092: Fathers’ unique role in parenting

This episode began out of a query that I see repeated endlessly in online parenting groups: “My child has a really strong preference for me.  They get on great with the other parent (usually the father, in a heterosexual relationship) when I’m not around, but when I’m there it’s all “Mommy, Mommy, Mommy!”  This is destroying my partner; how can we get through this stage?”

So that’s where I began the research on this question, and it led me down quite a rabbit hole – I’d never thought too much about whether mothers and fathers fulfill unique roles in a child’s development and while it isn’t necessarily as prescriptive as “the mother provides… and the father provides… ,” in many families these roles do occur and this helps to explain why children prefer one parent over another. (we also touch on how this plays out in families where both parents are of the same gender).

My guest for this episode is Dr. Diana Coyl-Shepheard, Professor at California State University Chico, whose research focuses on children’s social and emotional development and  relationships with their fathers.

And on the other items that are discussed in this episode:

Find more info on the Finding Your Parenting Mojo membership group here

Sign up for the FREE Tame Your Triggers workshop here (starts July 8th!)

Click the “Send Voicemail” button on the right >>> to record your message for the 100th episode: it can be a question, a comment, or anything else you like!

Read Full Transcript

(Introduction added after the episode was recorded and transcribed):
Before we get started with today’s episode on the unique role of fathers in children’s development, as well as why children prefer one parent over another, I wanted to let you know about three super cool things that I’m working on you. The first is about my membership group, which is called Finding Your Parenting Mojo. I don’t mention the group a lot on the show because I don’t like over-selling, but a listener who was in the group the last time I opened it to new members told me she actually didn’t know I had a membership group, so I’m going to tell you a bit more about it this time around! The group is for parents who are on board with the ideas you hear about on the podcast based in scientific research and principles of respectful parenting, but struggle to put them into practice in real life. So if you find yourself nodding along and saying yep; I agree with the whole ‘no rewards and punishments’ thing and I’m on board with working with my child to solve the problems we have, and I really want to relax a bit around my child’s eating, but on the other hand you’re thinking: but rewarding with story time is the only way I can get my child to brush their flipping teeth, and how do I even get started with working with my child to solve problems? And if I ever did relax around my child’s eating then all they would eat is goldfish and gummy bears, then the group is for you. We spend a month digging into each issue that parents face – from tantrums to figuring out your goals as a parent and for your child to getting on the same page as your partner (and knowing when it’s OK to have different approaches!)…raising healthy eaters to navigating screen time and supporting sibling relationships; we cover it all. I’ll open the group to new members in July, and it closes at the end of July and on August 1st we start digging into our first topic, which is reducing the number of tantrums you’re experiencing. The cost for the group is $39/month this time around which is locked in for as long as you’re a member – I increased the price from last time, and I may increase it again next time the group reopens. Or if you sign up before July 18th, you can pay for 10 months and get the last two months of the year free. If you’d like to learn more about joining the membership group you can do that at yourparentingmojo.com/membership – the doors will open on July 1st.

So that’s the deal with the group. The second cool thing I’m working on is something to give you a taste of what it will be like to be in the group. I’ve heard a lot of parents talking about how their children’s behavior really “triggers” them, and I was going to do a podcast episode on this and then I realized that this is especially one of those topics that you can’t just listen to and expect a change to happen; but if you’re willing to do a bit of work, that you can see enormous payoffs. So I thought OK; how can I really make the greatest impact possible with this work? And I decided to put together a nine-day online workshop to walk you through it. So if you go to yourparentingmojo.com/tameyourtriggers and sign up, staring on July 8th you’ll receive an email from me on each of the next nine week days that walks you through an aspect of this issue. In the first week we focus on where these triggers come from and it might surprise you to learn that it’s not our child’s behavior that is actually the origin of this feeling in us, but it’s things we remember, half-remember, and maybe even don’t remember from our childhoods. The more we know about those, the better we can manage these feelings when they arise in us. In the second week we look at new tools we can use to reduce the number of times we do feel triggered, and on the rarer occasions when it does still happen, to manage our reaction so we don’t blow up at our children.

Now, you might have done these kinds of online workshops or challenges before and sometimes they ask you to do really simple things and you’re thinking “but I already do that!”. This workshop will be different. Each day you will get homework that you could do in about 15 minutes, although if you find that you are feeling triggered very often you would probably make a huge amount of progress if you could spare 30 minutes a day for not every day, but some of the nine days of the workshop. And these are not always easy tasks to do – I’ll be asking you to take a hard look at some potentially pretty uncomfortable aspects of your childhood, so you may need to do this gently and carefully. I’ll be doing short live videos in the Your Parenting Mojo Facebook group every other day or so which you don’t have to watch, but which you may find illuminate the daily emails which I deliberately made as short and concise as possible. By the end of the workshop you should have a great deal of insight into what really causes you to feel triggered, and how you can feel triggered less often and less intensely. And we will probably have a pretty big group of parents who are working through this alongside you, who can offer support and encouragement as you work through this.

Obviously this isn’t exactly how the membership group works – we don’t do nine-day series of emails and Facebook Lives every other day; I actually send out a Guide at the beginning of the month and I answer your questions on two live group calls each month. But that format really works better once you’re already committed, and I wanted to be able to help you make real progress on a real issue you’re struggling with, so I decided the workshop was the best way to show you the kind of support you get in the group, even if the format is a bit different. So if you’d like to join the workshop, just head over to yourparentingmojo.com/tameyourtriggers and sign up – we’ll get started on July 8th.

