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Dads' mental health and family happiness

Father and son
Credit: iStock.com/Georgijevic

While many Australian fathers are feeling confident in their parenting role, research shows one in five have experienced depression and/or anxiety since having children.

Fathers’ mental health and co-parenting relationships have a powerful effect on child development, Parenting Research Centre Principal Research Specialist Dr Catherine Wade says. So it is vitally important we understand how fathers are doing when it comes to mental health, both for their own sake and the well-being of their children.

“We know that children do best when their parents’ mental health is good,” Dr Wade says.

“We know that when parents are struggling with their own mental health – perhaps depression or anxiety – that children can be affected by that.

“So for example we know that when dads have positive mental health they are more likely to do things like interact more frequently and more positively with their children. They will smile more and play with their child more and are less likely to fall back on negative behaviours such as yelling or smacking when their mental health is okay. It’s really important that dads are supported.”

The research brief derived from the 2016 Parenting Today in Victoria Study, conducted and analysed by the Parenting Research Centre, used the survey of 2600 parents to understand the parenting behaviours, strengths and needs of fathers.

Dr Wade says on the whole, fathers are doing well.

“The news is actually really positive. Most dads are faring well and feeling good about their parenting.

“They are feeling well resourced and they know where to go when they need advice and support. The vast majority are doing well and their children are benefiting from that.

“We do know however that a proportion of dads have experienced mental health issues since becoming a parent.

“This study has given us robust Australian data from the perspectives of a large and representative sample of fathers and lets us know what proportion of dads are experiencing mental health issues. It looks to be just under 20%.”

One in five dads reported that since they became a parent they experienced symptoms of depression and anxiety.
Dr Catherine Wade

The study shows 18% reported they had experienced symptoms of depression and 19% felt they had experienced symptoms of anxiety since becoming a parent. Of those who reported depression since becoming a parent, 9% said this included post-natal depression and 3% had serious levels of current psychological distress.

Dr Wade says the researchers were interested to see that the percentages were so high.

“One in five dads reported that since they became a parent they experienced symptoms of depression and anxiety,” she says.

“That’s not a diagnosed mental illness, that’s the parents reporting symptoms.

“We are not talking about mental illness in the sense of serious mental illness. We are talking about the everyday experience of the general population. Most people experience peaks and troughs - the ups and downs. This is part of the human experience.

“We shouldn’t stigmatise men and women for experiencing these problems. It’s part of parenting and we need to help them through these emotions and get on with doing an amazing job of parenting their children.

“We also saw one in three mothers experiencing symptoms. It is very high for women. But one in five men reporting symptoms since becoming parents is cause for concern. It’s certainly an area for attention, particularly given what we know about the importance of parent mental health on children’s mental health.”

We shouldn’t stigmatise men and women for experiencing these problems. It’s part of parenting and we need to help them through these emotions and get on with doing an amazing job of parenting their children.
Dr Catherine Wade

The survey showed that two aspects of parenting, frequency of father/child activities and parenting approach – were related to how effective fathers felt as parents.

Fathers who believed in their own capabilities did more activities with their children and reported a more positive parenting approach, but fathers who felt less effective were more inclined to yell at or argue with their children.

“Some interesting findings were that fathers with poorer mental health were less likely to feel effective as parents. What we can’t tell is if it’s the chicken or the egg. Whether the mental health issue caused or led to the problem,” Dr Wade says.

“We know that it is important to address parent mental health. There is definitely a relationship there and it’s given us things to focus on in terms of outcomes for dads and ultimately that means better outcomes for children.

“In general we know that parenting confidence and parent mental health are strongly intertwined. When you have poor mental health you’re more likely to have a poor sense of confidence in your parenting. This was true for dads.

“We know that the support that parents have access to when they’re feeling low in confidence is really important. A big implication for dads in our survey was that dads were less likely than mums to identify someone they trusted and could turn to for advice.

“That has important implications for dads who are feeling low in confidence and who might be having a bad mental health day. Dads may have a greater need for access to services and support because they don’t have that person in their life that they can turn to.”

Dr Wade says it also means that parenting information needs to be specifically targeted towards men.

“We need to think about when and where the resources are available – are we offering programs at a convenient time for both parents to attend?

“We need to make sure the content is designed to be suitable for both mothers and fathers – not just are they blue or pink – but do they fundamentally speak the language that makes sense to men. Do the names and case studies talk about men and not just women and mothers?

“We know that men use online resources so we need to look at our online support and think about how we offer our programs and groups to make sure men feel invited and welcome.

“The good news is that there is really credible information already available online – the www.raisingchildren.net.au website is Australia’s official parenting website, and with over 10,000 page views per day, is already accessed by large numbers of Australian men and women.”

Focus on Fathers key findings

  • Results from this survey – one of the largest surveys of fathers of its kind – show a positive picture of fathering: most are doing well and feel supported.
  • One in five fathers have experienced depression and/ or anxiety since having children (compared to one in three mothers). Fathers with poorer mental health reported lower levels of parenting confidence.
  • Fathers’ parenting confidence is related to their interactions with their children. Less confident fathers perceived themselves to be less consistent and more impatient and critical with their child. They also reported engaging in activities with their child less often and were more likely to say they argued with or yelled at their child.
  • Most fathers had good partner support. Higher partner support was associated with better mental health, more positive parenting and better communication and involvement with the child’s school or early education service.
  • When seeking advice and information on child rearing, fathers tended to rely on their own efforts, using online information and books.