2013. Vol.4, No.3A, 254-260
Published Online March 2013 in SciRes (
Copyright © 2013 SciRes.
Attachment Relationships with Fathers and Mothers during
Early Chilhood
Nerea Portu-Zapirain
University of the Basque Country , San Sebastian, Spain
Received December 18th, 2 0 1 2 ; revised January 11th, 2013; accepted February 16th, 2013
The aim of this study was to analyze the nature of affective relationships between parents and children
and to explore representational models in a sample of 111 children aged between 3 and 6, assessed using a
projective measure. The results obtained confirm that, globally, security in the representation of attach-
ment is higher with mothers. The figure of the father in the established hierarchy is secondary. The results
also reveal a statistically significant relationship between children’s age and the attachment established
with their fathers and mothers. The older the child, the greater the security manifested in their relations,
and the younger the child, the greater the insecurity.
Keywords: Representational Models of Attachment Relationships; Attachment Relationships with Fathers
and Mothers; Early Childhood
The significance of attachment theory (Ainsworth, 1973;
Bowlby, 1969, 1980), considered one of the most important
theoretical and empirical constructions in the field of socio-
emotional development, is based on the formulation of internal
working models of oneself and one’s relationships, in close
connection with be haviors and feelings.
Models reflect the construction of a mental representation of
the world, based on the generalization of the interactions chil-
dren experience with their attachment figures during their early
relations with the adults that satisfy their needs, and include the
internalization of specific attributes and expectations of both
their own behavior (feeling loved, accepted and protected) and
the behavior their attachment figures. They also constitute a
pattern for the relationships that individuals will then establish
throughout the rest of their lives. Once set, these patterns tend
to become more consistent and inflexible, with a strong pro-
pensity towards stability, although this does not mean that they
necessarily determine the behavior of the individual during
adulthood (López, 2010; Rozenel, 2006; Schneider, 2006).
During early childhood, as a result of new cognitive-repre-
sentative, communicative, social and psychomotor skills, and
children enter a new phase in the development of attachment,
known as “goal-corrected partnership”. During this complex
phase, which is characterized by conflict and the need for re-
adaptation, changes occur which enable a greater diversity of
behaviors. Thus, it has been observed that attachment behaviors
are activated less frequently and with less intensity, since dy-
adic modulation patterns for ensuring emotional balance are
well established; in other words, physical contact, while still
necessary, gradually develops into psychological contact. The
relationship is internalized and becomes representational. Chil-
dren become more autonomous and emotionally self-regulating.
The “moral self” emerges, reflected in children’s ability to de-
fer behavior, abide by rules and correct their behavior in the
absence of the attachment figure.
Nevertheless, the most significant aspect of this new phase is
that members of the attachment pair begin to operate in accord-
ance with a set of shared plans and objectives, thus fostering a
“closer, more intimate” relationship which “lays the ground-
work for the development of more complex partner or social
relations,” which later extend to peer relations and relations
with other significant adults (Cichetti, Cummings, Greenberg,
& Marvin, 1990; Eceiza, Ortiz, & Apodaca, 2011; Thompson &
Meyer, 2007).
The mental model of the relationship is more elaborate and
better adjusted to reality. Coupled with increased communica-
tive skills, the cognitive changes that occur enable a more ap-
propriate expression of demands, the communication of internal
states and dialogue. Little by little, children begin to be able to
infer the goals and understand the intentions, feelings and emo-
tions of their attachment figure. These contents are all incorpo-
rated into this more complex structure, thus enabling children to
operate internally both with their own perceptive and represen-
tation, and those of their attachment figure.
