Children whose fathers strongly engage in parenthood present less behavioural problems when they reach their pre-teen years, scientists have said. Confidence as a father is a better predictor of good mental health and positive behaviours in offspring than the amount of time and direct involvement in childcare.

In the last decades, the role of fathers in modern families has evolved. Policy changes such as the multiplication of paternity leaves and societal changes such as increased numbers working mothers has resulted in a more equal sharing of parental duties.

This has led to a growing number of scientific studies being published to understand the nature and effect of this new fathers' involvement on the health and well-being of children.

The new research, published in the BMJ, investigates how fathers' role in their children's early life influences the child's later mental health and social development, before they enter their teenage years.

Confidence is key

The researchers, from Oxford University, used data from the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children (ALSPAC) study, which has been following up on the health of nearly 15,000 children since birth, and testing the impact of of paternal involvement.

They looked at the case of 10,440 children who were living with both parents at the age of eight months. Parents were requested to fill in a questionnaires about everyone's mental health in the family, their attitudes to parenting, the time they spent on childcare, and their child's behaviour. They also shared socio-economic information with the scientists, such as income and levels of education.

In their pre-teen years, between the ages of 9 and 11, the children went trough an assessment to test their behaviours – they completed the strength and difficulties questionnaire (SDQ). It tests emotional symptoms, problems with conduct, hyperactivity, peer relationship issues, pro-social behaviour such as whether they are 'helpful'.

The scientists analysed all this data focusing on three factors to assess the impact of fathers on their kids' scores on the SDQ. They looked at the emotional response to the child as a baby, how much time they spent on domestic and childcare tasks and how confident they felt as a parent and partner.

They found that high emotional response and confidence as a father were most strongly associated with lower risk of behavioural problems in pre-teen children. However, they found no link between behaviours in children aged 9 to 11 and greater amount of time spent caring for the children or for the house.

The main limit of this study is that it is based on data that is self-reported, and so there is a risk of bias. It nevertheless succeeds in showing that men's confidence in their abilities as fathers, early on in their children's life, is crucial to shape their behaviours on the long-term – and on the family's well-being as a whole.