Father Absence, Father Deficit, Father Hunger: The Vital Importance of Paternal Presence in Children’s Lives

According to the 2007 UNICEF report on the well-being of children in economically advanced nations, children in the U.S., Canada and the U.K. rank extremely low in regard to social and emotional well-being in particular. Many theories have been advanced to explain the poor state of our nations’ children: child poverty, race and social class. A factor that has been largely ignored, however, particularly among child and family policymakers, is the prevalence and devastating effects of father absence in children’s lives.

First, a caveat: I do not wish to either disparage single mothers or blame non-residential fathers for this state of affairs. The sad fact is that parents in our society are not supported in the fulfillment of their parental responsibilities, and divorced parents in particular are often undermined as parents, as reflected in the large number of “non-custodial” or “non-residential” parents forcefully removed from their children’s lives, as daily caregivers, by misguided family court judgments. My target of concern is those responsible for laws and policies that devalue the importance or, to use an old-fashioned word, the sanctity of parents in children’s lives, and parental involvement as critical to children’s well-being. Children need both parents, and parents need the support of social institutions in regard to being there for their kids.

Despite President Obama’s 2011 Father’s Day lament on the irresponsibility of “deadbeat fathers” footloose and fancy free from taking responsibility for their children, in fact the two major structural threats to fathers’ presence in children’s lives are divorce and non-marital childbearing. More often than not, fathers are involuntarily relegated by family courts to the role of “accessory parents,” valued for their role as financial providers rather than as active caregivers. This view persists despite the fact that fathers in two-parent families, before divorce, typically share, with mothers, responsibility for the care of their children. This is both because fathers have taken up the slack while mothers work longer hours outside the home, and because fathers are no longer content to play a secondary role as parents. Most fathers today are keen to experience both the joys and challenges of parenthood, derive satisfaction from their parental role, and consider active and involved fatherhood to be the core component of their self-identity.

Whereas parents in general are not supported as parents by our social institutions, divorced fathers in particular are devalued, disparaged, and forcefully disengaged from their children’s lives. Researchers have found that for children, the results are nothing short of disastrous, along a number of dimensions:

-children’s diminished self-concept, and compromised physical and emotional security (children consistently report feeling abandoned when their fathers are not involved in their lives, struggling with their emotions and episodic bouts of self-loathing)

-behavioral problems (fatherless children have more difficulties with social adjustment, and are more likely to report problems with friendships, and manifest behavior problems; many develop a swaggering, intimidating persona in an attempt to disguise their underlying fears, resentments, anxieties and unhappiness)

-truancy and poor academic performance (71 per cent of high school dropouts are fatherless; fatherless children have more trouble academically, scoring poorly on tests of reading, mathematics, and thinking skills; children from father absent homes are more likely to play truant from school, more likely to be excluded from school, more likely to leave school at age 16, and less likely to attain academic and professional qualifications in adulthood)

-delinquency and youth crime, including violent crime (85 per cent of youth in prison have an absent father; fatherless children are more likely to offend and go to jail as adults)

-promiscuity and teen pregnancy (fatherless children are more likely to experience problems with sexual health, including a greater likelihood of having intercourse before the age of 16, foregoing contraception during first intercourse, becoming teenage parents, and contracting sexually transmitted infection; girls manifest an object hunger for males, and in experiencing the emotional loss of their fathers egocentrically as a rejection of them, become susceptible to exploitation by adult men)

-drug and alcohol abuse (fatherless children are more likely to smoke, drink alcohol, and abuse drugs in childhood and adulthood)

-homelessness (90 per cent of runaway children have an absent father)

-exploitation and abuse (fatherless children are at greater risk of suffering physical, emotional, and sexual abuse, being five times more likely to have experienced physical abuse and emotional maltreatment, with a one hundred times higher risk of fatal abuse; a recent study reported that preschoolers not living with both of their biological parents are 40 times more likely to be sexually abused)

-physical health problems (fatherless children report significantly more psychosomatic health symptoms and illness such as acute and chronic pain, asthma, headaches, and stomach aches)

-mental health disorders (father absent children are consistently overrepresented on a wide range of mental health problems, particularly anxiety, depression and suicide)

-life chances (as adults, fatherless children are more likely to experience unemployment, have low incomes, remain on social assistance, and experience homelessness)

-future relationships (father absent children tend to enter partnerships earlier, are more likely to divorce or dissolve their cohabiting unions, and are more likely to have children outside marriage or outside any partnership)

-mortality (fatherless children are more likely to die as children, and live an average of four years less over the life span)

Given the fact that these and other social problems correlate more strongly with fatherlessness than with any other factor, surpassing race, social class and poverty, father absence may well be the most critical social issue of our time. In Fatherless America, David Blankenhorn calls the crisis of fatherless children “the most destructive trend of our generation.” A recent British report from the University of Birmingham, Dad and Me, confirms Blankenhorn’s claims, concluding that the need for a father is on an epidemic scale, and “father deficit” should be treated as a public health issue.