Based on the proposals forwarded by Bowlby, other authors
(Bretherton, 2005; Cassidy, 1994; Geddes, 2010; Marvin &
Britner, 1999; Sroufe, 2000; Thompson, 1999) have made in-
teresting contributions which have helped underscore the im-
portance of the gradual emergence of models and their changes
during early childhood. This is a particularly significant period
for children’s development and growth because it is during this
time that certain components become consolidated as “scripts”
or “knowledge structures”. They also form the basis for the re-
presentation of past events and the psychological understanding
of others, both are which are significantly associated with se-
cure attachment with the mother (Arranz & Oliva, 2010). As
Bowlby points out, the greatest step forward is that representa-
tional models are now stored semantically.
Attachment during early childhood has been studied very lit-
tle. Today, however, it is the subject of several interesting in-
vestigations, and according to Bowlby, there is still much to be
discovered in this sphere. Focusing on this developmental pe-
riod and the contextual changes associated with it, the continu-
ity/discontinuity of attachment patterns and the contribution of
fathers and their predictive power may provide some guidelines
for exploring this stage in more detail. Nevertheless, while
recognizing the consistency and tendency towards stability of
the models established, it is accepted that attachment patterns
are not immutable and may, in fact, be modified. In other words,
they can be revised and/or restructured in light of other inter-
personal relations and may change in response to major eco-
logical shifts or developmental changes. Examples of this
would be the acquisition of competences fostered by preopera-
tional functioning and the achievement of formal operations,
etc. (López, 2010; Schneider, 2006; Weinfield, Sroufe, & Ege-
land, 2000). It has also been claimed that the attachment pat-
terns proposed by Ainsworth may have little predictive power
or be insufficient (Crittenden, 2002), and that changes occur,
among other reasons, due to the potential developed in order to
construct more precise representational models and more effec-
tive behavioral strategies. Based on this formulation, Bretherton
and Munholland (1999), Bretherton, Ridgeway and Cassidy
(1990), Cassidy (1988), Crittenden (1992), Lamb (1978, 2004),
Main and Weston (1981) and Verschueren and Marcoen (1994)
have developed new assessment procedures for early childhood,
since “without methodological innovations it is highly unlikely
that research will corroborate the stability of attachment any
more conclusively than it has done so far” (Schneider, 2006: p.
In consonance with these assertions, Verschueren and Mar-
coen (1999) found a low percentage of secure patterns in chil-
dren in this age group from “intact” families. Their explana-
tions are based on two arguments: 1) Firstly, they may reflect
the influence of the assessment criteria of the Attachment Story
Completion Task, which are stricter than those used in other
tasks; 2) They may reflect the influence of the age factor. This
explanation, which coincides with the findings of other research
studies, is based on the low proportion of secure attachment
patterns found in early childhood in comparison with the first
three years of a child’s life (33.9 % in Cantero & López, 2004;
42% in Cassidy, 1988; 55% in Cohn, 1990; 34% in Koeyer,
2001; 58% in Shouldice & Stevenson-Hinde, 1992; 26% in
Solomon, George & De Jong, 1995; 60% in Turner, 1993).
However, these findings do not provide any interpretation of
the causes underlying the changes in manifestations of attach-
ment. Verschueren and Marcoen (1999) ask two questions: 1) is
there an increase in the risk of insecure attachment as children
grow older and enter into a phase in which more difficulties
may arise in the attachment relationship? This question has yet
to be answered; And 2) could it be that, despite careful adapta-
tions, attachment assessment measures are less valid in early
childhood than in the first three years? This is another recurring
question that remains, as yet, unanswered.
A final aspect which deserves to be highlighted is the fact
that, although since the 1990s research into fatherhood has
intensified, specific studies focusing on attachment with the
father are still few and far between. Research mainly coincides
in underscoring the father’s role as “a secondary figure” and/or
“a source of support or dependence for the mother”, in accor-
dance with. Indeed, little is known about the father’s role.
