Improving relationships between fathers and children
Many of us have experiences with, and hence opinions of, fathers. For some, and for a great variety of reasons, this experience may be that he was rarely or never there. But even the absence of a father or masculine parental figure is still likely to have shaped our personality.
Our own personal experiences with our own father figure are often the most important. But research into how fathers, in general, connect with their children can help us frame our personal story and put it into a larger perspective to help us achieve a more balanced and supportive view of our current fatherhood.
Currently, the branch of modern psychology that has worked the longest with close human relations is attachment theory. Decades of research, spanning several continents, inform us that roughly half of us enjoy a secure relationship to our close relatives. The other half of us has insecure relationships. For some, this attachment insecurity results in a cold and detached emotional stance towards our close family. For others, the lack of receiving consistently warm care during our upbringing lead to a constant worry and ambivalence about the trustworthiness of our relations, poor boundary setting, and emotional over-involvement.
Some of us will have grown up in homes where a parent struggled with unresolved trauma, which made his or her emotional presence and caregiving unpredictable and poorly attuned to our needs. This results in a fundamental confusion and mental disorganization as to what to expect from a close relationship and is regrettably linked to psychosocial challenges, such as depression, anxiety, aggression, etc.1
Historically, the question of how fathers develop their relationship with their children from conception and through early childhood has received relatively little attention in the attachment research community, although we do see an increase in the recent years. One very interesting early study comes from Scandinavia.2 It is perhaps no surprise that the study was conducted in Scandinavia, considering the sweeping - and lasting - societal and family changes, which occurred there in the 70’s. Essentially, the 70’s women’s grassroots emancipation movement had as one of their primary objectives to get men actively involved in the emotional caring for their children, over and above the shared providing for their children. Fathers merely providing had been the accepted societal norm thus far, as is still the case in many countries around the world.
The study interviewed Danish fathers during pregnancy, right after birth, and when the child was five months old.
In conducting the interviews, what surprised the researchers the most was just how engaged and reflective the fathers were towards the transitions they and their wives/partners were going through in this time period. The old stereotype tells us that in the mental realm, mothers are “relational” and fathers “activity-oriented”. However, when actually given the chance to put words to their thoughts on fatherhood, parenthood, etc. through the structured interviews, these fathers were every bit as “relational” as mothers would be. And most of the fathers greatly appreciated being given the chance to reflect in a structured fashion on their new role. Many lamented that there were virtually no occasions to do this in their normal conversations with friends and family.
About half of the fathers were found to have an empathy-oriented model of how to care for a baby. This (optimum) model was found to stem from the fathers’ own experiences of received caregiving by their mothers. Regrettably, very few fathers described their own father as a role model for being empathetic to their child. Modern fathers appear to have to work out and develop their more attuned father role by themselves. We are witnessing a monumental and impressive change in attitude and engagement in modern fathers.
In accordance with the general attachment research, the study also showed that about half of the fathers lacked an empathy-oriented model for their child. Please note, that these fathers may provide quite well for the child, when it comes to securing the physical requirements for a good upbringing – as has been expected of fathers for millennia. However, an actual emotional connection to their child, as displayed via statements of empathy, warmth, understanding, explicit appreciation, etc. was absent. Now sit back and pause for a moment and consider this: Half of the fathers lacked an emotional connection to their child.
One might think that with the changes in societal norms – where fathers are expected to take a greater role in childbirth and child upbringing – the increased time with their child would also necessarily lead to an increased emotional engagement. The jury is still out on this question. On one hand, we see brain-imaging studies where time spent by fathers on infant care is linked to greater activation of specific parental care brain areas.3 On the other hand, studies of attachment show little change over time, as a result of becoming a parent.4
In our efforts to improve the situation with many fathers’ difficulties in engaging emotionally with their newborn, perhaps we need to hone in more specifically on exactly how this time is spent – what activities is the father doing when together with the child. A recent Taiwanese study looked at the effects of two possible ways of being with the newborn on fathers’ emotional attachment to their newborn. Over the first three days after the birth, one group was taught bathing techniques with their child. The other group was instructed and helped to engage in daily skin-to-skin contact, with the infant held chest-to-chest by the father. The fathers engaged in skin-to-skin contact displayed significantly higher attachment to their newborn than the bathing group.5
This outcome is in line with another attachment study, which lasted for more than a year. High-risk mothers were given either a car seat or a soft structured baby carrier (which allows for chest-to-chest contact). At about one year of age, the attachment quality of the infants was measured, which showed an extraordinarily greater proportion of securely attached children amongst the carried children.6 By now, we have a range of studies that demonstrate that providing extended physical contact in the early months of life have far-reaching effects on the child’s development as well as the parent-child relation.7–10
Interestingly, the fathers in both of the groups in the Taiwanese study were given pamphlets at hospital admission and briefed on the importance of providing skin-to-skin contact to the newborn. And through a quite ingenious study design, both groups were given the opportunity to potentially engage in skin-to-skin contact. However, only the group which was actively helped by a nurse to engage in skin-to-skin contact did so. This finding highlights the crucial importance of hospital staff to actively engage fathers in skin-to-skin contact through demonstration and very concrete facilitation of the practice.
