Saturday, August 25, 2007

Dads can protect kids against effects of mothers' depression

This is the text of my That's Men for You column in The Irish Times on Tuesday, 21st August, 2007:

New evidence of the powerful long-term effects of a father’s involvement with his children has come in a study of the effects of depression in mothers.

It is a sad fact that chronic depression in a mother leaves children more vulnerable to problems of their own later on. But it has now been shown the father’s involvement with his children can safeguard them against these problems.

Children whose mothers are chronically depressed are at higher risk than other children of becoming depressed themselves, of suffering from anxiety, of behaving aggressively or of being hyperactive.

Just why this is so is not clear. Depression makes the mother emotionally absent and perhaps it is that absence that accounts for these effects.

The good news, though, is that the father can greatly reduce these effects by ensuring that he is closely involved with the children.

All of this may seem obvious yet it’s easier said than done.

A mother’s depression casts a cloud over a family. If a mother is depressed it is easy enough for the father to become a little depressed or upset himself by this and not to have as much time for the children as would otherwise be the case.

However, if the father is aware of how important his involvement is to his children’s long-term future then hopefully he will be able to ensure that they have a parent who is fully emotionally present.

What does that mean? The research, conducted at St Louis University, suggests that involvement means such things as listening to what the children have to say, discussing important family decisions with them, attending school concerts and other similar events and knowing where they are when they are not at home.

So we are not talking about something incredibly complicated to understand. This is not nuclear physics. Yet sometimes these are the very things that a man under the stress of trying to make a living and keep the household running might be tempted to ignore. After all, if you are supporting your family and looking after their basic needs while also trying to help your wife in her depression, you may feel that you are more than sufficiently involved.

But the sort of involvement outlined earlier is what might be regarded as emotional involvement. Attending a school concert is not just about watching your child perform. It’s about the emotional effect of the whole experience for the child and the emotional value to the child of your presence there.

The research was conducted over a number of years with more than 6,500 mothers and children as part of a bigger study. The lead researcher, Jen Jen Chang PhD, had grown up with a depressed sister and had observed how depression had affected the whole family. This got her wondering how a mother’s depression would affect the family and what could be done to alleviate the effects.

She advocates that health professionals ensure that fathers know the importance of their role in relation to the children’s emotional well-being when the mother is depressed.

Her findings back up other studies on the importance of a father’s involvement to a child’s well-being. For instance, Barnardo’s ‘Da’ project in Ballyfermot has found that fathers’ involvement means better social skills for the children , fewer emotional and behavioural difficulties in adolescence, better school performance and less chance of getting into trouble with the law.

Some people already know this instinctively – but others do not realise how very important their emotional involvement is to their children. Fathers were for too long encouraged by society to see themselves as breadwinners alone and perhaps, additionally, as authority figures but not necessarily to see the importance of emotional involvement with their children.

And men who are low in self-esteem or in self-confidence, who perhaps have never been told very many positive things about themselves, may not realise how important they are to their children.

So if we want to boost the future of our children we need to begin by telling fathers just how much they matter. And we shouldn’t assume that they already know.....

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