Ask Your Father

How A Father's Mental Health Can Impact A Child's Overall Development

Nearly 20 percent of fathers experienced symptoms of depression and/or anxiety since having children.

Maternal mental health has become an increasingly common area of study, as researchers work to determine how postpartum depression impacts child development, yet there are few studies dedicated to exploring how paternal mental health influences a child's well-being. However, according to one new study, these two facets are intimately inked, as quality of co-parenting relationships has a powerful impact on child growth. 

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Not only do fathers who are sensitive and supportive raise children who develop superior social skills and language, regardless of socioeconomic status, race, and ethnicity, but also those who experience mental illness raise children who are at higher risk of behavioral and emotional difficulties. 

According to research conducted by the Parenting Research Centre, which examined the mental health of fathers in Australia, 18 percent reported experiencing symptoms of depression and 19 percent claimed they'd experienced symptoms of anxiety since becoming a parent. Of those fathers who experience depression symptoms after birth, 9 percent said this included post-natal depression and 3 percent had serious levels of current psychological distress.

Derived from the earlier "Parenting Today In Victoria" study, which polled 2,600 Australian parents – 40 percent of whom were men – researchers wanted to understand how a father's mindset impacts his parenting abilities and how that, in turn, influences their child.

Father and daughter smiling. 
Monkey Business Images / Shutterstock

"We wanted to understand the particular parenting behaviors, strengths and needs of fathers, and we wanted to know which characteristics of fathers – like mental health – related to how fathers parent," researchers said. "We were also interested in how fathers sought help and advice about parenting. This has implications for how information about what works in parenting could be successfully targeted to dads."

"We know that fathers who are sensitive and supportive have children who develop better social skills and language — and these parenting skills can be learned," they added. "These correlations – which hold regardless of the father's socioeconomic status, race, and ethnicity – point to why it is important to involve fathers in preventive interventions to foster healthy child development. Such preventive interventions could be parenting programs, but also information sharing and support."

Researchers also revealed that two aspects of parenting – frequency of father–child activities and parenting approach – directly influenced how effective fathers felt as parents. While fathers with higher self-efficacy participated in activities with their kids more often and reported a more positive parenting approach, fathers who felt less effective as parents were more inclined to yell at and argue with their children (29 percent vs. 52 percent respectively) or feel they were too critical of their children (28 percent vs. 28 percent respectively).

When asked if there was someone they trusted to turn to for advice if they were having problems, the majority of fathers agreed or strongly agreed they had someone (88 percent), with most turning to family for help and support in raising their child (84 percent). Fathers who reported higher partner support had better mental health and a more positive parenting approach, as they claimed they were less impatient and critical, more satisfied with the quality of time spent with their children, and felt more consistent in their parenting.

father and daughter smiling 
Rido / Shutterstock 

While an earlier study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), Pediatrics noted that fathers are almost as likely as moms to develop postpartum depression, researchers noted that dads who felt supported by their partners and reported better mental health also reported more positively on their communication and involvement with their children's school or early education service, which could significantly influence the child's development and success.

Researchers explained that, while more than three-quarters of fathers described positive feelings about their interactions and communications with their children's early education service or school, they were less positive than mothers when it came to their confidence in helping their children do well at school and less likely than mothers to seek help from teachers and early childhood educators. "This points to the potential benefit of targeted father engagement strategies by early education services and schools, again, focusing on the benefits to the child of having both parents involved," researchers said.

"Because our survey showed many fathers reported poor mental health, and given emerging evidence that supporting fathers' mental health early in their parenting journey has positive effects, investment in early identification and intervention for fathers' as well as mothers' mental health issues is likely to yield benefits for parents and children," they added. "Attention to fathers' parenting support needs is particularly important because they are less likely than mothers to have a trusted person they could turn to for advice."

Cover image via Monkey Business Images / Shutterstock


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