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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 a primary caregiver is characterized by the infant being extremely distressed when their parent leaves 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.

The Attachment Theory, proposed by British psychiatrist John Bowlby, 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 personal relationships.

Different parenting styles, therefore, lead to different internal working models and attachment patterns in children. The parent-child interactions and the resulting type of attachment lay the foundation for a child to form close relationships​2​.

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

Insecure attachment style, 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 young children.

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

In the experiment, securely attached babies are confidently exploring their environment in the presence of their parents. They use the parents as a secure base to explore from and a safe haven to retreat to.

Ambivalent babies, on the other hand, are preoccupied with gaining their caregivers’ attention. They explore their environment less freely.

The absence of the parent causes the infant extreme distress, but 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 emotional behaviors to attract the attention of caregivers. They realize they cannot rely on the parents to provide comfort​4​.

What causes Ambivalent Attachment in Children

Being able to depend on an attachment figure during childhood is important for child development and healthy relationships throughout life. Ambivalent attachment styles are thought to develop from receiving inconsistent parenting. Parents either aren’t responsive to the children’s needs or don’t meet them 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 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 needs and 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 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.

The quality of a parent-child relationship in the early years can have a lasting impact on the way people approach relationships.

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

An ambivalent adult shows a variety of ambivalent patterns in their interactions. The characteristics of ambivalent 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 romantic partners could seem too stifling and frighten them away.
  • A constant fear of abandonment and an ingrained worry that their partner does not love them and will leave them​11​.
  • Need constant reassurance from partner.
  • They are more anxious and hostile than secure people​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) from childhood trauma​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 difficulties with the help of mental health professionals. 

Understanding early 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.

References

  1. 1.
    Cassidy J. Emotion Regulation: Influences of Attachment Relationships. Monographs of the Society for Research in Child Development. Published online 1994:228. doi:10.2307/1166148
  2. 2.
    Cassidy J, Berlin LJ. The Insecure/Ambivalent Pattern of Attachment: Theory and Research. Child Development. Published online August 1994:971. doi:10.2307/1131298
  3. 3.
    Bretherton I. Attachment Theory: Retrospect and Prospect. Monographs of the Society for Research in Child Development. Published online 1985:3. doi:10.2307/3333824
  4. 4.
    Main M, Kaplan N, Cassidy J. Security in Infancy, Childhood, and Adulthood: A Move to the Level of Representation. Monographs of the Society for Research in Child Development. Published online 1985:66. doi:10.2307/3333827
  5. 5.
    Isabella RA. Origins of Attachment: Maternal Interactive Behavior across the First Year. Child Development. Published online April 1993:605. doi:10.2307/1131272
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    Mikulincer M, Florian V, Weller A. Attachment styles, coping strategies, and posttraumatic psychological distress: The impact of the Gulf War in Israel. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Published online 1993:817-826. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.64.5.817
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    Sroufe LA, Fox NE, Pancake VR. Attachment and Dependency in Developmental Perspective. Child Development. Published online December 1983:1615. doi:10.2307/1129825
  8. 8.
    Bar-On D, Eland J, Kleber RJ, et al. Multigenerational Perspectives on Coping with the Holocaust Experience: An                Attachment Perspective for Understanding the Developmental Sequelae of Trauma across Generations. International Journal of Behavioral Development. Published online June 1998:315-338. doi:10.1080/016502598384397
  9. 9.
    Shorey HS, Snyder CR. The Role of Adult Attachment Styles in Psychopathology and Psychotherapy Outcomes. Review of General Psychology. Published online March 2006:1-20. doi:10.1037/1089-2680.10.1.1
  10. 10.
    Hazan C, Shaver P. Romantic love conceptualized as an attachment process. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Published online 1987:511-524. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.52.3.511
  11. 11.
    Mikulincer M, Nachshon O. Attachment styles and patterns of self-disclosure. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Published online 1991:321-331. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.61.2.321
  12. 12.
    Kobak RR, Sceery A. Attachment in Late Adolescence: Working Models, Affect Regulation, and Representations of Self and Others. Child Development. Published online February 1988:135. doi:10.2307/1130395
  13. 13.
    Collins NL, Read SJ. Adult attachment, working models, and relationship quality in dating couples. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Published online 1990:644-663. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.58.4.644
  14. 14.
    Mikulincer M, Florian V, Tolmacz R. Attachment styles and fear of personal death: A case study of affect regulation. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Published online 1990:273-280. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.58.2.273
  15. 15.
    Mikulincer M, Horesh N, Eilati I, Kotler M. The association between adult attachment style and mental health in extreme life-endangering conditions. Personality and Individual Differences. Published online November 1999:831-842. doi:10.1016/s0191-8869(99)00032-x
  16. 16.
    Pines * AM. Adult attachment styles and their relationship to burnout: a preliminary, cross-cultural investigation. Work & Stress. Published online January 2004:66-80. doi:10.1080/02678370310001645025

About Pamela Li

Pamela Li is a bestselling author. She is the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Parenting For Brain. Her educational background is in Electrical Engineering (MS, Stanford University) and Business Management (MBA, Harvard University).

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