Fathers’ mental health and parenting: Implications for promoting children’s mental health
Dr Mandy Kienhuis and Dr Jan Matthews – Parenting Research Centre, Australia, October 2021
Fathers contribute significantly to their children’s development and wellbeing. Fathers with greater partner support and better mental health feel more effective in their parenting and have more positive interactions with their children. This is important, as we know fathers’ wellbeing, their parenting self-efficacy, and positive father-child interactions are associated with better outcomes for children with and without mental health challenges.
Children thrive when their parents are supported. While most fathers are doing well and feel supported, fathers with poor mental health report challenges with parenting. Professionals can enhance child wellbeing by supporting fathers. They can ask patients if they are a parent, check on fathers’ wellbeing, and talk with them about parenting. They can also check whether fathers are feeling supported in their parenting and link them to other supports if needed.
Focusing on fathers
Traditionally, professionals have focused on the role of mothers in promoting child development, and research looking at the role of fathers has been largely neglected. Recent research shows that fathers contribute significantly to their children’s development and wellbeing, including their language and social development, and their emotional regulation skills (Cabrera et al., 2018). More research is needed to understand the parenting experiences of fathers, and the personal and contextual factors that strengthen fathers’ parenting.
The Parenting Today in Victoria study by the Parenting Research Centre has provided insights into the experiences and support needs of Victorian parents. Data reported in this article was collected from a representative sample of Australian parents in 2016. At this time, 1,044 fathers of children aged 0–18 years were surveyed. This was one of the largest surveys of fathers of its kind, and gives good insights into the strengths, parenting experiences, and support needs of fathers. The findings also give good insight into fathers’ characteristics and the contexts of their experience, and how these relate to their parenting. More details about these findings can be found in the Parenting Today in Victoria Focus on Fathers Research Brief.
Fathers’ mental health and wellbeing
Results from the Parenting Today in Victoria study show that most fathers are faring well. This is good news for them, and their children. However, mental health concerns were reported by many fathers. About one in five fathers reported self-diagnosed depression or anxiety since having children, and 3% had serious levels of current psychological distress. Of note, 9% of fathers reported depression during the postnatal period, which is consistent with prevalence estimates of other researchers (e.g. PANDA 2019; Wynter, Rome, & Fisher, 2013). These rates are lower compared to mothers in the study, yet still warrant attention. The transition to parenthood can expose both mothers and fathers to additional stress and increase their risk of developing mental health concerns. Other research shows that fathers are at increased risk of poor mental health during the perinatal period, and that fathers’ poor mental health during this time is associated with increased emotional and behavioural difficulties in their children (Wong et al., 2016).
Some fathers are more likely to have poor mental health. The Parenting Today in Victoria study compared fathers with ‘better’ (top 80%) and ‘poorer’ (lowest 20%) mental health, based on their current level of psychological distress and history of mental health concerns. Fathers who have a child with complex needs (a medical condition or learning difficulty), those not in full-time paid work, and those who feel ineffective as parents are more likely to have poor mental health. These fathers may need more support. There is emerging evidence that interventions designed to support the mental health of new fathers have positive effects (Rominov, Pilkington, Giallo, & Whelan, 2016). Given the link between father wellbeing and positive child development, early attention to fathers’ mental health is likely to benefit children as well.
Fathers’ parenting approaches, behaviours and involvement
The Parenting Today in Victoria study also assessed fathers’ perceptions of parenting and their involvement in parenting. Over half of fathers were satisfied with the amount of time they could give their child. Most (80%) fathers reported that they rewarded their child (e.g. giving praise, a treat, or attention) when they behaved well. Two-thirds of fathers reported that they often or always talked to their child about problems they might be dealing with. Most fathers also reported setting rules and monitoring their child’s behaviours.
When asked about frequency of different types of father-child activities (e.g. playing with toys, indoor games, exercising together) about half of fathers reported that they often do these types of activities with their child. These findings are important, as studies show that father involvement is associated with positive child development (Cabrera, Volling, & Barr, 2018). For example, Cano, Perales, and Baxter (2019) found that the frequency of one-on-one time with fathers is associated with enhanced cognitive development. This study also found that the type of father-child activity was important, with the strongest associations between educational activities (e.g. reading with child) and enhanced cognitive development.
A small percentage of fathers reported challenges with their parenting behaviours. For example, 9% of fathers reported that they yelled at their child about their behaviour or attitude, and 2% that they smacked their child when they misbehaved. Other survey findings suggest that fathers are eager to strengthen their parenting. For example, 32% wished they were more consistent in their parenting behaviours.
What factors were related to how fathers parented?
The Parenting Today in Victoria study found that fathers’ parenting self-efficacy – how effective they feel as parents – is related to their perceptions of their interactions with their children. Fathers who felt less effective as parents were more likely to feel they were too critical of their children, or to yell at and argue with them. They also reported less involvement in father-child activities (e.g. playing with toys, exercising together). These findings are consistent with other Australian studies that have reported associations between parent self-efficacy and parenting (Zubrick et al., 2008).
Fathers’ mental health was also associated with how they perceived their parenting. Fathers with better mental health reported higher levels of parenting self-efficacy, and saw themselves as more consistent, less critical and less impatient, and reported spending more time with their children. Parent support programs have demonstrated effects on parental adjustment, as well as on parenting behaviours and child adjustment (Doyle et al., 2021). Engaging fathers in parent support programs is likely to enhance their parenting self-efficacy and parenting behaviours, as well as their own and their children’s mental health.
