In this national study, we identified specific parenting behaviors associated with depression in fathers of 1-year-old children. We found that depressed fathers were much more likely to report spanking their 1-year-old children in the previous month compared with nondepressed fathers. Although the use of corporal punishment in children has been controversial, evidence continues to emerge highlighting the negative developmental impact of this form of discipline in children.21,29
Moreover, this finding is particularly concerning given that children were only 1 year of age in our study, a developmental stage when children are unlikely to understand the connection between their behavior and subsequent punishment and when spanking is more likely to cause physical injury.30
Although associations between spanking and maternal depression have been previously reported,31
this is the first study, to our knowledge, to report an association between spanking and paternal depression. Notably, in a national sample of 499 fathers of children under 3 years of age, Lyons-Ruth et al32
did not find an association between paternal depressive symptoms and spanking but did report an association between a father's depressive symptoms and his report of “hitting, slapping, or shaking” his child. Given the comparatively larger sample of fathers in the FFCWS, our study may have had more power to detect an association between paternal depression and spanking.
Taken together, these studies suggest a concerning pattern of negative parenting behavior in depressed fathers with young children. Similar to the impact of maternal depression on parenting behaviors,33
the impact of paternal depression on parenting behaviors may be directly related to the symptoms of depression. Irritability and anger, common symptoms of depression, may be implicated in the increased likelihood of depressed fathers spanking their 1-year-old children. In 1 study34
of 320 middle-class parents who used spanking for discipline, 85% reported feeling “moderate to high anger, remorse, or agitation” while spanking their children. As such, efforts to prevent fathers' negative parenting behaviors should consider screening for and treating paternal depression.
We also found that depressed fathers were less than half as likely as nondepressed fathers to report reading to their children on ≥3 days in a typical week. One previous study18
has reported an association between paternal depression and fathers reading to their children. In a this study, Paulsen et al18
found that that paternal depression was cross-sectionally associated with fathers reading less to young children and longitudinally associated with less expressive vocabulary development in children. Anhedonia (loss of motivation or interest in engaging in activities) is a fundamental symptom of depression and may be directly implicated in depressed fathers reading less to their children.
In contrast to reading stories, we did not find associations between paternal depression and fathers playing games or singing to their children. Consistent with a previous study,35
most fathers reported regularly playing games and singing or talking to their children, suggesting that these activities may be more normative behaviors for fathers than reading stories. As such, playing games or singing to children may be less affected by depression than reading stories, an activity that may take focused effort.
Importantly, we found that 82% of fathers (including 77% of depressed fathers) reported that they had spoken to their children's doctor in the previous year. Although the quantity and quality of these interactions are unclear in FFCWS data, these findings are consistent with a 2009 national study (unpublished) reporting that 76% of US fathers living in households with children age 0 to 2 years of age reported attending a well child visit within the past year.36
As suggested in Bright Futures
well-child visits may be an opportunity to screen fathers for depression and refer them for treatment. Similar efforts have been shown to benefit children of depressed mothers.38
Finally, in a qualitative study of fathers from the FFCWS, Garfield and Chung39
found that about half of the fathers they interviewed considered discipline as 1 of their key roles, even in infancy. As such, pediatric providers interacting with depressed fathers should prioritize discussions about appropriate discipline. Pediatric providers should be clear about the inappropriate use of corporal punishment, particularly in 1-year-old children, and suggest alternative methods both for handling challenging childhood behaviors30
and for coping with feelings of frustration and irritability.40
Pediatric providers should also consider encouraging fathers, particularly depressed fathers, to read to their children. For example, in clinics participating in the Reach Out and Read Program, pediatric providers could consider modeling appropriate reading interactions and handing the children's book to be given out directly to a child's father.41
This study has several limitations. First, we used cross-sectional data and, therefore, can only hypothesize the direction of associations between paternal depression and parenting behaviors. Second, the association between paternal depression and parenting behaviors may be explained by unmeasured confounders. For example, difficult child temperament may lead to adverse parenting behaviors (increased spanking and less reading) as well as paternal depression. However, a recent study42
suggested that difficult child temperament at a young age was not longitudinally associated with the development of paternal depression. Instead, paternal depression was longitudinally associated with the development of difficult child temperament in boys. Moreover, as suggested by studies9–11
in older children, adverse parenting behaviors stemming from paternal depression may be implicated in the development of child behavioral problems and should be further investigated. Third, the FFCWS study used fathers' self-report of parenting behaviors. As such, recall bias or social desirability may have influenced fathers' responses. In addition, depressed fathers may have been more likely to report adverse parenting behaviors because of low mood at the time of the survey (ie, shared-method variance). However, if this were the case, we might have expected to see this pattern across each of the parenting-behavior domains. In contrast, we found no difference in fathers' reports of playing games and singing songs or nursery rhymes based on depression status. Fourth, although depression was assessed using a validated interview method, a true diagnosis of depression requires a clinical encounter. Finally, fathers who had sole custody of their child were not asked if they had spoken to their child's doctor in the previous year, excluding 92 fathers in our sample (5%) on this question. However, this exclusion may have lead to underestimating the number of fathers that had talked with their children's doctor because fathers with sole custody often have increased child-caretaking responsibilities.