FINALLY, the last thing before we get to today’s episode is that you might have noticed that this is episode 92 of the Your Parenting Mojo podcast, which means we’re only eight episodes away from reaching 100! When I started the show two years ago I really had no idea where it was going to take me, or even how long it could last. I’m always worried that I will run out of topics to discuss but I’m happy to say that two years in I actually have a longer list of topics that I still have to find time to cover than I did when I started. As I started thinking about this, I did some back-of-the-envelope calculations…if I figure that on average it takes me about 20 hours to prepare for an episode, by the time I get to 100 episodes that will have been 2,000 hours, which is 250 days, which is very slightly less than a year, which means I’ve spent just a bit less than a third of the last three years preparing podcast episodes for you! If I figure there’s an average of 15 books and peer-reviewed papers on the reference list per episode, that’s 1,500 books and papers that actually made the reference list, and since only about half of the books and papers I read actually make the reference list I’ve probably read somewhere close to 3,000 of them in three years. When I started the show I was really just putting an intention out in the world to see where it might lead, and now I see that this work is what I want to do. It has – without a doubt – made me a better parent, and I want to use tools like the membership group to support you in your parenting as well. I keep producing the podcast episodes because I know that for some of you, a free resource is enough – and I know that by the reviews that you leave me on iTunes and the emails you send me that quite a lot of you get quite a lot out of the show. So I want to do something special for the 100th episode, and I’d love to have your voice be a part of it. If you go to yourparentingmojo.com, you’ll see a button on the homepage that you can use to leave me a voicemail. You could tell me something you learned from the show that has made a difference for your family, or a question you have either about the research on the show or about some aspect of my life that you wish you knew more about. Depending on how many voicemails I receive I’ll put all of you or a selection of you in the 100th episode, in your own voices, and I’ll answer your questions as well. So if you want to do this, just head over to yourparentingmojo.com and hit the icon to record a message. You don’t need any special equipment to do it; you can just speak right into your computer’s microphone, although listeners would probably thank you if you could plug in a headset with a microphone as this will greatly improve the sound quality. It doesn’t have to be a fancy one – just the kind that comes with a smartphone is fine. So head on over to yourparentingmojo.com to record your message and while you’re there, sign up for the Tame Your Triggers workshop and check out the membership group as well. OK, let’s get on with today’s episode!

