For kids, dad can buffer mom's depression
August 2, 2004
By Alison McCook

NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - Living with a mentally stable father can help reduce the negative impact of a mother's poor mental health on children, according to new findings released Monday.

U.S. researchers found that children whose mothers and fathers both showed signs of poor mental health were at much greater risk of behavioral or emotional problems than were children living with two mentally stable parents.

However, in families where only mothers had poor mental health, children's risk of problems dropped substantially, according to the Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine report.

These and other related findings "suggest that a physically and mentally healthy father is important to child well-being," study author Dr. Robert S. Kahn told Reuters Health. "Clearly, the health of both parents is critical to the child's well-being."

A significant amount of research has focused on the effect of mothers' mental health on children, with studies showing that children of depressed mothers are at higher risk of depression, behavioral problems and asthma.

To investigate whether fathers can mediate the impact mothers can have on kids, Kahn and his team reviewed surveys collected from 822 children between the ages of 3 and 12 living with both parents.

The researchers measured parents' mental health by their responses to a number of questions, such as whether they felt hopeless, depressed, worthless or extremely nervous.

The investigators found that children whose mothers and fathers both appeared to have poor mental health were more likely to have behavioral problems, which included cheating, telling lies, bullying, and being impulsive or destructive.

Poor parental mental health also increased kids' risk of emotional problems, such as excessive worrying, feeling depressed and being anxious or fearful.

However, for children living in households where only their mothers had poor mental health, the risk of behavioral and emotional problems dropped significantly.

Kahn explained that fathers may buffer the effects of mothers' poor mental health by supporting mothers and helping to take care of the children. In addition, healthy fathers may have good mental health genes, which they pass on to children, he added.

For fathers living with mothers who are mentally ill, Kahn recommended that they make sure their partners receive the care they need, and do the same for themselves.

"Given the impact of two parents in poor mental health, it is also important that the father take stock of his own well-being, and seek care if needed," said the researcher, who is based at Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center in Ohio.

Kahn noted that he hopes these findings encourage children's health experts to not focus only on mothers' mental health.

"We hope to broaden the focus to ensure both mothers and fathers receive the attention and health care they need to best fulfill their roles as parents," he said.

Source: Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine, August 2004.