University of Indianapolis study points to positive impact of father-child play

Fathers who play with their young children are making an impact that lasts well beyond childhood, a new study from the University of Indianapolis has found.

The study, “Father-child play, child emotional dysregulation, and adolescent internalizing symptoms: A longitudinal multiple mediation analysis,” was published in Development & Psychopathology’s December 2018 edition. Jenifer Gregory ’17 (Psy.D., clinical psychology) ’14 (M.A., clinical psychology) authored the paper, with University of Indianapolis faculty Katie Kivisto and Neil Perdue as co-authors, along with David Estell of Indiana University. The paper was based on Gregory’s doctoral dissertation and is her first research publication in a scientific journal.

Jenifer Gregory

Jenifer Gregory

Gregory, who is now in private practice as a clinical psychologist at Continuum: Mental Health & Wellness in Indianapolis, said the research supports that “positive and supportive father-child relationships are very important for healthy child development.”

One way to measure those relationships is by the quality of father-child interactions during play time. The researchers found that children who have fathers who play with them “in a manner that is sensitive, supportive, emotionally attuned, attentive and challenging without being overstimulating are more likely to learn how to effectively self-regulate or cope with their emotions,” Gregory explained. This finding was true even after researchers accounted for factors like family income and quality of the mother-child relationship.

Father-child play also helps with long-term emotional growth, the study found, with the quality of those interactions predicting kids’ positive development through adolescence.

“The kids who had better quality play with their dads in first grade were better at emotion regulation in third grade and had less depression as 15-year-olds,” Kivisto said.

The study pulled data from a national data set of early childcare and youth development, commissioned by National Institute of Child Health and Development and conducted at various sites throughout the country.

“Based on our findings, fathers in particular (and parents in general) should encourage and engage in this type of positive, child-centered and child-directed play in order to support children’s emotional development,” Gregory said.

With state and national initiatives aimed at getting fathers more involved with their children, Kivisto said the research can be useful for agencies and community support networks that provide parenting advice.

Katie Kivisto

Katie Kivisto

“What dads are doing is making an impact and shaping kids’ development. We want to remind them that play is really important, and goes hand-in-hand with meeting basic needs and discipline,” Kivisto said.

Kivisto’s clinical and research background in parent-child attachment and emotional regulation development matched Gregory’s academic interests as she pursued a dissertation topic. Kivisto connected Gregory to Neil Perdue, associate professor of psychology, vice president and chief operating officer, to gain access to a database that proved crucial to the research.

“As we looked through the data that had become available to us, it became clear that we should utilize the study’s observations of father-child play as a measure of relationship quality because this type of observation is so rarely utilized,” Gregory said.

Gregory said her coursework, research and practicum training at UIndy prepared her for her current work with children and families.

“It guides my interventions with families in that I strive to involve parents, and particularly fathers, in the process of working with children. I emphasize the importance of the type of child-centered, child-directed, sensitive and supportive play that we found to be so important for child emotional development,” she said.

Kivisto points out that the sample used in the study happened to involve biological fathers, but the researchers are respectful of the fact that not every family has a biological father involved. The key takeaway for parents is to make sure that they take the time to play with children on a regular basis.

“Parents can feel stressed by the idea of adding one more thing to their to-do list,” Kivisto noted, “But research shows that even 5-10 minutes a day of this kind of play can improve child behavior and wellbeing.”

Written by Sara Galer, University of Indianapolis communications manager.