How attachment theory helps to guide talking to dads

Attachment Theory had its origins 70 years ago, in the observations of children’s reactions to their mothers after periods of separation1. Consequently, we often think about attachment in the context of a child’s relationship with their primary carer; traditionally, the mother. 

Attachment can form between children and multiple other people who provide care, are in regular contact with the child, and provide the child with security when it’s needed. Attachment figures may be parents, siblings, grandparents or other extended family members, childcare workers and others.

Attachment takes various forms. Children may form attachments that are secure, insecure-avoidant, insecure-ambivalent, or disorganised. These forms of attachment manifest in characteristic behaviours in response to separation and reunion with an attachment figure2:

  • Securely attached children generally stop what they’re doing and become upset when separated from their attachment figure. When reunited, securely attached children express their distress and seek comfort from their attachment figure, but soon return to their activity. Secure attachment involves a basic trust, formed over time by interactions with sensitive attachment figures.
  • Insecure-avoidant attached children don’t show their distress when separated from their attachment figure. When reunited, they appear to ignore and avoid their attachment figure, but watch them inconspicuously. They may eventually seek contact with their attachment figure, but they do not display negative emotions.
  • Insecure-ambivalent attachment is displayed by children who emphasise their negative emotions during separation and reunion with their attachment figure. Their ambivalence relates to a tendency to desperately seek closeness and contact while simultaneously pushing their attachment figure away, as part of their display of seeking attention and expressing distress.
  • Disorganised attachment was identified more recently than other attachment types, and involves responses to separation and reunion that appear contradictory (e.g., approaching the attachment figure with their back toward them), undirected, apprehensive or disoriented. Disorganised attachment behaviours are episodic and seem to occur when a child is fearful of their attachment figure.

Secure attachment fosters healthy emotional development and empowers individuals to build healthy, satisfying relationships with others. It protects against poor physical health and improves social, psychological and neurobiological function3.

Secure attachment with mothers and fathers comes from different parental behaviours. Maternal sensitivity is necessary for secure attachment, but paternal attachment is a weak predictor of attachment security4. Things like fathers’ pleasure from parenting5, their communication6, and the ways they play with their children7 affect attachment security.

Emphasising the importance of fathers’ behaviours that foster secure attachment — thereby having an enduring beneficial effect on their children — should be a focus when talking to dads.

Expecting fathers may feel disconnected from their children before birth; not knowing what to expect of their child, their partner or themselves. Encouraging them to look forward to playing with their child, and letting them know that their enjoyment of time they spend together is helpful for the child’s development, will help them understand the importance of their role.

A father may see his role as providing safety and security for his family. Fathers should know they can provide their children with the feelings of safety and security that provide a strong base for exploration and discovery, for pushing boundaries and finding limits, and for healthy development.

How can you find out more? 

We have some excellent resources available should you want to learn more about this project: 

  • Find the Plus Paternal webpage here
  • Download the Case for Change report here
  • Check out the Talking to Dads Language Guide here
  • Access the eLearning course
  • Download the resource kit here
  • Plus Paternal: Conversations webinars: Healthy Male hosted a series of free webinars to explore ways to systematically improve men’s engagement and support as they seek to, or become fathers. The webinars featured panellists from a range of disciplines, with opportunities for the audience to raise questions.


plus paternal: talking to dads


A/Prof Tim Moss
A/Prof Tim Moss

Associate Professor Tim Moss has PhD in physiology and more than 20 years’ experience as a biomedical research scientist. Tim stepped away from his successful academic career at the end of 2019, to apply his skills in turning complicated scientific and medical knowledge into information that all people can use to improve their health and wellbeing. Tim has written for and Scientific American’s Observations blog, which is far more interesting than his authorship of over 150 academic publications. He has studied science communication at the Alan Alda Centre for Communicating Science in New York, and at the Department of Biological Engineering Communication Lab at MIT in Boston.

  1. Bowlby, 1953. Child care and the growth of love. Penguin Books
  2. Van Rosmalen et al., 2014. ABC+D of attachment theory: the Strange Situation procedure as the gold standard of attachment assessment. In: The Routledge handbook of attachment: theory. Holms & Farnfield (Ed), Routledge.
  3. Horner, 2019. Attachment disorders. Journal of Pediatric Health Care
  4. Van Bakel & Hall, 2019. The father-infant relationship beyond caregiving sensitivity. Attachment and Human Development
  5. Brown & Cox, 2019. Pleasure in parenting and father-child attachment security. Attachment and Human Development
  6. Teufl et al., 2019. How fathers’ attachment security and education contribute to early child language skills above and beyond mothers: parent-child conversation under scrutiny. Attachment and Human Development
  7. Olsavsky et al., 2019. Paternal stimulation and father-infant attachment. Attachment and Human Development

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