The role of fathers in child mental health

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


The emergence and course of psychopathology in children is influenced by genetic and environmental factors. Within a vast body of epidemiological research unpacking family-based aetiological mechanisms of risk and protection, mothers, but not fathers are often examined, although fathers provide half of the child’s genes and much of the environment that the child grows up in. This thesis explores the role of fathers, in relation to mothers, within the family during infancy, in the aetiology of mental health symptoms in children across early and middle childhood (three to 13 years old). This thesis focuses on families where parents experience depression symptoms and asks three research questions.

The first study asks whether positive father relationships with mothers and children can act as ‘protective factors’ for adverse mental health outcomes in children when mothers experience depression symptoms. Latent class analysis is used to identify profiles of fathers’ relationship-related attitudes and behaviours. The study findings suggest that if the father’s relationships are consistently positive with both mother and child, the risk of adverse mental health symptoms in the child can be significantly reduced.

The second study asks whether the often-observed co-occurrence of depression symptoms within families can be explained, in part, by individual depression symptoms, such as anhedonia (the inability to feel pleasure) or insomnia. Network analysis is used to examine symptom-level mechanisms of transmission between fathers, mothers, and children. The study findings suggest that specific symptoms reinforce depression symptoms between parents and relate to emotional difficulties in children.

The third study asks how fathers’ genes and the caregiving environment they provide influence children’s emotional symptoms. Mechanisms of transmission are investigated using a recently developed genomic design. The study findings suggest that fathers’ parenting and the wider family environment have an influential role on the development of emotional symptoms in children.

These findings advance knowledge of the important and unique role that fathers play within the family during infancy. Findings also strengthen calls for greater inclusion of fathers in epidemiological and intervention research, clinical practice, and family policy.
Date of Award1 Nov 2023
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • King's College London
SupervisorEdward Barker (Supervisor) & Barbara Maughan (Supervisor)

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