O Father, Where Art Though?

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I’ve spent a lot of talking about attachment theory, but have not really focused explicitly on the role of the father. General speaking infants develop attachments with regular interaction. This interaction is relational and not simply a matter of sheer proximity. A child is adept at discerning the nature of such attachments and deciding whether he or she is comfortable with them. Infants and children develop confidence (or lack of) regarding the ability of caregivers to reliably meet their needs. This is expressed as either a ‘secure’ or ‘insecure’ attachment. The latter can be particularly distressing for the child. Such anxiety is manifested in either rejection of the parent or clinginess. These are not as contradictory as they might appear. They both demonstrate different emotions about the same problem, rejection because they no longer trust the caregiver to provide what they need or clingy because they fear (i.e. they do not trust) that without constant reaffirmation their needs will not be met.

The prevailing wisdom used to be that the relationship of most importance was that of the primary caregiver. All other attachments, although beneficial, were to some extent peripheral and could be sacrificed with no major effect. Research has shown however that the attachment relationships children build with adults (and other children) with whom they interact with on a regular basis are quite significant. This is particular important in respect of their fathers (I am assuming here that the mother occupies the traditional role of primary care giver). Secure attachments wherever they are found create happiness and security. The counterpoint of this is equally true.

Disengagement or absence by a father can impact a child as early as three months into life. It has been used as predictor indicator of later behavioural problems. It is not however just the physical presence but also the quality of interaction that is important. Studies have shown that poor or low quality parenting is a key factor in the development of insecure attachments and the longer the duration of this behavior the more insecure the attachment is likely to be. This is of course applicable to other caregivers in an infant’s life. The converse is true of high quality parenting behavior and a secure attachment may develop even if the father spends relatively little time with the child.

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