With Father’s Day coming this Sunday, it seems appropriate to mention a recent article that likely confirms something most of us believe yet hasn’t been documented as much as one might expect. To date, the vast majority of data linking parental mental health to child mental health comes from the study of mothers. Fathers are often left out of these investigations either on purpose or due to family circumstances. Although there is evidence that paternal mental health in the post natal period influences child behavior later in development, this study recently published in Pediatrics examines the relations between paternal mental health in the prenatal period and child behavior at age 3.
The data for this study come from, ironically enough, the Norwegian Mother and Child Cohort Study. Over 28,000 fathers and 31,000 children participated in this study. Mental health of expecting fathers was assessed with the Hopkins Symptom Checklist at around 17 to 18 weeks of gestation (of the child, that is). Child behavior was assessed through a procedure that combined items from several validated questionnaires. Regression analyses were used to examine the link between depressive and anxiety problems in fathers and child behavior at age 3 while controlling for potentially confounding variables such as maternal mental health, demographic factors, and lifestyle variables.
Although effect sizes were relatively small, a statistically significant association was found between levels of father emotional distress and offspring levels at age three of behavioral difficulties, emotional difficulties, and social functioning, even after controlling for other factors. No differences were found between girls and boys. A total of 3% of fathers reported high levels of psychological distress.
The authors concluded that increased paternal emotional problems increase the risk of offspring behavioral difficulties. Helping fathers during the prenatal period could be an opportunity for intervention.
This study is the largest one to date that examines this question. Its design, however, cannot exclude the possibility that the link between father and child emotional problems is at least partially related to genetics. The authors write that another possible mechanism relates to an association between mother and father distress. While this possibility seemed testable with these data, they do not report on this possible link.
Kvalevaag et al., Paternal mental health and socioemotional and behavioral development in their children. Pediatrics, 131(2): e463-e469, 2013