Father’s Impact on Child Mental Health Development

Up to 20% of children and adolescents worldwide suffer from mental illness, the World Health Organization (WHO) says. A study in Hong Kong in 2017 estimated that one in seven primary school students showed signs of depression. Parental influence is consistently found to be one of the key determinants of a child’s mental health in many epidemiological studies. Sadly, because of the difficulty of getting the father involved and stereotyped role expectations of women as homemakers and caregivers for children, the father’s role in the scientific study of mental disorders among children is usually missing in research and clinical practice.

With support from St. James’ Settlement in Hong Kong, the Positive Education Laboratory in the Department of Social and Behavioural Sciences investigated the relationship between parental anxiety and child depression, and the moderating effect of a child’s positive psychological strengths on the relationship. 447 Hong Kong Chinese families, with children in primary school years 4 to 6, with 310 fathers, 396 mothers and 439 children filled in three subsets of questionnaires.

The results showed that child depression was positively related to maternal and paternal anxiety. It means the mental wellness of both parents are significant for child development. Parents with high anxiety levels may lead to a heightened risk of depression in their children. To moderate the relationship, a child’s positive psychological strengths such as optimism, life satisfaction, hope and gratitude can play a significant part in the process. They were found to be negatively associated with child depression. It means that child’s positive psychological strengths can help to release their psychological stress and depression. Children with stronger psychological strengths are more resilient against depression.

A child’s positive psychological strengths can positively moderate the relationship between paternal anxiety and child depression. Although the moderation effect was not significant in the relationship between maternal anxiety and child depression, the maternal and paternal level of anxiety was positively related to each other, fathers can support mothers which may in turn weaken the risk of transmitting maternal anxiety to depression in children. These results support the significance of fathers in families functioning as well as to maternal mental health and child psychosocial development.

As family environment and parent-child interactions are crucial in understanding mental distress in children, intervention throughout the family is vital to examine how parental anxiety and child depression influence each other. The participation of fathers in research and clinical practice can no longer be avoided. Their involvement may initiate a positive change in mothers during treatment. Furthermore, a child’s positive psychological strengths play important roles in developing their resilience and buffer against paternal anxiety and child depression. To juggle high expectations in society, the mental health of children and parents has become “more worrying”. To ensure their mental wellness, positive thinking and positive psychological qualities to perceive themselves as capable and appreciate the positive in life becomes crucial and necessary.

Publications and achievements

Tam, H.L., Kwok, S.Y.C.L., Lo, H.H.M., Low, A.Y.T., Yeung, J.W.K. & Li, C.I.K. (2017). The moderating effects of positive psychological strengths on the relationship between parental anxiety and child depression: The significance of father’s role in Hong Kong. Children and Youth Services Review, 73, 283-290.