Jen: 01:20 It’s pretty obvious when you’re reading the scientific literature on parenting and child development that just as most of the research on children’s development is conducted on white children and then the findings are discussed as if they’re relevant to all children everywhere. Most of the research on parenting is conducted on mothers and then its applicability to fathers is either extrapolated or it’s just simply ignored. So, what role do fathers play in children’s development? Our fathers basically like slightly less important mothers or are there unique processes involved in the relationship between fathers and children? Here with us today to sort this out is doctor Diana Coyl-Shepherd Professor at California State University Chico. Her research focuses on mother-child and father-child attachment across the span of childhood and she’s especially interested in social and emotional development and children’s relationships with their fathers. Welcome Dr. Coyl-Shepherd.
Dr. Coyl-Shepherd: 02:15 Thank you, Jen.
Jen: 02:17 All right, so let’s start with, I guess it’s kind of the son of the father of attachment theory. The father of Attachment Theory was John Bowlby and so you interviewed his son, Sir Richard Bowlby a few years ago. That must have been pretty exciting.
Dr. Coyl-Shepherd: 02:32 It was very exciting. Having been a fan both professionally and personally of Attachment Theory for a long time, it was very exciting to meet the son of the author of that theory.
Jen: 02:44 Yeah. And so that interview is available for anyone to read in a journal article in early childhood development and care journal. And so I was really shocked to learn that Richard Bowlby actually didn’t really talk with his father about Attachment Theory at all and only started learning about it after his father’s death. And I was wondering if you could tell us about the different role that Richard Bowlby proposed for fathers and mothers and why mothers had been such a focus of research for so long?
Dr. Coyl-Shepherd: 03:11 Certainly. Well, what Richard proposed was a model of dual attachment and in the case of heterosexual parents, they would serve complimentary roles in their children’s lives. So, mothers would be that safe haven providing care and comfort when children are distressed and fathers, as he observed and other researchers have to, more often were used for secure exploration. So, it was that mothers sensitive responding to their children’s distress that increases children’s opportunity to turn to their fathers for support during exploration and during challenging tasks. So, what Sir Richard Bowlby explained was that, and this is again based on other people’s research as well, that we’re driven to explore and seek new experiences, but we need safety and a trusted companion to show us the way. And in our own research we often had children report that they felt safety from their fathers, but more often sought emotional comfort from their mothers. So, each parent can serve both functions of attachment, safety, security and reassurance as well as exploration. But among Western heterosexual couples, we tended to see that mothers and fathers specialized in these areas.
Jen: 04:24 Ah, that’s fascinating. And so I’m thinking about the ways that we assess this attachment in a lab situation and typically it’s using this procedure called The Strange Situation where the mother is withdrawn for certain periods of time and then we look to see how distressed the child is and whether the distress is relieved when the mother comes back. And so it doesn’t seem to be that if the child doesn’t come to the father to relieve distress, that they’re not attached, right? Or is it possible that the way that we are conceptualizing this and the problem is with our measuring tools and not with the attachment between fathers and children.
Dr. Coyl-Shepherd: 05:03 Exactly right. So, in The Strange Situation that measures in part mother’s sensitivity to their children’s distress, what it doesn’t really measure is what fathers contribute to their children’s attachment. And so it was really the research of the Grossmann’s and their colleagues. They did a 16-year longitudinal study, 44 families, and they compared mother’s and father’s contributions to their children’s attachment at ages 6, 10 and 16 and at when the children were toddlers, they had developed this measure called the sensitive and challenging interactive play scale. And what they found, and it’s an observational measure of the way that mothers and fathers engaged with their children during play, that father’s play sensitivity was very consistent across the four years and it was father’s sensitivity that was predictive of children’s internal working models of attachment at when their children were 10 and only fathers play sensitivity, not mothers was predictive of adolescents attachment representations. So, their conclusion was that mothers and fathers are doing different things to support their children’s attachment security and consequently we need different ways to assess that.
Jen: 06:16 And so I’m just curious as to how this works in sort of real life with real families and whether it doesn’t seem as though it’s sort of a one person is one role and one person is the other role because I’m sort of the parent who’s more likely to stand back and watch as my daughter is climbing up something high and just kinda ask her what’s your plan to get down rather than my husband will probably be the one to shout, be careful and we’ll both pillow fight with her if she asks us to. So, is it confusing to her at all that that we have this sort of dual role thing going on or not?
Dr. Coyl-Shepherd: 06:48 I don’t think so. I think children’s expectations of their parents’ behavior are based on their typical interaction with that parent. So, whatever they usually experience is what they expect to experience. And so if you are engaging in exploration with your child and allowing her to take risks and your husband might be the more cautious of the two that I think she would anticipate that that’s the way it goes. That when I want to explore, mom will be my companion and she’ll support this. But typically, and in lots of research, fathers do this more than mothers. It’s not that mothers aren’t capable of it, it’s just typically fathers do it more often.
Jen: 07:24 Yeah. Okay. In an article that you and your coauthors wrote in an Introduction to a Special Issue on Fatherhood and Attachment, you said “The link between father attachment quality and children’s outcomes are often less direct complicated by individual characteristics like child gender, temperament and father’s working models as well as familial and cultural practices.” And that’s pretty dense. Can you help us to tease that part a bit?
Dr. Coyl-Shepherd: 07:48 Yes. There’s a lot there. Well certainly, we know that there’s research that supports gender differences in the way that parents interact with their children. So for example, that mothers engage with their daughters more frequently and they do more kinds of emotional and social discussion than they do with their sons and fathers more often engage with their sons and the kind of ways that they engage with their sons are activity oriented. So, that sort of supports this model that we’re seeing, this idea of father’s activation relationships with their children but more with sons than daughters typically. So, there’s a piece there that leads to maybe differential outcomes for children in terms of their social and emotional development based on the way and how often they interact with each parent. But also in culture. Culture plays a role as well because it’s really, and this was sort of the argument that Dr. Danielle Paquette made when he developed his measure of the activation relationship of measure he called the Risky Situation is the idea that in cultures where competition is a part of that culture, then what fathers do by the way they engage with their children what he described as rough and tumble kinds of play and security and exploration, that helps children meet the demands in a society where there might be competition.
Dr. Coyl-Shepherd: 09:07 How do they manage that competition? How do they manage relationships with others? So, more research I think is pointing to the contributions of fathers and sometimes it’s sort of an additional contribution beyond what mothers are doing to support their children’s social and emotional development.
