It’s science: Affection is the key to building a strong father + son bond

Plus, how to build a strong relationship together.

dad with two sons

The father-son bond is not to be taken for granted. It can be nurtured or squelched as it changes over the course of the son's life, evolving as he grows and life has a bigger impact on him.

In early childhood, a son may look up to his father and idolize him, always trying to imitate him. By the time he is a teenager, though, he develops his own ideas about life and how he fits in it, pulling away and spending more time with friends. When he reaches adulthood, the son may begin to trust his father again as he realizes he may be right about things, setting the foundation for a lifetime of a meaningful relationship of mutual respect and affection.

It's what happens between now and then that determines how deep that bond can be—and affection is key to building that strong father-son relationship.

Affection is the glue that holds relationships together when times are tough. According to the Affection Exchange Theory, developed and tested by Dr. Kory Flyod at the University of Arizona, the more affection between people, the stronger their bonds.

Past research has established that the amount of affection fathers convey to their sons appears to be related to the amount of affection their own fathers gave to them. Some fathers report a sense of loss or grief when thinking about the relationship with their own fathers, as traditional fathering practices may not have fostered a high level of affection.

But fathers today seem to be adopting a role that is more open to affection and involvement with their own sons. In a study involving 139 father‐son pairs it was revealed that fathers felt closer to, were more satisfied with and expressed more affection with their sons than with their own fathers. These findings support the idea that fatherhood is in the midst of a cultural shift away from the authoritarian, emotionally-detached father role of the past and toward a more involved and nurturing dad.

So how do we keep that going? Here are some ways a father can build an affectionate bond with his son:

  • Show up: Show your son that no matter what, you will always be there for him. Whether it is being physically present at a soccer game, or a parent-teacher meeting, or being emotionally present with him while he tells you about his experience, just be there for him.
  • Find common ground: Discover what is fun for both of you, whether it is sports, cooking, reading… anything that you both enjoy can be shared and become the foundation of your relationship.
  • Spend quality time together: Taking time to do activities together helps you to understand each other is the mortar in your foundation.
  • Listen to each other: Hear your son before giving your opinion. Be understanding and constructive about his choices so it isn't received as criticism.
  • Prioritize honesty: Telling your son like it is will convey respect and encourage him to reach out to you on the hard stuff.
  • Celebrate accomplishments: Recognition and appreciation for your son helps him become more confident and courageous.
  • Share your experiences: Impart the wisdom your life experiences with your son to make him feel important and that you trust him.

Bottom line: An affectionate father can provide the strong shoulders a son stands on to see how to be the change he wants to see in the world.

Editor's note: Though this is written from the perspective of a husband and wife relationship, Motherly understands that there many structures of family that exist, and single fathers have supportive relationships that may apply in this narrative.

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