Claire Vallotton, Michigan State University – Dad’s Mental Health Matters

vallotton-fullHow important are fathers to a child’s wellbeing?

Claire Vallotton, associate professor in the department of Human Development and Family Studies at Michigan State University, examines what effect being a good dad can have on your kids.

Dr. Vallotton earned a Bachelor’s degree in Psychology from Simpson College, and a Ph.D. in Human Development from the University of California, Davis, mentored by Larry Harper, Linda Acredolo, and Kathy Conger. Following a year as a Faculty Fellow at UC Davis, she won a research training grant from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development to study as a postdoctoral fellow at the Harvard Graduate School of Education with mentors Kurt Fischer and Catherine Ayoub. The title of her NICHD-funded study was ‘Symbol and Social Skills in Typical and At-Risk Children.’

Dr. Vallotton has been the recipient of the UC Davis Professors for the Future Fellowship and Graduate Honors Program, University of California Dissertation Year Fellowship, University of California Faculty Fellowship, the Ruth L. Kirschstein Clinical Research Service Award, the National Institutes of Health Clinical Research Fellowship, the New Investigator Award from the World Association of Infant Mental Health, the MSUE Summer Fellowship to develop a parenting education project in collaboration with MSU Extension Educators, and the 2010 Award of Distinction for Young Alumni from the College of Agriculture and Environmental Sciences at the University of California, Davis.

Vallotton’s general research interests are integrated within the study of early development and integration of cognitive-linguistic and social skills within the context of caregiver-child relationships and family risks. She has specific expertise in infants’ use of symbolic gestures – also known as infant signs – and uses infant signing as a method to gain insight into infants’ social and cognitive worlds and the nature of the preverbal mind, and the effects of early symbol skills on later development. She also examines the effects of children’s characteristics and development on their adult caregivers. Dr. Vallotton has an active interest in translational research to improve the quality of training for the early child care and education workforce and providing parents with effective tools support their children’s development of social-emotional and communication skills.

You can learn more about Claire Vallotton’s research by visiting her research page: Click here.

Dr. Vallotton teaches courses related to her interests in early child development and research methodology. She teaches undergraduate courses on Infant Development and Program Planning, and Assessment of Young Children. Her graduate courses include early Social-Emotional Development, Infant Development, and Quantitative Observational Methods of Developmental Research.

In addition to participation in a number of professional societies – such as the World Association for Infant Mental Health (WAIMH), the Society for Research in Child Development (SRCD), and the International Society on Infant Studies (ISIS), Dr. Vallotton is actively involved in several more focused collaborative research and education initiatives on campus, nationally, and internationally. She is a Principal Investigator of the MSU Literacy Achievement Research Center (LARC), a faculty member in the Human Development Initiative in the MSU College of Social Science, a faculty member for the Interdepartmental Graduate Certificate in Infancy and Early Childhood (IGCEIC), and is partnering with MSU Extension to develop a translational research project called Parenting the Preverbal Child. She is also a member of the Early Head Start Research and Evaluation Study Consortium, and the founder of the International Infant Sign Researchers (IISR) group.

Dad’s Mental Health Matters


Research on parenting has long been dominated by a focus on moms, perpetuating the myth that moms are more important than dads for their children’s development. One factor that has been well-studied is the effects of moms’ mental health: we know that moms well-being affects their interactions with children and children’s development and well-being. Young children in particular are vulnerable to these influences because their brains are growing rapidly and being shaped by their experiences – and the most important experiences they have are the interactions with their mothers, which are, of course, influenced by mom’ mental health.

So what about dads? We decided to find out what effects, if any, dads’ mental health might have on their young children’s development, making sure to account for mom?s mental health as well, since moms’ and dads’ mental health are correlated.

We used data on more than 700 two-parent families who participated in an Early Head Start longitudinal study when their children were toddlers.

 First we looked at early cognitive and language skills, then we followed up and looked at children ‘s mental health using a measure of early behavior problems.

We found dads’ stress negatively affected children’s cognitive and language development, but for language, the effects were more pronounced on boys’ development than on girls’. Also, dads? stress and depression negatively affected their toddlers’ behavior, and had a lasting impact on their social skills measured in 5th grade. Importantly, whether or not dads lived with their children, if dads were involved in their children’s lives, then their mental health affected children’s development.

This research advances the idea that dads are vital to their children’s development and well-being, and should be included in research examining family influences on children. Dads matter, so let’s support their well-being and their parenting.

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