In this article, I will focus on how to deal with anxious attachment.
I’ll explore how to identify it in yourself or your partner and what it might mean for your relationships.
I’ll also explore ways to support your anxiously attached child so that they can experience healthy relationships.
Attachment in Early Life
From the moment we are born, (and even earlier in the womb), we develop a built-in bonding attachment style with our primary caregivers, beginning with our mother.
We are one of the most social species of all mammals and whilst we can be fiercely independent and self-reliant, we predominantly seek out others to meet our physical and psychological needs in order to survive and thrive.
Dr Lucy Russell (founder of They Are The Future) focuses on how to deal with anxious attachment in her article. She explains that the importance of attachment in children is most relevant in a child’s first three years of life.
A strong bond at this stage with a “primary caregiver” is more likely to generate a happy, secure older child. Early childhood interactions with our parents or caretakers shape our attachment style in years to come.
Attachment theory has been around for over sixty years and was first proposed by the British psychologist, psychiatrist, and psychoanalyst John Bowlby.
It was further developed by his student Mary Ainsworth, a developmental psychologist who suggested three primary or main attachment styles – later expanded to four:
He believed that experiences during infancy and the quality of care given by primary caregivers influenced a person’s attachment style as an adult.
Secure attachment is present when a child feels confident that their caregivers can meet their needs. There is typically a warm and loving bond.
Children who seek constant reassurance and are met with inconsistency tend to exaggerate distress to elicit a caring response. This is known as an anxious-ambivalent attachment.
Children who perceive their caregiver as indifferent unlikely to meet their needs, will learn to ‘accept’ feeling unloved and will avoid showing distress, despite high internal anxiety. In other words, they have an avoidant attachment.
Children who receive inconsistent parenting and emotional support, and who experience childhood trauma can crave attention but also show fear towards their caregiver.
They are in a bind.
Their caregiver may be a source of both comfort and fear.
They may sometimes avoid, sometimes approach and sometimes appear to freeze, neither approaching nor avoiding.
Attachment is a deep and enduring emotional bond that connects one person to another person across time and space.
Ainsworth, 1973: Bowlby, 1969
What is Anxious Attachment?
Anxious attachment is an attachment style that is not secure. It happens when someone does not feel confident that others will meet their needs, based on past experience.
Children typically develop an anxious attachment when a ‘safe base’ is missing or not consistently available to them.
A safe base (also known as a secure base) is a warm, secure relationship with at least one adult or caregiver who consistently offers reassurance and a safe haven from which to explore.
Identifying Anxious Attachment in Yourself
Do you recognise any of these characteristics of anxious attachment style in yourself or your child?
- Separation anxiety.
- Fear of rejection or being alone.
- Jealous feelings.
- Poor emotional regulation.
- Needy or over compensating.
- Poor conflict management skills.
- Seeking out approval from others.
- Unable to have healthy boundaries in relationships.
- Self deprecating.
If you recognise anxious attachment behaviours in yourself, it’s likely that you had a parent or care-giver who was inconsistent in how they responded to you when you were upset, overwhelmed, scared or anxious.
This may not have been their fault.
For example, some parents and carers cannot be fully available for their child because of physical or mental illness.
What Triggers an Anxious Attachment?
When our basic, physical or emotional needs are not being met we can feel vulnerable.
If there is an absence of nurture and reassurance, anxious thoughts can lead to turbulent attachment styles with can negatively affect relationships thus harming the nervous system and your inner child over time.
The development of anxious attachment issues can happen for lots of reasons including:
- Adverse Childhood Experiences (“ACEs”):
- Early prolonged separation from a parent or care-giver
- Difficult family or life events:
- Death or illness of a family member
- A child’s own illness or health problems
- Divorce or parent separation.
For someone who has an anxious attachment, they may seem to function with no major difficulties in everyday life, but when a challenge or transition comes along it may trigger high anxiety including “connection-seeking” behaviours (such as clinginess or wanting to know where your trusted person is at all times). rigger events might include:
- Transitions including moving house, changing schools.
