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Preschoolers More Likely to Lie, Fight When Daddy's Depressed, Study Finds

It's well established that a mother's postpartum depression can have lasting effects on her children's academic and social growth, and a new study suggests a decline in a father's mental health can cause similar problems for his children.

The study, published online Friday in the journal Couple and Family Psychology: Research and Practice, followed about 200 couples with 3 to 4-year-olds who had participated in a previous study of postpartum depression. 

Researchers led by Sheehan Fisher, a psychiatry and behavioral sciences instructor at Northwestern University, in Evanston, Ill., found that children of fathers who were depressed in the first year were more likely to show a range of negative behaviors, from hitting and lying to anxiety and sadness. 

Moreover, having a depressed parent (either mom or dad) was a stronger predictor of a toddler showing bad behaviors than parent fighting was.

The study is part of a growing move to include fathers in evaluating the effects of parental support and involvement. Parental depression could be a more common risk factor for students than generally thought: A 2006 study in the journal Pediatrics found 14 percent of mothers and 10 percent of fathers in the federal Early Childhood Longitudinal Study showed symptoms of clinical depression in the nine months following the birth of their child.

The Pediatrics study found both mothers and fathers with depressive symptoms were less likely to engage in healthy feeding and sleep practices, or to include academically important enrichment, such as reading or singing songs to their child.

"Early intervention for both mothers and fathers is the key," Sheehan said in a statement on the study. "If we can catch parents with depression earlier and treat them, then there won't be a continuation of symptoms, and, maybe even as importantly, their child won't be affected by a parent with depression."

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