Dads pass on traits to their children in ways science is only beginning to understand.
For many years scientists have known that conditions endured by dads can be passed to their children in the form of increased susceptibility to disease. Statistics from famine-ravaged Europe after the First World War revealed a generation of children with an increased vulnerability to conditions like obesity and diabetes. All of that seemed to stem directly from their fathers’ unhappy experiences.
What we didn’t know was the mechanism behind that association, but now researchers from the University of Maryland School of Medicine are starting to fill in the gaps. And their conclusions go further. It appears that stressed out dads can pass stress on to their children. Dads pass on susceptibility to mental as well as physical illness.
Stress changes sperm
The experiments have so far been confined to mice, but the results could be significant for humans too.
To cut a long story short, the researchers discovered that when dads experience a period of stress – even months before conception – the brains of their offspring develop differently.
In effect, the stress that dads endure changes their sperm in ways that scientists are only just beginning to understand. That altered sperm affects the brain development of their offspring, potentially leading to a greater susceptibility to conditions like depression and anxiety.
when dads experience a period of stress – even months before conception – the brains of their offspring develop differently
View this post on Instagram
Calmer dads, healthier children
The new research sheds light on how this happens, which has something to do with ‘epigenetic’ changes that take place in instructions held in our DNA code. But the important point is that even quite mildly stressed dads potentially affect the health of their offspring. The same team has previously found that the offspring of male mice that experience chronic periods of mild stress prior to conception cope with stress less effectively.
“Researchers have known for years that stress can increase the risk of mental disorders,” Dr Tracy Bale, said professor of neuroscience at the University of Maryland School of Medicine. “What’s interesting here is that we are finding intergenerational effect.”
Researchers have also known for years that a mother’s environment and lifestyle during pregnancy can affect their developing offspring. What is increasingly clear is that the stresses a dad endures prior to conception can also be passed onto children.
Dads’ influence on child development
It’s becoming increasingly clear that dads influence the development of their children in all sorts of ways, good and bad. Here are just a few.
- According to research collected by the The Fatherhood Project, children who are close to their dads are twice as likely as those who are not to enter college or find stable employment after high school.
- Those children are also 80% less likely to spend time in jail.
- And half as likely to experience multiple depression symptoms.
- Children with involved fathers are more sociable, confident, and more self-controlled than those without involved dads.
- Research from the University of Michigan found that the mental health of dads influences children’s social skills (e.g. self-control/cooperation). It has a bigger influence in this area than the mental health of mums.
- A Harvard University study from 2015 found that children benefit more from dads reading bedtime stories than mums, because reading with dad tended to spark more imaginative discussions.