- Developmental phases such as puberty.
- Leaving home.
How Do You Calm Anxious Attachment?
There are four vital components to calming and healing an anxious attachment style:
- Being listened to, feeling heard.
- Regular, predictable routines.
- Learning body strategies to regulate your emotions.
The first step is to understand what type of attachment style you or your child has so you can start to provide yourselves with calming techniques.
Take a look at the four distinct attachment styles first identified by Bowlby and Ainsworth towards the beginning of this article.
The first is a secure attachment style, whereas the other three are variations of an insecure attachment style.
Understand Your Family’s Attachment Styles
Understanding your attachment style (or your child’s or partner’s) will help you develop a deeper understanding of what’s going on.
For example, if you find that you tend to be over-intense and clingy in relationships, this may point to an anxious-ambivalent attachment style.
What are the Signs of Anxious Attachment in Children?
Some of the key signs that young children may have an anxious attachment type personality:
- Anxious behaviours or appearing anxious in general.
- A fear of strangers or unfamiliar people.
- Extreme distress when separated from parents or caregivers.
- A tendency to isolate themselves, preferring to stay in a comfort zone.
- Inconsolable when upset – not easily comforted.
- They find emotional regulation particularly challenging.
- Difficult relationships with peers.
It’s important to note that even if you spot several of these signs in your child, it doesn’t mean they necessarily have an anxious attachment.
Some of these difficulties can be explained by other factors, such as neurodivergence.
Adapt to your Child’s Needs
As a parent, being consistently available for a child whenever they feel unsafe or scared provides physical soothing and comfort helping your child to feel safe again.
It helps your child to feel they can cope, with your support.
This applies whether your child is a toddler or a teenager.
If your child has an avoidant attachment style they may be rejecting or seem “prickly”, despite needing this nurture. In this case you may need to adapt the way you connect with them.
For example, instead of cuddles, just being near them or offering a warm drink.
Try to ensure that your child has other adults around them who can be a “secure base” for your child, if you can’t be one right now.
With time and consistency, calmness and nurture, children can develop a more secure attachment style. This will reduce their everyday anxiety and help them to have healthier relationships throughout their lives.
Some families need professional help with this however, including individual or family therapy.
Consider your Own Needs
If you are going through a hard time in your own life or you are mentally or physically unwell, it may be much harder for you to meet your child’s needs for attachment (or those of a partner or another family member).
You are human.
You can only do your best.
It’s vital that you look after yourself, at the same time as doing your best for others.
This article about self-care for single parents will help you even if you are not a single parent).
If your child has experienced any sort of trauma, read our article on self-care for parents of children who have experienced trauma.
What Does Anxious Attachment Look Like in a Parent-Child Relationship?
Have you felt insecure your whole life and worry that this has affected your relationship and bonding capacity with your own children.
Perhaps your child has an anxious attachment and this is impacting your parenting relationship with them?
Are you a foster parent or parent to an adopted child? Insecure attachment styles are common in looked after children and can be a challenge for the new relationship.
When a securely attached relationship is missing, knowing how to deal with anxious attachment in your child can be challenging.
Here are some examples of common challenges that might occur between parent and child.
Cries or doesn’t want you to leave them with anyone but you. Tries to persuade you to stay with them, or perhaps finds going to school or other activities without you, difficult
Be consistent and honest with reassurance. Don’t promise things that you can’t deliver on. Provide clear and consistent boundaries to help your child feel safe and contained.
Help them to ‘name’ their worries and share them with you. Use simple language to set out truths and reality which will help to build a sense of security for them.
Fear of abandonment, fear that something bad will happen to you
Don’t dismiss fears. The best way to help your child cope with them is to model how you would cope with them.
Anxious or scared about starting a new school and meeting new friends. Seeks out lots of reassurance
Provide as much extra nurture as your child requires, particularly during transitional stages. Their emotional needs with change throughout development, but be present with love and nurture, regardless of their age or stage.