There is a consensus that while children do form attachment
relationships with their father during the first year of life, they
do so less than with their mother; there are therefore certain
questions which have yet to be resolved (Fox, Kimmerly, &
Schaffer, 1991). Based on a review of the literature, it seems
logical to assume that the antecedents of attachment are differ-
ent for fathers and mothers. Some results confirm this: certain
individual paternal characteristics, such as the father’s compli-
ance with his accepted role, attitudes, the “central” status
awarded fatherhood, etc. all predict the security of his relation-
ship with his child better than the same factors for mothers
(Bretherton, 2012; Cox, Owen, Henderson, & Margand, 1992;
Easterbrooks & Goldberg, 1984; Horn, 2000; Howard, 2012;
Lamb, 1978, 2004; Main & Weston, 1981; Portu, 2011). This
suggests that during early childhood, children construct sepa-
rate representations of their attachment relationships with their
father and mother (Verschueren & Marcoen, 2005).
Following our review of the literature, the aim of this study
was to explore and analyze attachment relationships on the
basis of the representational models which children construct
separately for their father and mother during early childhood.
To this end, the following hypotheses were formulated: 1) the
security of attachment established in relation to the mother is
greater than that established in relation to the father; 2) a posi-
tive relationship exists between age and attachment security to
fathers and moth e rs.
The sample selected comprised 111 children (55 boys and 56
girls) from Irun (Autonomous Region of the Basque Country,
Spain), aged between 3 years 9 months and 6 years 3 months.
All were in either the 2nd or 3rd year of preschool. All the chil-
dren in the sample were from “intact” two-parent families and
had lived with both their parents from birth. Parents’ consent
was requested and received before the trials were administered.
Measurement Instrument
The “Attachment Story Completion Task” (Verschueren and
Marcoen, 1994) was used in this study. The aim of this instru-
ment is to assess participants’ mental representation of them-
selves in relation to attachment to parents and the pattern of
communication established, in children aged 3 to 6. The most
important difference between this measure and classification
systems known as “Doll Play” (Bretherton; Ridgeway, & Cas-
sidy, 1990; Oppenheim, 1997; Page & Bretherton, 2001) is that
in this test, both the father and the mother are main characters
in the stories, thus enabling “attachment styles” to be assessed
individually for each parent.
Due to its methodological innovation and the fact that it has
been used very little and is costly to apply and correct, as well
as because it is the instrument used (for the first time in our
sociocultural context) to measure representational models, we
have provided a description of the task below.
Medium used: A series of story stems are presented and
narrated by the researcher using a set of dolls which repre-
sent a family in different circumstances. The child is asked
to complete the story. Stories feature the father or the
mother separately, and are presented in a counterbalanced
order. The task consists of 5 stories, presented in the fol-
lowing order. Each story has its own theme and situation
designed to activ a te attachment:
1. “The stolen bicycle”: A youth he/she does not know steals
the bicycle that the child’s parents have given him/her (fear or
Copyright © 2013 SciRes. 255
Copyright © 2013 SciRes.
external threat).
2. “The present”: Upon arriving home from school, the child
gives his/her parents a present that he/she made for them (a
positive emotional interaction between the child/parent pair,
based on a positive social signal emitted by the child).
3. “Im sorry”: The child says sorry for something he/she has
done, and promises never to do it again (a threatening and
stressful interaction).
4. “A fight at school”: The child arrives home crying because
he/she has had a fight at school (a threatening interaction).
5. “A monster in the bedroom”: While asleep in bed one
night, the child is woken up by a noise and thinks there is a
monster in the room (fear or external threat).
Assessment criteria: Each story ending given by partici-
pants is categorized as secure, secure/insecure or insecure
and has its own scoring criteria, which are outlined below.
A secure response (4 or 5 points) is scored on the basis of the
helpfulness, swiftness and responsiveness of parents’ sponta-
neous response, happy ending to the story, any mention of posi-
tive sensations and a positive interaction between the parent/
child pair (care, consolation, assurance that the child is still
loved, etc.).
