Children whose fathers are more positively engaged with them at age three months have fewer behavioral problems at age twelve months, suggests new research in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry.
Behavioral disorders are the commonest psychological problem affecting children. They are associated with a wide range of problems in later life and research suggests that the roots of enduring behavioral problems often extend back into the preschool years.
Studies of parental factors usually focus on the role of the mother but the new research examined whether there was a link between father-child interactions in the early postnatal period and the child's behavior.
The researchers, from the University of Oxford, found that key aspects of the father-infant interaction, measured very early in children's lives, were associated with an increased risk of behavioral problems in children at an early age.
"We found that children whose fathers were more engaged in the interactions had better outcomes, with fewer subsequent behavioral problems. At the other end of the scale children tended to have greater behavioral problems when their fathers were more remote and lost in their own thoughts, or when their fathers interacted less with them," explained research leader Paul Ramchandani. "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."
The researchers believe there are a number of 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 behavioral disturbance.
"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. Our research adds to a growing body of evidence which suggests that intervening early to help parents can make a positive impact on how their infant develops," Ramchandani concluded.
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Source: Wellcome Trust