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.
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.
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 returns4
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.1 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.
Supporting Your Child’s Attachment
It’s clear from the research that secure attachment is the most desirable type for a child’s well-being and future success in relationships. 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 already experience anxiety, promote mental and emotional health through healthy lifestyle changes like adequate sleep, healthy eating habits, exercise, and mindfulness techniques like meditation or yoga. Spend family time outdoors or practice mindfulness as a family, taking time away from screens and distractions to promote togetherness and connection. 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 help, consider natural remedies for anxiety in children like Brillia. Specifically targeted to reduce anxiety, stress, and irritability while improving focus and clarity, Brillia contains no harsh chemicals and causes no harmful side effects like those associated with prescription anxiety medications. The active ingredient in Brillia consists of antibodies to the S100B protein, which is a crucial regulator of various different intracellular and extracellular brain processes and involved in brain plasticity. Brillia works by attaching to this protein and reducing anxiety at the source.
Find more resources about how to help your child’s anxiety at the Brillia blog.