How does a dad’s depression or anxiety affect his kids?

Paternal mental health and child development in middle childhood.


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Sometimes, parents feel stressed, worried, or sad, especially when big changes happen, like having a baby or when their kids start school. Research shows that when parents feel really anxious or sad, it can sometimes make their kids behave badly or not do well in school.

But a group of scientists, led by Tina Montreuil, who works at McGill University, discovered something interesting. They found that when dads felt just a little bit anxious or sad, it actually made their kids behave better at school and do well on IQ tests. They shared their discovery in a journal called ‘Frontiers in Psychology.

Prof. Montreuil said, “Our study shows that both mothers’ and fathers’ well-being are important to promote the cognitive-behavioural development of their children, and that they are potentially complementary.”

While we know that mothers’ stress, anxiety, and sadness can affect how children behave and learn, we don’t know as much about how fathers’ mental health is connected to their children’s development.

A group of researchers wanted to understand this connection. They looked at whether fathers’ anxiety and sadness, which they measured during their partner’s pregnancy and again six to eight years later, had any impact on their children’s thinking and behavior. They studied this in a group of regular families, where the parents had varying levels of anxiety and sadness, which were usually not as severe as in people who needed clinical help.

In the first assessments, they looked at parents’ mental health and other factors like their education, how happy they were in their relationship, and what they thought about parenting. The follow-up study was done when the kids were between six and eight years old, which is an important time for their learning and behavior development.

Sherri Lee Jones, first author of the study and Research Associate at Douglas Research Centre who was a Postdoctoral Fellow and Research Associate at the RI-MUHC during the study said, “Our findings show that fathers’ reported symptoms of anxiety and/or depression were not associated with worse behavioural and cognitive outcomes in their children, as previously found in other studies.”

In simpler terms, the researchers discovered that when fathers had a bit of sadness while their partner was pregnant, their children had fewer problems with their behavior and emotions when they were around six to eight years old. These kids could sit still, didn’t get angry often, and could pay attention better, as per what their parents said in surveys.
However, when mothers had more anxiety and sadness, it was linked to their children having more behavior issues, both when they were born and in middle childhood.

When they checked the kids’ abilities at ages 6 to 8, they found that when fathers had a little bit of anxiety or sadness, their children had slightly better cognitive skills. This was different from what they found with mothers.

The researchers caution that their findings might not apply to parents with severe depression and anxiety, and they couldn’t pinpoint why fathers’ mental health symptoms were connected to their child’s outcomes.

Professor Montreuil explains, “We need more studies to understand the roles of both parents in child development. Our results, along with others, emphasize the importance of supporting people becoming parents and being attuned to their child’s needs. Parental attunement means parents can respond well to their child’s signals and adapt to their needs in different situations.”

She also adds, “It’s possible that the fathers in our study were more attuned to their children to make up for other factors like the mother’s depression or anxiety, which can affect the child’s cognitive and social skills.”

This study sheds light on the complex relationship between paternal mental health and children’s well-being. It underscores the significance of considering both parents’ mental well-being and their ability to respond to their child’s needs in the context of child development. Further research is needed to comprehensively understand the combined contributions of parents in shaping the outcomes of their children.

Journal reference:

  1. Sherri Lee Jones, Christina Caccese etal., Longitudinal associations between paternal mental health and child behavior and cognition in middle childhood. Frontiers in Physiology. DOI: 10.3389/fpsyg.2023.1218384.