How Does Anxious Avoidant Attachment Develop in Children?

anxious avoidant attachment in childhood

Known as avoidant attachment in adulthood, the anxious avoidant attachment style typically develops in the first 18 months of life. During this formative period, a child’s caregiver may have been emotionally unavailable to them a lot of the time.

They may also have disregarded their child’s needs by not responding to their cues and behaved in a “rejecting” manner. These caregivers may also frown upon displays of emotion from their child, both negative and positive. 

This article will cover your top questions on anxious avoidant attachment in childhood including:
  • When and how does anxious avoidant attachment develop in childhood?
  • What are common behaviors of caregivers with anxious avoidant children?
  • How does the child with anxious avoidant attachment perceive the caregiver’s behavior?
  • Is your child anxious avoidant? Were you an anxious avoidant child? Check these common behaviors and characteristics of anxious avoidant children.
  • How does anxious avoidant attachment affect the child?
  • How can a child be raised to have secure attachment?
  • What are the five conditions needed to raise a child with secure attachment?

How Attachment Styles Form in Childhood

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 forms expectations about their world and the people in it.

This outlook has a big 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
attachment-quiz

Anxious avoidant children aren’t getting needs met by their caretakers

This style of parenting tends to encourage a premature sense of independence in children. This isn’t to say that these caregivers intentionally acted this way or neglected their child’s needs.

However, they still didn’t meet their child’s specific emotional needs for whatever reason. It might be helpful to note that oftentimes caregivers tend to parent in the way that they themselves were parented.

For example, some of the following might be typical behaviors of the caregiver of an anxious avoidant child:
  • When their child is distressed or afraid, they might separate physically from them or become irritated
  • Shaming a child for showing emotion
  • Expecting their child to foster independence which is unrealistic for their age
  • Might use phrases such as; “stop crying,” “you’re acting like a baby,” “toughen up”, or “grow up”, with their child when they show emotion
  • They repeatedly ignore their child’s cues or cries of distress

As a response to their caregiver’s actions, the avoidant attached child learns that seeking out their caregiver for comfort when distressed or frightened is a fruitless activity.

Thus, they suppress their innate desire because they have learned at an early age that outward displays of emotion will likely lead to rejection, scorn, or punishment.

In fact, through suppressing their need to express their emotions they are at least able to fulfill one of their attachment needs – they will be able to maintain closeness to their caregiver.

Children who grow up in this type of emotionally barren environment tend to feel rejected. And as a result, they shut down their attachment system. This means that they disconnect from their needs.

Emotionally, they know that they will have to self-soothe and nurture themselves, and, in time, they develop a false sense of independence. This leads them to feel like they don’t need the support of other people in their lives. They have always taken care of their own emotional needs and will continue to do so.

Unhealthy attachment cycle - seen in children with insecure attachment (such as fearful-avoidant attachment, anxious ambivalent attachment or anxious avoidant attachment)

How does an anxious avoidant child behave?

In the Strange Situation experiment in 1969, Mary Ainsworth noted that after a period of absence with their mothers, some children either avoided or resisted contact with them on their reunion.

However, despite their outward appearance that they didn’t need their caregiver, they acted just as distressed during the separation period as did the securely attached children. They just didn’t show it. These children were later identified as having anxious avoidant attachment.

As children with an anxious-avoidant style start to develop, they adopt a strong outward feeling of independence – one that is beyond their years.

They are self-contained “little adults” and rarely show any signs of needing closeness, love, or nurturance.

Although they may enjoy the company of others, avoidant children may struggle to connect with them. They feel like they shouldn’t be dependent on anyone else.

Yet, when physiologically assessed during periods of separation from their caregivers, avoidant attached children showed the same reactions as other children.

This implies that they are far more anxious about being detached from their caregivers than they let on. For this reason, avoidant children usually seek to maintain physical closeness with their caregiver, but they avoid actually interacting with them.

To recap, these are common characteristics and behaviors of an anxious avoidant child:
  • Resists soothing or comfort from their caregiver
  • Seems highly independent from an outside perspective
  • Not seeming to need affection or nurturance
  • Considerably more anxious than they project
  • Seeks proximity but avoids contact with the caregiver

How can a child be raised to develop 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 nurturance 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.

healthy attachment cycle - seen in children with secure attachment

The five conditions for raising a securely attached child

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

1. The child feels safe

Firstly, a child needs to feel secure and safe in their world so as to flourish.

For a baby or toddler, their caregiver is their prime source of safety. If they are around, the child will feel confident that no harm will come to them, they know that they will be fed, and kept warm.

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

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

2. The child feels seen and known

Secondly, for a young child, their cries and signals are their outward voice to let their caregiver know what they need.

It is, therefore, important that the caregiver interprets these cues accurately. If the parent is in tune with the child’s cues they will respond in the appropriate way.

The child then knows that when they need something, they can signal for it and it will be given. This gives the child a sense of autonomy; their world is reliable, and they can exert a certain amount of control over it.

3. The child feels comforted

Certainly, to raise a securely attached child, parents need to be open, warm, and inviting; the world can sometimes be a scary place to a small child.

If they experience any disappointments in their otherwise-pleasant-day, they need to know that their caregivers will be there to help them soothe away their sadness and distress.

In time, the child learns to recognize this as the norm and as they grow up, 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 in infancy. 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 – unconditionally – from what they achieve.

5. The child feels support for being their best self

Lastly, a child should feel supported to contentedly explore their environment.

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 enable the child to develop a sense of freedom to explore and a strong sense of self.

Continued Reading

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

If you’re interested in knowing more, then we can suggest reading our articles on avoidant attachment in adult relationships, and secure attachment from childhood to adult relationships

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.

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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