Attachment Theory: How the Father-Child Relationship Shapes a Young Person’s Life

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The father-child relationship is one of the most important influences on a young person’s life. It’s usually one of the first and closest bonds a child forms, affecting their present experience of the world and shaping how they develop in the future. The nature of a father-child relationship has a profound and enduring impact on a child’s later life, affecting their future relationships, resilience, and self-esteem.

Attachment theory is a collection of scientific research and knowledge that explores these first imperative relationships. While initially focusing mainly on mother-child relationships, the significance of father-child relationships has become increasingly apparent: we now have an extensive collection of theory and practice that offers a deep insight into relationships with both parents.

This blog lays out the theory of attachment and its fundamental ideas. In particular, it explores the way a father-child relationship can affect the development of mental health conditions in a young person later in life – and how tracing such influences can help to treat the conditions.

Attachment Theory: the Basics

Attachment theory is rooted in the idea that young children have a powerful, biological desire to be close to their caregivers so that they can have their needs met. This desire is fundamental and essential to a child’s survival before they can take care of themselves.

A young child instinctually behaves in a way that brings it closer to its parent, crying when it needs attention and forming social bonds through eye contact and smiling. At the same time, parents have inherent biological tendencies to respond to their child’s cues and offer them care.

According to the theory, four different attachment styles can develop between a child and their parent. These are:

  • Secure attachment – Children with a secure attachment style are unhappy when a parent leaves but quickly recover when they return. 
  • Insecure-avoidant attachment – Children with an avoidant attachment style show little distress when their parent leaves and may turn away from them or avoid them when they return.
  • Insecure-anxious attachment – Children with an anxious attachment style express anger when their parent leaves, but may be upset and resistant to their return.
  • Disorganised attachment – Children with disorganised attachment styles express unusual behaviour and change between avoidant and anxious attachment styles. They may see their parent as frightening or being frightened.

In general, children with caring parents, who are sensitive to their needs and respond quickly to their cues, are likely to develop secure attachment styles. On the other hand, when parents are not able to meet a child’s needs, they may develop insecure styles. Disorganised styles can arise when a caregiver switches between harming and providing for a child, preventing them from developing stable attachment patterns.

These first, formative relationships affect the way a young person interacts with others – particularly in close relationships – for the rest of their childhood, through adolescence, and into adulthood. Over time, researchers have conceptualised adult attachment styles along two scales: anxious and avoidant.

  • Avoidant adolescents and adults tend to feel uncomfortable in close relationships and prefer to be self-reliant. They may detach from others when they feel insecure or distressed.
  • Anxious adolescents and adults worry intensely about their partner’s responsiveness and how important they are to their partner. They may turn to clinging, controlling, or coercive behaviours in response to insecurity or distress.
  • Secure adolescents and adults show few signs of avoidant or anxious attachment styles.
  • Disorganised adolescents and adults may switch between avoidant and anxious attachment styles.

The attachment style of a young person or adult may play a large role in the stability and quality of their relationships. Studies have found that individuals with secure attachment styles have more positive views of human nature and view their partners as more supportive than those with insecure attachments. They also find it easier to trust others, communicate openly and seek support, while having greater relationship satisfaction.

What Is the Link Between Attachment Styles and Mental Health?

A child’s early attachments not only affect their future relationships, but also their emotional responses, resilience, and overall mental well-being later on in life. Having a secure attachment to a reliable and sensitive parent figure to return to after stressful events offers a sense of security that persists in the following years.

Young people and adults with secure attachment styles recover more easily from distressing events or threats and find it easier to cope with long periods of stress. Secure attachment styles also promote higher levels of well-being and less hurt feelings, anxiety, or depression.

A person’s attachment style may also affect their ability to cope with traumatic events and recover from mental health conditions like post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). People with avoidant attachment styles are more likely to use strategies of avoidance in times of stress, rather than confronting or processing difficult experiences.

