How fathers’ warm and responsive parenting can support child mental health

Melissa Willoughby (AIFS), Cat Strawa (AIFS), Vincent Mancini (Telethon Kids Institute, UWA and The Fathering Project) & Hilary Miller (AIFS), Australia, February 2024

Resource Summary

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This resource explores the research evidence on how fathers’ engagement can influence their children’s mental health. Specifically, it explores the effects of fathers’ warm and responsive parenting on their children’s mental health. This resource also provides insights into how practitioners and services can support fathers to display more warm and responsive behaviours to promote positive mental health in their children.

Key messages

  • Fathers, like mothers, can influence the mental health and wellbeing of their children through their approach to parenting and the behaviours they demonstrate when interacting with their child.
  • Warm and responsive parenting involves parents acting in a positive and affectionate way towards their child. For example, telling their child that they’re loved, speaking to them in a warm and friendly voice, and listening and trying to understand their child’s feelings.
  • Children of fathers who are warm and responsive are more likely to display prosocial behaviours. Fathers’ warm and responsive parenting also has benefits for infant development. There is mixed evidence on the influence of fathers’ warm and responsive parenting on children’s internalising and externalising behaviours.
  • Practitioners can describe warm and responsive behaviours to fathers and families and discuss the benefits of these for child mental health. Practitioners can also notice and highlight how fathers are already incorporating warmth and responsiveness into their parenting and brainstorm with fathers how they might build on these behaviours.


Mothers and fathers1 play an important role in shaping their children’s health and development. Although mothers are still disproportionately responsible for childcare, Australian fathers are now spending more time with their children compared to previous generations (Craig & Mullan, 2012; Rubiano Matulevich & Viollaz, 2019). This means there is a growing opportunity for fathers to support the mental health of their children through adopting or building on positive parenting behaviours.

Both fathers and mothers can influence the mental health and wellbeing of their children through their parenting approach and behaviours that occur during parent–child interactions (Power, 2013). Such approaches and behaviour are sometimes referred to as ‘parenting styles’ (Power, 2013). In this resource we focus on fathers’ ‘warmth and responsiveness’ . This describes fathers acting in a positive and affectionate way towards their child as well as noticing and responding to their child’s emotions and needs (Pleck, 2010). Parents’ warmth and responsiveness is an important positive influence on their child’s wellbeing and development (Rothenberg et al., 2020).

In this resource, we also provide some suggestions as to how professionals working with children and families can encourage and support fathers in warm and responsive parenting. This resource is part of a series of resources examining father involvement and child mental health. Other elements of father involvement (i.e. positive engagement, indirect care and responsibility for planning and organising) are outlined in separate, complementary resources listed in the Further reading and related resources section of this paper.

This resource focuses on the experiences of cisgender heterosexual fathers as the vast majority of research literature focuses on this type of father. However, we acknowledge that practitioners may also work with fathers and non-birthing parents who may be gender diverse or do not identify as a ‘father’.

1 In this resource, ‘fathers’ are defined as male identifying people who care for and are committed to the wellbeing of a child, regardless of their biological relation, living situation or marital status (Tully, 2019).

How can fathers be warm and responsive in their parenting?

Fathers can display warmth and responsiveness through a variety of activities, such as:

  • being affectionate towards their child (e.g. hugging, kissing)
  • telling their child that they’re loved
  • speaking to their child in a warm and friendly voice
  • telling their child that they, and their ideas and actions, are appreciated
  • noticing and saying positive things about their child
  • listening to their child’s feelings and trying to understand them
  • recognising and responding to their child’s needs and signals
  • laughing with their child; and
  • asking their child about important matters.

Warm and responsive parenting by fathers and mothers is important for child mental health as the nature of children’s relationships with their caregivers influences their development and wellbeing (Daniel et al., 2016; Gryczkowski, Jordan, & Mercer, 2018; Lee, Pace, Lee, & Knauer, 2018). Such behaviours by parents can support children to develop a healthy self-image and confidence while helping make them feel safe and secure with their caregiver and in their environment (Raising Children Network, 2023). Additionally, parents who are warm and responsive can act as role models for children, who are likely to copy the positive and caring behaviour (Daniel, Madigan, & Jenkins, 2016).

What do we know about fathers’ warm and responsive parenting and child mental health?

In terms of fathers specifically, their warmth and responsiveness is associated with improved prosocial child behaviours and infant development. The impact on children’s internalising and externalising behaviours is currently unclear.

