Down To Earth Dad

Depressed Dads

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Research reveals that 4 out of 10 melancholy dads have spanked their 1-year-old child, and child- and family-serving programs, educators, and practitioners can do more to help lessen the problem. So says Neal Davis MD, lead author of an eye-opening study released recently in Pediatrics suggesting that men, like some women, can experience blue moods when a newborn comes home. About 40% of depressed fathers surveyed admitted to spanking 1-year-old children, compared with only 13% of dads who weren't depressed, the study shows.

Pediatricians are in a good position to help because many fathers participate in at least some of the nine "well-child" visits that occur in the first two years of a child's life. "I tell moms, 'One in five mothers experience postpartum depression,' and I ask them how they are doing. Then I turn to the dads and I say, 'Recent research suggests that one in ten dads experience [postpartum] depression.' This puts the issue squarely on the table for fathers," Dr. Davis told me. "I ask them how things are going with the new baby in the home; I say, 'What's the stress level for you, and how do you feel?' I tell them, 'Your involvement with your child can make a huge difference in your child's life, and depression can occur in fathers. It can change the way you interact with your child. It can harm you, or your interaction with your child, long-term. If you have [depression] symptoms, don't be afraid to talk about it.' I don't know of any parent who doesn't have feelings of being overwhelmed or frustrated over time. It's important for dads to be able to talk about it."

Spanking children of any age puts kids at risk for negative outcomes, such as being physically abused and becoming physically aggressive in later life. The study's findings are particularly troubling because it is 1-year-olds on the receiving end of some depressed dads' spankings. "It's hard for a 1-year-old child to connect the dots between what they just did and the punishment of spanking," Dr. Davis said.

The study questioned men about depression symptoms, whether they spanked their children, and their interactions with their 1-year-old children. The results: 7% of dads had experienced recent major depression. Although some of the fathers probably had a history of depression, other dads may have experienced a sort of postpartum depression, like some moms do.

Dr. Davis attempts to screen fathers for depression, and then he refers depressed dads to mental health services. He talks frankly with the dads, letting them know that their depression--if it exists and goes unaddressed--can have a big impact on their future relationship with their children and their children's outcomes.

Staff at child- and family-serving programs, and educators, can watch for depression symptoms in dads. "It's normal to feel overwhelmed, but when that merges with feelings of sadness or hopelessness, then that's when it becomes depression. A dad's lack of motivation, and a loss of interest in things that he might otherwise enjoy... and the feeling that 'I'm just not able to engage my child,' can be symptoms of depression in dads," he said. Stir in some situation-induced irritability--such as stressors caused by financial struggles or limited success in finding work--and a depressed dad might find himself on the verge of spanking even a 1-year-old child, Dr. Davis explained.

Programs such as Early Head Start, other early childhood educators, and childcare providers can address the issue of parental depression head-on, Dr. Davis said. "My hope is that in moving forward to address depression in parents, we remember to consider depression in dads, too, because it impacts the way they influence their children," he said. He recommends three things that programs, parents, and practitioners can do: (1) get the message out that dads can experience depression with a newborn in the house, (2) offer a form of depression screening, and (3) link dads to care through a health care provider.

A regular contributor to Children's Voice, Patrick Mitchell publishes a monthly newsletter, The Down to Earth Dad, and facilitates the National Dads Matter!(TM) Project for child- and family-serving organizations. He provides keynote addresses and trainings, and conducts Family Storytelling Night(TM) events for programs and schools. To reserve Patrick Mitchell for speaking engagements, or to implement the National Dads Matter!(TM) Project for your families and community partners, call him toll-free at 877-282-DADS, or e-mail him at patrick@downtoearthdad.org. Website: www.DownToEarthDad.org.

To comment on this article, e-mail voice@cwla.org.

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