A secure attachment to both mothers and fathers boosts children’s healthy development

Her mother snatches her up in her arms without hesitation. Meanwhile, her grandmother gathers leaves and herbs to create a strong smokescreen that will deter predators. Raina’s uncles and father move quickly to the outer edges of the camp while keeping an eye out for any danger.

Raina was engulfed in a web care at this moment. The multiple caregivers all worked together seamlessly, and their combined efforts served as a barrier against the unknown danger lurking beyond the glow of the campfire. Raina’s protection was the work of a village.

Children have been growing up in an environment similar to Raina’s for at least 200,000-years: multiple caregivers. In the 20th century, child psychologists gave almost sole importance to the mother-child relationship. The focus of research on attachment relationships between children and their caregivers, as well as how influences child development, has been mother-centric. The emphasis placed by academic psychology on the mother-child relationship is at least partially due to social norms regarding the roles that mothers and fathers should play. While fathers are often characterized as breadwinners and mothers as being more involved in daily child care, this is not the case.

We are clinical-developmental psychology and child and family researchers interested in studying how the quality of child-caregiver relationships affects children’s development. We formed a consortium of 29 researchers to study the attachment relationships between children and their caregivers. We ask together: How do attachment relationships with both parents and mothers affect the socio-emotional and cognative outcomes of children?

Research on mother-centric attachment

Children form attachments to people who are always around them. These people are usually their parents.

Social scientists classify attachments as either secure or insecure. Secure relationships with specific caregivers reflect a child’s expectation of emotional support and availability from that caregiver when the child is in distress, such as when physically or emotionally hurt. Children who don’t know if their caregivers will be there for them in times of crisis are more likely to develop an insecure relationship.

It is no longer enough to focus on the love of a mother. George Marks/Retrofile via Getty Images

In the U.S. and Europe, where the majority of attachment research was conducted, it is often assumed that the primary caregiver is the mother. Researchers have, therefore, focused almost exclusively on mothers as attachment figures. Researchers found mothers to be more accessible and more willing to participate in research than other caregivers, such as fathers or grandparents.

Many researchers also assume that there is a hierarchy in parental caregiving. This means that attachment to mothers is more important than attachment to caregivers deemed “secondary,” such as fathers, for understanding the development of children.

Some scholars had already recognized in the late 1980s the need for assessing the impact of multiple caregivers’ attachment relationships on children’s developmental trajectory. There was little research. We revived these calls and suggested models that researchers can use to assess the effects of both parents’ attachments to their children on a variety of developmental outcomes.

We then recruited over two dozen social scientists in eight countries who were interested in the attachment relationship questions. We formed the Collaboration on Attachment Multiple Parents Synthesis Consortium together.

The better the attachments, the more secure they are

Our group began by compiling the data collected over the last 40 years by researchers who have studied attachment. We found previous research on attachment relationships between more than 1,000 children and their parents.

We classified children into four categories instead of categorizing them as being securely or insecurely attached.

Children who have a secure attachment to their mother and father.

Children with secure attachments to mothers and insecure attachments to fathers.

Children with secure attachment to the father and insecure attachment to the mother.

Insecure attachment between children and both parents.

In two studies, we examined whether children’s attachments to their parents predicted mental well-being or language competency. These studies assessed children’s wings by observing their behavior when separated from both parents for a short time – a procedure psychologists call strange situations procedure.

Children who have a secure attachment relationship with both parents are more likely to show less anxiety and depression and improved language skills compared to kids who only have one safe attachment relationship or none at all within their two-parent intact families.

What might the network of attachment relationships between a child and their caregivers have to do with these effects? Several plausible mechanisms could be at work. We couldn’t evaluate it in our research, but there were many possibilities. Imagine a child who has two secure attachments to his mother and father but also trusts them both in difficult situations.

All children experience sadness, anger, and despair. Negative emotions can be dealt with quickly by a child who has dual secure attachments. This child is more adventurous because they don’t need to monitor where their parents are constantly. This child may be exposed to more verbal expression, which will help them expand their language abilities.

The story of mothers is not the only one.

We also found that there was no hierarchy in the importance of which parent children developed a secure bond with. There were no statistically significant differences between children who had a secure attachment to only mothers (but none to fathers) and those with a secure passion to lone fathers (but none to mothers).

These findings confirm an important conclusion: Both mothers and fathers play an equal role in raising children and ensuring that they are on the best developmental trajectory. It is not gender but the number of secure relationships that a child has within their family network, which is important.

In nontraditional families, such as those with parents of the same gender, children also thrive when they develop secure attachment relationships. Future studies are expected to replicate our findings with nontraditional two-parent families.

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