By Dr Rebecca Chilvers
The Institute of Psychiatry, King’s College London
What did we look at?
We were interested in finding out more about how OCD in fathers affects their perception of their parenting, whether having OCD actually changes the way fathers parent possibly in ways that might make it more likely their children will become more anxious or develop some OCD behaviours, and whether children of fathers with OCD show any more difficulties than children of fathers who do not have OCD, including looking specifically to see whether they show a greater number of OCD features.
We asked participants to fill in several questionnaires to help us look at these things as well as to complete a short task where you talked about the how you and your child got along, as well as what kind of person you felt they were.
What did we find?
Findings from this study are reported at a group level, which means that within each group there may be some variability, but we want to know on average what is typical for the group overall. For some of the measures, there were a large spread of scores, for example children who were highly anxious and those that were not anxious at all. The statistics we use try to take account of these factors and allow us to search for what are deemed ‘significant’ differences between groups, taking into account the variability within each group.
- Fathers with OCD perceive their parenting to be affected by having OCD, to a greater degree than their partners.
- However our parenting measures showed that there were no differences between parenting techniques between fathers with OCD and controls both for general parenting scenarios and for scenarios that were more OCD specific where we might have expected to see a difference (previous research has shown this difference in mothers with OCD).
- Dads with OCD did show a more critical or emotionally over involved parenting style, however this was not related to any of their child’s behaviour. In other words it did not correlate with increased anxiety, mood or adjustment problems in their offspring.
- Children of fathers with OCD did not show any greater levels of OCD symptoms than children of control fathers, and equally showed no elevated perfectionism traits, which have been associated with the development of OCD.
- Children of fathers with OCD did however show higher levels of anxiety both by self- report and in their parents’ opinion than control children and higher levels of internalising problems (a term used to describe behaviours consistent with mood and anxiety problems). They also showed more difficulties socially, both in terms of the extent of social activity in the week and in having more difficulties getting along with others. Again these differences between groups did not show any relationship with parenting factors, which suggests they may be due to a combination of genetic vulnerability and other features of the environment.
- For both children of OCD fathers and control fathers, social difficulties correlated with anxiety problems. It is important to remember correlation does not imply a causal relationship, but scientific literature suggests that social problems tend to lead to anxiety problems, rather than the other way around.
What are the clinical implications of our findings and how might they help other families?
All clinical research aims to ultimately improve the lives of those who suffer from conditions such as OCD. There have been a number of clinical implications from this study that we hope will help other individuals and families:
- We were struck by the courage that some of you took to contact the study especially when some of you told us that you had never discussed the kind of distressing intrusions and thoughts you were living with day- to- day with someone before. Given that many of those thoughts concerned your children, we think it’s important for health professionals and social workers to understand that thoughts about harming your family in someone with OCD do not mean they are at risk of doing so. Professionals need to be approachable and understand the nature of intrusive thoughts better so that fathers can seek help and not have to cope with these highly upsetting thoughts by themselves.
- Related to this finding, we were surprised when we were recruiting for the study that we did not find many fathers with OCD in existing mental health services in the London area. This appears to confirm the idea that fathers with OCD are not seeking professional help, through fear, shame or lack of knowledge that help for their problems does exist.
- Children with fathers who have OCD do seem to be more anxious, have more internalising problems in general including panic and separation anxiety and have greater social problems. Whilst the root of these problems is in all likelihood highly complex, it still means that some of these children would benefit from professional help themselves. Services that are able to take into account the needs of all family members where a parent has OCD, would be a target to work towards for the future, particularly as many of you expressed worries about the impact of your OCD on family life, and children dealing with ‘grown up’ issues when they were still young.
What happens next?
Part of our obligation to all of you who have given your time to take part to contributing to scientific knowledge and to the scientific community as a whole is to seek to publish this work in a peer reviewed academic journal. This is usually a rather lengthy process, so we wouldn’t expect to see a publication this year. Papers submitted to journals have to undergo a review process and are usually subject to several revisions before going to press. However we will inform you of the study’s publication if you would be interested.
On behalf of my colleagues, and myself I would like to thank you again for taking part in this work. Research that we hope will improve the lives of other families with OCD is only possible when people like yourselves dedicate your time to help us find out the answers to important questions.