Jen: 09:27 So, I had a lot of questions about that rough and tumble play and because it seems to be a really critical component of children’s relationships with their fathers, can you help us understand what’s the purpose of this kind of play?
Dr. Coyl-Shepherd: 09:39 It’s to expose them to new situations in which problem solving is possible, but it’s also a social kind of activity because you’re doing it with others, right? And so one of the key aspects of that is helping children manage their physical aggression and intense emotions so that those don’t become problems, right? So, Dr. Paquette described this kind of activity is a way to help children manage their aggression and that fathers who do this regularly with their children, it’s actually associated with lower levels of aggression and peers. And so a little bit about how does that work? It’s sort of a skilled kind of activity. I mean fathers more often, they rough house with their children, they play with them, tickle games, those kinds of things. But sometimes those things go too far. So, children will get over excited and someone starts to cry or someone gets really angry. So, it’s really important that in those situations, fathers are modeling emotional regulation or they’re recognizing in their children that maybe, okay, this has gone too far. I need to pull it back. We need to stop for a little bit. We need to help you calm before either we start again or we don’t start again. So, it’s really important that when fathers are engaging in this kind of play, they’re also really aware of their own behaviors, what they’re modeling to their children, but also how their children are managing these situations.
Jen: 11:02 Yeah, and I’m just curious about that because I engage in this kind of play too. I’ve seen firsthand how hard it is to kind of walk that line between, everybody’s having a good time and we’re a little bit rough and one step too far where there’s going to be tears. And so I’m just curious, I don’t know if there’s any research on this, but if the child is crying, is that a sign that the parent has gone too far and needs to sort of learn better skills at engaging in this play? Or is the crying itself sort of a valuable tool so that the parent can model, okay, well sometimes crying happens and this is how we recover and so on?
Dr. Coyl-Shepherd: 11:41 Well, I think certainly you can respond to the crying, but the primary emotion that should be associated with this kind of play is enjoyment and some excitement. So sometimes, and fathers do this also a bit more than mothers do, they engage in kind of scary kinds of games like hide and seek and chase games, which actually children seems to really enjoy. Boys seem to enjoy it more than girls enjoy it. But I think the key there is enjoyment. And so when it disintegrates into tears or anger, then I think that’s when a parent would be prompted to say, oh, okay, let’s take a moment here. I think we need a break. And that’s important because what you’re modeling is for children also to recognize in other situations, perhaps with peers when maybe things have gone too far and we need to stop and take a break.
Jen: 12:30 And do they do that successfully? Are they able to transfer these lessons that we’re not teaching them, this is what you do when you’re having this kind of engagement with your peer which is kind of having this kind of relationship with our child and expecting them to transfer that knowledge to another situation. Does that happen?
Dr. Coyl-Shepherd: 12:45 It does to some degree, and that’s why I think that it’s been noted that peers are children who engage in this play with their fathers tend to be less aggressive with their peers. So it does get translated even it’s not directly consciously taught through the experience of doing it. I mean, that’s how often we learn things, right? It’s the regular kinds of routine behaviors and activities then those become guidelines for how do we behave in other circumstances or with others.
Jen: 13:12 Yeah. Okay. So, I want to go back to attachment a little bit because I know it’s important to you and I know that listeners have a lot of questions about this. And so one thing that caught my attention when we talked with Dr. Arietta Slade a few months ago was when she said, “60% to 70% of children living in low risk environments feel secure in their attachment is a very robust biological system.” And so I’m thinking, wait, that means 30% to 40% of children in low risk environments do not develop secure attachment. That’s not a robust system.
Dr. Coyl-Shepherd: 13:43 Yeah. A rather alarming.
Jen: 13:45 I know it is, isn’t it? And so I’ve seen these numbers reflected in other studies as well, and obviously it’s best if children do develop a secure attachment with at least one parent. But what happens if they don’t with either parent?
Dr. Coyl-Shepherd: 13:59 Yeah, that’s very problematic. So, when we see disrupted attachment that’s often associated with complex trauma, abuse, neglect, maybe mental illness in the family, particularly with a parent or separation from that parent. And the prognosis for disrupted or disorganized attachment is quite poor. If they don’t receive treatment or intervention, sometimes children are incapable of forming healthy relationships with others and there’s certainly a greater risk for psychopathology.
Jen: 14:28 Okay. So, I’m curious then about this quality of reflective functioning, which Dr. Slade calls it and I think other researchers call it attunement.
Dr. Coyl-Shepherd: 14:38 Yes.
Jen: 14:39 Can you just remind us what attunement is?
Dr. Coyl-Shepherd: 14:40 Yeah, that’s that awareness in a parent of their own feelings and thoughts while engaged with their child, but also their awareness of the child’s feelings and thoughts. So, it’s really recognizing both that sense of their own and their babies or their child’s feelings and the reasons maybe the intentions behind their behaviors. And that is associated with more sensitive parenting and sensitive parenting is associated with the development of secure attachment in children.
Jen: 15:11 So, it’s interesting. It’s something that sort of inside yourself that is indicative of this relationship that you’re building with your child. And I’m wondering if you have any sense from the literature about whether fathers are good at this kind of thing ‘cause it seems to me to be a very stereotypically female attributes to kind of consider not your own feelings and also the feelings of others.
Dr. Coyl-Shepherd: 15:32 Yes. And you know there may certainly be biological mechanisms that support that capacity, but I think it’s certainly learned, there are certainly cultural and social influences. I mean mothers typically provide the primary care for their young children, so they have many opportunities to observe their young children and their feelings and their behaviors. But I don’t think that fathers are incapable of these things. I think that that sensitivity can be taught or can be educated about so that fathers begin to pay more attention to those more subtle cues that their babies maybe sharing with them, maybe sometimes nonverbal cues.
Jen: 16:13 Yeah. And I think we’re going to go into this a little bit more, but you actually recommended a book to me called “The Dad Factor”, which is a little bit hard to get hold of. My copy actually came from Germany.
Dr. Coyl-Shepherd: 16:24 I’m so surprised. I had no idea that, you know, of course when Dr. Fletcher created that book, he shared copies and we all got to have one. It seems really easy to get it.
Jen: 16:34 Yeah, it was easy for you.
Dr. Coyl-Shepherd: 16:36 I didn’t realize it was so difficult now.
Jen: 16:39 So, copies are out there and I’ll mention it again before the end of the show so you can grab the title of that again. So yeah, so that book really sort of puts into concrete terms for parents who are interested in the literature but don’t necessarily want to read it, just how important this reflective functioning and attunement is and sort of how to do it, how to engage with your baby and see, oh, they’re looking away now. That means they don’t want to engage in this kind of behavior anymore. Whereas, some parents might be, oh, I need to get their attention. I’m going to flick to get their attention again.
Dr. Coyl-Shepherd: 17:13 Dr. Fletcher has this wonderful example in the book of a father and the son where the father was at home providing care, but he also had sort of a home online business. And so whenever the child was quiet, inattentive, wasn’t crying, didn’t need to be fed, then he would slip off to do his work. And what Dr. Fletcher pointed out to him was, no, that’s the prime time to be engaged when the child doesn’t need you for other kinds of physical needs. This is the time where you can develop that attunement with your child because they’re ready to engage with you. They don’t have any other needs that need to be met at that time.
