How Fearful Avoidant Attachment Develops In Early Childhood

Conceived by psychologists John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth, attachment theory focuses on the relationships between people, particularly long-term relationships.1 There are four primary attachment styles that originate with the parent-child relationship (or with other primary caregivers). They are avoidant, ambivalent, fearful avoidant (often called disorganized), and secure. When parents or caregivers are attuned to their children from a young age, children are likely to develop secure attachment, in which they are comfortable seeking reassurance from their caregivers. Fearful avoidant attachment style, on the other hand, refers to a child’s tendency to avoid parents or caregivers. When it comes to fearful avoidant attachment vs secure attachment, the former often correlates with complicated relationships in the future and low self-esteem, whereas secure attachment corresponds with high self-esteem and better self-reliance. Learn how to spot fearful avoidant attachment style, what contributes to it in childhood, and lastly how to overcome the attachment style altogether. 

What Is Fearful Avoidant Attachment Style? 

Fearful avoidant attachment refers to an individual’s tendency to fear relationships even though they desire closeness with others. Because their parents or caregivers did not successfully meet their needs when they were children, people with fearful avoidant attachment learned to feel unsafe and insecure in their world. As adults, they may actively seek out relationships, yet withdraw when things get too intimate because they ultimately do not trust the bond. A 2019 study published in the Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy describes fearful avoidant attachment as reluctancy to engage in a close relationship along with “a dire need to be loved by others.”2

Causes of Fearful Avoidant Attachment

Fearful avoidant attachment style often stems from unsuccessful bonding with parents or caregivers in early childhood. More specifically, parents may have shown ambivalence toward their child, alternating between being responsive or highly affectionate at times and distant or aggressive other times. Parents may be dismissive of their children, often leaving them to deal with their emotions alone. In the worst cases, parents may be abusive or neglectful, leading their child to carry unresolved trauma into adulthood.

It’s important to note that parental behavior leading to fearful avoidant attachment is not always intentional. Some parents who have their own unresolved trauma from childhood or were parented in a similar way may develop the same patterns in their own parenting style. They might also be suffering from a mental health issue that interferes with their parenting. Some parents become triggered by their children and feel insecure in how to “correctly” parent, leading them to withdraw at times in lieu of making a mistake, especially if they had turbulent childhoods.

Signs & Characteristics of Fearful Avoidant Attachment

If a child has fearful avoidant attachment, they may appear to be anxious or on edge frequently. They might respond to their caregiver’s presence with tears or avoid them altogether. Often conflicted, a child with fearful avoidant attachment craves their caregiver’s attention, but fears it at the same time. This might look like the child showing distress when their caregiver leaves the room, but also showing distress upon their return. In adulthood, signs and characteristics of fearful avoidant attachment are just as complicated. They may include: 

  • Difficulty regulating emotions
  • Resistance to commitment or intimacy
  • Tendency to seek out faults in partners or friends to have a justifiable exit from the relationship
  • Fear of abandonment coupled with feeling “trapped” in relationships
  • Pattern of hiding true feelings
  • Inclination to take things personally
  • Low self-esteem
  • Anxiety

Fearful Avoidant Attachment & Mental Health

People with fearful avoidant attachment carry around a negative view of themselves and others. They desire closeness, but fear it too. Being caught in this persistent tug of war between wanting and avoiding, can take a toll on a person’s mental health, leading to intense anxiety and unpredictable emotions that are difficult to regulate. Similar to avoiding relationships with friends and partners, people with fearful avoidant attachment may also avoid seeking help from a mental health professional or a loved one. When pushed to confide, a fear of intimacy and exposure leads a person with fearful avoidant attachment to shut down and flee.   

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How to Overcome Fearful Avoidant Attachment

It is possible to overcome fearful avoidant attachment, even well into adulthood. Therapy is a good place to start as it allows an individual to process unresolved trauma and understand how their relationship patterns developed in childhood through no fault of their own. Taking small steps to build closeness with others and repair relationships starts with honest communication, and working with a trusted therapist will allow a person to learn how to open up in a contained space before opening up to others. 

Another important action that can heal fearful avoidant attachment and foster secure attachment is developing a mindfulness practice. According to family therapist Linda Carroll, M.S., “In relationships, shifting from reactiveness to responsiveness can lift us out of our early attachment patterns toward a healthier, more secure style.”3 She says that simply becoming aware of old fears is a powerful step in preventing them.

For parents, caregivers, or educators looking to repair fearful avoidant attachment or avoid it, working on being present and consistent can help your child feel safe and seen. Comforting your child when they are upset, reconnecting after conflict, and establishing daily routines, will help them see the world as a less scary place and you as their source of solace and security.   

Lastly, if you or your child needs extra support to deal with anxiety stemming from fearful avoidant attachment, a non-prescription medication like Brillia can help. Specifically targeted to reduce anxiety, stress, and irritability while improving focus and clarity, Brillia is a homeopathic medication that requires no official diagnosis and has no harmful side effects like those often associated with prescription anxiety drugs. The active ingredient in Brillia consists of antibodies to the S100B protein, which is a key regulator of various different intracellular and extracellular brain processes. Brillia works by attaching to this protein and reducing symptoms of anxiety at the source so you or your child can feel calmer and more centered sooner.  

Brillia works best when combined with healthy lifestyle habits described in our 5-Pillar approach, which consists of a healthy diet, adequate sleep, controlled screen time, and mindfulness practices. These habits help to support whole-body health, addressing anxiety from multiple angles for a more thorough impact. Learn more about how Brillia works and find more resources about reducing anxiety at the Brillia blog.

Erica Garza is an author and essayist from Los Angeles. She holds an MFA from Columbia University and a certificate in Narrative Therapy. Her writing has appeared in TIME, Health, Glamour, Good Housekeeping, Women's Health, and VICE.


References: 1https://www.verywellmind.com/what-is-attachment-theory-2795337, 2https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/0092623X.2019.1566946?journalCode=usmt20, 3https://www.mindbodygreen.com/articles/how-fearful-avoidant-attachment-style-affects-your-sex-life
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