On the other hand, people with anxious attachment styles are more likely to respond to distress through hyperactivation strategies, such as searching for a sense of control over events. In the long term, both of these responses lead to longer periods of stress and slower recoveries. These attachment styles may also make it harder for people to turn to others for emotional support, reducing the resources they have to cope with the crisis.

Research has also found that a person’s attachment style affects their self-esteem and sense of social value. Young adults with secure attachment styles are more likely to have higher self-esteem than those with insecure attachments. Low self-worth and self-esteem, in turn, are some of the biggest problems faced by young people and can drive many mental health issues, including eating disorders. 

These ripple effects emphasise the huge impact that attachment can have on a young person’s mental health and quality of life. The evidence is extensive: studies have found strong links between insecure attachments and depression, anxiety, eating disorders, psychosis, and personality disorders. That said, with therapy and other forms of support, young people may be able to develop the skills and tools they need to cope with – or even change – insecure attachments, helping them build a brighter future.

How Does the Father-Child Relationship Differ from the Mother-Child Relationship?

In recent decades, research into attachment theory has found that a child can develop a different attachment style with each parent: they may have, for example, a secure attachment with one and an anxious attachment with the other. Some studies have also found that the relationship between father and child has the character of a ‘play-mate’ that helps a child to explore the world, while children continued to turn to their mother – the primary caregiver – in times of distress. It’s important to note, however, that these patterns may change as social norms and gender roles evolve and fathers spend more time with a child in their earliest years.

A child’s ability to develop a different attachment style to each parent underpins the importance of both the father-child and the mother-child relationship in a young person’s upbringing. Even if these relationships have a different quality – or attachments form in different ways – they both play a key role in a child’s development. As a result, both relationships deserve attention and support from practitioners and researchers alike.

How Can Fathers Build Secure Relationships?

Attachment theory teaches us that secure father-child relationships can help a young person deal with stress later in life, be resilient, and be less vulnerable to mental health issues like anxiety and depression. As a result, supporting fathers to build secure relationships with their children can be hugely important.

Researchers propose that developing a father’s caregiving skills can help to build a secure attachment. As well as acting as a play-mate for exploration, fathers should focus on having physical contact with their child and responding to its cues for attention and care. In this way, they can act as a safe haven for their child while stimulating them to learn new things.

How Can Therapy Use Attachment Theory to Support Lasting Recovery?

Attachment theory is not only essential for understanding the development of mental health disorders but can also be an important tool in their treatment. Understanding the way a young person attaches to others can help a therapist to build an effective and trusting relationship with the young person, providing a secure base to work through difficult issues. It can also help them to grasp the complex roots and mechanisms that underlie a young person’s thought and behaviour patterns, helping them to form strategies for positive change. 

Some evidence suggests that therapy can also help young people move from insecure to secure attachment styles, with all the positive benefits that this brings. By developing a secure attachment with a young person, a therapist may be able to act as an “active ingredient of change”, undoing emotional damage and helping a young person to develop.

The Wave Clinic – A Safe-Haven for Young People

The Wave Clinic offers specialist mental health treatment for young people, rooted in care and sensitivity. Our trauma-focused approach treats each young person as a whole, helping them to grow, develop, and live life to its full. We combine exceptional clinical care with education, skill learning, and practical experiences, supporting young people to plan and build the futures they dream of.

Situated in the spectacular natural beauty of Malaysia, The Wave Clinic offers young people unequalled opportunities for self-reflection, exploration, and connection with the world around them. From our cooking garden to our jungle adventures and community work, The Wave is a place for young people to be inspired and explore different paths of life. We’ll stay by their side all the way, providing expert support through each stage of their journey.

Whether you’d like to ask us a question or begin the admissions process, contact us today. We’re here to support your journey.

Fiona - The Wave Clinic

Fiona Yassin is the founder and clinical director at The Wave Clinic. She is a U.K. and International registered Psychotherapist and Accredited Clinical Supervisor (U.K. and UNCG).

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