HARD working parents are putting their kids under as much stress as those with a mental illness, and experts say dads are worst hit by too many hours on the job.
A six-year study involving 10,000 Australian families has found that parents who work long hours - especially those in low-paid jobs - can have the same impact on children as parents who are depressed.
And fathers who work long hours tend to be crankier with their kids.
The Parenting Research Centre's director of research, Professor Jan Nicholson, said stressful jobs could have the same effect as parental depression or anxiety.
"We found that the effect of work-family conflict on parenting was of a similar magnitude to that of psychological distress on parenting,'' she said.
"The higher levels of work-family conflict that parents are exposed to are associated with the high rates of behavioural and emotional difficulties in their children.''
Professor Nicholson said parents employed in "poor quality" jobs - those with inflexible hours, little security and no paid leave - suffered higher rates of distress than other working parents.
"The effects flow through to the next generation, with the children of these parents showing higher rates of socio-emotional difficulties,'' she said.
The new research is based on analysis of the federal government's Longitudinal Study of Australian Children.
It also links fathers' work hours with lower reading rates among children.
Parenting Research Centre research fellow Amanda Cooklin said long hours at work - especially among fathers - limited the time either parent spent with their children in "developmentally important activities'' like reading.
Children in families with both parents working spent the least time reading.
Dr Cooklin said fathers working long hours, and those who were the sole breadwinner, were most at risk of "high work-family conflict''.
"Fathers with high work-family conflict are more likely to be less warm or affectionate, more irritable and less consistent in discipline with their children,'' she said.
"Work-family conflict gives rise to stress, irritability, withdrawal and is likely to erode fathers' parenting behaviours.''
Dr Cooklin said Australian fathers worked an average of 47 hours a week when their children were young.
Professor Nicholson urged parents to spend "quality time'' with their kids.
"It's about spending time when you're responsive to them, taking an interest, you're listening and playing with them,'' she said.
"It doesn't need to be treats and going to Luna Park or the beach - it's about the parent's ability to be in the moment.''
Professor Nicholson called on bosses to give working parents more flexible jobs.
"In Australia we need new ways of thinking about work and family,'' she said.
"We have people who are over-employed working more hours than they want, and people who are out of work or don't have as much work as they would like.''
The research also involved the Australian National University, the University of New England, the Murdoch Children's Research Institute and the Queensland Institute of Technology.
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