There is good evidence from Australia (Rominov, Giallo, & Whelan, 2016) and Canada (Daniel et al., 2016) that fathers’ warmth and responsiveness can have a positive influence on children’s prosocial behaviours. Prosocial behaviour includes the child doing something to benefit or help someone else, such as sharing with others or comforting someone who is upset (Raising Children Network, 2022). Children are more likely to display prosocial behaviour when both fathers and mothers are warm and responsive, compared to when just one parent is warm and responsive (Daniel et al., 2016; Gryczkowski et al., 2018). There is also some limited evidence that the influence of fathers’ warmth and responsiveness may differ for girls and boys. A study from the United States (US) found that fathers’ warmth and responsiveness was associated with prosocial behaviour in girls, but not in boys (Gryczkowski et al., 2018).

Fathers’ warmth and responsiveness may also be associated with improved infant development (i.e. physical, emotional and mental growth of an infant). An Australian study of 81 preterm infants (born <30 weeks) and 39 full-term infants and their fathers found that fathers’ warmth and responsiveness when the infant was 12 months old was associated with better cognitive and language development at 24 months (McMahon et al., 2019).

There is mixed evidence on the influence of fathers’ warmth and responsiveness on child internalising behaviours (e.g. anxiety, depression) and externalising behaviours (e.g. aggression, rule breaking). Fathers’ warmth and responsiveness was found to improve child externalising behaviours in one study (Jacobvitz et al., 2022). There is also some evidence from the US that warmth displayed by fathers who don’t live with the child (as opposed to married or co-habiting families) may have some effect on lower child internalising behaviours (Lee et al., 2018). However, there are many other studies that haven’t found any association between fathers’ warmth and responsiveness and the presentation of internalising or externalising behaviours by children (Feuge, Cyr, Cossette, & Julien, 2020; Gulenc, Butler, Sarkadi, & Hiscock, 2018; O’Gara, Calzada, & Kim, 2020).

How can practitioners support fathers to promote child mental health?

There is an opportunity for practitioners who work with families to assist fathers in adopting warm and responsive practices that support their child’s mental health. Evidence suggests that the following considerations may help build practitioner awareness of the positive role that fathers can play in child wellbeing and support fathers in their parenting.

Have conversations with fathers about their relationship and interactions with their child

  • Be curious with fathers about how they interact with their child. Explore whether and how warmth and responsiveness is demonstrated in the child–father relationship.
  • Take a strengths-based approach by noticing and highlighting what fathers are already doing that is beneficial for child mental health. Brainstorm with fathers what they are already doing well and how they might incorporate more warmth and responsiveness in their parenting.
  • Reflect on how to have collaborative conversations with parents. A practical guide on having conversations with parents about their children is provided in the Further reading and related resources section of this resource.

Support fathers and families to be warm and responsive towards their children

  • Describe warm and responsive behaviours to fathers and their families, and discuss the benefits of these behaviours for their children’s mental health. For example, you might:
    • encourage both parents to tell their child that they love them by showing physical affection, such as hugging and kissing their child; speaking to their child in a warm and friendly voice; listening to their child; laughing with their child; and being supportive and understanding towards their child; and
    • emphasise that warm and responsive parenting by fathers and mothers is beneficial for children’s mental health and wellbeing.


Research evidence suggests that how fathers approach parenting and interact with their children can influence their children’s mental health and wellbeing. When fathers are affectionate and warm, their children are more likely to engage in prosocial behaviours and have improved mental and language development in infancy. However, there is mixed evidence on the influence of paternal warmth and affection on other children’s mental health challenges (e.g. internalising and externalising behaviours).

Practitioners can be curious with fathers and have conversations with them about their parenting, including how they incorporate warmth and responsiveness. Practitioners can also encourage fathers to engage to express more warm and responsive behaviours and describe how these benefit their children’s mental health.


The authors would like to thank Dr Mandy Truong for her help with screening and data extraction for the rapid literature review that informed this resource.

How was this resource developed?

This resource was developed as part of a series of resources based on a rapid literature review of research articles on fathering and child mental health. As part of this review, the authors searched for terms relating to fathering, child mental health and prevention/association in databases Medline, PsycInfo and Web of Science from 1 January 2012 to 30 May 2022. The included relevant peer reviewed literature:

  • examined the association between fathering behaviours when the child was aged <12 years and child mental health
  • was published in English; and
  • was conducted in high-income, English-speaking countries.

