Do Fathers’ Attachment Representations Affect Paternal Sensitivity?

Nour Yaktine
· 5 min read

Research shows that the association between fathers’ attachment representations and paternal sensitivity is mediated by pleasure in parenting

Attachment theory, as first developed by Bowlby (1969), considers that people are biologically drawn to form close and affectional relationships with others. When Ainsworth introduced the Strange Situation in 1978, she noticed that children react in different ways when separated from their caregiver, which led to the concept of attachment styles. Currently, four attachment styles are recognized: secure attachment, insecure-avoidance attachment, insecure-anxious attachment, and disorganized attachment. Each of these attachment styles is associated with specific internal working models, meaning representations of oneself and others. For instance, when a person has an insecure attachment style, they might perceive themselves or others negatively, depending on the type of insecure attachment.

Attachment styles and internal working models are thought to predict our behavior with others with whom we interact. While the attachment style develops early on during childhood, it has been shown to remain stable across time, and across different types of relationships (e.g.: interactions with caregivers, peers, partners or offspring). Not a lot of studies have evaluated how parents’ internal working models affect the way they interact with their child. Recently, Aytuglu and Brown (2021) studied fathers’ attachment representations (internal working models) and were interested in understanding whether these representations affect paternal sensitivity. Paternal sensitivity entails positive regard towards one’s child, the dyadic father-child interaction, sensitivity and stimulation.

In their study, the researchers recruited 138 first-time fathers from prenatal parenting education classes in the United States and interviewed them at several stages; when their children were 3 months old, and when their children turned 12 months old. Fathers’ attachment representations were analyzed through an in-depth interview using the Adult Attachment Interview (AAI), while paternal sensitivity was evaluated by observing a 10-minute play interaction between a father and their child. The researchers were also interested in understanding whether pleasure in parenting has an effect on the relationship between attachment representations and paternal sensitivity. Pleasure in parenting was evaluating through the Parental Development Interview. It can be understood as a sense of satisfaction with one’s parenting role, resulting from specific attitudes, beliefs and cognitions. These include acceptance, awareness, delight, involvement, being able to manage a child’s emotions and one’s own emotions. As a practical example, parents who experience high pleasure in parenting are confident in their ability to be an effective parent. Some external factors can play a major role in impacting the development of the child’s peer relationships such as:

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According to the results, fathers with a secure attachment and secure attachment representations had higher pleasure in parenting when their child was 3 months old, thus greater paternal sensitivity when they interacted with their child at 12 months. While there was no direct association between secure representations and sensitive parenting, the relationship was shown to be mediated by pleasure in parenting. In other words, fathers with more secure attachment were shown to display greater pleasure in parenting, which in its turn would lead to higher paternal sensitivity. More so, pleasure in parenting was shown to affect paternal sensitivity in various ways. For instance, when fathers perceived their role as rewarding and satisfying, they were more open to accepting challenges, which led to more adaptive behaviors with their child such as patience, responsiveness and warmth.

Paternal sensitivity is a crucial aspect of parenting, as it has been shown to increase the quality of the father-child relationship and is associated with better child well-being (Lucassen et al., 2011). The results of these study show that paternal sensitivity can be achieved when fathers develop positive attitudes towards their parenting role, after having integrated their own relationship with their own caregivers. For that, fathers are encouraged to discuss their own early life experiences with their caregiver, as this has been shown to facilitate the transition to parenthood and contributes to higher paternal sensitivity. Finally, this study sheds light on the impact of attachment on parenting. More specifically, results show that positive close relationships with caregivers can promote healthier father-child interactions, attitudes, and cognitions.


Ainsworth, M. S., Blehar, M. C., Waters. E., & Wall, S. (1978). Patterns of attachment: A psychological study of the strange situation. Oxford, England: Lawrence Erlbaum

Aytuglu. A., & Brown, G. L. (2021). Pleasure in Parenting as a Mediator Between Fathers’ Attachment Representations and Paternal Sensitivity. Journal of Family Psychology.

Bowlby, J. (1982). Attachment and loss: Attachment. New York, NY: Basic Books. (Original work published 1969).

Lucassen, N., Tharner, A., Van Ijzendoorn, M. H., Bakermans-Kranenburg, M. J., Volling, B. L., Verhulst, F. C., Lambregtse-Van den Berg, M. P., & Tiemeier, H. (2011). The association between paternal sensitivity and infant-father attachment security: A meta-analysis of three decades of research. Journal of Family Psychology, 25(6), 986–992.