What is Insecure Attachment and How Does it Develop in Childhood?

Insecure Attachment Children

If a child perceives that his or her needs are not met, the child is not able to build a secure and stable bond with the caregivers. This leads to the development of an insecure attachment style and ultimately a distorted perception of how relationships work.

According to psychiatrist and psychoanalyst John Bowlby, a child’s early relationship with caregivers forms the way this child will approach social interactions and relationships throughout life.

This article covers your top questions on insecure attachment:

  • What is attachment theory? 
  • What are the three insecure attachment styles?
  • How early does insecure attachment develop in childhood?
  • What kinds of parenting patterns cause each insecure attachment style?
  • How do children perceive the behavior of their caretakers?
  • Is it possible to change an insecure attachment style?
  • How do I raise a child with secure attachment?

What is attachment theory?

John Bowlby’s work on attachment theory dates back to the 1950’s. Based on his theory, three insecure attachment styles were identified: 1. anxious-preoccupied, 2. avoidant-dismissive and 3. disorganized / fearful-avoidant. The fourth attachment style that he discovered was secure attachment.

The concept is relatively easy to grasp. When a baby is born, the first social bond they encounter is with the caregivers (in most cases, parents). This is when the child’s brain starts to form a perception of social interactions.

If the child is brought up in a warm and nurturing environment, where the caregivers are responsive to the child’s emotional needs, a secure bond (referred to as secure attachment is formed.

The child is taught, indirectly, that his or her emotions and needs will be recognized, that he or she will be supported and loved, and that people, in general, can be trusted.

If you have noticed a pattern of unhealthy and emotionally challenging behaviors in your love life, you might benefit from digging deep and exploring the way you attach to people in intimate relationships. Here is when attachment theory comes in handy. Attachment theory has a long history and has been used as a basis for continuous research, which could be quite interesting to explore and dive into.

How Insecure 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 insecure attachment style names, including how they change from childhood to adulthood:

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

Anxious-Ambivalent Attachment Style

Anxious ambivalent attachment is caused by inconsistency from the caregiver

Insecure Attachment - anxious ambivalent

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.

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.

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, the following patterns of the caregiver tend to create insecure attachment:
  • 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 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.

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.

Anxious-Avoidant Attachment Style

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

insecure attachment - anxious-avoidant

Known as avoidant attachment in adulthood, the anxiousavoidant 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 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 upset 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 upset or afraid 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 and develop an insecure attachment. 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.

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. That’s because these children had insecure attachment – anxious avoidant, to be exact.

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.

Fearful-Avoidant Attachment Style

How does fearful avoidant attachment develop?

fearful-avoidant

Known as disorganized attachment style in adulthood, the fearful avoidant attachment style is thought to be the most difficult. Sadly, this insecure attachment style is often seen in children that have experienced trauma or abuse.

The fearful avoidant attachment style occurs in about 7% of the population and typically develops in the first 18 months of life.

During this formative period, a child’s caregiver may have behaved chaotically or bizarrely. Sometimes the parent could even behave aggressively, causing the child to see them as “scary”.

Caregivers often exhibit contrasting and unpredictable behavior

The caregivers might show contrasting behavior towards how they parent their child. For example, they might be highly loving at times, but on other occasions, they might not even meet the child’s basic needs. As a result, this creates a sense of fear within a child for their own safety.

The fearful avoidant child subconsciously realizes that their caregiver cannot meet their needs.

The caregiver’s behavior isn’t always intentional

The caregivers of fearful avoidant children may not intentionally behave this way. Oftentimes, caregivers parent in the way that they themselves were parented. As a result, they may lack confidence in their own ability to successfully raise a child. They might be overwhelmed and scared, thus, the child is frightening to them.

This can cause the caregiver to behave unpredictably. For example, on one instance they might laugh and reward a specific behavior of their child, but another time, they might become outraged and punish them for the exact same behavior. The child’s caregiver – the person that they desire closeness with above all others – is a source of alarm. 

Due to these unpredictable and chaotic actions, fearful avoidant children often struggle to understand how to get their needs met as they can’t adapt to their parent’s behavior. It’s just too unpredictable. Thus they end up confused and conflicted about how they should act; their experience is that of fear without a solution.

Let’s quickly recap how a fearful avoidant child’s caregivers might act:
  • May behave erratically or bizarrely, causing their child to see them as “frightening
  • Might exhibit contrasting and unpredictable behaviors towards their child, such as acting affectionate on one hand and aggressive on the other without a clear rationale
  • They potentially had a chaotic childhood of their own
  • Typically overwhelmed by the prospect of parenting as they lack confidence in their abilities 

How does a fearful avoidant child behave?

After the Strange Situation experiment in 1969, Mary Ainsworth‘s colleague Mary Main noted that when a baby’s mother left the room, the securely attached children became very upset. Once she returned, these children instantly ran to her for comfort and affection. After that soothing moment, they happily resumed playing by themselves.

However, in contrast, a child with a fearful avoidant attachment will act conflicted towards their caregiver. They may at first run to them, but then seem to change their mind and either run away or act out against their mother.

As is symptomatic of their attachment style, they desire comfort and closeness with their caregiver, but as soon as they got near them they were afraid.

A baby or a young child with a fearful avoidant attachment might behave in bizarre ways.

  • For example, they might stare at their parent but avoid eye contact.
  • They may scream endlessly as if in an attempt to engage their caregiver.
  • Lastly, they sometimes show conflicting actions such as seeking attention and then shutting it down promptly.

Fearful avoidant children do not feel safe and secure in the world

A slightly older child with a fearful avoidant attachment might find it hard to self-soothe. Further, they may struggle with opening up to other people. Since they do not feel safe and secure in the world, so they’re always looking out for the next negative event.

Fearful avoidant children sometimes have no sense of personal boundaries. For example, they might discuss intimate and inappropriate details with people unfamiliar to them. They may also only be able to maintain short and superficial interactions with others.

What’s more, they tend to show no bias between people familiar to them and strangers. They may lack a sense of guilt, show flighty behavior and difficulty in concentrating. They also often have a hard time keeping long-term friends or deep relationships.

Sometimes, children with a fearful-avoidant attachment style require professional help. Otherwise they could be at risk of carrying these behaviors into adulthood and their relationships.

Is it possible for adults to change an insecure attachment style?

Grayscale photograph of woman sitting on a sofa with head in her hand

If you recognize the traits of one of the insecure attachment styles in yourself or in someone you care about, what can you do?

The key is to admit and realize that the ‘switch’ on emotional intimacy has to be turned on. This might be challenging and require a lot of effort.

What do I feel? The insecure adult needs to start paying attention to the emotional and physical sensations that come up around (emotional) intimacy. Self-reflection might help one make sense of and analyze existing patterns.

What do I need? Another essential step is exploring, understanding, and eventually expressing your emotional needs.

What should I do? At some point, the insecure adult might be able to start working on building closer relationships with people. They could follow a step-by-step approach to letting others in and responding to the emotional needs of close ones.

Obviously, working with a therapist on this pattern would potentially be the most beneficial way to move forward with earning secure attachment. If that’s not an option for you, we have simple online courses for you to move forward.

How can you raise a child to have secure attachment?

secure attachment

There is no one size fits all parenting handbook, so, at times, it can be a tricky area to navigate. How much attention and affection 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 their caregiver responds to these cues from their children can make the difference between ending up with a secure or insecure attachment style.

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.

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