4 Attachment Styles in Children & What it Means for Their Anxiety

One of the Four Attachment Styles in Kids

"Psychologists often classify the different styles of attachment as secure, dismissive-avoidant, anxious-preoccupied, and fearful-avoidant." 

The bond between children and their parents or caregivers (also called attachment) occurs in different ways for different kids. Psychologists often classify the different styles of attachment as secure, dismissive-avoidant, anxious-preoccupied, and fearful-avoidant. As this interplay relates to both children and parents, it can be useful to learn how these different types of attachment may relate to anxiety in children and to discuss ways in which you can help your child feel supported, no matter what type of bond they currently display.

What is Attachment Theory?

Developed by British psychologist John Bowlby, attachment theory suggests that individuals are innately inclined to establish connections with caregivers during childhood.1 The impact of these early bonds may persist and shape attachments throughout one's life. 

When primary caregivers are present and attentive to an infant's needs, it instills a sense of security in the child. From an evolutionary standpoint, Bowlby explained that it increased the infant’s chance of survival. But it also establishes a secure foundation from which the child can confidently explore the world.

After John Bowlby, researchers like Mary Ainsworth and Main and Solomon would come up with four attachment styles: secure, dismissive-avoidant, preoccupied-anxious/ambivalent, and disorganized or fearful-avoidant, which we’ll discuss in detail below. 

How Do Children Develop Certain Attachment Styles?

Several factors can influence the development of attachments. Quality of caregiving is the most obvious. If a parent or caregiver responds swiftly and consistently to their infant, the child learns they can rely on those responsible for their well-being, establishing a crucial foundation for attachment. 

Children lacking a primary caregiver, like those raised as orphans, may struggle to form the necessary trust to develop attachments. When a child fails to form secure attachments early in life it can negatively impact their behavior and relationships in later childhood and throughout their life.

1. Secure Attachment

Secure attachment in a child is generally regarded as the most beneficial and least likely to produce anxiety. This type of attachment is characterized by a loving parent who responds to the child’s needs consistently, from infancy onward. The child depends on the parent for comfort as well as physical care, prefers the parent to strangers, and seeks out the parent in times of difficulty or uncertainty. When this secure attachment is formed early in life, the child sees their parent as a firm base from which to explore the world. A secure attachment in childhood, the most common type, usually produces adults with higher self-esteem and self-confidence, who form healthy, lasting relationships.

How to develop secure attachment:

  • Be available and attentive to your child
  • Validate your child’s feelings
  • Accept your child for who they are
  • Learn about their interests and enjoy them together
  • Set appropriate limits and guidelines
  • Reconnect after conflicts
  • Own up to mistakes

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2. Dismissive-Avoidant Attachment

Sometimes a child may develop an avoidant relationship with parents or caregivers. This can happen when the parent is often unresponsive to the child’s needs. Though the child may be physically cared for, they experience a marked lack of emotional support and end up avoiding the parent and relying heavily on their own resources from an early age. Although this avoidant attachment is not closely linked with anxiety, these children may find their adult relationships impacted by a tendency to push others away, preferring isolation and emotional distance.

Signs a child has a dismissive-avoidant attachment:

  • The child prefers isolation to the company of others
  • They have trouble making and maintaining friendships
  • The child avoids his or her parents, or is indifferent towards them
  • The child may behave aggressively towards others, taking on the role of a bully
  • They internalize emotions instead of communicating them
  • The child often appears to be independent and self-sufficient

Reasons a parent may adopt this style:

Sometimes a parent may feel overwhelmed when their children express their emotional needs, leading the parent to shut down their own emotions. Perhaps their parents didn’t allow them to cry or often told them to “toughen up” when they felt upset. When parents form dismissive-avoidant attachment styles with their child, it is usually because they adopted this style with one of their own parents. Intergenerational patterns may seem difficult to break, but working closely with a therapist to learn more positive parenting habits can help tremendously.

3. Preoccupied-Anxious/Ambivalent Attachment

If a parent is very unpredictable in their interactions with a child, that child may develop an anxious attachment. Since the parent is sometimes caring and sometimes angry, insensitive or absent, the child swings between clingy, needy behavior and rejection or even aggression toward the parent. As the name suggests, the child experiencing anxiety is due to their parent’s unpredictable availability. As adults, these children may be overly dependent on romantic partners, seeking approval yet constantly suspicious and dissatisfied with the response.

Signs a child has a preoccupied-anxious/ambivalent attachment:

  • The child shifts between clinginess and rejection unexpectedly
  • They have difficulty trusting others
  • They have low self-esteem and often behave impulsively
  • The child is anxious and hypersensitive to the moods and actions of others
  • They often seek approval or reassurance from others
  • The child may fear being left alone or rejected

Reasons a parent may adopt this style:

Parents who adopt this style exhibit inconsistent responsiveness to their child’s needs. They may have had a parent who adopted this style with them or they may be struggling with a mental condition that prevents them from regulating their behavior towards their child. A traumatic event may lead the parent to be overly protective of the child, especially in situations that trigger anxiety, although they may tune out in situations that are not deemed threatening, creating a pattern of inconsistent responsiveness that leads the child to feel insecure. 

