Cooperation is key: When new parents don’t agree, dad is at risk of depression

SOLNA, Sweden — Raising a child is a monumental task for any couple, but new findings from Sweden highlight the importance of moms and dads staying on the same parenting page. Scientists at the Karolinska Institutet say that fathers are more likely to develop depression by the time their child becomes a toddler if their coparenting relationships are poor right after the child’s birth.

What exactly is coparenting? Totally separate from the intimacy of a romantic relationship, study authors explain coparenting is all about how two parents collaborate and work together when it comes to their child. Coparenting consists of four distinct elements:

  • Agreement or disagreement on how to raise the child.
  • Support or undermining of the other’s parental abilities.
  • Two parents working together to form joint family standards.
  • Division of childcare labor.

So, in less scientific terms, this study indicates that if two caregivers don’t see eye to eye on how to raise their child, it may lead to depression for the father.

“We have a lot to gain as a society if we support coparenting relationships more during the early stages of parenthood,” says Michael Wells, associate professor in the Department of Women’s and Children’s Health, in a university release. “One way to do that is to screen fathers for their coparenting status during infancy and toddlerhood and to offer interventions aimed at improving collaboration and communication around the child if needed.”

Dads can experience postpartum depression too

Although many likely associate the condition with new mothers, roughly nine to 10 percent of new fathers also experience postpartum depression. Importantly, kids who grow up with a depressed dad are also more likely to deal with their own mental health struggles, as well as other emotional or behavioral issues during youth. Through the identification of modifiable factors that can help lower depression risk among dads, the research team behind this work hopes to develop interventions that can curb mental illness among both parents and their children.

For this project, the team recruited a total of 429 fathers of children up to two years-old in Sweden on Facebook. The participants had to complete questionnaires ranking depressive symptoms, as well as the nature of their coparenting relationships. Study authors also collected data from participating dads on three occasions; when their kids were roughly eight, 13, and 26 months-old. About 20 percent of fathers reported depressive symptoms at some point during the study.

Among the entire group, two-thirds of fathers with exceptionally poor coparenting relationships during the first year of their child’s life were likely to exhibit symptoms of depression when their children became toddlers. On the other hand, dads with higher coparenting scores were more likely to show fewer symptoms of depression. Researchers also noted associations between depression at earlier stages and worse coparenting relationships later on.

“We found bidirectional associations between depression and poor coparenting, meaning these two factors seem to influence each other in both directions. However, the strongest predictor for the development of depression was a poor coparenting relationship in the early stages of childhood, as compared to the other way around,” Prof. Wells adds.

How can mental health professionals help new dads?

Researchers suggest screening new dads for depression more often, as well as implementing more support systems aimed at cultivating healthy coparenting relationships.

It’s worth noting that this research was somewhat limited. For instance, the fathers generally had higher incomes and more symptoms of at least mild depression than the average Swedish population. Moreover, study authors note this work focused solely on the experience of those who self-identified as fathers. Thus, these findings may not be applicable to other parents.

The study is published in the Journal of Affective Disorders.

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About the Author

John Anderer

Born blue in the face, John has been writing professionally for over a decade and covering the latest scientific research for StudyFinds since 2019. His work has been featured by Business Insider, Eat This Not That!, MSN, Ladders, and Yahoo!

Studies and abstracts can be confusing and awkwardly worded. He prides himself on making such content easy to read, understand, and apply to one’s everyday life.

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