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Fathers’ role in child cognitive development investigated

Stud assesses role of paternal anxiety and depressive symptoms in children’s behaviour

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While the role of a mother’s stress, anxiety and depression on children’s behavioural and cognitive development is well established, less is known about the connection between a father’s mental health and their children’s development.

Now, a team of researchers has examined if paternal anxious 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.

“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,” said the study’s first author, Dr Sherri Lee Jones, a research associate at Douglas Research Centre at McGill University. 

“More specifically, slightly higher levels of depressive symptoms reported by fathers when their partner was pregnant were associated with fewer behavioural difficulties in their child at about six to eight years of age.” 

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 second assessment was conducted at the critical age of six to eight years, when children are expected to make increased use of their behavioural and cognitive skills.

“After accounting for the contribution of mothers’ symptoms and parental education levels, we see that both parents matter in the cognitive-behavioral development of their children, however, potentially not in the same ways,” Dr Jones said.

Higher symptoms of anxiety and depression among mothers were associated with adverse childhood behavioural outcomes, both at birth and during middle-childhood. 

In contrast, slightly higher, but still mild, depressive symptoms among fathers during the pregnancy were associated with fewer behavioural and emotional difficulties of children aged six to eight years. 

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.

These slightly higher symptoms of anxiety and depression among fathers when measured in childhood, and their associations with the child’s performance on a standardised IQ test are in contrast to the patterns found among mothers.

“It is unclear why we do not find a similar pattern for fathers as we do for mothers; namely that the father’s reports of anxiety and depressive symptoms were not necessarily linked to poorer child outcomes,” Dr Jones said. 

None of the factors the researchers 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, the researchers said.

They further pointed out that their findings are based on a community sample. Parents self-reported varying levels of anxious and depressive symptoms and didn’t receive a diagnosis by a mental health professional, which might mean that the findings may not be generalisable to parents who are experiencing clinical levels of depression and anxiety.

“We believe that this study will enhance our understanding of how a child’s development might be influenced by the relative and combined mental health symptoms of both the mother and father, which exhibit a lot of individual variability,” Dr Jones concluded.

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