Depressed Dads and Their One Year-Olds

By Anita M. Schimizzi, Ph.D.

There has been a lot of research done on maternal depression and we know that it can have a big impact on children.  We don’t know as much about paternal depression because, quite frankly, there just hasn’t been the same focus on this issue.  I was excited to come across an article by Davis and colleagues, who recognize the importance of fathers’ well-being in their recently published research on paternal depression and behavior toward one year-olds.

Why is it important to explore depression in fathers?  The research that has been done shows that paternal warmth and sensitivity can go down in depressed dads while conflict, hostility, and rejection toward their kids can go up.  Additionally, children’s psychosocial functioning goes down when dads are depressed.  Other research found that direct father-child interactions have a strong relationship with the health and development of their children.

The current study used a nationally representative sample of fathers of one year-olds, 1,746 dads in total.  The men answered questions in four different areas: interactive play (e.g., peek-a-boo), speech and language interactions, reading to the child, and spanking.  Whether or not the fathers had talked with their child’s pediatrician during the past year was also assessed.

Seven percent of the fathers in the study reported being depressed during the past year.  Seventy-seven percent of these dads also had spoken with the pediatrician over the past year.  The chart below shows the results in the four different areas.  As can be seen, there were no differences between fathers that were not depressed and those that were in their reports of playing interactive games and singing songs/nursery rhymes with their children.  Depressed dads were less likely to read to their one year-olds and much more likely to spank them.

In fact, when further analyses were done, depression in fathers predicted reading to their one-year olds at a rate that was less than half of what non-depressed fathers reported and spanking at a rate almost four times that of non-depressed dads.  These findings occurred regardless of variables such as fathers’ age, race, education level, and household income.

Why is this study important?  For starters, paternal reading early on had been associated with positive language development.  The research on spanking overflows with negative consequences for children, such as increased aggression later on.  (Take a look at Dr. Lopez-Duran’s post on spanking for more information.) 

And then there is the obvious.  Depressed dads need and deserve support just as much as depressed moms do.  Parenting is hard enough when we’re feeling well.  Being depressed can make it feel like an unmanageable challenge.  The researchers argue for regular screening of paternal depression during pediatric visits, as most of the fathers in the study report talking with their child’s pediatrician.  Referrals for services can then be made as a result.

I would go further to encourage fathers that are dealing with depression to consider some/all of the following: develop and stay connected to a support network, take time for yourself to do things that bring you joy (even if it’s just a little bit), consider joining a support group for dads, learn alternatives to corporal punishment (see my earlier blog post), take a parenting skills class to get ideas that can be carried out at home, take on a project that can be done in small steps, and make eating well and getting enough sleep a priority.  And remember, you are one of the most important people in your child’s life.  He/she wants you to feel better, too.

Source: Davis RN, Davis MM, Freed GL, Clark SJ (2011). Fathers depression related to positive and negative parenting behaviors with 1-year-old children. Pediatrics, 127 (4), 612-8 PMID: 21402627