4. Disorganized or Fearful-Avoidant Attachment

The worst (and least common) type of attachment occurs when the parent is abusive or neglectful of the child. In this scenario, the child still looks to their parent for basic needs, but they also fear the person who has harmed them. These children can experience high levels of anxiety. Expecting mistreatment at every turn while unable to get away from the situation because of their age, they will do everything possible to avoid the abusive or neglectful parent. In adulthood, they may experience great difficulty forming relationships, as the old feelings of fear and patterns of avoidance resurface with each new attachment.

Signs a child has a fearful-avoidant attachment:

  • The child is always on edge
  • They crave their caregiver's attention but are frightful at the same time
  • The child responds to their parent's presence with tears or they avoid them at all costs
  • The child is in distress when a parent leaves but is equally as distressed when the parents returns

Reasons a parent may adopt this style:

According to Dr. Mary Main, a doctoral student of Mary Ainsworth's at The Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, unresolved trauma and loss in a parent’s life is the best predictor of disorganized attachment between a parent and child.2 This includes abuse and neglect experienced in the parents’ early childhood. This unresolved trauma may make it difficult for the parent to tolerate a range of emotions in their child.  

What Do Attachment Styles Mean for Anxiety?

Researchers have found a correlation between anxious and avoidant attachment styles in childhood and the development of anxiety disorders in adulthood.3 One of the most interesting findings is the connection between such attachments and social anxiety

One study suggests that people with anxious or avoidant attachments have learned to view interpersonal relationships from a place of fear, leading them to use maladaptive ways to cope with their emotions.4 In social situations, they may act as they did as a child by hiding their feelings and not thinking positively about their interactions or themselves. Over time, this sets up a vicious cycle of poor coping skills and unsatisfying relationships. 

On the other hand, children with secure attachments grow up to seek out and maintain positive, healthy relationships with others. They are less likely to use maladaptive coping methods, including substance abuse, and less likely to develop anxiety or depression. Children with secure attachments also learn to set healthy boundaries and have higher self-esteem. 

How to Support  Your Child’s Attachment Style

It’s clear from the research that secure attachment style is the most desirable type for a child’s well-being and future success in relationships.5 If you see signs of one of the other types of attachment in your child’s behavior toward you, there's no need to panic. It’s never too late to modify your parenting style to influence your child’s attachment style. If they are already experiencing anxiety, you can support their  mental and emotional health through therapy, improved communication approaches, and even healthy lifestyle changes

Research has proven that simple habits like  getting adequate sleep, following a healthy diet,, minimizing screen time, and  practicing mindfulness can boost mental and physical health while also improving focus, motivation, and cognitive function. Spend family time outdoors or practice mindfulness as a family, taking time away from screens and distractions to promote togetherness and connection. Go grocery shopping as a family and cook together or plan a weekly family game night to meld fun and cooperation. There are so many things you can do differently to connect and grow closer while helping to manage anxiety and stress in more productive ways. (Check out the Brillia(nce) Resource Center for ideas!)

Secure attachment is related to parents who play more with their children and respond quickly to their needs. Therefore, in your daily interactions aim for a caring, empathetic response to their needs and distress. Be consistent in your response so your child can expect a logical, measured approach even when you are providing discipline for misbehavior. 

If your child still needs more support, you may want to consider non-prescription medication for anxiety such as Brillia. Free from harsh, synthetic chemicals and harmful side effects, Brillia is specifically targeted to reduce anxiety, stress, restlessness, and irritability gently and impactfully without affecting any other systems in the body. Brillia’s active ingredient consists of antibodies to the S100B protein, which is a crucial regulator of various different intracellular and extracellular brain processes and involved in interneuronal communication. In less sciencey terms, the medication balances the brain chemicals responsible for causing symptoms of anxiety and stress, such as pounding heartbeat, rapid breath, shaking, racing thoughts, nervousness, and lack of focus. Brillia doesn’t mask symptoms like so many other pharmaceutical drugs; it reduces anxiety at the source so your child can learn more effective management strategies for long-term success. 

Find out more about how Brillia works and explore more resources about how to help your child’s anxiety at the Brillia(nce) Resource Center.

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References: 1https://www.verywellmind.com/what-is-attachment-theory-2795337, 2https://www.psychalive.org/disorganized-attachment, 3https://digitalcommons.liberty.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1119&context=kabod, 4https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6310265/, 5https://www.psychalive.org/what-is-your-attachment-style/, 6https://www.verywellmind.com/attachment-styles-2795344, 7https://positivepsychologyprogram.com/attachment-theory/
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