The scope and resources from the review were informed by a consultation process involving 14 practitioners, service leaders and researchers who are experts in parenting, fathering and men’s and children’s health. Insights from the consultations were used to guide the scope and resources from the review.

The rapid literature review and related resources are informed by Pleck’s (2010) father involvement framework which contains the following:

  • warmth and responsiveness (e.g. hugging and showing affection)
  • control (e.g. setting limits on amount of screen time)
  • positive engagement (e.g. direct caregiving, play, educational activities)
  • indirect care (e.g. making a medical appointment for the child); and
  • process responsibility (referred to as responsibility for planning and organising; e.g. being the primary caregiver for the child).


Craig, L. & Mullan, K. (2012). Australian fathers’ work and family time in comparative and temporal perspective. Journal of Family Studies, 18(2–3), 165–174.DOI: 10.5172/jfs.2012.18.2-3.165

Daniel, E., Madigan, S., & Jenkins, J. (2016). Paternal and maternal warmth and the development of prosociality among preschoolers. Journal of Family Psychology, 30(1), 114-124. doi:10.1037/fam0000120

Feuge, E. A., Cyr, C., Cossette, L., & Julien, D. (2020). Adoptive gay fathers’ sensitivity and child attachment and behavior problems. Attachment & Human Development, 22(3), 247–268.DOI: 10.1080/14616734.2018.1557224

Gryczkowski, M., Jordan, S. S., & Mercer, S. H. (2018). Moderators of the relations between mothers’ and fathers’ parenting practices and children’s prosocial behavior. Child Psychiatry & Human Development, 49(3), 409–419. DOI: 10.1007/s10578-017-0759-3

Gulenc, A., Butler, E., Sarkadi, A., & Hiscock, H. (2018). Paternal psychological distress, parenting, and child behaviour: A population based, cross-sectional study. Child Care Health and Development, 44(6), 892–900. DOI:10.1111/cch.12607

Jacobvitz, D., Aviles, A. I., Aquino, G. A., Tian, Z., Zhang, S., & Hazen, N. (2022). Fathers’ sensitivity in infancy and externalizing problems in middle childhood: The role of coparenting. Frontiers in Psychology, 13, 805188. DOI:

Lee, S. J., Pace, G. T., Lee, J. Y., & Knauer, H. (2018). The association of fathers’ parental warmth and parenting stress to child behavior problems. Children and Youth Services Review, 91, 1–10.

McMahon, G. E., Spencer-Smith, M. M., Pace, C. C., Spittle, A. J., Stedall, P., Richardson, K., . . . Treyvaud, K. (2019). Influence of fathers’ early parenting on the development of children born very preterm and full perm. Journal of Pediatrics, 205, 195-201. DOI: 10.1016/j.jpeds.2018.09.073

O’Gara, J. L., Calzada, E. J., & Kim, S. Y. (2020). The father’s role in risk and resilience among Mexican-American adolescents. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 90(1), 70–77.

Pleck, J. H. (2010). Paternal involvement: Revised conceptualization and theoretical linkages with child outcomes. In M. E. Lamb (Ed.), The role of the father in child development (pp. 58–93). John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Power, T. G. (2013). Parenting dimensions and styles: A brief history and recommendations for future research. Childhood Obesity, 9(s1), 14–21.

Raising Children Network. (2022). Prosocial behaviour: Children and teenagers being helpful and valuing others [Web page].

Raising Children Network. (2023). Positive attention and your child [Web page].

Rominov, H., Giallo, R., & Whelan, T. A. (2016). Fathers’ postnatal distress, parenting self-efficacy, later parenting behavior, and children’s emotional-behavioral functioning: A longitudinal study. Journal of Family Psychology, 30(8), 907-917.DOI: 10.1037/fam0000216

Rothenberg, W. A., Lansford, J. E., Al‐Hassan, S. M., Bacchini, D., Bornstein, M. H., Chang, L., . . . Malone, P. S. (2020). Examining effects of parent warmth and control on internalizing behavior clusters from age 8 to 12 in 12 cultural groups in nine countries. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 61(4), 436–446.

Rubiano Matulevich, E. C. & Viollaz, M. (2019). Gender differences in time use: Allocating time between the market and the household. Policy Research Working Paper 8981. World Bank Group.

Tully, L. (2019). Engaging fathers in early childhood services [Web page].

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