Jen: 17:48 Yeah. And you can use that to sort of understand more about how your baby’s feeling and I actually would argue from a perspective of a philosophy that I use called Resources for Infant Educarers or RIE that even caregiving times can also be these attunement times.
Dr. Coyl-Shepherd: 18:03 Absolutely.
Jen: 1804 It doesn’t have to be we’re not doing anything, the baby is in a good mood for first to learn about attunement. It can also happen during diaper changes and other routine kinds of care as well.
Dr. Coyl-Shepherd: 18:13 Absolutely. Because what we know is sort of after that first two or three months after birth, infants are already orienting their behaviors toward their specific caregivers, trying to elicit the most positive response from them. So if they’re doing that, they have this sort of innate capacity to do that through regular care routines. Those caregivers, fathers included, have that opportunity to recognize, begin to pick up on their infant’s typical signals and ways of interacting with them so that they can be more attuned.
Jen: 18:47 Yeah. I’m wondering how you think this interacts with the idea of toxic masculinity because we did an episode on that a while back too, and I read a paper that says that intergenerational transmission of types of attachment to fathers is lower than those to mothers, which seems to imply that just because a father had a difficult relationship with his father doesn’t necessarily mean he’s going to pass that on to his son. Why is this and what kind of processes are at work here?
Dr. Coyl-Shepherd: 19:15 Well, I think the intergenerational transmission of attachment patterns where mothers are stronger predictors of that transmission, it’s because mothers are the primary caregivers typically. And so they spend more time, they tend to be the child’s primary attachment figure. And that’s why I think there’s that stronger influence. But in terms of men and sort of changing that pattern within a family, it takes a conscious decision to nurture a close responsive relationship with your child and to not repeat a nonsupportive family relational pattern. So it’s really an intentional parenting choice because unfortunately we tend to parent the way we were raised, right? And if we didn’t have a positive relationship with either of our parents, we are more likely to enact that relationship unconsciously with them. So, it really takes sort of an awareness of what happened in my childhood, I don’t want to repeat that. I want to be more responsive. And then as those opportunities arise, which they will daily, you have that opportunity to say, no, I’m not going to ignore this. I am going to respond.
Jen: 20:17 Yeah. And that can be a really powerful process. We did an episode on the transmission of intergenerational trauma as well and yeah, it’s pretty clear that it’s not obviously set in stone that because my mother experienced this, I’m going to experience this with my child, but there is sort of this increased likelihood of if your mother had these kinds of experiences, then you’re going to respond to your child in certain ways. That may not be ways that you would ever even consciously imagine that you would do. It’s so strange isn’t it? The way our brains work?
Dr. Coyl-Shepherd: 20:47 Fascinating. There was a really interesting study done a few years ago. Bennett was the researcher and this was in Canada, but she interviewed mothers just prior to the birth of their first child and based on that, it was an attachment based interview. She could predict between 60% to 70% the attachment style that infant would form with their mother. Based on just what the mother said about her own childhood and her experiences with her mother.
Jen: 21:12 So, it really is a conscious decision then if you want to parent differently, you really need to see that and pay attention to it and sort of take that on and make a decision that this is not how I want to parent my own child.
Dr. Coyl-Shepherd: 21:27 I think that’s the value of understanding Attachment Theory that I think most of us understand that we’re influenced by the way we were raised, but sometimes we don’t recognize that how we will then transmit that those patterns of care in our own relationships with children and we see it happening and sometimes we’re sort of divorced from the recognition that, oh, that’s because this is what my mother did to me. And it really does take the sort of conscious effort to say I don’t want to repeat that pattern or I’d like a different pattern with my child.
Jen: 21:57 Yeah. Okay. And so I’m thinking about the potential outcomes when a child’s mother, and it’s typically the mother but not always is sort of deeply invested in the child’s mental wellbeing and is able to engage in this reflective function on a regular basis. But the father really doesn’t. And so in one of your studies, I think you interviewed fathers and mothers and the fathers were saying that they were more harsh, more angry, less patient and less likely to listen to the child’s perspective, more likely to use physical discipline. Some of them mentioned spanking and one father said he did not provide comfort when his daughter was upset. He said, “I tell her to toughen up, I’m serious. I don’t put up with the drama.” Several fathers said they provided explanations and solutions to their children’s problems. And I’m thinking, well, I know this irritates mothers so I’m guessing it irritates to children too. And maybe they used humor or tickling to cheer the child up ‘cause I think fathers particularly see, oh, if I can make the child laugh then the child must be happy. And they sort of use it as the shortcut, whereas it’s really not because it doesn’t address the underlying problems. And so I’m wondering, do you foretell good outcomes for these children? Are they going to be okay as long as they have one parent who’s able to engage in this reflective functioning?
Dr. Coyl-Shepherd: 23:10 Absolutely. I think what’s the key to that and other researchers have approached it from a slightly different perspective, is that when children are distressed, well, when any of us are stressed, the first thing we want is an emotional connection. We want someone to be responsive to that, not to solve our problem or to fix or even distract us with humor. They want us to recognize what they’re feeling, acknowledge those feelings and after that happens that actually helps our brains calmed down a bit so that then we might be able to move on to, well what could we do differently or perhaps some problem solving. So, to the extent that either can do that, that’s going to be beneficial. It’s going to be certainly helpful for their children.
Jen: 23:52 Okay. It’s probably not ideal that the father is sort of engaging this behavior, but you’re saying as long as the mother is engaging in this reflective functioning attunement behavior, then the child is probably going to come out okay. Does it work?
Dr. Coyl-Shepherd: 24:07 Yes, because someone is acknowledging their feelings, which is sort of that first step.
Jen: 24:12 Okay. All right. And so that sort of leads us into talking about attachment hierarchies, which my listeners may not be familiar with, but I know they’re familiar with the concept and that is why children prefer one parent over the other. And so I have sort of an extended question about this.
Jen: 24:31 And Dr. Inge Bretherton, she’s another very famous attachment researcher and her colleagues they did a study where they interviewed 40 upper middle class white couples about their relationships with their children and in about half of the sample, both parents describe the mother as the preferred attachment figure. In many others, one parent detected a preference most often for the mother, while the other side of the relationships is similar or they didn’t mention the topic. Three of the couples agreed that the child’s primary attachment figure was the father, but in six additional families, only one parent believed this to be the case. And the author has quoted “Several parents who said their child really preferred Mommy. They often said that the child likes spending time with Daddy, but as soon as Mommy became available, the child was going to go to her.” And unfortunately this section concluded “To our knowledge, there are no systematic studies about how families with highly involved fathers handle attachment hierarchies in the long run and how the very exclusive preferences for one figure might adversely affect both parent, child and marital relations.”
