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Attachment Figures

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Attachment Figures

You can tell a lot about a person by their primary attachment figures. As adults, our early relationships with caregivers significantly impact our views about ourselves, others, and how we cope with life challenges. However, does the primary caregiver's gender matter? What are the factors that influence our development the most? Let’s see what psychology has to say.

This article will describe and evaluate different attachment figures and psychological research that supports them. A central focus will be the father’s role as an attachment figure.

Let’s first get our terminology straight.

Attachment figures are objects or points of attachment for a person. In the context of caregiver infant interactions, an attachment figure is a person with whom a child has an attachment, usually a caregiver. A caregiver may be a biological parent or guardian.

Attachment is an emotional bond or a tie with another person that provides security and closeness. Attachment is a reciprocal emotional bond strengthened through mutual interactions in caregiver and infant relationships.

Schaffer and Emerson (1964) found that after the age of 10 months, infants can form multiple attachments to siblings, grandparents, neighbours, etc., so infants can have multiple attachment figures.

The role of the father as an attachment figure

We will look at and evaluate psychological research on the role of the father as an attachment figure in infant attachment and development. Traditionally, research on infant attachment and development has focused on the role of the mother. Since then, psychologists have studied how attachment and caregiver-infant interactions differ in a father-infant relationship.

Among the questions psychologists are asking are:

  • Do fathers and mothers have the same role in infant development?

  • Do fathers have a specific role in attachment and development?

  • If so, what is the father’s specific role, and how does it differ from the mother’s role?

  • Is the father’s role as important as the mother’s?

Field’s (1978) study of fathers as primary caregivers

Aim:

Field examined the role of fathers as primary caregivers compared to mothers.

Procedure:

Field placed four-month-old babies for face-to-face interaction in front of the following:

  • Primary caregiver mother.
  • Primary caregiver father.
  • Secondary caregiver father.

Field then filmed the interactions between the baby and the caregiver in front of the baby.

Findings:

Field found that primary caregiver fathers, like primary caregiver mothers, exhibited interactions with the baby, such as smiling, physically touching, and making noises. The second caregiver fathers spent less time interacting with the baby in these ways; the second caregiver fathers spent more time playing with the baby.

Attachment figures and the role of the father, father and baby, Study SmarterField (1978) found that the behaviour of primary caregivers matters more than gender. Unsplash.

Conclusions:

The study concluded that the caregiver’s behaviour, not the caregiver’s gender, is more important in establishing attachment with the infant. Fathers who serve as primary caregivers may behave as caring and empathetic toward the infant as a mother who serves as the primary caregiver. Although such behaviours are usually associated with mothers, fathers acting as primary caregivers may also assume similar roles as mothers acting as primary caregivers.

Bowlby and the role of the father

In his monotropic theory (1969), Bowlby held that infants are biologically programmed to form attachments to a ‘main’ attachment figure who is more important than all others, usually the biological mother. In 1988, he also noted that fathers play a different role than mothers in most cultures and that it is unusual for them to assume the same role. According to Bowlby, fathers are more likely to interact playfully with infants.

Grossman (2002) and the role of the father

Aim:

Grossman examined and compared the contribution of fathers and mothers to their child’s attachment from infancy through adolescence.

Procedure:

Grossman conducted a longitudinal study and examined both mother’s and father’s quality of play with the child at ages 6, 10, and 16. The contributions of both parents were compared and evaluated in terms of their contribution to the child’s attachment throughout the longitudinal study.The child and parent were visited at home on most occasions and observed during play. Each parent’s play sensitivity was measured using the Sensitive and Challenging Interactive Play (SCIP) scale.Parent behaviour and interactions were observed and scored on the scale. Parents scored high when they cooperated with the child, took time to understand the child’s point of view, explained the information so that the child could easily understand, motivated the child, and made suggestions the child generally accepted.Parents scored low if they did not cooperate with the child, did not help the child, interfered with the child’s actions, or pushed the child to accomplish something.

