There may be differences in the ways that fathers interact with their boys and girls from an early age which mean boys may be more susceptible to the influence of their father. However there are a number of studies which also suggest that boys may be more vulnerable to a range of stressors in their early years, and so may be more likely to go on to develop behavioural problems in the first few years of life.
Dr Paul Ramchandani
Research funded by the Wellcome Trust and carried out by researchers from the University of Oxford appears to have found a link between early father-infant interactions and children’s behaviour later in life. The paper appeared last week in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry
192 families from two maternity units were recruited to take part in the study, which found an association between aspects of the interaction between fathers and infants and an increased risk of behavioural problems in early childhood. Where the father showed greater engagement with his child at three months of age, there was less likelihood of the infant showing signs of behavioural problems at 12 months.
An increased risk was associated with fathers who were more remote, and the effect was observed to be stronger in boys than girls. Although they cannot yet be sure that there is a direct link, the researchers believe that the study may demonstrate the significance of parental, and particularly paternal, interactions at the very earliest stages of a child’s development.
ScienceOmega.com asked lead author Dr Paul Ramchandani, who is now based at the Academic Unit of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry in the Department of Medicine at Imperial College London (ICL), to further explain his team’s findings…Why did you think it necessary to carry out this study?
It's become increasingly clear that the early years of a child's life are hugely important for their later health, in terms of both physical and psychological health. One of the key factors to influence a child's psychological development is the quality of the care – including parenting – which they receive as they are growing up.
Much of the research in this area focuses on mothers, which is understandable as the mother is often the primary carer. The role of fathers, particularly very early in life, has been a bit overlooked. Some research has suggested that fathers may be particularly influential in terms of their children's behavioural development, but most of this has looked children from about four or five years old upwards. We thought it might be important to look and see to what extent fathers’ influence on children's behaviour may be apparent very early on. How were father-infant interactions and behavioural problems quantified and measured in this research?
Father-infant interaction was assessed using a standard procedure where fathers were filmed interacting with their babies in two different settings. They were encouraged to play or be with their child as they would do normally. The video of these interactions was then coded by a researcher who didn't know anything about the father or infant (ie was blind to important characteristics of the study) using a standard rating scale (called the Global Ratings Scales) that have been used in a number of other previous studies of parents and children. The behaviour of the children was assessed with a widely-used questionnaire which was completed by their mothers. How reliably can we say whether or not a 12 month old infant has behavioural issues?
The children in this study were not diagnosed as having behavioural disorders. All children received a score on the questionnaire, and we then looked in particular at those scoring in the top ten per cent. From a previous study in The Netherlands, we know that children who score highly at 12 months are more likely to go on to have high scores at ages two and three years. Why do you think early interactions with their father might be so important to a child’s development?
There are likely to be a range of reasons. It is possible that there is a direct effect of fathers being more or less engaged with their infants. It is likely to reflect, to some extent, their relationship at other times. It is also likely to be a marker for a whole lot of other things happening in families. It may well be that families where a father is less engaged are those with higher levels of other family stresses occurring, and so the association we found may reflect an indirect link. This is always difficult to tease apart, but is part of the work we are trying to do now.What might be the reason for the discrepancy you found between boys and girls?
It's very difficult to be sure. There may be differences in the ways that fathers interact with their boys and girls from an early age which mean boys may be more susceptible to the influence of their father. However there are a number of studies which also suggest that boys may be more vulnerable to a range of stressors in their early years, and so may be more likely to go on to develop behavioural problems in the first few years of life. Do you think intervention to help parents (particularly at a very early stage) is the way to go?
It makes sense that early intervention is likely to be a good idea. However the important thing is working out how best to intervene, and that requires careful work and planning. We are still some way from knowing exactly who we should intervene with, how and when in order to promote the best outcomes for children.