Counseling Today, Knowledge Share

Viewing fathers as attachment figures

By Ashley Cosentino September 5, 2017

The role of fatherhood has changed over the years. Hundreds of years ago, the father was the most important parent for raising the children, then he became the breadwinner, and today an expansive volume of research details a general lack of involvement by fathers in their children’s lives. Plenty of fathers want to be a part of their children’s lives and do whatever they can to stay involved. However, many fathers encounter barriers created by myths that limit, or in some cases prevent, their ability to engage with their children.

Many people may believe some common myths about fathers. These myths include:

  • Fathers are not interested in being involved.
  • Fathers do not have the capability to be involved.
  • Fathers are harmful if they are involved.
  • There is little to no effect if a father is not involved (or, relatedly, the hassle of dealing with the father is worse than any negative effects that his lack of involvement might have on children).

In reality, both fathers and mothers are important, and not just as a means of feeding, bathing and sheltering their children. Their importance extends beyond meeting the family’s physical and safety needs.

All of us likely know someone who has either grown up with a single parent or been a single parent, or perhaps we fall into one of those categories ourselves. A faulty assumption that people often make is that married fathers are always present, whereas divorced fathers (or unmarried fathers) are always absent. This assumption is based on the faulty idea that a father is only involved if he is present in the home and that when a man doesn’t live with his child, the father then becomes disinterested.

Research has shown that children who grow up without consistent father involvement commit more crimes, become teenage parents more frequently and are unemployed more often than are children who grow up living with both of their biological parents full time. This is regardless of the parents’ race, educational backgrounds, whether they were married at the time of their children’s births or if a parent remarries. According to the research, children growing up without father involvement were also found to perform more poorly in school, use drugs more frequently and have other social problems even when controlling for generally lower income.

The prevalence of single fatherhood has doubled in the United States throughout the past decade, and the number of nonresident households is growing. A residential household is the parental home where the child spends the majority of his or her time, whereas a nonresident household is the home where the child stays when spending time with the other parent. Escalations in divorce and nonmarital reproduction during the past 30 years have preceded escalations in the percentage of children living separately from their biological fathers. Between the 1970s and 2000, the percentage of children living with a single parent grew from 12 percent to 20 percent. In 2002, 69 percent of children younger than 18 lived with both biological parents, whereas 23 percent lived with their mother and 5 percent lived with their father. Fifty to 60 percent of children born in the 1980s and 1990s lived with only one parent for at least a year before reaching age 18.

These statistics help to illustrate the lack of attachment that many children have with their fathers. An attachment is characterized by intense feelings of intimacy, emotional security and physical safety in association with an attachment figure. Attachments are significant throughout one’s life, and they can vary over time. When established in early childhood, attachments can continue, but new ones can also be formed during later childhood or in adulthood, and current attachments can be reinterpreted with new perspective and conditions. The goal of attachment is to have a secure relationship with several caregivers to improve normal social and emotional development.

John Bowlby established attachment theory in the 1950s and 1960s as an addition to psychoanalytic theory. Attachment theory is a secure base from which to explore close relationships that can accommodate an extensive variability of methods and findings. Attachment theory proposes that affectional bonds are essential to the survival of humans. It has a protective function (e.g., a mother keeping her child safe in times of danger) and an instructive function (e.g., a mother providing a secure base so her child can explore the surroundings). Attachment occurs if there is closeness and active shared interaction between the child and the attachment figure. Attachment theory is the prevailing theory for understanding early social development in children.

Attachment styles

Mary Ainsworth and her associates experimentally defined three subgroupings of attachment associations: secure, anxious-avoidant and anxious-resistant (or ambivalent).

Secure attachments: A secure attachment is categorized by passionate feelings of intimacy, emotional security and physical safety in the company of an attachment figure. Features that accompany a secure attachment include remarkably good communication abilities, the use of productive coping tactics and the capability to assimilate inconsistent emotions, normalize negative emotions and resolve conflicts cooperatively and constructively. Secure children show little anxiety when separated from a caregiver and develop a sense of self-worth and belongingness. Secure attachment relationships provide a safe base from which to explore the world and an affirmative model of self in relation to others.

