Study explores link between paternal mental health and behavioral, cognitive problems in children

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While the role of maternal stress, anxiety, and depression in children’s behavioral and cognitive development is well established, less is known about the link between fathers’ mental health and children’s development.

Now, a team of researchers from various institutions across Quebec, Canada, examined whether anxious and depressive symptoms of fatherhood, measured during their partner’s pregnancy and again six to eight years later, were associated with children’s cognitive functioning and behavior. They studied this association in a community sample, where parental levels of self-reported anxious and depressive symptoms were variable and generally less severe than in a clinically diagnosed population.

“Our findings show that fathers’ reported symptoms of anxiety and/or depression were not associated with poorer behavioral and cognitive outcomes in their children, as previously found in other studies,” said study first author Dr. Sherry Lee Jones, a research associate. at the Douglas Research Center at McGill University. “More specifically, slightly higher levels of depressive symptoms reported by fathers when their partner was pregnant were associated with fewer behavioral difficulties when their child was about six to eight years old.” The article was published Frontiers in Psychology.

What about the kids?

The first assessment during pregnancy and infancy included parental mental health and psychosocial measures, such as parental highest level of education, relationship satisfaction, and perceived parenting. The second assessment was made at the critical age of six to eight years, when children are expected to make increased use of their behavioral and cognitive skills.

After accounting for the contributions of mothers’ symptoms and parents’ education level, we find that both parents are important in their children’s cognitive-behavioral development, but potentially not in the same way.”

Dr Sherry Lee Jones, Research Associate, Douglas Research Centre, McGill University

Higher symptoms of anxiety and depression in mothers were associated with adverse childhood behavioral outcomes both at birth and in mid-childhood. In contrast, slightly higher, but still milder, depressive symptoms in fathers during pregnancy were associated with fewer behavioral and emotional difficulties in six- to eight-year-old children. These include children being able to sit still for long periods of time, rarely losing their temper and having good attention spans, as reported by parents in questionnaires.

These slightly higher symptoms of anxiety and depression among fathers when measured in childhood and their association with child performance on a standard IQ test contrast with patterns found among mothers.

Understanding parental influence

“It’s clear why we don’t find the same pattern for fathers as for mothers; Namely that fathers’ reports of anxiety and depressive symptoms were not necessarily associated with poorer child outcomes,” Jones said. None of the factors the researchers examined explained the relationship between fathers’ mental health symptoms and child outcomes. Related roles and understanding of parents’ collective contributions to child development More research is needed, the researchers said.

They also note that their findings are based on a community sample. Parents self-reported varying levels of anxious and depressive symptoms and did not receive a diagnosis by a mental health professional, which may mean that the results may not be generalizable to parents with clinical levels of depression and anxiety.

“We believe this research will increase our understanding of how a child’s development may be affected by the relative and combined mental health symptoms of both mothers and fathers, which exhibit great individual variability,” Jones concluded.


Journal Reference:

Jones, SL, etc (2023). Longitudinal associations between paternal mental health and child behavior and cognition in middle childhood. Frontiers in Psychology.

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