TAKE THE QUIZ!
Healing Anxious Attachment in Children
If a child doesn’t have a secure base in their early years and doesn’t feel nurtured and safe, dealing with other challenges will also be more difficult.
But it is never too late.
A child can learn to feel safe even if they have missed out on this healthy strong attachment in early life.
Even if a child has parents or carers who are consistently available to help them with big feelings, at times they will still feel scared and vulnerable.
Your child’s needs for support may increase during times of uncertainty and transition, such as the move from primary to secondary school or navigating romantic relationships.
Some children will need a child therapist to help them develop a more secure attachment style.
What Does Anxious Attachment Look Like With Romantic Partners?
If you have an insecure attachment style, it’s likely that you will look to your partner for validation and reassurance about how they feel towards you.
So, what signs of anxious attachment might you see in your own intimate relationships? Here are some possible clues to an anxious attachment:
- Driven by insecurity to seek constant reassurance that they love and value you.
- Trust issues leaving you hypervigilant towards reasons for them to break up with you.
- Over-analysing your partner’s emotions or behaviours.
- Sabotaging your relationship.
- Taking things that are said as a personal attack.
- Behaving in a controlling way towards your partner.
- Feeling a fear of rejection or abandonment.
Being an anxiously attached person can be hard for you and is often a difficult dynamic for friendships and romantic relationships.
Add children into the mix and it can feel like an emotional roller-coaster!
If the attachment patterns are entrenched, it can be challenging to know how to deal with anxious attachment in the context of romantic relationships.
How to Deal With Anxious Attachment in a Partner
Don’t despair, with effort and understanding, it is possible to work together to have happy and fulfilling adult relationships.
Four of the Best Ways to Manage Your Relationship With an Anxious Attachment
- Communicate and actively listen to each other. Use some of the strategies in this article about listening skills.
- Take time to notice each other’s emotions and needs. Be kind to yourself too.
- Establish healthy boundaries together. This requires time together without distractions.
- Therapy. Seek emotional support from others or try couples therapy if you feel stuck.
Healing Anxious Attachment in Adults
Adults with an anxious attachment style may have a negative self-image or low self-esteem.
Coping with attachment anxiety can be tough, but the good news is that anxious attachment styles can change, even if they have seemingly been hardwired since childhood.
So, how can we work towards a more secure attachment style for yourself (or your partner) which you can then model to your child?
- Challenge and gently change your belief system. Write down your problematic beliefs and thought patterns about your relationships. Is each one true? Might there be alternative ways to view them? If they are true, what small changes could you make?
- Tackle any irrational fears that might impact your relationships. Explore different ways of approaching these fears
- Develop a strong sense of self – you could do this through self-development pathways. Person centred counselling is a talking therapy which is designed to explore and develop self-growth and actualisation.
- Who do you feel safe and comfortable with? Spend more time with this person or people. Also, think about why you feel safe with them. Having loving relationships with a securely attached individual can nurture a sense of calmness and stability in you.
Can People With Anxious Attachment Have Healthy Relationships?
Yes absolutely. Often the first step to being open to healthy relationships is by reparenting your inner child, being kind and compassionate to yourself.
In order to have a loving and open relationship with your child or partner, place high importance on the relationship you have with yourself first.
Children with anxious attachment can develop healthy relationships.
Provide them with extra patience, nurture and reassurance and try to show them healthy ways in which to interact and relate to others.
Hayley Vaughan Smith is a Person Centred Counsellor accredited by the National Counselling Society. She is the founder and counsellor at The Ridge Practice in Buckinghamshire, and Counsellor at Everlief Child Psychology.
Hayley has a special interest in bereavement counselling and has worked as a bereavement volunteer with Cruse Bereavement Care since 2019.
Being a mum to 3 girls is hard work and rewarding in equal measure and gardening and walking in nature is her own personal therapy. Hayley believes being in nature, whatever the weather, is incredibly beneficial for mental health well-being.
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