Study: Family service agencies should focus more on fathers

Program for fathers reduces depression, hyperactivity in their children.

Posted Aug 17, 2009

Two 16-week programs--one for fathers, and one for couples--produced improvements in fathers' engagement with their children, the quality of the couples' relationships, and fewer behavior problems in their children.

The study, published in the Journal of Marriage and the Family, found that children whose parents enrolled in the programs were less likely to show signs of depression, anxiety, and hyperactivity.

Dr. Kyle Pruett, clinical professor of psychiatry at the Yale School of Medicine and a co-author of the study, said in a press release, "The vast majority of family services — from parenting classes to home visits — are really aimed at mothers, while fathers are almost completely overlooked. The research is clear that the best way to create a healthy environment for children is to engage dads and moms together.”

Pruett and his colleagues conclude that family service agencies are missing "huge opportunities to help children by focusing only on mothers."

The study was done with 289 couples in California, most of them low-income Mexican-American and European-American families.

Before beginning their study, the authors searched the scientific literature for reports on other such programs. They found a variety of programs being offered to fathers, but few instances where studies were done to see whether the program worked. "Most programs," the authors wrote' receive no systematic evaluation," and the few that do include evaluations usually gather data immediately after the program ends, so it's impossible to know whether any beneficial effects persisted.

Even more importantly, from a scientific point of view, few of the programs were done by randomly selecting participants and comparing them to non-participants. Without such comparisons, the it's impossible to know whether the improvements in the programs are greater than what would have happened without the programs.

Among the study's other findings:

--Parenting stress eased when fathers and mothers participated in groups together.

--The quality of the parents' relationships remained stable for more than a year after the programs ended.

--Ans children of fathers who went through the programs, with or without mothers, were "much less aggressive, hyperactive, depressed or socially withdrawn" than the children of fathers who were not in the programs.

In addition to Pruett, the study's authors were Philip A. Cowan, Carolyn Paper Cowan, and Jessie J. Wong, all of the University of California, Berkeley; and Marsha Kline Pruett of Smith College.