Jen: 25:28 And so I think this issue is incredibly common. I see posts about it in parenting groups on almost a daily basis. And every time someone posts “My kid won’t come to my husband, they want me.” It’s followed by tons of comments saying, “Yup, same thing here.” And so my daughter has learned after a number of firm conversations, she used to say, “I don’t want Daddy to be in our family anymore.” And now she’ll say, “I still love Daddy, but I love you more than Daddy.” And some of Bretherton’s families reported this as well. So, is there any indication in the research about what parents should do about this?
Dr. Coyl-Shepherd: 26:06 Well, you can’t change your children’s attachment preferences or that hierarchy, but the hierarchy is based on the sort of routine or typical responses to children’s attachment needs. And what moves you to the top of the hierarchy is sensitive prompt responses that are in line with what the child wants. And because mothers often have taken on that role of being the comforter, that’s one of the primary reasons why they ended up at the top of the hierarchy were fathers, maybe the playmate or the distractor that’s not meeting that need for felt security, that feelings of security that’s sort of the goal of attachment. And so you can’t change that. But I think if you made parents more aware of what support secure attachment with your child, it’s those prompt sensitive responses in a way that the child wants you to respond, then you might see less of this. I don’t know that you wouldn’t have a hierarchy still. But you might see less of this difference between children’s preference for their mothers over their fathers.
Jen: 27:09 Okay. And so I just want to think about how this actually plays out in practice with an example, like it’s time for a bath, I’m washing the dishes and I say, okay, Daddy’s going to give you a bath and meltdown ensues. Whereas if I would say, okay, I’m going to give you a bath now, she’d go happily down to the bathroom. And so I spent a lot of time wallowing around in the literature in what little literature there is on it. So, I found a paper by [Inaudible] [27:38], and I think it was part of his doctoral research and most studies on attachment are done in the lab because you can more easily control the process of withdrawing the mother and then bringing her back to watch the child’s reaction. But he actually assessed attachment in the lab between ages 12 to 15 months.
Jen: 27:54 And then he sent research assistants to visit the mother, the father and the child at their home between 24 and 29 months of age. And he videotaped the parents taking a short test to see how they would complete an adult task while still caring for the toddler. So, they’ve got that kind of I need to get this done, but I need to keep you entertained, dynamic going on. And then they prepared a snack and they ate with a child and then they changed the child’s clothes. And both of those tasks were chosen because parents do them often and occasionally they cause distress for the child. And so the research has found that when they were distressed, the toddlers preferred to interact with the caregiver who spent the most time with them and was most involved in their caregiving regardless of their attachment to that caregiver.
Jen: 28:35 And although the attachment history didn’t predict which parent the child would go to, the children who are securely attached to the caregiver they approached were more effective in using that caregiver to recover from distress. And so I’m hypothesizing here and I’d like you to sort of check me is the piece of information I’ve been missing in this whole thing is that the child perceives that being asked to take a bath with the non-preferred parent is a distressing event and that’s what causes my daughter to ask for me. It’s not really about the bath, it’s about resolving that newly felt distressed even if she wasn’t distressed until that moment, am I right on there?
Dr. Coyl-Shepherd: 29:14 Yes, because perhaps if it happens less frequently, there’s some level of unpredictability about how that’s going to go with Daddy giving me the bath. Whereas I know how it goes with you. You do it most of the time. So, I’m quite comfortable and it doesn’t distress me. So whatever activates the attachment system and that’s usually some perceived threat and a bath could be threatening and they’re going to want their primary attachment figure. It’s like, no, no, no, I need Mommy here. I need Mommy here. And so one of the strategies, which of course, you know, I mean this takes a concerted effort and maybe some practice over time is that both parents engaged, letting maybe the father be the like, okay, we’ll go together, and so that the child can see, oh no, this is safe. There’s nothing going to happen here that is going to distress me and Mommy’s right there if I need her. And then sort of reassuring the child as this becomes a routine. Like see, you’re fine. Daddy’s right here and I’m not far away if you need me that that might sort of alleviate that mothers always have to be there in any potentially stressful moment for their child.
Jen: 30:18 Okay. And so is it possible that we can sort of build up this routine ‘cause I think sometimes it occurs even when there is a routine that Daddy gives a bath every other night or something that the child would still say, oh, I want Mommy to do it.
Dr. Coyl-Shepherd: 30:33 Well, I think there’s always a preference for that primary attachment figure in all situations it’s just comforting. It’s nice to have you right there beside me, right? And I don’t know if you can eventually train your children out of not wanting their primary attachment figure because even in adulthood we are like that. I mean things become highly stressful in our life, we might have two or three attachment figures, but there’s always someone who we most want to connect with.
Jen: 30:59 Yeah. Okay. So, we’re saying it’s even not necessarily desirable to have the child not prefer one parent even if we could do it?
Dr. Coyl-Shepherd: 31:08 I think you would have a hard time making that actually happen in real life. It doesn’t seem to play out that way. So that does mean of course for the primary that they’re on duty much more because they’re expected to be responsive. And of course that sort of is the nature of parenting anyway, isn’t it? The 24/7 I need to be available to my child. But I think mothers feel that much more often because they are the primary attachment figure.
Jen: 31:32 And so the best thing to do then to sort of ease that process along, I guess is to make the child feel comfortable in the secondary parents’ presence through reassurance from the primary attachment figure and potentially sort of withdrawing that over time and letting them have that relationship by themselves.
Dr. Coyl-Shepherd: 31:52 Absolutely. And I think as children get older, cognitively they’re able to understand that so at that point you can sort of remind like you see that was gray, right? You had a fun time with Daddy and so just sort of reminding them that in this situation that could have been potentially stressful for you, you were there with Daddy and everything was fine.
Jen: 32:12 Yeah. I think a lot of parents struggle with is that their relationship with Daddy, the secondary caregiver is fine when the primary caregiver is not around.
Dr. Coyl-Shepherd: 32:22 Yeah. Right. Like I’ll take you because this person’s not here.
Jen: 32:25 Yes. Yes. And I think that the thing that the secondary caregivers find frustrating is I’m fine when nobody else is around, but as soon as you come back it gets difficult again. Is there anything you would say to these secondary caregivers who are sort of having this experience to reassure them that this is normal or this is how it’s supposed to work?
