During childhood and adolescence, parents play a crucial role in their child’s development, acting as their first teachers and preparing them for independence.
Children rely on parents to provide them with the love and care they need to grow and develop well, so it is no surprise that much research looks at parenting in relation to early development, and early neurodevelopment in particular.
What is neurodevelopment?
The term neurodevelopment refers to the development of the brain and its influence on a multitude of basic functions including reading ability, memory, emotion regulation and social skills. A disturbance in this process can lead to neurodevelopmental disorders, such as Autism and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), or difficulties in motor function, learning and communication.
Studies on the effects of parenting have focused primarily on maternal aspects such as postnatal depression, suggesting that if a mother is depressed during pregnancy or after giving birth, her child is more likely to have emotional or cognitive problems.
This is of great importance to health professionals and new mums alike, however, one factor remains unaccounted for, the father!
Fathers play an integral role in a child’s life, yet little research is conducted into how fathers might affect this developmental process, either directly through their parenting behaviour or indirectly via their relationship with the mother.
That is why I am taking this opportunity to discuss what exactly is the father’s role in their child’s neurodevelopment and might it be possible for fathers to mediate the negative impact of depressed mothers?
This area of psychology is of particular interest to me as a former MSc student in Clinical Neurodevelopmental Sciences.
Having conducted research to understand the potential impact of maternal stress on children’s neurodevelopment, I have turned my attention towards fathers, not only because it is a topic less discussed but also because one day I hope to have children of my own and the dynamics of family life has always been something I am keen to understand.
Traditional roles of men and women have changed over the last generation, and although mothers have taken more responsibility for infant care than fathers have historically, times are changing.
This could be very beneficial for future generations as research has found associations between involved fathers and children’s educational outcomes.
One such association suggests that fathers who are more loving and playful have children with higher IQs. However, this may be due to ‘reverse causality’ in which the direction of cause-and-effect is the opposite to what is proposed. In this way it might be possible that children with higher IQs are able to engage more with their fathers and enable the father to in turn be more involved.
None of these associations conclude that children born to disengaged fathers are less intelligent. However, these associations are a good starting point to understand more about the effect of fathers.
But what does it mean to be an ‘involved father’?
In fact, researchers have outlined three essential facets of father involvement in order to build a happy and nurturing relationship between child and father. These include; positive engagement activities, warmth and responsiveness, and control.
Incorporating these components, I was interested to learn that father-child play is important in supporting healthy neurodevelopment as it is both physical and stimulating yet in a safe and responsive environment, allowing the child to experience and regulate arousal.
Fathers tend to spend much more of their one-on-one interaction with their children in stimulating, playful activity than mothers do. ‘Rough-and-tumble’ play for example, can teach children to deal with aggressive impulses without losing control of their emotions.
In addition to parenting quality, fathers may influence their child’s neurodevelopment through their relationship with the mother.
Fathers are unquestionably able to lighten the load for their partners by being active and involved in raising their children, this much is clear.
Moreover, by emotionally supporting their partners, research has shown that women feel better, have better pregnancies, births and improved postpartum mental health, which in turn enables the mother to be more responsive to their children — eliciting a healthy development for the child.
Something I find quite interesting is that mothers with depression are more likely to turn to their partner for support than to any other person. One survey conducted in the UK found that, of 3000 mothers and 2000 grandmothers, 70% of new mothers turned to their partners for emotional support, compared with only 47% in the 1960's. Thus, an available, supportive partner is really important for all, but especially for a mother experiencing mental health difficulties during pregnancy and after birth.
There is concerning evidence that prenatal depression can predict fearfulness and child maladjustment (failure to cope with the demands of a normal social environment) and a higher stress response in infancy, with other findings proposing that mothers with a previous diagnosis of depression have between two and three times the odds of having a child with Autism.
By acting as a supportive partner and involved father, is it possible for the father to be a protective resource for children born to depressed mothers?
Could the father act as a buffer between maternal depression and child’s neurodevelopment?
Few studies have been conducted to understand whether active involvement from the father could help moderate any potential negative impact to the child that’s associated with having a mother with depression, but research holds promise.
When reviewing the literature, I was excited to learn of studies which found that involved fathers were able to lessen the potential negative impact of maternal depression on infant distress. This protective effect was seen when the father delivered more stimulating activities that the mother couldn’t provide, promoting better maternal responsiveness to their child and minimising any potential negative impact by providing a second point of contact for the child.
One explanation for this could be down to a critical component of parenting: sensitivity.
Sensitivity without a doubt has an impact on children’s emotional and social development.
Parents that are sensitive tend to be more attuned to their children’s needs and react in a responsive, non-intrusive way. In contrast, parents who act intrusively tend to dominate tasks that their children could do alone and impose their own agenda, such as limiting children’s independent wishes and offering excessive directions.
Unfortunately, research has indicated that mothers with depression can show diminished sensitivity and high intrusiveness, causing children to have fewer chances for social engagement. This is where research has found that partners who are sensitive and non-intrusive are in fact able to engage their child socially and prevent any social and emotional difficulties that might otherwise have occurred.
However, when family problems are extreme and maternal warmth is very low, this ‘buffering’ effect is not always evident, and the father-child relationship may not be a sufficient buffer on its own, particularly if the child is very young or the father is depressed himself.
Nevertheless, this area of research is novel and more is needed to understand the intricacies of this effect.
Clearly though, there is evidence that fathers have a profound effect on the neurodevelopment of their children, both directly through parenting and indirectly through supporting the mother.
An involved father is responsive, warm and engaged whilst being sensitive and supportive to both children and mother.
What should we do?
Children are found to be more socially and emotionally developed when their fathers are involved, so would it not be wise for midwives and other health care professionals to effectively involve fathers and thus help creating good family cohesion, especially when mothers have health problems?
I believe that educating new parents on the unrealistic expectations of mother and father roles, whilst helping both partners to boost opportunities for more equal roles in child care, is important for creating a healthy family environment for children to flourish socially and emotionally.
Furthermore, improved father involvement could be supported by creating opportunities for fathers to develop skills and self-confidence in caring for infants. Key to this, however, would be to address the assumptions relating to gender roles within our society.
Luckily, as I mentioned, times are indeed changing and I, for one, can’t wait to witness this new age of fathering.