University of Utah

Apr. 3, 2002

Infants' Relationships with their Fathers Significant in Regulation of their Emotions

University of Utah News Release

April 3, 2002 -- Infants' attachment quality to their fathers is significantly related to infants' regulation of their emotional expressions, according to a recent study by University of Utah Family and Consumer Studies Assistant Professor Marissa Diener. The research will be published in the May 2002 issue of the journal Infancy.

While several issues were explored, research focused on attachment quality to each parent and the strategies used by 12-month-olds in calming themselves. Of the 100 infants studied, emotional regulation was not related to the relationship with their mother. "This was surprising. We anticipated that both mothers' and fathers' attachment quality would play a part in their strategies, such as thumb sucking, snuggling with a blanket, entertaining themselves or distracting their parents," Diener says. "One explanation is that there may be something unique to fathers that provides children with different opportunities to regulate their emotions. Mothers are very good at soothing. They're usually the caretakers, whereas fathers tend to allow their kids to express more intense emotions. Society tends to stress the importance of mothers over fathers, especially in caring for infants. This study shows that fathers are important for infants' emotional development."

Not surprising, those infants with insecure parental relationships seemed most distressed and used fewer strategies to calm themselves in a situation in which the parents had competing demands on their time. These children exhibited crying, whining, sad facial expressions and negative vocalization. Conversely, the securely attached infants smiled, cooed, laughed and showed a pleasant demeanor in a stressful situation. Securely attached infants seemed better at regulating their emotions.

In order to assess security of relationships with parents, researchers watched the babies' reactions to separations of three minutes or less and the "strange situation," a commonly used research procedure designed to increase infants' arousal in new, vulnerable settings. (One-year-olds were chosen because stranger and separation anxiety climax around 12 months of age.) Assessments were made on the level of distress, responses to the reunions and the anger with or avoidance of the parent. To gauge differences in reaction to each parent, only one was present at the reunions.

"The most common reaction of the children to this situation was that the majority of them were comfortable with the strange situation but uncomfortable alone," Diener says. "The most common reaction to the reunion with a parent was they were happy to see the parent, then they stopped crying and began playing again."

Diener emphasizes that findings didn't indicate that fathers were the favorite parent, but for emotional regulation the children's relationships with their fathers seemed to be especially important. In instances of less secure paternal relationships, babies relied more on themselves and tried fewer strategies for emotion regulation. "It is better for infants to try a number of strategies," Diener says. "Because, most likely, one is going to work. In instances where the children had high quality relationships with both parents, they would ask both of them for help more often."

An abstract of the report, "Infants' Behavioral Strategies for Emotion Regulation with Fathers: Associations with Emotional Expressions and Attachment Quality," will be available in May, included in Volume 3, Issue 2, at www.InfancyArchives.com.

Media Contacts:
Marissa Diener, Assistant Professor, Family and Consumer Studies801-581-8750, marissa.diener@fcs.utah.edu
Ann Bardsley, U of U Public Relations Office801-587-9183, abardsley@ucomm.utah.edu