By Dr Amy Whittaker

Recently I saw a three year old boy, who I will call Johnny, (not his real name). His parents were distressed because he had just been excluded from daycare after “troublesome behavior”. 

Johnny’s mother said it was like he had a “split personality” - he could be really sweet at times, but was frequently stubborn and uncooperative and capable of aggressive and destructive behaviours when things didn’t go his way. Some of the teachers and other children at daycare had recently been on the receiving end of yet another angry outburst. His parents were asked to take him home and not bring him back. 

Johnny’s development was fairly normal except for a mild language delay.  Neurodevelopmental disorders like autism spectrum were ruled out and he was referred to a speech pathologist and a psychologist.

But there was something else concerning me. It is not unusual for mothers to take the lead the in the consultation but Johnny’s father was particularly disengaged and silent for most of the consultation. Before they left I asked the dad about his own health. Johnny’s father confided that he was suffering from  “stress or something like depression” and his wife added that he had been really withdrawn and irritable of late, not at all like his usual self. Understandably they both reported that things had become quite tense at home and the difficulties had taken a toll on their relationship.

Clearly many factors contribute to a child’s behaviour not least the temperament and personality they were born with. It is however important to be mindful that children are incredibly perceptive of stress and mental health issues no matter how hard parents try and protect them from their personal struggles.

Up until now much research has focused on the impact of maternal depression. However with fathers taking an increasingly active role in caring for children research has turned to the influence of a father’s mental health on the development and behavior of their children. A  review article published in ‘Pediatrics’ found that parenting stress and mental health issues in fathers had a significant impact on children’s behavior, language and cognitive development.

Depression influences the way that a parent interacts with their child, which in turn can impact on their development and emotional wellbeing. Research has found that depressed fathers spend less time with their children, are less responsive and less likely to initiate physical contact such as hugs. They are also four times more likely to smack their children. Paternal depression will also be felt through the affects on the relationship with the mother as well as their ability to be supportive in the parenting role. Providing support for the 3 to 10% of new fathers who experience depression is imperative to their own well being as well as that of the whole family.

Dads need to be reassured that parenting can be stressful and if their moods are impacting on their relationship with their child they should ask for help, not suffer in silence.

Johnny came to see me again this week, his parents reported that they felt much more confident in managing his behaviour, he was having fewer meltdowns and was being transitioned back to daycare. Johnny’s father had seen his GP who was coordinating the management of his depression and the relationship issues. The whole family was generally more positive and felt like things had started to change for the better.