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 and 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.

Attachment Figures Attachment Figures

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Contents
Table of contents
    • First, how can we define attachment figures?

    • What are some types of father attachment theory?

    • Next, let's describe and evaluate different attachment figures.

    • What do attachment figures in adulthood look like?

    • Finally, let's do an attachment figure evaluation.

    Define Attachment Figures

    This article will evaluate and define 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 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 infants can form multiple attachments to siblings, grandparents, neighbours, etc., so infants can have multiple attachment figures after ten months.

    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?

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

    Father Attachment Theory

    Several studies help outline father attachment theory. Let's take a look at a few.

    Attachment Figures: 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. But Bowlby later acknowledged the importance of fathers as attachment figures because of their likelihood to provide play in the child-caregiver relationship.

    According to Bowlby, fathers are more likely to interact playfully with infants.

    It turns out that a child does not only need the love and security they get from their mother but also requires the challenging and exciting experiences they gain with their father.

    Attachment Figures: Grossman (2002) and the Role of the Father

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

    The child and parent were often visited at home and observed during play. Each parent's play sensitivity, behaviour, and interactions were measured using the Sensitive and Challenging Interactive Play (SCIP) 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.

    • 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.

    • Pushed the child to accomplish something.

    Attachment figures, father playing on beach with child, Study SmarterFig. 1 - Father playing. Research has shown that fathers can play a more stimulating role in child development.

    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 the father-child attachment, which occurred early in the child's life.

    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 the father's play sensitivity suggest that the father's role is merely more pronounced than the mother's, namely a more stimulating one.

    MacCallum and Golombok's (2004) Study of Fatherless Families

    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 children from heterosexual families with two parents. Researchers compared:

    • Twenty-five families of same-sex (lesbian) couples.

    • Thirty-eight single-parent families (heterosexual mothers).

    • Thirty-eight two-parent families (heterosexual couples).

    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.

    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.

    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.

    Attachment figures. two mom's sitting bed feeding son food, StudySmarterFig. 2 - Research has shown that children from fatherless families are not negatively affected compared to children with fathers

    Describe and Evaluate Different Attachment Figures

    Field (1978) helped psychologists describe and evaluate different attachment figures by examining the role of fathers as primary caregivers compared to mothers. 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.

    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.

    The study concluded that the caregiver's behaviour, not their 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.

    Attachment Figures in Adulthood

    Attachment theory does not only impact infants but can affect a person at any age. We can see applications of Bowlby's four attachment styles even in adulthood. They are:

    1. Secure
    2. Anxious
    3. Avoidant
    4. Disorganised

    Attachment figures in adulthood often take the shape of a romantic partner rather than a father or mother. The attachment styles adults form from childhood will impact how they experience closeness to the attachment figures in their romantic relationships.

    Adults with a secure attachment style in romantic relationships can openly express their emotions and can depend on their partners. They often thrive in their relationships but are also perfectly capable of being alone.

    Attachment Figure Evaluation

    Below are some attachment figure evaluation points for exploring the father's role as a caregiver in psychology.

    Attachment Figures: 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.

    Attachment Figures: Weaknesses

    Research findings on the father's role are mixed; this makes it difficult to answer the question of the father's role as a caregiver.

    MacCallum 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.
    • Several studies help outline the father attachment theory, including Bowlby's attachment theory, Grossman (2002) and MacCallum and Golombok (2004).
    • Field (1978) suggested that the behaviour of primary caregivers is more important than gender.
    • Attachment figures in adulthood often take the shape of a romantic partner rather than a father or mother. The attachment styles adults form from childhood will impact how they experience closeness to the attachment figures in their romantic relationships.
    • The strength of research on the father's role is that it can have practical applications, such as in social policy, childcare quality, and work-life balance for fathers.
    Frequently Asked Questions about Attachment Figures

    What research suggests that fathers are important as attachment figures?

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

    What is the role of a father figure?

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

    Who is the father of attachment theory?

    John Bowlby is considered the father of attachment theory.

    How many attachment figures are there?

    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. 

    What are the 4 attachment styles in psychology?

    The four attachment styles in psychology are secure, anxious-ambivalent, avoidant, and disorganised.

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    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?

    Bowlby's theory did not account for the role of father figures in an infant's life. Is this true or false?

    According to Grossman (2002), play sensitivity predicted the child’s long-term attachment representation better than the father-child attachment. Is this true or false?

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