A secure-insecure response (3 points) is scored on the basis
of: not asking for help, absence of active engagement by par-
ents, mention of only negative sensations (anger, physical pun-
ishment, etc.), feeling of not being loved, not feeling responsi-
ble for their actions, etc.
An insecure response (1 or 2 points) is when there is no in-
teraction between the parent/child pair or when said interaction
is negative.
Scoring: Each story is scored on a 5-point scale and is
coded separately, without any information being provided
about the other stories. The maximum score (denoting se-
curity) is 25 (the sum of all stories), and the minimum score
(denoting insecurity) is 5.
Psychometric Analysis of the Instrument
Various analyses were carried out of the measurement in- stru-
ment used: the “Attachment Story Completion Task”. Firstly,
we should highlight the fact that both the application of the task
itself and the collection of the children’s responses during the
individual interviews (with interrater agreement tests) were
carried out with the utmost care and meticulousness. Rigorous
qualitative studies were also conducted of the nature and scope
of the responses given, the recordings and their transcriptions,
in order to ensure a comprehensive understanding of their con-
Initially, several different analyses were conducted to elimi-
nate any possible errors and verify the whole data recording
process (analysis of the distribution models, dimensional scale
analyses, construction of indexes for each variable, concurrent
and discriminant validity, etc.), in order to guarantee that the
information used for compiling the results was a faithful reflec-
tion of the subjects’ responses. Having obtained the data matrix
with all the necessary guarantees, the global scores for the in-
strument were compiled using statistical techniques such as the
calculation of central tendency, dispersion and distribution
coefficients. The reliability of the instrument was also analyzed
using the Cronbach Alpha coefficient of internal consistency.
The result was over the .70 threshold (fathers = .78 and mothers
= .74). The centered mean (p = 13.75; m = 14.41) and standard
deviation (p = 4.49; m = 4.30) of the sum of the global indexes
reflect good discriminatory potential. Rigorous qualitative stud-
ies of the nature and scope of the responses obtained guarantee
that the information used is a faithful reflection of participants’
Following the calculation of the global scores for the variable
to be used, we employed bivariate descriptive and hypothesis
testing techniques. In the latter case, in some instances non-
parametric tests were used, such as the Kruskal-Wallis test, the
Student “t” test for comparing two means and analyses of vari-
ance. For all these, version 17 of the SPSS application was
Represent ation of Att achment Re lationships
The order of the scores for the 5 stories on a scale from most
to least secure, regardless of the order of presentation, was:
“The present”, “I’m sorry”, “A fight at school”, “A monster in
the bedroom” and “The stolen bicycle”. The stories featuring
mothers scored higher for security of attachment than those
featuring fathers (Table 1).
Level of Attachment Security with Fathers and
The differences between the means obtained: 13.75 with the
father and 14.41 with the mother, are statistically significant,
giving a t value = –2.633 and an associated probability of 0.010,
which is notably lower than the alpha reference level of 0.05.
We can therefore affirm that children scored significantly
higher with the mother figure and their representations of se-
cure attachment relationships with that figure were higher than
with the father figure (Tables 2 and 3).
Table 1.
Means and total attachment percentages fo r the sample in all 5 stories.
Mean Mean Percentage Percentage
Father Mother Father Mother
The presen t 3.12 3.36 47.70 53.10
I’m sorry 2.90 3.05 44.10 50.40
A fight at school 2.77 2.85 43.20 46.80
A monster in t h e bedroom 2.55 2.63 28.80 34.20
The stolen bicycle 2.41 2.53 23.40 32.40
Table 2.
Statistics for related samples.
M N SD Standard error of the mean
Global Attachment Father 13.75 111 4.495 .427
Global Attachment Mother 14.41 111 4.305 .409
Table 3.
Related sample test.
Related differences t gl Sig. (bil)
Standard error
of the mean 95% confidence interval
for the difference
Inf. Sup.