Insecure attachments: Insecure attachment relationships occur as the result of trauma or neglect. They create noteworthy shortfalls in the child’s development of self and his or her capacity to relate to others. These effects can have enduring negative psychological concerns such as not being able to compromise or form meaningful relationships. Forty to 45 percent of children in the United States and Great Britain are classified as insecurely attached based on research done in both countries.

Children with anxious-avoidant attachments are characterized by their insignificant need to receive physical contact from their parent(s) when united after a separation. Anxious-avoidant children use defense mechanisms such as having a low need to accept physical contact from caretakers. As adults, people who are anxious-avoidant withdraw in relationships and are emotionally distant.

Children with anxious-resistant (ambivalent) attachments demonstrate a lack of inclination to explore, a lack of precociousness and a lack of self-protection, while also showing intensification in irresponsibility and accident proneness. These children are characterized by intense misery at their caretaker’s parting and an inability to be pacified upon return of the caretaker. Children with an anxious-resistant attachment style appear to show infrequent amounts of inner conflict concerning the apparent physical and emotional accessibility of their parent. Research on the concerns of this attachment style signifies that anxious-ambivalent children experience developmental interruptions that are not typically experienced by securely attached children.

A fourth type of attachment, disorganized, could also be added. Disorganized attachment is a combination of anxious-avoidant and anxious-resistant. Regardless of the attachment style, children create an attachment blueprint for future interactions that will guide them throughout their lives.

Fathers as attachment figures

Bowlby’s original construction of attachment theory proposed the role of the father as ambiguous, but he later recognized that fathers are imperative as attachment figures. Bowlby’s philosophy about the role of fathers as attachment figures developed over time with the publication of applicable research findings.

The infant-father attachment turned out to be prevalent while Bowlby was working on his second, more clearly defined version of attachment theory, published in 1969. He found that the father’s reactions to the child form the pattern of the child-father attachment relationship. Bowlby’s son, Richard Bowlby, who has also lectured and written on attachment theory, has said that he suspects his father’s initial concentrated focus on mothers and their attachment role may have ended up prejudicing subsequent research and distorting cultural values.

Bowlby added fathers as significant attachment figures because two distinct attachment roles seemed to exist for two separate but equally important functions for a child’s development. One attachment role is to deliver love and security, and the other role is to participate in exciting and challenging practices. In other words, the bond of attachment is more than keeping children safe from danger, which is often seen as the mother’s role. Attachment is also a bond that promotes exploration and gives confidence to venture forth, which is often the father’s role.

For children to grow into proficient adults, it is recommended that they first need to develop psychological security, which consists of both secure attachment and secure exploration. Researchers have defined this as confident, attentive, eager and resourceful exploration of materials or tasks, especially in the face of disappointment. Secure exploration implies a social orientation, particularly when help is needed.

Understanding the difference between secure attachment and secure exploration helps us see how fathers have a distinct impact on the raising of children. A father’s behavior should create a feeling of safety for the child as the child explores new understandings. These instances will allow the father and child to become familiar.

Humans have an instinctive need for enjoyment, discovery and a sense of achievement. Bowlby considered play to be an important aspect of the father-child relationship. The role of father-child play is alleged to be critical for child development and adds to the expansion of attachment relationships. A father’s role becomes noticeable in child development later; consequently, the impact of father involvement may be progressively more important and observable as the child grows older. A father’s awareness of his child’s exploratory behaviors will contribute to the child’s sense of safety during difficult tasks and increases the chances for the child to focus, follow his or her curiosity and master new talents in an emotionally unhindered way.

Parents’ roles: Separate but important

Both parents are considered attachment figures in attachment theory, and the child-father attachment is autonomous from the child-mother attachment. Whereas mothers are commonly involved in caregiving and providing emotional refuge, fathers are particularly involved in play and exploratory undertakings. Healthy development depends on a child’s positive attachment to both parents because the parents provide separate but equally important secure bases for the child’s attachment needs.

In families in which two parents are raising children, one parent serves as the main attachment figure for providing a lasting secure base and refuge for safety in periods of distress, whereas the other parent serves as the primary attachment figure for providing opportunities for exploration and excitement. There are fluctuating amounts of commonality between the two attachment roles; however, each parent will offer one type or the other. Scholars have established that individuals who excel in social situations as young adults typically had mothers who delivered a stable secure base and a positive model for intimate relationships within the family and fathers who shared in exhilarating play and interactive encounters.

