“Study shows girls with absent fathers more likely to develop depression," the Mail Online has revealed.
It reports on a large UK study that found that girls whose biological fathers were absent during the first five years of their childhood had an increased risk of symptoms of depression. No increase in risk was found for girls whose fathers were absent later in childhood, and no increase in risk was found for boys with absent fathers.
Researchers collected information regarding the physical absence of the biological father during childhood, as well as information on depression symptoms when the child was 14. They assessed whether there was any association between these factors.
During their analysis, the researchers took into account several factors that may influence the link, such as family characteristics. However, despite the researchers' efforts to take these variables into account, the reasons why a father may be absent from the family home can be incredibly complicated. This means we can’t be sure whether other factors have produced the association between absent fathers and depression in girls.
The study was carried out by researchers from the University of Bristol and was funded by the UK Medical Research Council, the Wellcome Trust and the University of Bristol.
The study was published in the peer-reviewed journal Psychological Medicine.
Media coverage of this research was broadly accurate, though neither ITV nor Mail Online outlined any of the study’s limitations.
This was an analysis of data from a prospective cohort study called the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children. This is a study that has been ongoing since the 1990s that assesses influences on the health and development of children.
The researchers were interested in the potential link between the absence of the biological father in early childhood and the risk of mental health problems. They were specifically interested in symptoms of depression that were not necessarily severe enough to be considered clinical depression.
As a prospective cohort study, this research is less likely to be affected by certain types of bias, especially recall bias. It was important that the researchers collected data on the effect of family factors on the children’s mental health at the time, rather than at a later date, to help ensure the information was accurate. Prospective studies allow for this.
The researchers measured two main factors:
To measure parental absence, the researchers used questionnaires, filled out by the children’s mothers regularly throughout the children’s lives. These questionnaires asked whether the ‘present live-in father-figure is the natural father of the child and, if not, how old the child was when the natural father stopped living with the family’. This information was used to divide the children into three groups:
To assess the teenagers’ experiences of depressive symptoms, the researchers asked the study participants to complete a 13-item questionnaire when they were approximately 14 years old. This asked about the presence of certain symptoms over the previous two weeks. The questionnaire is reported to be a reliable and valid measure of depression in children. Children scoring 11 or higher on this questionnaire were considered to have high levels of depressive symptoms. This is not the same as being diagnosed with depression, however.
The researchers then analysed the data, comparing the risk of having high levels of depressive symptoms among children whose biological father left during early or middle childhood to the risk in children whose fathers were still living with them. These analyses were adjusted for several factors (confounders) that could be linked to both the absence of the father and depressive symptoms, including:
Separate analyses were carried out for boys and girls, to determine whether the child’s gender had any impact on the relationship between father’s absence and depressive risk.
There were approximately 14,500 children in the original cohort study, approximately 11,000 of whom had data available on the presence or absence of their biological father. Among these children, approximately 6,000 had available data regarding depressive symptoms at age 14.
Overall, girls reported higher levels of depressive symptoms than boys, regardless of whether their father lived with them or not – a trend that has also been found in previous studies.
The study included:
The study included:
When assessing the association between the absence of the father in early childhood and teenage depressive symptoms, researchers found that:
There was no significant association between middle childhood father absence and teenage depressive symptoms.
The researchers concluded that “father absence in early childhood increases risk for adolescent depressive symptoms, particularly in girls”.
This large prospective cohort study suggests that there is a link between a father’s absence during the first few years of life and a girl’s risk of experiencing depressive symptoms.
This study has several strengths, including its large sample size, its long-term follow-up and prospective collection of data for the analyses. It also attempted to consider confounding variables during the analysis and was based in the UK, which helps to ensure that the results are applicable here.
There are some limitations, however, that should be taken into account, including the following.
Overall, this study suggests that early childhood family environments may play an important role in the mental health of children. At this stage we don’t know what accounts for the study’s results, and the researchers say that this should inspire future research into the possible biological and psychological mechanisms underpinning this relationship.
Depression is one of the most common mental health conditions, yet there is very little good quality evidence about how to prevent people developing depression. Research that gives us insight into the factors that increase children’s likelihood of developing depression would be invaluable.