We ignore the problem of father absence to our peril. Of perhaps greatest concern is the lack of response from our lawmakers and policymakers, who pay lip service to the paramount importance of the “best interests of the child,” yet turn a blind eye to father absence, ignoring the vast body of research on the dire consequences to children’s well-being.

What is the solution to father absence? Many fathers’ advocates have stressed the need for fast, low-cost, effective ways for non-residential parents to have their court-ordered parenting time enforced. While access enforcement is important, legislating for shared parenting would be a more effective measure to ensure the ongoing active involvement of both parents in children’s lives. A legal presumption of shared parenting would affirm the primary role of both parents, and make clear that even in the absence of a spousal relationship, both mothers’ and fathers’ parental responsibilities to their children’s needs are “sacred,” and therefore deserving of full legal protection and recognition.

Written by: Edward Kruk Ph.D.

Published on Psychology Today 

Diagnostic Indicator 1: Attachment Suppression

Diagnostic Indicator 1: Attachment Suppression

by Dr Craig Childress

Diagnostic Indicator 1 – Attachment System Suppression:  
The child’s symptoms evidence a suppression of attachment bonding motivations toward a normal-range and affectionally available parent.

The psychological control and manipulation of the child by a narcissistic/(borderline) parent leaves telltale indicators in the child’s symptom display.  Three highly unusual symptoms are always present when a child is manipulated by one parent into rejecting a relationship the other parent following divorce.

The first diagnostic symptom displayed by the child is a suppression of normal attachment bonding motivations toward a normal-range parent.

Attachment Bonding Rejection

The first diagnostic indicator frames the category of the pathology, it is an attachment-related pathology.

The attachment system is the brain system governing all aspects of love and bonding throughout the lifespan, including grief and loss. A child rejecting a parent is an attachment related pathology; it is a problem in the love and bonding system of the brain.

Attachment bonding rejection by the child is an extremely unusual and rare symptom, and is only caused by a limited number of factors (autism, colic and sensory-motor processing dysfunction in infancy, exposure to severe child abuse and neglect). It typically occurs in infancy and is associated with reactive attachment disorder, autism, abusive parental neglect, and severe sensory-motor dysfunctions disrupting the infant’s bonding to the parent.

Except in cases of severe child abuse (incest or prolonged violent parenting), attachment bonding rejection never occurs in children older than two.  Above the age of two, attachment bond rejection toward a normal-range and affectionally available parent never happens – except in incest, and sometimes from prolonged exposure to violent parenting – but incest and violent parenting are not normal-range parenting and would therefore notmeet criteria for Diagnostic Indicator 1 regarding attachment suppression toward a normal-range parent.

Attachment bond rejection by a child older than two toward a normal-range and affectionally available parent never happens.

Therefore, attachment bond rejection toward a normal-range and affectionally available parent is not an symptom that is authentic to the child.  This child symptom, Diagnostic Indicator 1, is being created by an outside influence acting upon the child attitudes and beliefs, because attachment-bond rejection in an older child toward a normal range and affectionally available parent is not an authentic symptom.  It never happens.

Q: What about general parent-child conflict?

Dr. Childress: Authentic parent-child conflict does not evidence the child’s desire to terminate the attachment bond to the parent.  High protest child behavior (anger, defiance, tantrums, demanding) is a symptom feature of insecure anxious-ambivalent attachment (described below) in which the child’s protest behavior is designed to elicit INCREASED parental involvement from an inconsistently available parent.

In the symptom definition for Diagnostic Indicator 1, the parent is “affectionally available.”  A normal-range and affectionally available parent does not produce high levels of child protest behavior. Parent-child conflict may emerge in the relationship, but this normal parent-child conflict is limited in intensity and frequency, and it does not include the child’s desire to sever the attachment bond to the parent.

In fact, high intensity and high frequency  protest child behavior is a symptom indicator of the child’s desire to form an attachment bond to the parent, the child is trying to form an attachment bond to an unavailable parent (creating an insecure anxious-ambivalent attachment marked by high-protest child behavior).

