When dads are feeling a bit depressed or anxious, how do kids fare?
Many parents experience stress, anxiety, and depressive symptoms throughout their lives, particularly during times of transition, such as pregnancy and childrenās 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 ±«ÓćÖ±²„ās Department of Educational and Counselling Psychology and Scientist in the at the Research Institute of the ±«ÓćÖ±²„ 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 .
āOur study shows that both mothers' and fathersā well-being are important to promote the cognitive-behavioural development of their children, and that they are potentially complementary,ā says Prof. Montreuil.
Linking fathersā mental health to childrenās development
While the role of mothersā stress, anxiety and depression on childrenās behavioural and cognitive development is well established, less is known about the connection between fathersā mental health and childrenās development.
The team of researchers examined if paternal anxiety and depressive symptoms, measured during their partnerās pregnancy, and again six to eight years later, are associated with childrenās 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 parentsā 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.
āOur findings show that fathersā 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,ā 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 6ā8 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 fatherās mental health symptoms and the childās outcomes.
āMore studies are needed to understand the respective roles and the combined contribution of parents in child development,ā says Prof. Montreuil. āOur 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 parentās ability to respond adaptively to their child signals, by attentively adjusting their response to the childās needs, in a given situation.ā
āSince 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 ācompensateā for environmental risk factors, such as maternal depressive or anxiety symptoms, or others known predictors,ā adds Prof. Montreuil.
About the study
āā by Sherri Lee Jones, Tina Montreuil and al. was published in Frontiers in Psychology.