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Anxious Attachment – What Causes It & How To Heal

What Is Anxious Attachment

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

Attachment Theory In A Nutshell

According to John Bowlby’s Attachment Theory, children’s attachment systems play a significant role in their relationships with their parents. Through childhood experiences, children develop a pattern of thinking about themselves and their relationships, called internal working models, as well as strategies for maintaining closeness to their parents. 

These working models reflect and influence a child’s perception, beliefs and behavior. They also affect the child’s grasp of how relationships work and how conflicts in close adult relationships are handled when they grow up.

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.

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 while low in avoidance.

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 caregivers are preoccupied with their own attachment issues​2​.

Anxious Attachment Examples In Strange Situation

In the Strange Situation experiment, anxiously attached children are more likely to pay attention to and reference their mother, particularly when she begins to interact with the stranger in the room. They hyperactivate their attachment system to monitor their mother’s behavior, keeping an eye on their mother’s physical, and potentially emotional, proximity and availability.

Anxiously attached children engage in more restricted exploration of their environment compared to securely attached children​3​.

In anxious infants, separation is extremely distressing and they show conflicting reactions to their mothers after they reunite. These children show ambivalent and anxious behaviors. They may cling to their mothers one moment, but resist them the next.

In a play situation, anxious children are highly stressed. They may ignore most peer offers and are more negative toward their mothers​4​.

While playing, they are acutely aware of how their caregiver is physically nearby and available to ensure high levels of interaction.

Characteristics of Anxious Attachment in Children

Because anxious children have doubts regarding others in close relationships, 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 also 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 caregivers’ 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 more on monitoring caregivers’ whereabouts and remaining physically close to  them.

Emotional dysregulation

These children have trouble dealing with stress effectively. On the one hand, they may not be able to distinguish between situations that justifiably require arousal and those that do not. On the other hand, because they rely entirely on their attachment figure to help them regulate, they cannot control their impulses on their own. As a result, they are more likely to let their emotions interfere with their goals. These children have difficulty performing daily life tasks when emotionally overwhelmed.

Hypervigilance

They anxiously observe their environment continuously for signs that their parents are losing attention or care.

Attachment anxiety and mental health disorders

Children become anxious of abandonment because their parents’ love and support are unpredictable. Chronic vigilance and anxiety will then increase the probability of a future anxiety disorder. These children are also more susceptible to develop 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

Children with this type of attachment can grow into adults with an incomplete or damaged sense of who they are. As a result of this low self-esteem, they seek approval, external validation and guidance about their self-worth and desirableness.

Researchers found that children’s attachment styles can be extended to romantic relationships in adulthood. They affect an individual’s motives, feelings and behavior in intimate relationships.

How Anxious Attachment Affects Relationships

An anxiously attached person yearns to be accepted and validated by others. 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​.

They tend to experience more arguments with their partners​14​. Their anger and hostility toward their partners increases when they discuss an area of conflict in their close relationships​15​. They experience more negative affect in their relationships and are more susceptible to breakups​16​.

Highly anxious adults may be more sensitive to cues that are relevant to the functioning of the attachment system​17​. They have a strong desire for emotional closeness and need constant reassurance that their partner loves them. Therefore, an anxious individual tends to be more sensitive to emotional cues, making their judgment on their partner’s actions less accurate.

When people jump to emotional conclusions, they could end up making more mistakes in judgment, perpetuating a cycle of conflict and misunderstanding​18​.

Studies have shown that anxious adults who raised 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 are over-protective and promote dependency in their children to satisfy their own needs.

Anxious parents are particularly sensitive to infant fear but ignore the infant’s initiative and exuberance when playing​21​. This type of parents struggle to separate from her toddler and behave in a way that fosters child anxiety and deters independence​22​.

These preoccupied parents are also anxious and doubt about the ability of their children to function independently once they leave for college.

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. If they can learn how to regulate their emotions, they can develop a more secure attachment style over time.

Improve anxious children’s belief in their own abilities and their primary adult’s responsiveness. Supportive relationships are necessary to change these children’s perspectives.

Change the behavior of the primary attachment figure or help the child gain healing experiences with a caregiver who responds to the child’s emotional needs​23​.

Alternatively, create a secure attachment relationship with a surrogate attachment figure to form an earned secure attachment.

Often, the caretakers were anxiously attached as children themselves and have anxious relationships with their partners. Therefore, it is not easy for them to do this all by themselves. Parents of anxiously attached children should seek professional assistance as early as possible.

Healing Adult Anxious Attachment In Adults

An anxious person who suffers from anxiety attachment should seek professional help. Therapy can help them gain a better understanding of their past experiences.

Making sense of one’s past life experiences is part of the healing process. Moreover, by exploring recent and past experiences related to attachment, it can also help adults reassess and reconstruct their inner representation of attachment relationships.

With help, the individual can also learn to deal with emotions.

If you and your partner have a hard time maintaining a healthy relationship, consider getting couples therapy.

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​.


References

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four attachment styles chart categorized by two dimensions
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