Health & Fitness

How parents affect child's mental health

Couple conflict helps explain emotional
Couple conflict helps explain emotional problems in children. FILE PHOTO | NMG 

For most couples, it is usually a joy to have children. They often look forward to watching the little ones grow and develop well.

They also hope that the children will reach adulthood in good physical, emotional and mental health.

However, the attainment of these goals does not happen miraculously.

Health experts note that parents should ensure that they are in good ‘shape’ emotionally before getting expectant, during pregnancy and after the baby is born.

A new study published in the Development and Psychopathology journal has found that the prenatal (before birth) well-being of first-time mothers has a direct impact on the behaviour of their children by the time they are two years old.


Results of the research showed that mothers who suffered from stress and anxiety in the prenatal period were more likely to see their child display behavioural problems such as temper tantrums, restlessness and spitefulness.

The study also found that two-year-olds were more likely to exhibit emotional problems — such as getting worried, becoming unhappy, being tearful, scaring easily or being clingy in new situations — if their parents had been having early postnatal (occurring after birth) relationship problems.

These ranged from a general lack of happiness in the relationship to rows and other kinds of conflict.

The observations revealed that couple conflict helps explain emotional problems in children.

A team of researchers — from the Universities of Cambridge, Birmingham, New York and Leiden — that conducted the study say their findings highlight a pressing need for greater support for couples before, during and after pregnancy to improve outcomes for children.


This study is the first to examine the influence of mothers and fathers emotional health on the well-being of their children — before and after birth — at 14 and 24 months of age.

“For too long, the experiences of first-time dads have either been sidelined or treated in isolation from that of mums.

“This needs to change because difficulties in children’s early relationships with both mothers and fathers can have long-term effects,” said Prof Claire Hughes, the lead author of the study from the Cambridge’s Centre for Family Research.

“Our findings highlight the need for earlier and more effective support for couples to prepare them better for the transition to parenthood.”

Dr Rory Devine, a developmental psychologist at the University of Birmingham and co-author of the study stated: “Our data demonstrate that mental health problems during pregnancy have a unique impact on children’s behaviour problems.”

While there is growing evidence for the importance of mental health support for expectant and new mothers, the researchers note that this study highlights the need to extend this support to expectant fathers.

According to them, the support should also go beyond individual well being to consider the quality of couple relationships of new mothers and fathers.

In a closely linked study, published in the Archives of Women’s Mental Health journal in July 2019, the team found that fathers share in traumatic memories of birth with their partners far more than has previously been recognised.

This study compared the well-being of parents in the third trimester of pregnancy with their status when their child was four months old.

“If mum has a difficult birth, that can be a potentially traumatic experience for dads,” said Dr Sarah Foley, a co-author of the study from Cambridge’s Centre for Family Research.

She says: “What both studies show is that we need to make antenatal support much more inclusive and give first-time mums and dads the tools they need to communicate with each other and better prepare them for this major transition. With resources stretched, parents are missing out on the support they need.”


While conducting the new study, the researchers drew on the experiences of 438 first time expectant mothers and fathers who were followed up at four, 14 and 24 months after the birth of their children.

These parents were recruited in the East of England, New York State and the Netherlands.

Links between child outcomes and parental well-being have been shown in other studies, but this is the first to involve couples, track parental well-being in both parents over an extended period, and focus on child behaviour in the first two years of life.

Using standardised questionnaires and in-person interviews, participating mothers and fathers reported on their symptoms of anxiety and depression in the third trimester of pregnancy and when their child was four, 14 and 24 months old.

At each of these visits, parents also completed standardised questionnaire measures of couple relationship quality and children’s emotions and behaviour.

“There has been an assumption that it’s really difficult to get dads involved in research like this. But our study draws on a relatively large sample and is unique because both parents answered the same questions at every stage, which enabled us to make direct comparisons,” said Prof Hughes.