Summary: A new study reveals the complex role of fathers’ mental health in shaping their children’s future. Mild anxious or depressive symptoms in fathers correlate with fewer behavioral issues and higher IQ scores in young children, juxtaposing the impact of maternal mental health.
This research underscores the nuanced influences of both parents on child development and opens new discussions on parental attunement and support during key life transitions.
Mild paternal anxiety or depression was linked to positive cognitive and behavioral outcomes in children aged 6-8.
The study contrasts previous findings by showing that fathers’ mild mental health challenges may not hinder, and may even aid, child development.
Parental attunement is highlighted as a potential factor in these findings, emphasizing the adaptive responses of fathers to their children’s needs.
Source: McGill University
Many parents experience stress, anxiety, and depressive symptoms throughout their lives, particularly during times of transition, such as pregnancy and children’s entry into school. Studies have generally found that high levels of anxiety and depression in parents are linked to poorer behavioural and cognitive outcomes in children.
A team of researchers led by Tina Montreuil, Associate Professor in McGill’s Department of Educational and Counselling Psychology and Scientist in the Child Health and Human Development Program at the Research Institute of the McGill University Health Centre (RI-MUHC), has found that slightly higher, but mild anxious or depressive symptoms in fathers were associated with fewer behavioural difficulties in the first years of elementary school and better scores on a standardized IQ test in their children.
Their findings are published in Frontiers in Psychology.
“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,” says Prof. Montreuil.
Linking fathers’ mental health to children’s development
While the role of mothers’ stress, anxiety and depression on children’s behavioural and cognitive development is well established, less is known about the connection between fathers’ mental health and children’s development.
The team of researchers examined if paternal anxiety and depressive symptoms, measured during their partner’s pregnancy, and again six to eight years later, are associated with children’s cognitive function and behaviour.
They studied this association in a community sample, where parental levels of self-reported anxious and depressive symptoms were variable and typically less severe than among a clinically diagnosed population.
The first assessments, made during pregnancy and in infancy, included parental mental health and psychosocial measures, such as the parents’ highest level of education, relationship satisfaction, and parenting perceptions.
The ancillary study investigation was conducted at the critical age of six to eight years, when children are in the early elementary school years and expected to make increased use of their behavioural and cognitive skills.
“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,” says 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.
More specifically, the researchers found that slightly higher levels of depressive symptoms reported by fathers when their partner was pregnant were associated with fewer behavioural and emotional difficulties in their child at about six to eight years of age.
This included children being able to sit still for long periods of time, infrequently losing their temper and having a good attention span, as reported by parents in questionnaires. In contrast, higher symptoms of anxiety and depression among mothers were associated with poorer childhood behavioural outcomes, both at birth and during middle childhood.
At the childhood assessment, slightly higher but still mild paternal anxious and depressive symptoms were both associated with slightly higher scores of cognitive functions in the 6–8 year old children. This was also in contrast to the patterns found among mothers.
Understanding parental influence
The researchers point out that their findings may not be generalizable to parents who are experiencing clinical levels of depression and anxiety, and that none of the factors they examined could explain the associations between the father’s mental health symptoms and the child’s outcomes.
“More studies are needed to understand the respective roles and the combined contribution of parents in child development,” says Prof. Montreuil.
“Our findings, like others, point to the importance of coaching individuals transitioning into parenthood. They also highlight the importance of parental attunement. This term refers to the parent’s ability to respond adaptively to their child signals, by attentively adjusting their response to the child’s needs, in a given situation.”
“Since greater parental attunement is associated to child cognitive and social competencies, one potential explanation is that the fathers in our study sample may have shown greater attunement to their child to ‘compensate’ for environmental risk factors, such as maternal depressive or anxiety symptoms, or others known predictors,” adds Prof. Montreuil.
About this stress and neurodevelopment research news
Longitudinal associations between paternal mental health and child behavior and cognition in middle childhood
Introduction: Paternal mental health has been associated with adverse consequences on offspring psychosocial development, and family environmental factors may partly explain those associations. To clarify this, we need comprehensive prospective studies, particularly in middle-childhood when the child enters school and is expected to make use of behavioral and cognitive skills as part of their interactions and learning.
Method: Using data from a sub-sample of the prospective 3D birth cohort study comprised of mother-father-child triads, and a follow-up of the parents and the children at 6–8 years of age (n = 61; 36 boys, 25 girls), we examined whether paternal anxious and depressive symptoms measured during the pregnancy period (i.e., prenatally) or concurrently when the child was assessed at 6–8 years old were associated with children’s cognition/behavior.
Results: In contrast to our hypotheses, we found that greater prenatal paternal depressive symptoms predicted fewer child behavioral difficulties; and that greater concurrent childhood paternal depression or anxiety symptoms were associated with higher child full-scale IQ, controlling for the equivalent maternal mental health assessment and parental education. Father parenting perception did not mediate these associations, nor were they moderated by maternal mental health at the concurrent assessment, or paternal ratings of marital relationship quality.
Discussion: These findings suggest that higher symptoms of paternal mental health symptoms are associated with fewer child behavioral difficulties and higher cognitive performance in middle childhood. Potential clinical implications and future research directions are discussed.