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What Causes Anxious Attachment Style & How To Heal

What Is Anxious Attachment Style

An anxious attachment develops when infants receive inconsistent parenting from their attachment figures. Children are uncertain whether or not their caretakers will be there for them in times of need.

Anxious attachment is an insecure attachment style.

In children, anxious attachment pattern is sometimes called ambivalent attachment style, anxious ambivalent attachment or resistant attachment. In adulthood, anxious attachment style is also called anxious-preoccupied attachment style or preoccupied attachment style.

mom hugs child who clings onto her

Attachment Theory In A Nutshell

According to John Bowlby and Ainsworth’s Attachment Theory, children’s attachment systems play a significant role in their relationships with their parents. Through childhood experiences, children develop attachment styles, which are strategies or attachment patterns that help the child maintain closeness to their parents.

Attachment styles affect one’s internal working models, which represent the pattern of thinking about themselves and their relationships. These models reflect and influence a child’s perception, beliefs and behavior.

There are four main attachment styles:

  • Secure attachment style
  • Avoidant attachment style
  • Anxious attachment style
  • Disorganized attachment style

Except for secure attachment, all the three remaining attachment are insecure attachment styles.

In adults, attachment styles affect people’s grasp of how intimate relationships work and how conflicts are handled.

According to Adult Attachment Theory, individual differences in attachment-related anxiety reflect the way people organize their thoughts, feelings, and behavior in later relationships. The resulting attachment styles represent their ability to evaluate and monitor their significant others’ availability and responsiveness.

Anxious Attachment In Children

An anxiously attached child develops internal working models of uncertainty about their caregiver’s help. As much as they desire intimacy, they feel insecure and unlovable. They don’t know whether anyone will want to be close to them.

These children are high in anxiety because of their uncertainty. They are low in avoidance because of their desire to approach others.

anxious attachment style chart depicts secure attachment, anxious attachment anxious avoidant attachment and fearful avoidant attachment

What Causes Anxious Attachment

Children who experience caregivers as emotionally unavailable develop anxiety about their caretakers’ availability, especially during distress​1​.

Anxious children do not develop emotional bonds with their primary caregivers because these parents are anxiously preoccupied with their own attachment issues​2​. Their own attachment style tends to be the anxious attachment type, too.

Anxious Attachment Examples In Strange Situation

In the Strange Situation experiment, an anxiously attached child pays close attention to their mother, particularly when she begins to interact with the stranger in the room. The child hyperactivates their attachment system to monitor their mother’s behavior, keeping an eye on her location and emotional availability.

Because their attention is on the mothers, anxiously attached children have more restricted exploration of their environment compared to securely attached children​3​.

Separation is extremely distressing for anxious infants. They show conflicting reactions to their mothers after they reunite. During the reunion, these children show ambivalent and anxious behaviors. They may cling to their mothers one moment, but resist them the next.

In a playful situation, anxious children are highly stressed. They may ignore peers’ offers and are more negative toward their mothers​4​. While playing, they are acutely aware of whether their caregiver is physically nearby and available.

Characteristics of Anxious Attachment in Children

Because anxious children have doubts regarding their parents, they tend to have the following characteristics​5–7​.

Separation Anxiety

The caregiver’s availability is always a concern. As a result, anxious infants often suffer from separation anxiety and develop clinging behavior. They pay close attention to the behavior, and presence, of caregivers. They also have a strong fear of rejection.

Hyperactivating attachment

Anxious children show more attachment-related behaviors. These behaviors keep the parents’ attention and thus their presence. In part, this strategy involves alternately threatening caretakers with anger and bribing them with charm to get their attention and support.

Less exploration

Anxiously attached kids are reluctant to explore the environment, as they focus on monitoring the parents’ whereabouts and remaining physically close to  them.

Emotional dysregulation

These children have trouble dealing with their own stress effectively. On one hand, they may not be able to distinguish between situations that justifiably require arousal and those that do not. On the other hand, since they depend entirely on their attachment figure to help them regulate, but the support is not consistent, they cannot control their impulses on their own. These children have difficulty performing daily life tasks when emotionally overwhelmed.

Hypervigilance

Children with anxious attachment observe their environment continuously for signs that their parents are losing attention or care. This causes them to become hypervigilant.