Dr. Coyl-Shepherd: 32:50 This is typical and that it doesn’t in any way negate the value or importance of your relationship with that child. The fact that they have a preference, I think you can point them to their own lives and say, don’t you as well have a preference for someone you’d like to have respond to you in certain situations. But it doesn’t mean that other people that are important to you lose their importance. I think it feels a little like secondary for fathers sometimes a little excluded from that. Spend the time with the child to engage and to try to reassure and establish this sort of sensitive relationship where the child feels more comfortable turning to that second parent or the other parents when they have attachment needs. And that kind of speaks to two issues. So, part of attachment needs are having that reassurance when you are distressed. But another part is having this sort of secure base from which you can engage and explore in the larger world. And that’s where we see this differentiation where fathers often serve as these sort of ready companions or willing playmates to help their children engage in this way. It’s also very important. It’s another very important part of that attachment security.
Jen: 33:57 Yeah. And so just because you’re not the preferred parent at bath time doesn’t mean that your role in this family is not important.
Dr. Coyl-Shepherd: 34:03 Right. Or that you don’t have important things to contribute to your children’s attachment security. So one of the things we noticed in our research, and in often more recent studies, we had older children so we could interview them and ask them, is that what they would say? Is that when they were emotionally distressed, they generally preferred their mothers. I want mom to comfort me, but if they were frightened in any way they wanted their fathers.
Jen: 34:27 Oh, interesting.
Dr. Coyl-Shepherd: 34:28 Yeah. So it was like this more of a protective role that I know I can rely on my father if something seems literally dangerous to me instead of just emotionally distressing.
Jen: 34:39 Yeah. And I just wanted to briefly revisit something you said about, you know, imagine you as an adult have a primary figure that you go to for security, but if that person is unavailable, you can still get the security and the attachment that you need from another person. And I think that’s so profound for parents to understand, oh yeah, I do this too. Because then they can see it in their children, oh yeah, that’s totally normal.
Dr. Coyl-Shepherd: 35:03 I think that Bowlby release sort of rock the scientific world when he made that point, that attachment is lifelong. It isn’t something that we just need as children and then we grow up and we don’t need that. There’s never a time in our lives where we don’t want or need someone to respond to our distress to comfort us and to reassure us. And so in adulthood it’s the same. It’s just that we are more sophisticated, I mean we have potentially more individuals we can reach out to for maybe very specific context. You know, if I’m stressed at work, maybe it’s my coworker. If it’s a bigger kind of stress then it’s my romantic partner, or maybe it’s one of my parents who’s still my attachment figure. Children have more limited access to potential attachment figures or people who could function in those ways. They really only have that sort of small circle within their family.
Jen: 35:54 Yeah. And so I don’t know if there’s any research on this, but I’m wondering about if there is any research on why children switch their primary figure, because I think that that is somewhat common as well. The parent will say, oh yeah, my kid used to prefer me, but now Daddy’s all that they want.
Dr. Coyl-Shepherd: 36:12 Yeah, I think it depends on the nature of what they’re utilizing that attachment figure for. That sometimes we see that switch as children move into preschool because they have fewer physical needs that need to be met so they can start to feed themselves and clothed themselves, bathe. And now it’s more about exploring and seeking opportunities outside the immediate family in which again, fathers tend to take more of a role there. And that might be part of the preference. But the preference is always based on who’s best meeting my needs. And so the other, this is an interesting phenomenon too, longitudinal research has shown that some individuals as adolescents and young adults can have something called earned security, which is that they may have been assessed as infants or young children as having an insecure attachment to one of their parents or their primary.
Dr. Coyl-Shepherd: 37:06 But then now and young adulthood, they appear to be secure. Their internal working models are much more positive of themselves and others. And how did that happen? Well, somewhere along the way, and it’s typically in a close relationship either it could be a very close friend, but more often it’s a close romantic relationship. They have a different pattern of that relationship looks different, that partner is more responsive, more sensitive. And over time it begins to change the way they see themselves and the way they see others. And they can get to this place of earned security, but this happens in significant long-term relationships that that attachment maybe preference would change.
Jen: 37:47 Yeah. Okay. And so I’m guessing that this process is also impacted by the father’s relationship with the child’s mother as well. And so I think you’ve looked at the association between father’s efficacy with their effectiveness and their involvement in parenting. Can you tell us about that?
Dr. Coyl-Shepherd: 38:04 Yeah, well, so we looked at a couple of things and some of our studies where we looked at mothers and fathers attachment styles with their partners, right? And so we found that when fathers were secure with their wives or their partners, then their children also tended to be more securely attached to them. And the other factor that we looked at was, again, predictive of children’s attachment security was co-parenting. And that was the father’s perception that we’re doing this together. We’re on the same page. Supportive of the way that I parent. And that was predictive of children’s attachment security for fathers, but not for mothers.
Jen: 38:42 Okay. So you’re saying that if the mother is supportive of the way the father’s interacting with the child, then the child is more likely to have a strong attachment to the father?
Dr. Coyl-Shepherd: 38:51 Maybe because, and sort of as a mediator, it could be that because the couple has a good relationship. The father’s parenting skills are more optimal or more sensitive. And that’s what supports the attachment security with the child. Whereas when couples are fighting or they’re having disagreements that tends to distract from parenting, seems to distract fathers more than mothers. So, when marital quality is poor, fathers report and their children experience poorer parent-child relationships with their fathers, not necessarily with their mothers.
Jen: 39:24 Okay. And so there’s this idea of the mother being a gatekeeper that I think is somewhat coming in some families where the mother will say, oh no, you’re not doing it right. Just I’ll do the diaper ‘cause that’s not how you do diapers or something like that. Maybe as direct as that, but maybe slightly more indirect as well. And it seems as that pretty much undermines the father’s efficacy beliefs. Does that impact to the father’s involvement in the family?
Dr. Coyl-Shepherd: 39:48 Typically, yes. So, if there is that sort of gatekeeping going on that every time I try to do these tasks, my wife says stop, I got it, don’t bother, I can handle this. Then fathers stopped bothering and it’s like, well, if you’re going to criticize me when I do this, fine, maybe I can’t do this well, maybe it is you and I’ll just step back. And so it’s something to be aware of I think to recognize that you can certainly enjoy as a mother your parenting role, but if you have a partner there, your child is only going to benefit if you give that partner opportunities to also engage in those regular care routines and build a secure attachment with the child as well.
Jen: 40:28 Yup. Okay. And so before we start to wrap up by talking about this relationship as the children get a little bit older, obviously we’re talking about fathers, we’ve talked a lot about fathers, but there are some families where there are two mothers in the family and also where there are two fathers in the family. And so I did see one study of two mother households were only 10 of 60 lesbian women who were interviewed stated that their firstborns had a clear, exclusive and stable preference for the birth mother, which I was surprised by I mean that’s much lower than I think I would expect in a heterosexual relationship. So how does this research intersect families that don’t have a traditional sort of heterosexual relationship?