Global Attachment Father
Global Attachment Mother –.67 2.667.253 –1.17 –.16 –2.633 110 .010
There Is a Positive Relationship between Age and
Attachment Security to Fathers and Mothers
Again, the degree of security constructed and consolidated
with the mother figure is greater than that established with the
father, although the results obtained in the different contexts
differ substantially. The percentages of our study are higher as
regards the security of attachment to parents, and are indeed
more similar to those found in the first three years of a child’s
life than to those found most recently in early childhood in the
European Community (Belgium and Holland). 45.03% (n = 50)
of the children in our sample were found to have “insecure”
relationships with their fathers, while 54.9% (n = 61) had se-
cure attachment. In the case of mothers, however, only 37.83%
(n = 42) of the children had “insecure” attachme nt, while 62.1 5%
(n = 69) were “secure” in their relationship (Table 4).
Next, we analyzed the second element of the second hypo-
thesis: the relationship between attachment and age. To this end,
we divided the sample into two subgroups:
The Pearson correlations between the children’s age (in years,
months and weeks) and the global attachment scores (based on
the differences found) were significant at a bilateral level of
0.01 (father = .296 and mother = .305). The results therefore
reveal the existence of a relationship between children’s age
and the attachment they establish with their parents, with this
attachment being appreciably stronger with the mother figure
(Table 5).
Important differences are revealed here in accordance with
age: the categories “very insecure” and “insecure” decrease
notably between the ages of 5 and 6, and this trend is inverted
in the “secure” and “very secure” categories. In other words,
the older the child, the greater the manifestation of security in
the relationship they establish with their father (Table 6).
The same evolution was observed for attachment relation-
ships with the mother figure as for attachment relationships
with the father figure. Important differences were again reveal-
ed here in accordance with age. The categories “very insecure”
and “insecure” were found to decrease notably, while the same
inverted trend observed with fathers is again evident here in the
“secure” and “very secure” categories, only at a higher level
(Table 7).
In other words, the older the child, the greater the manifesta-
tion of security in the relationship they establish with their
mother. Nevertheless, in this case, a statistically significant
(.29), direct and positive relationship is observed between age
and security level. Younger children reveal more insecure rep-
resentations, while older children reveal more secure ones. We
can therefore confirm the existence of a “sensitive period” in
the transition from the first three years of a child’s life to early
childhood, mainly in the relationship children establish with
their mother.
During early childhood, children’s representational models
are “more elaborate, sophisticated and precise”, and contain
psychological elements and a non-egocentric understanding of
others, especially their primary attachment figure: their mother.
Unlike in the first three years, the mother’s status as primary
attachment figure during early childhood is due more to her
socially assigned role of carer than to any biological role she
may play. These findings indicate that, by this phase, children
have already developed a semantic representation and their
models are more precise. This in turn suggests that they have
already constructed separate models of their relationships and
have different expectations regarding the behavior of their
mother and their father. These results are consistent with those
described by Bretherton, 2012; Cahill, Deater-Deckard, & Pike,
2007; Crittenden, 2002; Thompson, 1999 and Verschueren and
Marcoen, 2005.
In all stories, but especially in those which are more emo-
tionally charged, mothers score higher in security, and their
representations are characterized by a positive, close, intimate
interaction based on accessibility, unconditional love and trust
between the attachment figure and their child. This is especially
evident in the stories “The present” and “I’m sorry”. The same
thing happens in the other stories also, in which the attach-
ment-activating situations occur outside the attachment figure/
child interaction and depend on external agents. In our opinion,
the responses obtained in the three last stories may reflect mani-
festations of the autonomy and independence acquired by the
child due to the broadening of the contexts in which they are
immersed (for example, the school context, which forces them
to resolve problems by themselves), as well as to the different
self-protection behaviors developed in response to the changes
observed during this period. This may demonstrate the interac-
tion between the attachment system and subjects’ cognitive and
ocial development, or alternatively, it may reflect the weaker s
Copyright © 2013 SciRes. 257
Table 4.
