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Ambivalent Attachment Style – How It Affects Children And Adult Relationships

Attachment & attachment theory | Ambivalent attachment in children | Causes | Characteristics in children | Ambivalent attachment in adults | FAQ

What is Ambivalent Attachment

An infant’s ambivalent attachment, also known as an anxious-ambivalent attachment or resistant attachment, is a pattern of contradictory behaviors that the child uses to seek closeness to their caregiver for safety and emotional needs. 

This insecure style of attachment with caregivers is characterized by the infant being extremely distressed when their parents leave for a short period of time, but paradoxically, resisting them when they return​1​.

boy hugs father on one side man hugs woman on the other side

Attachment & attachment theory

Attachment is the strong connection babies form with their primary caregivers. Evolutionarily, human infants adapt to different kinds of caregiving and environment for survival.

British psychiatrist John Bowlby’s Attachment Theory suggests that infants use different patterns of behavior, called attachment styles, to stay close to their parents and have their needs met.

Infants usually display one of four patterns of attachment to their caregivers:

  1. Secure attachment style
  2. Avoidant attachment style
  3. Ambivalent attachment style
  4. Disorganized attachment style

The last three attachments are insecure attachment styles.

In the attachment process, infants form mental models that represent how they view themselves and their relationships with others. 

Different parenting styles lead to different internal working models and attachment styles in children. Thus, parent-child interactions and the resulting emotional bonds lay the foundation for a child’s ability to form interpersonal relationships as they grow up​2​.

Securely attached infants usually have caregivers who are responsive to their needs.

Insecure attachment, on the other hand, develops in response to either inconsistent, overbearing, abusive, or unresponsive parenting​3​.

Ambivalent attachment in children

Ambivalent attachment is not a common style of attachment. Only 7-15% of the American population are found to be ambivalent-attached​2​.

Ambivalent infants usually have parents who are inconsistent in their responses to their children.

The Strange Situation experiment is a procedure invented by developmental psychologist Mary Ainsworth to categorize the different types of attachment styles.

In the Strange Situation, securely attached babies are confidently exploring their environment in the presence of their parents and use the parents as a secure base.

Ambivalent babies, on the other hand, are preoccupied with gaining their caregivers’ attention and explore their environment less freely. The absence of the parent causes the infant extreme distress, whereas the parent’s return does not relieve the distress.

In the reunion, they show ambivalent patterns of switching abruptly between resisting contact and clinging to maintain contact.

These babies use such emotional behaviors to attract the attention of caregivers because they realize they cannot rely on them to provide comfort​4​.

What causes Ambivalent Attachment in Children

Being able to depend on an attachment figure during childhood is important for healthy relationships and child development throughout life. Ambivalent attachment styles are thought to develop when parents either aren’t responsive to the child’s needs or don’t do it consistently.

Among the four attachment styles, this pattern is found in children whose parents are the least responsive and interact the least.

Infants find these parents often unavailable or unpredictable. Since they are unsure of how their parents will respond to their needs, they may act out in ways that will catch their parents’ attention. 

Very often, the parents are anxious parents who are preoccupied with their own thoughts and might not be fully present with their children​5​.

Ambivalent attachment characteristics in children

Here are some signs of an ambivalent child:

  • Express distress, fear, and anger toward the attachment figure​6​.
  • Have a lower threshold for distress.
  • Their easily activated stress response system interferes with their ability to explore and maintain self-confidence in new environments.
  • Show more overt fear and less confidence.
  • Have impulsive or helpless ambivalent attachment behaviors​7​.
  • Strong desire to please their parents​8​.
  • More mental health issues such as anxiety, obsessive-compulsive tendencies, and depressive symptoms​9​.

Ambivalent attachment in adults

In adulthood, ambivalent attachment is also called the preoccupied attachment style.

Numerous studies show that the findings of childhood attachments are applicable to romantic relationships in adulthood​10​.

The quality of a parent-child relationship in the early years can have a lasting impact on the way people approach relationships. Characteristics of attachment in childhood often appear in adult intimate relationships.

An ambivalent adult shows a variety of ambivalent patterns in their interactions. Characteristics of ambivalent attachment in adults include:

  • They want to grow closer and form an emotional attachment to their romantic partner than the partner would like.
  • The obsession to be with their partner could seem too stifling and frighten them away.
  • An ingrained worry and fear of rejection that their partner does not love them and will leave them​11​.
  • Studies show that they are more anxious and hostile than secure participants​12​.
  • Have a more negative and untrusting view of society and humanity as a whole​13​.
  • Hypervigilantly deal with anxiety by forming dependent and clinging relationships that amplify their distress​14​.
  • More prone to develop PTSD symptoms (Post-traumatic Stress Disorder) after traumatic experiences​15​.
  • Motivated to succeed, but with poor coping skills, prone to burnout​16​.

Final thoughts on Ambivalent attachment

The pattern of attachment from childhood may seem to weigh heavily on adult life, but this does not have to be the case. 

An insecure attachment pattern can be changed given secure and loving adult relationships in later life. People with attachment issues can also overcome attachment difficulty with the help of mental health professionals. 

Understanding childhood experiences and processing them is an essential step in overcoming insecure attachment styles, be it avoidant, ambivalent, or disorganized attachment.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)

Is ambivalent attachment style the same as anxious attachment pattern?

Ambivalent attachment style and anxious attachment style tend to be used interchangeably because ambivalent babies are anxious to know the whereabouts of their parental figures.
Sometimes, an ambivalent attachment pattern is also referred to as anxious ambivalent attachment.


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