The Attachment System

The attachment system is a primary motivational system of the brain.  It developed across millions of years of evolution through the selective predation of children. Children who formed strong attachment bonds to parents received parental protection from predators, and the genes that motivated them to form strong attachment bonds to parents increased in the collective gene pool.  Conversely, children who failed to form a strong attachment bond to parents fell prey to predators at higher rates and their genes for weaker attachment bonding were systematically eliminated from the collective gene pool.

Over millions of years of evolution involving the selective targeting of children by predators, a very powerful and resilient primary motivational system developed that strongly motivates children to form an attachment bond to parents.  As a primary motivational system of the brain, the attachment system functions in characteristic ways, and it dysfunctions in characteristic ways.

Children do not reject parents. Children who rejected parents (even bad parents) were eaten by predators. Genes that allowed or encouraged children to reject parents were systematically and entirely eliminated from the collective gene pool over millions of years of evolution.

In response to problematic parenting, the attachment system MORE strongly motivates the child to form an attachment bond to the problematic parent.  Problematic parenting more fully exposes the child to predation.  Children who rejected problematic parents were more likely to die from predation, starvation, and exposure.  Genes allowing the rejection of problematic parents were systematically and completely eliminated from the gene pool.

On the other hand, children who became MORE strongly motivated to bond to the problematic parent were more likely to receive parental protection from predators.  These children survived at higher rates, and their genes for more strongly motivating them to bond to the problematic parent increased in the collective gene pool.

Children do not reject parents.  The attachment system – a primary motivational system of the brain – never motivates the child to reject a parent.  Problematic parenting creates an insecure attachment that MORE strongly motivates the child to bond to the problematic parent.

The attachment system is a primary motivational system of the brain.  It is a goal-corrected motivational system.  Within the evolutionary context that shaped the development of this primary motivational system (through the survival advantage conferred to the child by the parent-child attachment bond), the attachment system ALWAYS seeks to form an attachment bond to the parent.

In response to problematic parenting, the attachment system changes HOW it tries to bond to the parent, but it ALWAYS maintains the goal of forming an attachment bond to the parent.  The attachment system is a goal-corrected motivational system, it always maintains the goal of forming an attachment bond, and it adjusts and changes strategies for bonding based on the parenting it is exposed to.

Problematic parenting creates an insecure attachment that more strongly motivates the child to bond to the problematic parent.  Three categories of insecure attachment have been identified by the research literature:

Insecure Anxious Ambivalent:  This type of insecure attachment is caused by an inconsistently available parent.  The insecure-ambivalent attachment is also called a “preoccupied attachment” because the child is overly focused on the parent-child relationship.

This type of insecure attachment produces high protest behavior from the child (crying, tantrums, anger, demanding) in order to elicit the involvement of the inconsistently available parent.  The child’s anger and protest behavior is motivated by the child’s desire to form an attachment bond to the parent, which is being frustrated by the parent’s non-availablity.

Insecure Anxious Avoidant:  Anxious-avoidant children display low-demand, self-involved behavior.  Anxioux-avoidant attachment develops in response to a parent who becomes overwhelmed and withdraws if the child places demands on the parent.  In order to maximize attachment bonding to a parent who is withdrawn and overwhelmed, the child develops a strategy of being low-demand and low-protest.

The child’s self-sufficiency in anxious-avoidant attachment is often confused with the child being secure.  The difference is that a secure child will seek the parent for regulation of the child’s distressing emotions, the anxious-avoidant child does not. The anxious-avoidant child does not display distressing emotions and does not seek parental comfort for distressing emotions, because the parent becomes overwhelmed and withdraws from the child whenever the child places demands on the parent.

These are the two most common types of anxious-insecure attachment.  One type is a high-protest high-demand response to problematic parenting (anxious-ambivalent attachment), in which the child’s display of emotional dysregulation is with the goal of establishing involvement with the parent.  The other is a low-protest low-demand response to problematic parenting (anxious-avoidant attachment), in which the child withholds the display of emotional distress to avoid overtaxing the emotional and psychological resources of an overwhelmed parent.

The third category of insecure attachment is disorganized attachment.  Disorganized attachment is pathological.  The other two attachment strategies are adaptations to problematic parenting.  Anxious-ambivalent and anxious-avoidant attachments represent strategies for maximizing the child’s attachment bond to a problematic parent.  Disorganized attachment represents a failure to develop any organized strategy for forming an attachment bond to the parent.

