Evidence shows fathers who are sensitive and supportive have children who develop better social skills and language, regardless of socioeconomic status, race and ethnicity.
The research was published in The Conversation by Catherine Wade, research affiliate in the faculty of health sciences at the University of Sydney and Julie Green, honorary principal fellow in the department of paediatrics at the University of Melbourne
The latest study builds on a body of research that shows children are at higher risk of behavioural and emotional difficulties when their fathers experience mental illness.
Data from the Longitudinal Study of Australian Children show fathers who experience snowballing distress report being less consistent in setting and enforcing clear expectations and limits for their child’s behaviour, and show less warmth and greater hostility towards their children by the time the child is eight to nine years of age.
There is also emerging evidence to show supporting fathers’ mental health early in their parenting journey has positive effects on children.
“We know that in order to thrive, develop well and sail relatively smoothly through to maturity, children need parents who feel confident, supported and equipped with the right skills to navigate the sometimes choppy waters of parenting,” Wade said.
“It’s critically important we understand how both mothers and fathers are doing when it comes to mental health. For the sake of their own health and the well-being of their children.”
Recent research conducted by the Parenting Research Centre sheds some new light on the mental health of Australian fathers.
The research found one in five dads has experienced symptoms of depression and/or anxiety since having children. This includes nearly one in ten dads who report experiencing postnatal depression.
“This may sound surprising, but it gives us reliable Australian data from the perspectives of a large and representative sample of fathers,” Wade said.
The data is drawn from a new analysis of the Parenting Today in Victoria survey of 2,600 parents, 40% of whom were dads.
Fathers with poorer mental health told us they were less likely to feel effective as parents and were less confident in their own parenting. They were more critical of, less patient and less consistent in parenting behaviours with their children.
So, what can be done?
Wade said that fathers’ as well as mothers’ mental health should be routinely addressed in services for new parents.
“This isn’t currently happening in maternal, family and child health services,” Wade said.
“Support should also be offered to parents around co-parenting and what it means to support each other, particularly those who are co-parenting across different types of family living arrangements to help them get on the same parenting page.”
Wade said that work also needs to be done on how to better engage dads in two areas.
“The first of these is in parenting support services to give them strategies for parenting confidently,” she said.
Secondly, in early education settings and schools, where having both parents involved results in benefits for the child.”
If you are a dad who needs to speak to someone immediately about a mental health issue, call Lifeline on 13 11 14.