Fathers seeking support
Most fathers (88%) agreed they had a trusted person they could turn to for advice about parenting. However, this was lower than mothers’ agreement, suggesting that strengthening fathers’ parenting support is particularly important. While many fathers sought information about parenting from professionals (82%) and from their children’s educators (63%), most fathers (85%) said they also did their own research (e.g. online, books). This highlights the importance of easy access to credible online parenting information. Further to online support, many fathers indicated they weren’t aware of parenting education and support groups, highlighting a need for more targeted messaging to fathers about the availability and benefits of parents’ groups.
Partner support for fathers
Most fathers reported feeling supported by their partners all or most of the time and fathers rated partner support more positively than mothers did. Partner support is important as other studies show that child development is enhanced in the context of supportive co-parenting relationships (Cabrera et al., 2018). Fathers can be encouraged to attend parenting programs alone or with their partner. Other Victorian research demonstrates that when parents participate in a parenting program together, the benefits are greater than when just one parent participates (May et al., 2013). It is particularly important to assist unpartnered fathers to access other support options, including parenting support services that can enhance parenting.
Fathers’ mental health was related to perceptions fathers have about partner support. Importantly, greater partner support and better mental health was related to positive parenting. Supported fathers with better mental health reported that they felt they were more consistent in their parenting approach, and were less impatient and critical with their children.
The 2019 Parenting Today in Victoria data doesn’t provide any indication of the direction of the relationship between fathers self-efficacy, well-being, and support, and their parenting behaviours. For example, we cannot determine whether father self-efficacy leads to more positive parenting behaviours, or whether increasing positive parenting behaviours increases father parenting self-efficacy. It is likely that these relationships are bidirectional. Supporting fathers in their parenting is likely to lead to more positive outcomes for children, as research shows that when men are involved in parenting interventions, positive child adjustment outcomes are enhanced (Lundahl, Tollefson, Risser, & Lovejoy, 2008).
What can professionals do?
The 2016 Parenting Today in Victoria survey found fathers often turn to accessible and familiar avenues for parenting information and support, such as GPs (48%) and children’s educators (63%). Therefore, professionals can have a vital role in supporting fathers.
Professionals can support child wellbeing by supporting fathers in the following ways:
- Ask men whether they are a parent
This might be something that professionals routinely ask women or something that naturally comes up when talking with mums. When building rapport with men, professionals tend to ask them about how their work is going, or their interests in sport – but they can also ask men if they are fathers. Survey results suggest that most fathers are actively engaged in parenting. Asking a man whether he is a father is a good way to start the conversation about their children and parenting.
- While most fathers are doing well, it’s a good idea to check with fathers about how they’re going
The mental health of dads is important for child mental health. While most fathers report positive mental health, many have experienced anxiety and depression symptoms since becoming parents, including postnatal depression, and a significant number have current distress. It’s important to identify dads who might need additional support: like mothers, fathers might need help during the perinatal period. Early identification and support for fathers’ as well as mothers’ mental health issues is likely to benefit parents and their children.
- Talk to fathers about their children and parenting
When fathers are actively engaged in parenting, we know that their involvement has a powerful influence on child development. Talking with fathers about their children and parenting signals their important role in their children’s lives. Professionals can ask fathers if they are finding the time they’d like to spend with their children, and what they enjoy doing together – which also provides the opportunity to check whether they need additional support, and whether they have someone they can turn to if they need help with parenting.
- Talk about ways to spend one-on-one time with children
Professionals can talk with fathers about the importance of one-on-one time for their children’s social skills, emotion regulation, mental health and positive behaviour. Conversations can include talking about the types of father-child activities they enjoy, how finding the time can be challenging, and how these activities can happen with small amounts of available time. Professionals can also talk about how enjoyable moments with kids can provide a positive balance to the stressors of life, including work. These are positive moments for dads as well as for children.
- Most fathers feel supported, but some don’t: it’s important to check with fathers whether they’re getting the support they need
Children fare well when their parents support each other, and when their parents feel supported by family and friends. Professionals can check whether fathers are getting support from their partner, family or friends. It is particularly important to check-in with fathers about support, as they are less likely than mothers to feel they have a trusted person they can turn to for advice. Fathers without partner support may need more support. Practitioners can encourage all fathers to engage in parents’ groups and other parenting support services. Even for fathers who are doing well, this support is likely to enhance their father-child interactions, their parenting strategies, and their confidence in parenting. This in turn will lead to better mental health outcomes for children.
- If fathers need additional support, share knowledge about finding information and support
Before providing information about formal support and advice, it can be helpful to ask whether fathers are feeling supported by their partner, family and friends, and whether they are familiar with reliable online sources of information. Professionals can let parents know that other sources of information and support are available if needed.
The Raising Children website provides credible information on all aspects of parenting – for professionals, and for parents who want to gather their own information. Resources specifically for fathers include information on partner communication, postnatal depression, support services, and how fathers can be more involved in children’s activities. If fathers need more support for mental health issues, professional support is available: the family’s GP is a good starting point, as they can refer to suitable mental health professionals like psychologists or local counsellors. If fathers need help in their relationship with their partner or ex-partner, they can get support from Relationships Australia or Family Relationships Online.
What are Australian dads looking to learn about fatherhood? Hear what Dominic Alford (coordinator of the ‘Support for Fathers’ project) has learned in his travels around the country, and explore practical ways in which services and practitioners can make fathers feel more included in this episode of the Emerging Minds podcast.
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