everybody.”

Despite his father’s warnings, Jamari still finds himself repeatedly inside a courtroom. Victor sounds exasperated.

“I can’t tell him no more. He’s 15, getting up there now. He just [has] to learn for himself,” Victor said.

The father acknowledges that some of his son’s behavioral problems may be due to his absence. But Victor says when he tries to reach out to Jamari he is rebuffed. For example, he recently invited his son to go see the movie Ride Along 2 starring Kevin Hart and Ice Cube. Jamari declined.

“I was trying to take him. He was the first one I called,” recalls Victor.

This therapy session is about Jamari’s latest bout with the law. The next session will be their last with Ma’at. The counselor says the Brighthaupt family is in the intervention phase of therapy. His next step is recommending resources for Jamari, who has expressed interest in rap and boxing. The teen ultimately wants to be a fireman. Right now however, he’s just trying to stay out of trouble.

Mincy says more boys could get help if there was sustained interest in this issue. He’s seen this excitement before and predicts, “in five years we’ll be someplace else.”

“We do this in fits and starts. We haven’t stayed focused on the problem of the challenges of African American boys consistently,” says Mincy. “You have the president of the United States talking about Black boys so it seems to be in the air. I hope that we stay at it, document what we learn and continue to work the problem until we see some of the issues go away.”

[This story was originally published by The Crisis Magazine and New America Media.]