Dr. Coyl-Shepherd: 41:06 I think the keyword there is traditional and I think it has to do with caregiving role. So, more lesbian couples I have nontraditional or not gender based roles for care. So, both parents might be providing equal amounts of caregiving for their child. And then there’s not a clear preference because I’m having both respond to me. And if they’re both sensitive in those responses, then there may not be a preference of the child demonstrates. I think the preference is always evident when one caregiver is more sensitive, more consistently responsive, meeting the child’s needs, calming that distress on a regular basis. That’s where we start to see the preferences. And that’s true whether we’re talking about same sex couples or we’re talking about heterosexual couples.
Jen: 41:50 Okay. So, it seems that the best thing that any parent can do, no matter what kind of relationship you’re in, is that both parents respond sensitively to the child’s needs. That’s the crux of it, right?
Dr. Coyl-Shepherd: 42:01 I think so. And I think it is understanding what those needs are. I think as sometimes we move into adulthood and we forget how uncertain or frightening things could be. Even everyday events like bath time for example, and we think, oh, the child’s being ridiculous. This is silly. And yet that’s really where they are and you need to meet them where they are as opposed to expecting them to understand things from your perspective.
Jen: 42:25 Yeah, that a bath is not scary.
Dr. Coyl-Shepherd: 42:27 That’s right. That sort of logic. Any parent who’s tried that in their child, no, it fails miserably. You try to explain to the child best is just silly. And that is not very convincing.
Jen: 42:37 No, it’s not. And I think that’s a real challenge of parenting is to sort of bring it back down to the child’s level and instead of expecting them to rationally understand, you know, we did bath yesterday, you weren’t scared then, why are you scared now? But to try and understand, the child isn’t doing this just to drive you up the wall. They’re doing this for a reason that to them seems very real. And the more that we can understand that reason, the more we can address it in a way that meets everybody’s needs.
Dr. Coyl-Shepherd: 43:07 And I think that goes back to that reflective functioning or that attunement. When you recognize your child’s feelings and thoughts about situations, you’re better able to respond.
Jen: 43:18 Okay. And so as we conclude here, I’m thinking about how the father’s role shifts as the child gets older. And I saw one study that said that “Mother is usually retain the primary attachment status through the high school years, followed by romantic partners and then best friends. And then lastly fathers.” And so some of the young women who are quoted in that study talked about how their fathers would completely overreact, will be over protective if they ever shared any real information and they essentially seem to be just using their fathers as a source of transportation from one point to another, which seemed incredibly sad to me. And so I’m wondering if this is linked to the father’s inability or possibly unwillingness to provide secure base or a reflective functioning attunement behavior earlier in life and would we potentially kind of avoid this outcome where the fathers are at the bottom of the attachment hierarchy heat in adolescence and later in life if these skills were better developed earlier in life?
Dr. Coyl-Shepherd: 44:19 I think that really is key because that pattern follows a child that as, you know, the research really shows that what is the quality of those early interactions between each parent and if fathers can be more sensitive and emotionally available and responsive to their children earlier on then their children can continue to rely on that parent rather than just for sort of instrumental types of support like, well, my Dad will give me a ride here or my Dad will give me the money, but I never talked to him about my personal problems because he overreacts or he doesn’t understand or he doesn’t want to talk about these things that makes him uncomfortable.
Jen: 44:57 Yeah. Wow. That’s really profound, so yeah, it’s the fact that the mother is more likely to, I mean she may feel this discomfort as well or maybe she doesn’t feel it as much, but she’s more able to sort of relate to the child with what the child needs in that moment. Whereas the father’s more likely to say, well, I don’t want you dating that guy or I don’t want you doing that thing and so it causes the child to withdraw from the father. I’m hypothesizing is, am I on the right track, do you think?
Dr. Coyl-Shepherd: 45:26 Oh yes, absolutely. I was thinking about it in our study with school age families that when we asked children like what do you do with each of your parents? So much of what they did with their fathers was activity oriented. So, it was sports or some sort of organized activity and that’s what they did with their fathers. But when we asked, well what do you do with your mothers? They said pretty much everything, we just hang out, we do shopping or whatever. But in the course of that spending time together is this context in which children feel like if I want to bring something up, I can talk to my mother about these things. Whereas when you’re doing activities with your father, it’s maybe not the time to bring up a personal problem that you’re having, right? ‘Cause we’re engaged in a sport at the moment. And so it’s really about how are they accessing their parents, how are they using their parents and how do they feel that their parents are available to them in what areas or what capacities.
Jen: 46:17 Yeah. And I think even though if you’re sort of playing sports, then yeah, that’s not the time to bring up a decent problem that you’re having, but maybe you walk to get there or you drove to get there and you had time. And so either there’s this silence as you’re walking or driving or you’re talking about any consequential things or you can use it as this chance to understand what’s going on in your child’s mind and support that relationship, the ongoing development of the relationship. And I think, again, hypothesizing that a lot of parents, fathers particularly miss out on that and sort of just don’t take advantage of it. And so they get sort of ever deeper into these trenches of we don’t talk about these things. We just walk or drive in silence.
Dr. Coyl-Shepherd: 46:55 Yeah. And I hope that that’s changing. I hope that even within our society, we’re sort of proposing a model where fathers can be more emotionally engaged in all of their relationships so that emotions are not uncomfortable for them the way maybe if you look sort of back fathers in the 50s and the 60s it’s like I don’t deal with those kinds of things. And it’s like, but I think more and more as a culture we’re saying no, that’s just human to deal with, express and understand your emotions, other people’s, that’s emotional intelligence. And to the extent that father’s opened themselves up to that, then they’re going to be more available and capable of being responsive to their children.
Jen: 47:33 And have better relationships with their children potentially for years to come.
Dr. Coyl-Shepherd: 47:37 Absolutely. Because I’ve certainly interviewed fathers that have those kinds of relationships. They say, my child can talk to me about anything and I don’t push them away when they’re talking about emotional stuff or I don’t tell them how to solve the problem. So, I see some progress in this area.
Jen: 47:55 Well, on that positive note, thank you so much for helping us to really give us some practical research based tools to support the development of these relationships with our families. I’m really grateful to you for doing that.
Dr. Coyl-Shepherd: 48:07 Oh, I enjoyed it. I was glad to share.
Jen: 48:10 So, references for today’s episode can be found at YourParentingMojo.com/Fathers and also there’s a link there to the book that we mentioned earlier called “The Dad Factor” by Richard Fletcher. And your copy may come from Germany or maybe there’ll be some others coming up on the market soon. So again, you can find all of that information at YourParentingMojo.com/Fathers.

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About the author, Jen

Jen Lumanlan (M.S., M.Ed.) hosts the Your Parenting Mojo podcast (www.YourParentingMojo.com), which examines scientific research related to child development through the lens of respectful parenting.

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