In summary, fathers appear to be far more occupied by their new father role than we have commonly assumed. Sadly, modern fathers tend to have a poor role model in their own father. Our current culture still barely appreciates how much fathers want and need to be involved in the care of the newborn, and too frequently fails to accommodate ways of fathers’ being with the newborn, where certainly staying in skin-to-skin contact, and later on, babywearing seem to be one of the ideal approaches. Let us be the generation to change that!
This guest blog was written by:
Dr. Henrik Norholt is a member of The World Association of Infant Mental Health. He holds a Ph.D. from the LIFE faculty of Copenhagen University and is a resident of Copenhagen, Denmark. He has been studying the effects of baby carrying as it relates to child psychological and motor development through naturalistic studies since 2001.
He is actively engaged in the study of current and past research into baby carrying through his large international network of family practitioners, midwives, obstetricians, pediatricians and child psychologists.
- Cassidy J, Shaver PR. Handbook of Attachment, Third Edition: Theory, Research, and Clinical Applications. Guilford Publications; 2016.
- Madsen S., Lind D, Munck H. Fædres tilknytning til spædbørn. Hans Reitzels forlag; 2002.
- Abraham E, Hendler T, Shapira-Lichter I, Kanat-Maymon Y, Zagoory-Sharon O, Feldman R. Father’s brain is sensitive to childcare experiences. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2014;111(27):9792-9797. doi:10.1073/pnas.1402569111.
- Hesse E. The Adult Attachment Interview: Protocol, Method of Analysis, and Empirical Studies: 1985-2015. In: Cassidy J, Shaver PR, eds. Handbook of Attachment. Guildford Press; 2016.
- Chen E-M, Gau M-L, Liu C-Y, Lee T-Y. Effects of Father-Neonate Skin-to-Skin Contact on Attachment: A Randomized Controlled Trial. Nurs Res Pract. 2017;2017:e8612024. doi:10.1155/2017/8612024.
- Anisfeld E, Casper V, Nozyce M, Cunningham N. Does infant carrying promote attachment? An experimental study of the effects of increased physical contact on the development of attachment. Child Dev. 1990;61(5):1617-1627.
- Bigelow AE, Power M. The effect of mother-infant skin-to-skin contact on infants’ response to the Still Face Task from newborn to three months of age. Infant Behav Dev. 2012;35(2):240-251. doi:10.1016/j.infbeh.2011.12.008.
- Bigelow A, Power M, MacLellan-Peters J, Alex M, McDonald C. Effect of mother/infant skin-to-skin contact on postpartum depressive symptoms and maternal physiological stress. J Obstet Gynecol Neonatal Nurs JOGNN NAACOG. 2012;41(3):369-382. doi:10.1111/j.1552-6909.2012.01350.x.
- Bigelow AE, Power M, Gillis DE, Maclellan-Peters J, Alex M, McDonald C. Breastfeeding, skin-to-skin contact, and mother-infant interactions over infants’ first three months. Infant Ment Health J. 2014;35(1):51-62. doi:10.1002/imhj.21424.
- Feldman R, Rosenthal Z, Eidelman AI. Maternal-preterm skin-to-skin contact enhances child physiologic organization and cognitive control across the first 10 years of life. Biol Psychiatry. 2014;75(1):56-64. doi:10.1016/j.biopsych.2013.08.012.