Findings:

The study found that attachment quality was paramount in mother-child relationships when examining the quality of the child’s attachment into adolescence. This was not the case for father-child relationships. In other words, the quality of the father-child relationship was not considered necessary for the quality of the child’s long-term attachment.However, the study found that fathers’ play sensitivity predicted the child’s long-term attachment representation better than father-child attachment, which occurred early in the child’s life.

Conclusions:

Results suggest that fathers play a less important role than mothers in children’s long-term attachment development and quality. However, the results regarding the difference in father’s play sensitivity suggest that the father’s role is merely more pronounced than the mother’s, namely a more stimulating one.

Attachment figures Fathers role in child development Study SmarterResearch has shown that fathers can play a more stimulating role in child development, Unsplash.

MacCallum and Golombok’s (2004) study of fatherless families

Aim:

The researchers wanted to compare the development of children from families without a father figure, such as single-parent families and same-sex families, with that of children from heterosexual families with two parents.

Procedure:

Researchers compared:

  • 25 families of same-sex (lesbian) couples.
  • 38 single-parent families (heterosexual mother).
  • 38 two-parent families (heterosexual couple).

Children’s social and emotional development was assessed using standardised interviews and questionnaires. Interviews and questionnaires were also administered to the children’s parents and teachers.

Findings:

The researchers found that children from single-parent or same-sex families showed no major differences in social and emotional development compared with children who grew up in a family with a father. The absence of a father did not affect the children who did not have fathers in their families.

The study found no major differences in parenting or child development in families with a lesbian couple or a single mother.

Attachment figures MacCallum and Golombok study of fatherless families Study SmarterResearch has shown that children from fatherless families are not negatively affected compared to children with fathers, Pexels.

Conclusions:

This study suggests that the father’s role in attachment formation may not be as pronounced or as crucial as initially thought. This is because the absence of a father does not harm child development.

Evaluation of research into the role of the father as an attachment figure

Below are some evaluation points for exploring the role of the father as a caregiver in psychology.

Strengths

  • Research shows that fathers can play an important role in their children’s development as primary caregivers. These findings suggest that gender roles and biological processes are not solely responsible for determining the role of parents.
  • There are biological explanations for why mothers are often the primary caregivers due to the female hormone oestrogen, which predisposes mothers to show high levels of nurturing. This may explain why the father’s role can be a secondary caregiver.
  • The research also shows that although mothers and fathers have different roles, the father’s stimulating role can promote children’s development in the long term.
  • The research findings can be helpful in practice, for example, in the quality of child care, social policy, work-life balance, and the gradual adjustment of cultural ideas about child-rearing.

Weaknesses

  • Research findings on the role of the father are mixed. This makes it difficult to answer the question of the father’s role as a caregiver.
  • MacCullum and Golombok’s (2004) findings suggest that the father’s role is not as important as other research suggests. This study undermines any suggestions about the role of the father.
  • It is challenging to research the role of the father because many factors influence it, e.g., work-life balance, age, health, and attitudes toward the father’s gender roles.

Attachment Figures - Key takeaways

  • Attachment figures are objects or points of attachment for a person. In the context of caregiver-child interactions, an attachment figure is a person with whom a child has an attachment, usually a caregiver.
  • Field (1978) suggested that the behaviour of primary caregivers is more important than gender. Fathers as primary caregivers may exhibit the same interactions as mothers.
  • Grossman (2002) believes that fathers play a less critical role in children’s long-term development and attachment quality than mothers. However, the results suggest that the father’s role may be more stimulating and, therefore, more pronounced.
  • However, MacCallum and Golombok (2004) found that the absence of a father did not harm child development.
  • The strength of research on the role of the father is that it can have practical applications, such as in social policy, child care quality, and work-life balance for fathers.
  • A weakness of research on the role of the father is that the findings are inconsistent, making it difficult to understand the role of the father.

Frequently Asked Questions about Attachment Figures

Field's (1978) research findings suggest fathers can be primary caregivers in the same way mothers can. This study shows fathers can have essential roles as attachment figures. 