Disorganized attachment is created by a set of severely aberrant parenting practices that create intense fearfulness and psychological disorientation in the child.  Disorganized attachment develops from the child’s efforts to bond to a parent who is simultaneously both a source of danger to the child and is also the child’s source of comfort and safety. When the child is in danger, the attachment system motivates the child to flee the danger and seek the protective comfort of the parent.  Disorganized attachment occurs when this parental source of comfort is at the same time the source of danger.

The threatening and dangerous parent triggers the child’s attachment system to flee from the parent as the source of danger (the “predator”-danger within the attachment system) and to seek bonding with the parent for protection, and yet it is this very bonding to the parent that is the source of danger.  This represents a double-bind for the child of two imperative yet incompatible motivations that prevent the child from developing any organized strategy for attachment bonding to the parent.  The child’s behavior collapses into disorganization that lacks a coherent approach to resolution.

An Inauthentic Display of Pathology

A child rejecting a parent surrounding divorce is an attachment-related pathology – a problem in the love and bonding system of the brain.  The symptom is high-protest child behavior (anger, defiance, tantrums, protest).  High-protest child behavior is the product of an anxious-ambivalent attachment in which the child is seeking to maximize the involvement of a unavailable parent.

And yet, that’s not the attachment symptom presentation being displayed by the child. The child’s high-protest behavior is NOT seeking to maximize involvement with an unavailable parent. The parent IS available and the parent is actively inviting the child to bond. Instead, the child’s motivation is to sever the parent-child attachment bond.

The attachment system NEVER motivates the child to sever the parent-child attachment bond – except in cases of incest (the parent becomes a predatory risk to the child) and prolonged child exposure to parental violence.  The first differential diagnosis therefore becomes incest and excessively violent parenting (such as beating the child with electrical cords).  If incest and excessively violent parenting are not present, then the child’s attachment symptom of rejecting a normal-range and affectionally available parent is an inauthentic display of pathology.

Once incest and chronic violence are ruled out as a causal factor for an older child’s rejection of a parent, the child’s attachment symptom becomes inauthentic.  The child’s symptom is not consistent with the actual functioning of the attachment system; a primary motivational system of the brain.

Problematic parenting creates an insecure attachment.

High-protest behavior (anger, tantrums, demanding) is a symptom of insecure anxious-ambivalent attachment.  Anxious-ambivalent attachment seeks to maximize the child’s involvement with a parent who is unavailable.

The child’s attachment symptoms are not authentic:

The parent is available and is inviting the child to bond.  The child’s high-protest behaviors are not seeking to maximize the involvement of an unavailable parent, but are instead seeking to terminate the parent-child attachment bond.  This is now how the brain works.  It is not how the attachment system works.

Diagnostic Indicator 1 reveals the inauthentic symptom display by the child. The child’s attachment bonding rejection is not authentic to the child, but is instead being manufactured in the child by an outside influence that is acting to nullify the child’s authenticity; i.e., the authentic functioning of the child’s attachment system.

The explanation for this child symptom is that it is being created by the psychological control and psychological influence exerted on the child by the allied and supposedly “favored” parent who has formed a cross-generational coalition with the child against the other parent.  The child is displaying an inauthentic attachment symptom directed toward the targeted parent.  The child’s attachment bond rejection toward the targeted parent is being manufactured by the pathogenic parenting practices of the allied parent.

Attachment-Based “Parental Alienation”

Suppression of the child’s attachment bonding motivations toward a normal-range and affectionally available parent is, by itself, a definitive diagnostic symptom of the psychological control and manipulation of the child by the allied parent (who has formed a cross-generational coalition with the child against the other parent).

However, in the diagnostic model for attachment-based “parental alienation” (AB-PA), the suppression of the child’s attachment system toward a normal-range and affectionally available parent is only the first of three symptom indicators of the pathology that are predicted to be present in the child’s symptom display.

AB-PA predicts that the child will evidence all three highly unusual symptoms, 1) attachment system suppression toward a normal-range and affectionally available parent, 2) five specific personality disorder traits in the child’s symptom display, and 3) an encapsulated persecutory delusion regarding the child’s supposed victimization.  AB-PA predicts the presence of all three of these symptoms, and AB-PA explains in detail the origin of each symptom in the pathology.

If all three of these highly unusual symptoms predicted to be present in the child’s symptom display are indeed evident in the symptom display of the child, this represents extremely strong confirmatory evidence for the diagnostic model that predicted these highly unusual and disparate symptoms.  No other pathology in all of mental health will produce this specific set of three symptom indicators other than the pathology of attachment-based “parental alienation” (AB-PA; Foundations).

Craig Childress, Psy.D.
Clinical Psychologist, PSY 18857