Dad, Don't Suck it Up

Mental health of fathers is linked to behavioral and emotional issues in their children

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Robert Carlson, M.D

(RxWiki News) Mental illness often runs in families. Children are generally at a higher risk for a mental disorder if a parent has one. These patterns can show up very early in children's lives.

A recent study found that children as young as 3 may show behavioral and emotional problems if their fathers have severe mental health issues.

The link between father's mental health and children's behavioral issues remained even when the mother's mental health was taken into account.

Therefore, understanding both expectant parents' mental health even during pregnancy may help identify future possible mental health issues with their children. Either parent with mental health issues should seek treatment.

"Mental illness requires treatment – for everyone."

The study, led by Anne Lise Kvalevaag, a PhD candidate in the Department of Psychiatry at Helse Fonna HF in Norway, aimed to find out whether fathers' mental health is linked to any social or behavioral issues in their children at age 3.

The researchers used data from a Norwegian study group of 31,663 children. They gathered information on the mental health of the children's fathers through a questionnaire of symptoms, filled out by the men while their partners were 17 to 18 weeks pregnant.

The researchers also gathered information about the mothers' mental health both before and after their children were born with questionnaires filled out by the women.

The mothers then filled out questionnaires about their children's social, emotional and behavioral development when the kids were 3 years old.

After taking into account the demographics of the children, some specific characteristics of the families' lifestyles and the mothers' mental health, the researchers analyzed whether there were any patterns related to the fathers' mental health and their children's development.

The 3 percent of fathers who were identified as having high amounts of psychological distress were more likely to have children with difficulties in behavior, social interaction and emotional stability than fathers who did not score high on the mental health assessments.

The association remained even when the researchers had adjusted their analysis to account for each father's age, education level, marital status, physical activity and use of cigarettes or alcohol.

Psychological distress was measured based on the psychology assessments the fathers took and primarily focused on anxiety and depression. Questions related to nervousness, feeling hopeless, feeling blue, worrying too much and feeling fearful.

The children of fathers with high levels of psychological distress were about 26 percent more likely to have behavioral difficulties, 63 percent more likely to have emotional difficulties and 33 percent more likely to have problems with social adjustment than the children of fathers without high levels.

These are not huge associations, but they are strong enough to reveal the importance of fathers seeking treatment if they have mental health distress.

"The findings from this study suggest that some risk for future child emotional and behavioral problems can be identified during pregnancy," the authors wrote.

The study was published January 7 in the journal Pediatrics. The research was funded by the Norwegian Ministry of Health and the Ministry of Education and Research, the Norwegian Research Council/FUGE and the National Institutes of Health. The authors declared no financial conflicts of interest.

Reviewed by: 
Review Date: 
January 3, 2013
Last Updated:
January 6, 2013