Grossman's (2002) findings also suggest that the way fathers played with their children helped predict children's long-term attachment. This study shows fathers have essential roles as attachment figures through play and stimulation.

According to Grossman (2002), the role of a father figure is more of a stimulatory one. The reason is that the play sensitivity of the father helps predict the children's long-term attachment.

John Bowlby is considered the father of attachment theory.

According to Schaffer and Emerson (1964), a primary attachment figure is usually the mother. The father is usually the secondary attachment figure. After ten months, a child can generally form multiple attachments with siblings, grandparents, neighbours, etc. Therefore, a child can have numerous attachment figures.

Final Attachment Figures Quiz

Question

What are attachment figures?

Show answer

Answer

Attachment figures are objects or points of attachment for a person. In the context of caregiver infant interactions, an attachment figure is a person with whom a child has an attachment, usually a caregiver. A caregiver may be a biological parent or guardian.

Show question

Question

What was the aim of Field's (1978) study?

Show answer

Answer

Field (1978) examined the role of fathers as primary caregivers compared to mothers.

Show question

Question

Which three types of caregivers did Field's (1978) study examine?

Show answer

Answer

Field (1978) examined the following types of caregivers: primary caregiver mothers, primary caregiver fathers, and secondary caregiver fathers.

Show question

Question

What do the findings of Field's (1978) study suggest about the role of the father?

Show answer

Answer

Field's (1978) research suggests fathers can be primary caregivers in the same way mothers can. Thus, fathers can have essential roles as attachment figures.

Show question

Question

What is Bowlby’s theory’s name suggesting infants are predisposed to form one ‘main’ attachment?

Show answer

Answer

The monotropic theory (1969).

Show question

Question

Describe the procedure used in Grossman's (2002) study.

Show answer

Answer

Grossman carried out a longitudinal study and examined both the mother and father's quality of play with the child at the ages of 6, 10 and 16.

Show question

Question

What did the Grossman (2002) study measure and how?

Show answer

Answer

It measured the play sensitivity of both parents using the sensitive and challenging interactive play scale (SCIP).

Show question

Question

The findings in the Grossman (2002) study suggested that fathers do not have an essential role in the child's long-term attachment. Is this true or false?

Show answer

Answer

False. The play sensitivity of the father helped predict the child's long-term attachment. This finding suggests fathers have a stimulatory role in children's development.

Show question

Question

What was the aim of MacCallum and Golombok's (2004) study?


Show answer

Answer

MacCallum and Golombok wanted to compare the development of children from families without a father figure, such as single-parent and same-sex families, with those of children from two-parent, heterosexual families.

Show question

Question

Which three types of families MacCallum and Golombok's (2004) study compared?

Show answer

Answer

MacCallum and Golombok used the following types of families: two-parent heterosexual, two-parent same-sex (lesbian), and single-parent heterosexual (mother) families.

Show question

Question

What were the findings of MacCallum and Golombok's (2004) study?


Show answer

Answer

MacCallum and Golombok found that children from single-parent or same-sex families did not have any major differences in social and emotional development compared to children that grew up in a family with a father. Moreover, children who did not have fathers in their families were not negatively affected by the absence of a father.

Show question

Question

What practical applications can research into the role of the father have?


Show answer

Answer

Research into the role of the father can have useful practical applications such as in social policy, quality of childcare, work-life balance and in adjusting cultural perceptions of child-rearing.

Show question

Question

Which study undermines the importance of the role of the father?

Show answer

Answer

The study of fatherless families by MacCallum and Golombook (2004) undermines the importance of the role of the father as it suggests that the absence of a father does not negatively impact children's development. The study also found no difference in social and emotional development between children with fathers and children without fathers.

Show question

Question

What is the main weakness of the research into the role of the father?

Show answer

Answer

The main weakness of the research into the role of the father is the inconsistency of the findings. There is little agreement in results, which makes it difficult to answer questions about the role of the father.

Show question

Question

Which factors make it difficult to study the role of the father?

Show answer

Answer

Factors such as the father's work-life balance, age, health and attitude towards gender roles make it difficult to study the role of the father.

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