Research — 26 July 2012

Children whose fathers are more positively engaged with them at the age of three months have fewer behavioural problems at the age of twelve months, according to new research funded by the Wellcome Trust. The study suggests that interventions aimed at improving parent-child interaction in the early postnatal period may be beneficial to the child’s behaviour later in life.

Behavioural disorders are the most common psychological problem  affecting children. They are associated with a wide range of problems in  adolescence and adult life, including academic failure, delinquency,  peer rejection, and poor psychiatric and physical health. Research  suggests that the roots of enduring behavioural problems often extend  back into the preschool years.

Epidemiological studies have identified several risk factors for the  onset and continuity of behavioural problems. Among these, parenting  characteristics and patterns of parent-child interaction seem to be  particularly important. However, studies of parental factors usually  focus on the role of the mother.

In a study published today in the ‘Journal of Child Psychology and  Psychiatry’, researchers at the University of Oxford studied 192  families recruited from two maternity units in the UK to see whether  there was a link between father-child interactions in the early  postnatal period and the child’s behaviour.

Dr Paul Ramchandani – a researcher and clinical psychiatrist now  based at the Academic Unit of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry,  Department of Medicine, Imperial College London – led the study, which  assessed father-infant interactions in the family home when the child  was aged three months and compared them against the child’s behaviour at  the age of twelve months.

The researchers found that key aspects of the father-infant  interaction, measured very early in children’s lives, were associated  with an increased risk of behavioural problems in children at an early  age. This is the first time that this apparent influence has been  demonstrated for observed father-infant interaction and such early onset  behaviour problems.

“We found that children whose fathers were more engaged in the  interactions had better outcomes, with fewer subsequent behavioural  problems,” explains Dr Ramchandani. “At the other end of the scale,  children tended to have greater behavioural problems when their fathers  were more remote and lost in their own thoughts or when their fathers  interacted less with them. This association tended to be stronger for  boys than for girls, suggesting that perhaps boys are more susceptible  to the influence of their father from a very early age.

“We don’t yet know whether the fathers being more remote and  disengaged are actually causing the behavioural problems in the  children, but it does raise the possibility that these early  interactions are important.”

The researchers believe there are several possible explanations for  the association. The lack of paternal engagement could reflect wider  problems in family relationships, with fathers who are in a more  troubled relationship with their partner finding it more challenging to  engage with their infant.

Alternatively, it may reflect a broader lack of supervision and  potentially care, for the infant, resulting in an increase in  behavioural disturbance. Another possibility is that the infant’s  behaviour represents its attempt to elicit a parental reaction in  response to an earlier lack of parental engagement.

Dr Ramchandani adds: “Focusing on the infant’s first few months is  important as this is a crucial period for development and the infant is  very susceptible to environmental influences, such as the quality of  parental care and interaction.

“As every parent knows, raising a child is not an easy task. Our  research adds to a growing body of evidence that suggests that  intervening early to help parents can make a positive impact on how  their infant develops.”

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