Anxious Attachment Style: What Is it And How To Manage It

Reviewed by Dr Lucy Russell DClinPsyc CPsychol AFBPsS

Hayley Vaughan Smith, Person Centred Counsellor and The Ridge Practice and Everlief Child Psychology
Author: Hayley Vaughan Smith, Person-Centred Counsellor

In this article, I will focus on how to understand and deal with an anxious attachment style, from my perspective as a counsellor, wife and parent. 

I’ll explore how to identify an anxious attachment style 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.

Anxious 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 importance of healthy early 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.

If the bond is not strong and healthy, because for some reason a parent cannot provide a consistent, warm, loving and containing experience, then a child may develop an anxious attachment style.

a mother and toddler hugging

Anxious Attachment Explained

Attachment Theory

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 vs Anxious Attachment

Secure attachment is present when a child feels confident that their caregivers can meet their needs and help them manage big emotions. 

There is typically a warm and loving bond.

With an anxious attachment there can still be a warm and loving bond, but the child may not be fully certain that their parent will be there to meet their needs or manage emotions with them.

parent child firm touch to contain emotional meltdowns

Anxious Attachment Styles: Anxious-Ambivalent Attachment

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 style.

Anxious Attachment Styles: Avoidant 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 style.

Disorganised 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.

This is known as a disorganised attachment style.

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. This person consistently offers reassurance and a safe haven from which to explore the world.

secure attachment bond mother and child reading together

Anxious Attachment in Yourself

Do you recognise any of these characteristics of anxious attachment style in yourself or your child?

woman reflective with a cup of tea

If you recognise anxious attachment behaviours in yourself, it’s possible 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.

anxious child being comforted by an adult

The development of anxious attachment issues can happen for lots of reasons including:

  • Adverse Childhood Experiences (“ACEs”):
    • Neglect
    • Abuse
    • 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).

Trigger events might include:

  • Transitions including moving house, changing schools.
  • Developmental phases such as puberty.
  • Leaving home.

How To Cope With Anxious Attachment

There are four vital components to coping with an anxious attachment style:

  • Nurture
  • Being listened to, feeling heard
  • Regular, predictable routines
  • Learning body strategies to regulate your emotions

The first step is to understand what type of anxious attachment style you or your child has so you can start to provide yourselves with calming techniques.

Anxious-ambivalent vs anxious avoidant attachment styles

Take a look at the four distinct attachment styles first identified by Bowlby and Ainsworth towards the beginning of this article.

If you or your child have an anxious attachment style, it’s likely this fits either the anxious-ambivalent or the anxious avoidant type.

A disorganised attachment style is also characterised by high anxiety, but is less common and is usually related to significant early trauma. I won’t be directly addressing this attachment style here, but if you think you or your child have a disorganised attachment style, take a look at this article for more support.

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.

Signs of an Anxious Attachment Style 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.
  • Clingy.
  • 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.

How to Deal With Anxious Attachment: Adapt to Meet Unmet Needs

Let’s look at children with an anxious attachment style first, and then we’ll look at what to do if you’re an adult with anxious attachment.

As a parent, what you want to do to help your child overcome an anxious attachment is provide physical and emotional soothing consistently.

Whenever your child feels unsafe or scared, try to figure out what they need to feel safe again, and provide that every time.

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.

How to Handle Anxious Attachment in Your Child (Whilst Considering 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.

a young teen boy and mother together on a sofa

How to Overcome Anxious Attachment: Example (Kristian, age 13)

Kristian, a 13-year-old, had a tough start leading to an anxious attachment style. His dad left early on, and his mum, Grace, juggled caring for him and both elderly parents, one of whom had dementia.

Kristian often felt alone and didn’t feel he could turn to Grace when she was always under so much pressure. He tried to manage his emotions for himself. It led to his anxious-avoidant attachment style.

He learned to keep his emotions tucked away.

Grace noticing Kristian’s struggles, decided to take small but meaningful steps. She began carving out time each day just for him, to sit and chat or have a hot chocolate together.

Kristian was often distant and sometimes a bit sharp in his responses. But Grace understood this was part of his way of protecting himself.

Grace knew she now had the emotional resilience to help Kristian manage big emotions. When she sensed he was anxious, upset, irritable or angry, she would try to label it. For example: “it looks like you’re a little worried at the moment and I wondered if that had anything to do with the speech you have to give in class tomorrow?”

Having labelled the emotion, Grace showed that she could help him sit with this uncomfortable feeling (anxiety) and contain it. She encouraged him to talk a little about the worry, and listened non-judgmentally, whilst showing she understood the difficult feelings.

For example: “That sounds so difficult that you feel you haven’t had enough time to prepare. I know I would feel the same if I were in that position.”

Six months down the line, the changes in Kristian started to show. He started sharing more about his day, his worries, and even his hopes. He began to see the benefits of sharing some of his worries rather than keeping them all tucked away and trying to manage alone.

Grace knew she would continue to build a secure attachment with Kristian. This would mean a healthier relationship for the two of them, but also healthier friendships and romantic relationships for Kristian in the future.

Outsmart Anxiety online parent course

How to Help With Anxious Attachment in a Parent-Child Relationship

Have you felt insecure your whole life?

Do you 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?

mother and son loving relationship hugging

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.

THE CHALLENGE

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

THE PRINCIPLE

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.

Anxious thoughts or worries about everyday things, their friendships or mental health. Children with anxiety disorders may be hypervigilant or on ‘alert’ to challenging situations most of the time

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!

How to Heal 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.

child with therapist using play therapy

Anxious Attachment 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.

male female couple on a sofa distant communication

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. It’s 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.

couple embracing showing secure loving bond

Four of the Best Ways to Manage Your Relationship With an Anxious Attachment

  1. Communicate and actively listen to each other. Use some of the strategies in this article about listening skills.
  2. Take time to notice each other’s emotions and needs. Be kind to yourself too.
  3. Establish healthy boundaries together. This requires time together without distractions.
  4. Therapy. Seek emotional support from others or try couples therapy if you feel stuck.

How to Heal 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 like life coaching or therapy. 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, they can. 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. 

Related Articles

Separation Anxiety at School Drop-Off: The 7 Most Effective Strategies

Adult and Child Mental Health: Supporting Yourself and Your Child

Child Mental Health: The Lifestyle Connection

What to Do When Your Child is Having Anxiety About Death

Getting Help for Teenage Low Self Esteem

5 Family Therapy Activities You Can Try at Home

Hayley Vaughan-Smith is a Person-Centred Counsellor accredited by the National Counselling & Psychotherapy 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 worked as a bereavement volunteer with Cruse Bereavement Care for four years.

Hayley is mum to 3 grown-up girls, 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.

Join They Are The Future’s free Facebook group for regular tips and great ideas to support teens and pre-teens with their mental health! Join the group: Parent Tips for Positive Child Mental Health UK.

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