Children whose fathers have a positive emotional response to parenting and provide a sense of security early on are less likely to exhibit behavioral problems at age 9, a cohort study of more than 13,000 children shows. However, the researchers found no association between behavioral problems and paternal involvement with child care and household tasks.

The researchers used data from the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children, a birth cohort study of children in southwest England that is also known as Children of the 90s. In this study, the children’s fathers completed questionnaires at 8 weeks (37 questions) and 8 months (21 questions) after the birth. They were asked to rate their level of agreement with 58 statements related to several issues, including direct care, household tasks, attitudes about parenting, and relationships with the child. The mothers were interviewed at child age 9 (N = 6,898) and 11 (N = 6,328) to determine the presence or absence of behavioral problems, which were measured via the total difficulties score of the Strengths and Difficulties Questionnaire .

Previous studies have tended toward the assumption that paternal involvement with the child is unidimensional, which might explain why other studies have not found a clear association with behavioral problems. This study is the first to look at paternal involvement as multidimensional, reported Charles Opondo, PhD, of the University of Oxford (England), and his colleagues (BMJ Open. 2016;6:e012034. doi: 10.1136/bmjopen-2016-012034 ).

The questions for fathers related to emotional response to the childhood, how often fathers participated in domestic and child care activity, and feelings of security about their paternal role.

Children of fathers who scored high on questions about emotional response were less likely to have behavioral problems at age 9 (odds ratio, 0.86; 95% confidence interval, 0.79-0.94; P = .001), as were children of fathers who scored high on their sense of security (OR, 0.87; 95% CI, 0.79-0.96; P = .006). The same patterns were true at age 11.

The impact of paternal involvement on mothers could be an important factor. “There is evidence that fathers’ involvement can also alleviate the impact of factors such as maternal depression, which are known to increase children’s risk of behavioral problems,” the researchers wrote.

Meanwhile, Dr. Opondo and his colleagues found no significant relationship between behavioral problems, and time spent in domestic and child care activity at either age.

“The findings of this research study suggest that it is psychological and emotional aspects of paternal involvement in a child’s infancy that are most powerful in influencing later child behavior and not the amount of time that fathers are engaged in child care or domestic tasks in the household,” Dr. Opondo and his colleagues said.

The researchers cited several limitations. The study was observational, for example, and could be subject to unobserved confounders. In addition, the study relied on self-reporting, which can produce bias.

The Policy Research Program in the Department of Health, England, funded the study. The authors reported having no financial disclosures.


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