To optimize the chances of a child being successful, two distinctive systems need to be in place: a secure base for the child to come back to when the action ends or goes wrong, and a trustworthy confidant to show the child the way. Children can use their parents as a secure base in diverse ways, and each parent can attend to a child’s needs differently. For instance, fathers generally take part in more physical play, inspire more risk-taking and induce a greater assortment of excitement and stimulation in play than mothers do. Fathers typically encourage competition, challenge, initiative and independence. Parents who compete for their child’s love and devotion are more likely to have offspring who are insecurely attached to both parents.

Little is known with certainty about the behavioral correlates of secure child-father attachment. Measures of this attachment should include the assessment of warm, supportive and sensitive challenges during joint play. These are indicators of an activation relationship. If we begin to view men as primary attachment figures, a change might take place in the importance we ascribe to fathers.

Need for father involvement

The issue of fatherlessness is discussed in many books and articles, but it is primarily prioritized as a financial problem. These children are considered worse off because they may not have the same level of monetary resources that can give them a better life. Most of the initial early research concentrated on the regularity of contact with the father and payment of child support. The financial assistance of fathers is unquestionably a vital resource for children in all forms of families. However, if children truly are to “profit,” fathers also need to be obtainable and involved in their children’s lives.

There is a need to reevaluate the significance of fathers and to recognize that their worth in their children’s lives is equal to that of mothers. Regardless of the eminence of the mother-child bond, children who are close to their fathers are happier, more fulfilled and less anxious. According to the research, it is important to position the father within the larger context of family relationships. When nonresident fathers maintain parentlike contact, partake in an assortment of activities with their children and spend holidays together with their children, the children’s welfare is sustained. Positively involved fathers reduce their children’s probability of externalizing and internalizing difficulties, limit children’s school failures and avert children’s self-image problems during puberty. The social interactions between fathers and their children who are raised by a single parent are important predictors of healthy functioning in children in both cognitive and behavioral realms.

The transference of social capital between nonresident fathers and their children is calculated by the quality and quantity of involvement. High-quality father involvement is essential for children’s security because fathers who cultivate close relationships with their children are more effective in observing, teaching and communicating. When children sense love and care from their fathers, their sense of emotional security is reinforced. Emotional security helps children cope with stress and makes them less susceptible to anxiety and depression. When both parents are involved, children are more likely to respect and obey parental rules and imitate parental behavior.

Studies of nonresident fathers often indicate positive correlations between father involvement, regular payment of child support and children’s behavioral adjustment, psychological welfare and academic achievement. Frequency of noncustodial father visits has been found to be linked to greater academic achievement, self-esteem, social competition and overall well-being of children. Father involvement is also positively related with children’s social capability, internal locus of control and capability to empathize. A father’s involvement in making key decisions that impacted his children also led to grown children looking to him for support. A longitudinal study of 12th-graders in divorced families found that children with recurrent contact with their fathers received more guidance and provision and were less depressed.

According to the literature, the lack of a father in a child’s life can have damaging effects on both boys and girls. Male and female adolescents from divorced and remarried families exhibit higher rates of conduct disorders and depression, and they are more likely to become teenage parents.

Boys whose biological fathers do not live with them have increased chances of conduct problems and acting out more frequently at home or school, whereas girls are more likely to become depressed. Many researchers believe that boys respond longer and further to the separation from their father attachment figure. Boys, more so than girls, can suffer from lack of contact with a father attachment figure, causing them to struggle in school.

Bowlby’s attachment theory presents that both parents are needed as attachment figures in a child’s early development. We have a long way to go before our society considers fathers to be just as important as mothers, but each step is a step closer. A successful future depends on children having secure relationships with their fathers. This means fathers being able to see their children often and being regarded as more than just financial support. Fathers are attachment figures who challenge their children and are right there with their children to explore the scary world ahead of them.

 

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Knowledge Share articles are developed from sessions presented at American Counseling Association conferences.

Ashley Cosentino is an assistant professor in the Counseling Department at the Chicago School of Professional Psychology. She is a licensed clinical professional counselor and a national certified counselor. Contact her at acosentino@thechicagoschool.edu.

Letters to the editor: ct@counseling.org

 

 

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Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.

 

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