How Does Anxious Ambivalent Attachment Develop in Children?

Known as anxious preoccupied attachment in adulthood, anxious ambivalent attachment typically develops in children in the first 18 months of life.

During this formative period, a child’s caregiver may have acted nurturing and responsive one minute and unavailable or insensitive the next.

This article will cover your top questions on anxious ambivalent attachment in childhood including:
  • When and how does anxious ambivalent attachment develop in childhood?
  • What are common behaviors of caregivers with anxious ambivalent children?
  • How do anxious ambivalent children perceive the behavior of their caretakers?
  • Is your child anxious ambivalent? Were you an anxious child? Check these common behaviors and patterns of anxious ambivalent children.
  • What does ambivalence mean in children vs. adults?
  • How does anxious ambivalent attachment affect the child?
  • How can a child be raised to have secure attachment?
  • What are the five conditions required for raising a child with secure attachment?

Ambivalent attachment is caused by inconsistency from the caregiver

Put shortly, the caregivers behaved inconsistently in response to their child’s needs.

This doesn’t mean that they intentionally neglected their child’s needs, but the child perceived the way that they acted as not fully meeting them for whatever reason.

unpredictable behavior

For example, perhaps when the baby cries for affection, the caregiver on some occasions runs to cater to their need, but on other occasions feels like it’s best for them to self-soothe, so they ignore their cries.

This might mean that the child starts to see their caregiver’s actions as unpredictable.

So, they start to feel conflicted about how their caregiver is going to respond to them. When their parent is attentive, the child is content and happy, but when they’re not the child is confused.

For this reason, the child may start to develop ambivalent attachment patterns and behaviors.

They might feel distrustful of their caregiver, but they also desperately want affection and for them to meet their emotional needs so they cling to them.

To recap, parents of ambivalent children tend to be:
  • Inconsistent and unpredictable in how they respond to their child’s needs
  • More aware of their own needs than those of their children’s because they likely didn’t receive the affection that they needed as a child
  • Unreliable in the eyes of their child
  • Loving and affectionate on some occasions, but punitive on others

How do attachment styles form in children?

A child’s attachment style is formed through the type of bond that develops between themselves and their caregivers. Through the way that their parents met their needs, a child develops expectations about their world and the people in it.

This outlook has a significant impact on many other areas of the child’s life; from how willing they are to explore their world, to how they socialize with other children and adults, and even to how they behave in adult relationships

The following table contains the different attachment style names, including how they change from childhood to adulthood:

Attachment StyleIn ChildhoodIn Adulthood
SecureSecureSecure
InsecureAnxious-ambivalentAnxious-preoccupied
InsecureAnxious-avoidantAvoidant-dismissive
InsecureFearful-avoidantDisorganized

What is ambivalence?

It can be difficult to act decisively and take a firm stance on something when you’re not sure how you really feel. However, making a decision becomes even harder when you feel conflicted – such as if you feel two things at the same time. This is what it feels like to be ambivalent; you behave or feel simultaneously and contradictorily towards someone or something. 

Ambi means both and valence means vigor – so ambivalence is to alternate between feeling strongly positive and strongly negative. This can understandably create mixed feelings, thus potentially leading to indecisiveness or uncertainty.

You may come across the term used interchangeably with apathetic, but the two are quite different; apathetic means to not have very strong feelings on a topic at all, whereas feeling ambivalent means to feel dissonant about it. In fact, someone who is ambivalent might feel an excess of emotions rather than an absence of them.

For example, someone might feel ambivalent about their favorite film being remade. Sure, they’re excited about the prospect of it actually being good, but what if it’s terrible? Thus, this person feels ambivalent towards the remake. If they were to feel apathetic, they wouldn’t care about the film at all. 

What does ambivalence in adults look like?

Acting ambivalently as an adult might mean having trouble picking where to go on holiday, deciding what restaurant you want to eat in at the weekend, or choosing whether a certain job offer is right for you. It can also significantly affect how we behave in our romantic relationships.

If you would like to know more about how the anxious attachment style involves ambivalent behavior and how this can potentially affect your relationships, then check out our previous post What are adult attachment styles and how do they affect intimate relationships?

However, this post will focus on how the ambivalent attachment style and resulting behaviors can develop in a child, as well as some evidence-based advice on how to raise a securely attached child.

How does an anxious ambivalent child behave?

In the Strange Situation experiment in 1969, Mary Ainsworth noted that after a period of absence with their mothers, some children were often bewildered, agitated, and avoided eye contact with their mothers on their reunion. However, these children also clung to their mothers desperately on her return.

child exhibiting anxious ambivalent attachment - throwing a tantrum to maintain closeness with the caregiver

The child was entirely focused on staying in close proximity to their mother, but they couldn’t seem to derive any comfort from her. These children were later identified as anxious-ambivalent.

