When a father holds his son for the first time, a sense of pride and joy beams from his face. A young boy with an attachment to his dad often has the same look in his eyes. "The relationship a boy shares with his father is a constant in life – friendships with schoolmates, fraternity brothers and work colleagues will come and go, but the father-son relationship is one that lasts throughout life," says Christina Steinorth, the author of "Cue Cards for Life: Gentle Reminders for Better Relationships" and a licensed psychotherapist in Santa Barbara, Calif., with a master's degree in marriage and family therapy. A boy's attachment to his father directly affects his development through the years. From healthy attachments to the risks associated with over-attachment, know how to foster your son's relationships and overall development.
Although dad may be beaming with pride when his baby boy arrives, it doesn't mean the bond is automatic. From birth to 12 months, the primary psychological goal for every child is bonding or developing a strong, secure, healthy attachment to mommy, says Dr. Fran Walfish, a Beverly Hills psychotherapist and author of "The Self-Aware Parent." "Daddy takes a backseat to mommy during this first important phase of developing trust and security within the newborn infant."
As your son begins to crawl, walk and run, he establishes more of a separation from mom and gets active with dad, creating a bond through daily play. "Mothers tend to nurture their children, while fathers are more likely to roughhouse and play with their sons than mothers are," says Steinorth. "Through this kind of play, fathers are teaching [via role modeling] how to handle aggression while regulating their emotions." This teaching of emotional regulation from a young age has far reaching benefits for a child's development, says Steinorth. "When we are able to self-regulate our emotions, we're able to express ourselves without resorting to lashing out verbally or physically."
A growing toddler or maturing adolescent son can thank dad's involvement for the positive effects on his development. Numerous studies indicate that there is much to be gained when children have a secure attachment to their fathers, says Steinorth. "When fathers are involved with their children as infants, children seem to be more emotionally secure and therefore more comfortable in exploring their surroundings," says Steinorth. In addition, Steinorth says that many boys with healthy attachments to their fathers tend to have higher IQs and better language skills.
As infant boys turn into talking toddlers, secure attachments to their fathers can teach them how to handle stress as they develop. "Toddlers who have secure attachments to their fathers tend to display higher levels of frustration tolerance and are better able to handle stressful situations, such as starting school," says Steinorth. "Subsequently, they are less likely to get into trouble at school, at home or when interacting with peers." The pattern continues as children grow older and head into adolescence. "Children with secure attachments to their fathers tend to do better academically and have better verbal skills as well as higher levels of intellectual functioning," says Steinorth. "A father's role is as important as a mother's."
Downfall of Over-Attachment
Although it's important for your child to feel secure and attached to both parents, when a boy is over-attached to his father, it could negatively affect his development, social skills and independence. If your 4-year-old is clinging to dad's leg each day before work or refusing to socialize with his peers for fear of losing time with dad, he may be over attached. "An over-attachment is unhealthy because both parent and child become too interdependent on each other," says Walfish. "Parents need to understand and adopt the belief that separation, self-reliance and independence are the goals for every child."
The key is to find a balance in attachment – be consistent and encourage age-appropriate independence, says Steinorth. Consistency is especially important in situations in which a mother and father may not live together and have shared custody. In this case, if your child is over-attached or experiencing separation anxiety, it's crucial for fathers to maintain a presence in the lives of their children and arrange consistent times for visits. "When a child has a secure attachment as opposed to being overly attached, he knows his father is going to come back to him, so he will be able to be okay for periods of absence," says Steinorth.
Many boys are raised by single moms and develop as normally as a child with his father in his life. However, a male role model, such as an uncle or family friend, may help provide continuity that is crucial to imprint the child's identity, says Walfish. "Moms can parent effectively and well without a male partner or spouse," she says. "The key is to find the right men who will be present in the growing son's life on a consistent basis over a long period of time."
When a child is growing without any paternal attachment, it may affect his developing social skills. According to Steinorth, boys may be more inclined to be violent with others or exhibit delinquent behavior without any paternal attachment. "Fathers act as a role model for their sons – they show them through their actions how to interact with women, how to keep their aggressive impulses under control, and in short, how to get along with others in a way that is assertive, while not aggressive," says Steinorth. "For these reasons, fathers are very important in the social development of their sons."
Without a father-son attachment of any kind, your son may continue to struggle with social issues beyond adolescence. "Fathers should never feel their presence isn't important or that 'Mom can handle it.' She can't fill your role the way you can," says Steinorth. "Fathers are not replaceable and are very important to the emotional, academic and social well-being of their sons."