Comparison of security/insecurity level percentages during the first three years of life and early childhood.
Secure Insecure Secure Insecure
Mother Mother Father Father
First three years-Ainsworth, Blehar, Waters, & Wall, 1978 65 35 or +
First three years -Main & Weston, 19 8 1; Lamb, 1 9 78 67.4 32.6 58.7 41.3
Early childhood-Verschueren & Marcoen, 1999 44 56 48 52
Early childhood-Koeyer, 2001 34 66 29 64
Early childhood-Portu, 2010 62. 15 37.83 54.9 45.03
Table 5.
Age of the children in years.
Frequency Percentage
3 - 4 51 45.9
5 - 6 60 54.1
Total 111 100.0
Table 6.
Contingency between Global Attachment Father and children’s age in years.
Child’s age in years Total
3 - 4 5 - 6
1. Very insecure 5 1 6
9.8% 1.7% 5.4%
2. Insecure 16 10 26
31.4% 16.7% 23.4%
3. Secure/Insecure 16 20 36
31.4% 33.3% 32.4%
4. Secure 11 22 33
21.6% 36.7% 29.7%
5. Very Sec ure 3 7 10
Global Attachment Father
5.9% 11.7% 9.0%
Total 51 60 111
Table 7.
Contingency between Global Attachment Mother and children’s age in years.
Child’s age in years Total
3 - 4 5 - 6
1. Very Inse cure 5 0 5
9.8% 0% 4.5%
2. Insecure 10 5 15
19.6% 8.3% 13.5%
3. Secure/Insecure 22 26 48
43.1% 43.3% 43.2%
4. Secure 11 20 31
21.6% 33.3% 27.9%
5. Very secure 3 9 12
Global Attachment Mother
5.9% 15.0% 10.8%
Total 51 60 111
Copyright © 2013 SciRes.
discriminative power of these stories.
In our sociocultural context, levels of security of attachment
during early childhood are similar (stable and/or continuous) to
those found during the first three years of a child’s life. How-
ever, some relevant and significant variations were found, with
a “critical period” being identified in relation to age. There is a
drop in the manifestation of security in children aged 3 - 4
which, in our opinion, is due either to the contextual changes
that occur at this age or to an increase in demands. On the other
hand, children aged between 5 and 6 manifest higher levels of
security. This result conflicts with those found by Verschueren
and Marcoen (1999) and other authors, which prompts us to
reflect on the different percentages obtained in different socio-
cultural contexts and with different child-rearing techniques.
Does security in the manifestation of attachment continue to
increase as children grow older? In our study, the answer is yes.
Does the “Attachme nt Story Completion T ask” bec ome le ss va-
lid as children grow older, due to the cognitive-representational
competence it involves? The statistical analyses conducted here
indicate that it does not. Future research may wish to conduct
longitudinal (rather than transversal) studies in order to analyze
what happens in relation to the manifestation of security during
the school-going years (6 - 12). Our current lack of knowledge
regarding this area constitutes a clear limitation and its study
would help increase our knowledge of the development styles
of attachment profiles and their level of security/insecurity.
Also, the question of the instruments used and their validity in
different developmental periods is a question that has yet to be
resolved by future cross-cultural studies or meta-ana lyses.
Some of the data included in this paper are taken from the
doctoral thesis presented by the author at the University of the
Basque Country (UPV/EHU) on 6 November 2010, which re-
ceived a unanimous Summa Cum Laude from the panel. The
research project is being funded by the University of the Bas-
que Country (UPV/EHU) within the framework of the NUPV
11/12 project.
Nerea Portu Zapirain is a Tenured Professor at the Depart-
ment of Psychology and Education at the University of the Bas-
que Country. She holds a PhD in Psychology and her research
focuses on attachment theory and the differential predictive
power of fathers in different areas of development.
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