When Dad’s depressed, toddlers act out

"Fathers' emotions affect their children," says Sheehan Fisher. "New fathers should be screened and treated for postpartum depression, just as we do for mothers." (Credit: Rich Johnson/Flickr)

A father’s depression—not just a mother’s—during the first years of parenting can put toddlers at risk of developing troubling behaviors such as hitting, lying, anxiety, and sadness.

A new study is one of the first to show that a father’s depression from postpartum to toddlerhood has the same effect on children as a mother’s.

Previous studies that have focused mostly on mothers with postpartum depression have shown that their symptoms may affect children’s behavior during their early, formative years.

Screen new dads

“Fathers’ emotions affect their children,” says lead author Sheehan Fisher, an instructor in psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Northwestern University. He conducted the study while he was a researcher at the University of Iowa. “New fathers should be screened and treated for postpartum depression, just as we do for mothers.”

Mothers and fathers who are depressed may not make as much eye contact or smile as much as parents who are not depressed.

The more disengaged parents are from their child, the greater the risk the child will have forming close attachments and healthy emotions, Fisher says. “Depression affects the way people express emotions, and it can cause their behavior to change.”

Previous studies have shown that fathers are at a greater risk of depression after the birth of a child than at any other time in a typical male’s life.

The new study, published online in the journal Couple and Family Psychology: Research and Practice, collected data from a cohort of nearly 200 couples with 3-year-olds who had participated in a previous depression study around the time of their child’s birth.


The findings show that a father’s mood during postpartum is important to the trajectory of his depression three years later and significant for predicting his child’s behavior during toddler years.

Questionnaires administered to the participants gathered information about parental depression, their relationship with their partner, and their child’s internalizing behaviors (sadness, anxiety, jitteriness) and externalizing behaviors (acting out, hitting, lying).

The questionnaires were completed independently by both mothers and fathers and then mailed back to investigators.

Significant findings

  • Both maternal and paternal depression levels during toddlerhood are each uniquely associated with child internalizing and externalizing behaviors.
  • Parents who report signs of postpartum depression soon after the birth of their child show these signs three years later.
  • Both maternal and paternal depression in the postpartum period set the stage for future parental depression.
  • Fighting between parents does not contribute to children’s bad behaviors as much as having a depressed parent does.

“Early intervention for both mothers and fathers is the key,” Sheehan says. “If we can catch parents with depression earlier and treat them, then there won’t be a continuation of symptoms, and, maybe even as importantly, their child won’t be affected by a parent with depression.”

Source: Northwestern University