Attachment anxiety and mental health disorders

Children become anxious of abandonment because their parents’ love and support are unpredictable. Chronic vigilance and anxiety will increase the probability of future anxiety disorders. These kids are also more susceptible to mental health disorders such as depression​8​, obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD)​9​, posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD)​10​, eating disorder​11​, and suicidal tendencies​12​.

boy anxiously attached to mother crying

Signs of Anxious Attachment in Adults

Researchers have found that children with this type of attachment can have lifelong influence on their romantic relationships in adulthood. A person’s attachment history can affect their motives, feelings and behavior in an intimate relationship.

Anxious children can grow into adults with an incomplete or damaged sense of who they are. They may have a negative view of themselves and feel that they don’t deserve love.

Because of the low self-esteem, they seek approval, constant validation and frequent reassurance about their self-worth from other people.

How Anxious Attachment Affects Adult Relationships

An anxiously attached person yearns to be accepted and validated by their romantic partner. They have an emotional hunger for love and care. They believe that they would feel secure if only they were understood and appreciated. Despite being aware of their feelings, these individuals have difficulty self-regulating​13​.

Anxious adults have difficulty trusting that their significant others will be there for them. They tend to have more arguments with their partners​14​. They get angry and hostile easily when discussing the conflicts in their relationships​15​. Anxious people experience more negative affect and are more susceptible to breakups​16​.

Having an anxious attachment style as an adult means they are more sensitive to cues related to their partner’s availability​17​. They have a strong desire for emotional closeness and intimacy. Their need for constant reassurance makes them overly dependent and highly emotional.

The intense fear of abandonment makes these individual’s judgment on their partner’s actions less accurate. When people jump to emotional conclusions, they could end up making more mistakes, perpetuating a cycle of conflict and misunderstanding​18​.

Studies have also found that anxious adults who raised their younger siblings as children tend to over-parent their romantic partners​19​.

How Anxious Attachment Affects Parenting

Parents who are anxious and preoccupied tend to parent in a way that interferes with their children’s autonomy or exploration​20​. They tend to be overprotective and promote dependency in their children to satisfy their own needs.

These parents are particularly sensitive to infant fear but ignore the infant’s initiatives when playing​21​. This type of parents struggle to separate from her toddler. They are more likely to foster anxiety and deter independence​22​. They tend to adopt a hovering parenting style.

These anxious worry about their children’s ability to live independently when they leave for college.

anxious girl hugs parent

Healing – Can Anxious Attachment Be Cured?

Healing Anxious Attachment In Children

Children with anxious attachment styles do not necessarily suffer from insecure attachment when they grow up. Supportive relationships are necessary to change these children’s perspectives and develop a secure attachment style over time.

Help these children feel safe by improving their primary adult’s responsiveness. Having a caregiver who responds to the child’s emotional needs​23​ allows the young child to gain healing experiences and learn self-regulation.

Help anxious children develop confidence in their own abilities and self-esteem. Show them responsive, unconditional love so that they are not overly fixated to seek reassurance.

Parents are not the only ones who can help anxiously attached kids heal.

A secure attachment relationship can be built with any trusted adult. This grownup then becomes a surrogate attachment figure and the resulting attachment is called an earned secure attachment.

It is often not easy for parents to do this all by themselves. Parents of anxiously attached kids should seek professional assistance.

man hugs anxious woman

Healing Anxious Attachment In Adults

Adult life can be difficult for someone who suffers from anxiety attachment. They should seek professional help as soon as possible.

Making sense of one’s past life experiences is part of the healing process. Therapy can help them gain a better understanding of their past experiences.

Moreover, by exploring past experiences related to attachment, one can reassess and reconstruct their inner representation of attachment relationships.

With help, the individual can also learn to regulate emotions in healthy ways. One way to improve emotional regulation is by doing mindfulness exercises and improving self-awareness. Being mindful can help a person recognize the difference between perceived threat and actual threat, so that they don’t overreact.

The tendency of an anxious person to need constant reassurance may push their partner away. If you or your loved ones have a hard time maintaining a healthy relationship, consider getting couples therapy and working towards a more secure attachment style.

girl cries in mom arms

Final Thoughts On Anxious Attachment

Being anxiously attached is not the same as having a psychological disorder. Psychiatric disorders often result from cumulative maladaptation from early experiences, ongoing challenges and lack of support​24​. However, if attachment anxiety is adversely affecting one’s quality of life, it is still advisable to seek treatment early.


References

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four attachment styles chart categorized by two dimensions
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