A child with an ambivalent attachment style might try to stay close to their parent by “up-regulating” their actions. This might mean becoming distressed, angry, and throwing a temper tantrum when separated from their caregiver.

Even though they might resist soothing from their caregiver when they’re reunited with them, they may still cling on to them in order to feel safe.

Ambivalent children are often insecure about exploring their world, and for this reason, they might find it hard to settle in with groups of children without trying to attract the attention of the adults in the vicinity in order to feel safe.

How does an ambivalent attachment style affect the child?

Not only can this type of behavior affect how the child socializes with other children, but it can also affect their comprehension and ability to perform tasks successfully.

They can be so concerned with trying to gain and maintain the attention of adults that they may struggle to focus, absorb instructions, and they may ask questions repeatedly just to ensure that they’re noticed. They might even act like the “class clown” in order to get attention, even if it is negative reinforcement of the behavior.

These kinds of actions in the classroom and at home can be disruptive and can sometimes even lead to a misdiagnosis of ADHD. Yet, underneath their “performances” and attention-seeking behaviors, these children may be experiencing high levels of anxiety which is impairing their ability to do the tasks that they are asked to do.

To recap, children with ambivalent attachment tend to:
  • Attempt to stay close to their parent
  • Act out for attention, such as through temper tantrums or getting overly upset
  • Resist soothing, but also cling to the parent
  • Feel insecure about exploring their world
  • Be needy for adult attention (such as their teachers or supervisor)
  • Have difficulty focusing on tasks which can even lead to ADHD misdiagnosis
  • Have highly anxious habits

How can a child be raised to develop a secure attachment?

There is no parenting handbook, so, at times, it can be a tricky area to navigate. How much attention and love are too little, and how much is smothering? Fortunately, children are born with strong survival instincts based on their inability to survive on their own and their reliance on adults for love and protection.

Thus, they give out signals to notify their caregivers that they need something. How the parent responds to these cues from their children can differ between a secure and insecure attachment style.

The Five Conditions for raising a securely attached child

In order to raise a securely attached child, there are five areas that a caregiver should strive to fulfill (Brown & Elliott, 2016):

1. The child feels safe

A child needs to feel secure and safe in their world so as to flourish. For a baby or toddler, their parents are their prime source of safety.

When the caregiver is around, the child will feel confident that:

  • No harm will come to them
  • They will be fed
  • They will be kept warm

Yet it’s important to cater to the child’s needs with a certain amount of awareness; they should allow them the chance to develop freedom while still letting them know that they are nearby.

The parent is the child’s barrier against harm, letting them know that they are protected and loved.

secure attachment - mother meeting the child's needs
2. The child feels seen and known

For a young child, their cues (cries and signals) are their outward voice to let their caregiver know what they want and need.

It is, therefore, important that the caregiver reads these cues accurately.

If the parent is in tune with the child’s cues they will respond in the appropriate way. This lets the child know that when they need something, they can signal for it and it will be given.

As a result, the child will have a sense of autonomy; their world is reliable, and they can exert a certain amount of control over it.

3. The child is comforted

Essentially, to raise a securely attached child, caregivers need to be open, warm, and inviting. The world can sometimes be a scary place to a small child. If they experience a bump in the road of their otherwise-pleasant-day, they need to know that their parents will be there to help soothe away their distress.

In time, the child learns to see this as the norm. As they grow up into adults, they use their caregiver’s actions as the template for managing their own upsets.

4. The child feels valued

The process of developing healthy self-esteem and value for who we are as a person starts as a baby.

Caregivers should aim to express happiness and pride over who their child is rather than over what the child does. The child starts to realize that they are valuable – unconditional – from what they achieve.

5. The child feels support for being their best self

A child should feel supported to joyfully explore their world.

To achieve this, a caregiver needs to believe in their child’s ability, as well as stay close to them lest anything go wrong; they’re allowing them to grow while watching from a safe distance.

Doing so will allow the child to develop a sense of freedom to explore their world and develop a strong sense of self.

Further Reading

This article is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to discerning how to raise a child with a secure attachment.

If you’re interested in knowing more, then check out our articles on anxious attachment in adult relationships, and secure attachment in adult relationships as well as five requirements for developing secure attachment in childhood.

We also recommend the excellent book The Importance of Love Rays by attachment specialist Paula Sacks

Sources:

Bowlby, J. (2012). A Secure Base: Clinical Applications of Attachment Theory. London: Routledge.

Cassidy J, Berlin LJ (1994). The insecure / ambivalent pattern of attachment: theory and research. Child Dev, 65(4):971-91. PMID: 7956474

Brown, D. P., Elliott, D. S. (2016). Attachment Disturbances in Adults: Treatment for Comprehensive Repair. New York: W.W. Norton.

Salter, M.D., Ainsworth, M.C., Blehar, E.W., Wall, S.N. (2015). Patterns of Attachment: A Psychological Study of the Strange Situation. New York: Taylor & Francis.

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