by Rosie Knowles
Fathers matter to their children. The focus on parenting support has for the last few decades focused mainly on the mother-child bond, however, there is increasing research to suggest that fathers have an important role to play in building up their children’s mental health. Families of all types thrive when all members are deeply involved and committed to each other’s wellbeing. Children benefit from secure attachment bonds to their fathers too.
Attachment (in the evolutionary sense) is the deep and enduring emotional bond that connects one person to another across time and space; a “lasting psychological connectedness between human beings.” (1) There is a growing body of convincing observational and neurobiological evidence that children’s relationships with their carers really matters for their long term futures. The behaviour of a parent/carer shapes a baby’s brain; responding to a child’s needs as they are expressed encourages the emotional and social parts of a baby’s brain to grow in a positive way. The more often a baby receives a loving and consistent response, the more these brain pathways are reinforced and secure attachments form. (Conversely, lack of response causes connections to wither).
Secure attachment (the deep sense that someone cares for you and will meet your needs, that you matter to someone and are not alone in the world) is the bedrock for emotional and physical health. For children, a secure, reliable, trustworthy set of loving, intimate relationships with the adults who care for them is the springboard to confident independence later in life. When this is missing, problems arise that have an impact on the wider society.
Children who enjoy a secure attachment relationship with their parents, especially with both parents, are more likely to thrive, whatever their economic background, whereas children who suffer from insecure attachments (4 out of 10 children) are more likely to have behavioural issues and to do less well at school. (2) Strong relationships with fathers seems to encourage explorative play and father involvement in children’s early lives may protect against adverse outcomes later in life (3).
Fathers who feel supported by their partners are more likely to develop a strong connection to their babies, and early skin to skin contact for new fathers seems to have positive impacts on infants’ long-term outcomes. (4)
In families where the mother is suffering from perinatal mood disorders, fathers’ support has been found to shield children from negative outcomes (5). Mood disorders in fathers are much more common than recognised, and providing fathers with support when they are finding things tough is enormously beneficial. Close contact with an infant triggers the release of oxytocin (the hormone of bonding) and reduces the levels of the stress hormone cortisol, all of which encourage the building of relationships.
What can fathers do to encourage and deepen a secure attachment relationship with their children? It’s simple; be involved right from the start! Holding, carrying, cuddling and soft touch all matter. Active play and listening will help fathers and children build successful communication and help fathers to meet their children’s needs. This will reinforce the child’s sense that they matter within the family (however it is set up) and strengthen the fathers’ confidence in caring. The child will be more likely to accept care from several members of the family rather than just the mother (for example at night, or when feeding) and this can help make family life easier all round, thereby promoting good mental health for everyone.
- Bowlby J. (1969). Attachment. Attachment and loss: Vol. 1. Loss. New York: Basic Books
- Baby Bonds, Parenting, attachment and a secure base for children, Sutton Trust 2014
- E. Flouri, A. Buchanan, Father involvement in childhood and trouble with the police in adolescence: Findings from the 1958 British birth cohort, Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 17 (2002), pp. 689–701
- Skin-to-skin contact by fathers and the impact on infant and paternal outcomes: an integrative review, Shorey, Shefaly et al. Midwifery , Volume 40 , 207 – 217
- Field, T. (1998). Maternal depression effects on infants, and early interventions. Preventive Medicine, 27(2), 200-203.