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A Father's Adult Attachment Style May Be Directly Related to Anxiety in Children

Black father and toddler baby girl hugging

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Key Takeaways

  • Recent research shows that a father's attachment style may impact their child's anxiety levels.
  • Paternal attachment styles can also change the child or adolescent’s attachment to their parents.
  • Increased awareness of this connection could improve father-child relationships and prevent the transfer of generational trauma.

Understanding the attachment style of children may help to address mental health issues, and understanding where these attachment styles come from is a key piece of that puzzle. In fact, a study published in the International Journal of Psychology earlier this year found that the adult attachment of fathers can influence the anxiety levels of their children into adolescence.

Based on questionnaire responses from 906 pairs of fathers and their adolescents from Chinese families, this study indicated that paternal adult attachment avoidance increased adolescent anxiety.

By better understanding the impact of parental attachment styles of secure, anxious ambivalent, avoidant dismissive, and fearful-avoidant on the mental health of their children, these findings can inform treatment plans for families.

Avoidant Attachment Can Trigger Anxiety

Another study published in Frontiers in Psychology in August 2021 found that paternal avoidance negatively predicts the attachments of their children, with harsh parenting from fathers having a more negative impact on their children when compared to the effects of maternal harsh parenting.

According to a study published in the American Journal of Men's Health in December 2021, the anger of fathers tends to be associated with anxious father-child attachment and the anxiety levels of their children.

Researchers analyzed surveys from over nine hundred pairs of fathers and their adolescents and found that paternal adult attachment avoidance had a positive impact on adolescent anxiety.

Secure Attachment Must Be Nurtured

Behavioral health medical director at Community Health of South Florida Inc., psychiatrist Howard Pratt, DO, says, “The secure attachment style is the ideal and represents fathers who are in control of their emotions and able to recognize when things are bothering them."

Dr. Pratt explains, "They will seek support from those close to them when they need it and they will also offer support when they see people they are close to who are not doing well. They basically provide positive and constructive support to their children and to others."

Howard Pratt, DO

The secure attachment style is the ideal and represents fathers who are in control of their emotions and able to recognize when things are bothering them.

— Howard Pratt, DO

With the anxious ambivalent type, Dr. Pratt notes how these people may alienate those close to them, as they tend to have a negative self-image. "They want to be close to people but they feel that people close to them will leave them and so engage in people-pleasing behaviors," he says.

Dr. Pratt highlights, "Those with the avoidant dismissive attachment style have negative views of people. They seek independence and can sometimes be uncomfortable with closeness and emotional intimacy."

Finally, there is the fearful avoidant attachment style, whereby Dr. Pratt notes that people may have extreme fear about being rejected, almost as if it is inevitable, and a negative view of themselves as well as others.

Dr. Pratt explains, "When you have an anxious father, they are more likely to overreact, and they can be more controlling and interfere with their children’s lives. This can lead to conflict, particularly in adolescence."

With avoidant attachment, Dr. Pratt notes that fathers are more likely to ignore their child’s needs. "Fathers with anxious and avoidant attachment styles are more likely to have anxious children," he says.

Dr. Pratt highlights that no person fits 100% into one of these attachment styles, so fathers may find themselves slipping into one or another of these styles without noticing, but loved ones may feel the shifts.

To reach the goal of being a secure father, Dr. Pratt notes how it is about being aware of your emotions and making sure that you are doing what is best for your child, which means taking care of your own mental health.

Dr. Pratt explains, "It’s important to look at things from different lenses, particularly the child’s lens and understand that if you’re speaking to a child, they may not be able to discern the difference between you being upset with them and you not loving them."

It is crucial to establish a relationship with stable attachment from early on, as Dr. Pratt notes that children need to understand that they are loved, even when being corrected. "Children of parents who are adaptable and are in touch with their own emotions do better," he says.

Attachment Issues Can Impact Relationships

Psychotherapist, Matt Glowiak, PhD, LCPC, says, "Research has narrowed down four typical attachment styles which include anxious (preoccupied), avoidant (dismissive), disorganized (fearful-avoidant), and secure. Three of the four lead toward problematic attachment while security is ideal."

Glowiak explains that children of anxious (preoccupied) fathers may struggle not only connecting with their fathers but others, while children of fathers with avoidant attachments may grow up feeling unloved, with children of disorganized attached fathers may find themselves confused.

Children of securely attached fathers often grow up having secure attachments themselves, according to Glowiak. "Despite challenges that may arise in social relationships, they realize that these are normal and may be worked through to resolution," he says.

Matt Glowiak, PhD, LCPC

Even for well-intended adults of fathers who presented with compromised attachment styles, there is an increased likelihood of the cycle continuing from one generation to the next.

— Matt Glowiak, PhD, LCPC

They also have more confidence in themselves, as Glowiak notes how that can impact relationships with others. "This is especially helpful should one enter a toxic relationship because they realize their worth, and they will exit more readily when necessary," he says.

Glowiak explains, "If the father does not provide love, support, and other necessary means of helping the child feel secure; the child ultimately feels lonely. The expectation now is that if their father does not care about them, who will? Entering relationships is scary because hurt feels imminent. In said cases, they avoid potentially healthy relationships."

What fathers do significantly impacts their children, according to Glowiak. "While there is some debate as to whether a toxic father is better than an absentee one, as children have varied responses to each situation, their mental health is impacted," he says.

Glowiak highlights, "The parent-child bond is the first and most significant bond a person forms. When that is compromised, many other critical considerations for development follow."

Feelings of anxiety, depression, resentment, anger, loneliness, etc. may surface, according to Glowiak. "Though many children can and do rise above to become loving, productive adults, many do not," he says.

What This Means For You

As studies demonstrates, parental attachment styles may impact the anxiety levels of their children. If you struggle with attachment, therapy may offer an opportunity to disrupt generational patterns.

Glowiak explains, "Even for well-intended adults of fathers who presented with compromised attachment styles, there is an increased likelihood of the cycle continuing from one generation to the next. To break the cycle, fathers must take it upon themselves to be there for their children in a healthy, supportive, loving way."

Even for children of securely attached fathers, Glowiak notes that other factors may compromise their attachment style. "For those who do grow up with compromised attached fathers, other key figures in their lives may lead them toward feeling loved and supported," he says.

Glowiak highlights, "Children may learn from the mistakes of their fathers and make every effort possible to break the cycle. Secure attachments prove best for raising children, this maximizes the likelihood of healthy mental, emotional, social, and physical development."

If one is a father who struggles with attachment, Glowiak recommends seeking help from therapy to address the issue head-on. "In doing this, not only is the father helped, but so is the child," he says.

Glowiak explains, "Family therapy is especially useful for addressing this issue, though it is likely the father will benefit from individual gains made first in individual therapy. Like adults, children want to be loved."

Since may children spend most of their time with their parents during their younger years, Glowiak asks if their parents cannot love them appropriately, who will? "Everything connects, and the importance of this relationship cannot be minimized," he says.

3 Sources
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  2. Li M, Chen X, Gong H et al. The Predictive Effect of Parental Adult Attachment on Parent–Adolescent Attachment: The Mediating Role of Harsh ParentingFront Psychol. 2021;12. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2021.710167

  3. Shenaar-Golan V, Yatzkar U, Yaffe Y. Paternal Feelings and Child’s Anxiety: The Mediating Role of Father–Child Insecure Attachment and Child’s Emotional RegulationAm J Mens Health. 2021;15(6):155798832110671. doi:10.1177/15579883211067103