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 behavioral 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 behavioral 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-behavioral 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 behavioral 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 behavior.
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 behavioral and cognitive skills.
“Our findings show that fathers’ reported symptoms of anxiety and/or depression were not associated with worse behavioral 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 behavioral 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 behavioral 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.
- Sherri Lee Jones, Christina Caccese, Kelsey P. Davis, Jimin Lew, Guillaume Elgbeili, Catherine M. Herba, Julia Barnwell, Cindy Hénault Robert, Isabella Gavanski, Kristin Horsley, William D. Fraser, Deborah Da Costa, Jean R. Séguin, Tuong-Vi Nguyen, Tina C. Montreuil. Longitudinal associations between paternal mental health and child behavior and cognition in middle childhood. Frontiers in Psychology, 2023; 14 DOI: 10.3389/fpsyg.2023.1218384