Understanding Insecure Attachment

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From birth all the way through our lives we form attachments and relationships with people around us. The way in which we relate to these people is often referred to as our attachment style. We develop an attachment style as infants, dependent on our interactions and communication with our mother or primary caregiver. It is thought that these attachment patterns continue throughout our lives and into our intimate relationships as adults.

There are four different attachment styles; secure attachment, anxious ambivalent attachment, anxious avoidant attachment and fearful avoidant attachment (disorganised). The latter three are all considered to be insecure attachment styles.

Understanding insecure attachment can help people to develop ways of managing their reactions and responses in relationships. Additionally, it can help you to navigate relationships with somebody else who exhibits an insecure attachment style.

What Is the Attachment Theory?

The attachment theory was developed in the 1950’s by a psychoanalyst named John Bowlby. His student, Mary Ainsworth, went on to develop on Bowlby’s findings, giving the attachment theory its recognition today. Bowlby and Ainsworth were interested in the relationship between baby and caregiver, and how each one attempted to create this bond.

Intrigued by the similarity of infant’s behaviours with other mammals, Bowlby suggested that humans have evolved to use attachment to increase our chances of survival. This was coined the attachment behavioural system. He described a cognitive framework that we each internally build, called our internal working models, which guide how we perceive the world and others in it.

Developing on Bowlby’s theory, Ainsworth went on to identify the four attachment types in her 1969 experiment, the strange situation.

How Do We Form Attachments?

We are born unable to look after or care for ourselves, which means we utterly depend on our parents or caregivers for survival. This first human connection is crucial in forming how we relate and interact with others throughout our lives.

If the child’s caregiver is responsive and loving towards the child, responding to their needs and showing them care and affection, a secure attachment is likely to form.

The child learns that their needs are being met and they will be supported to grow and flourish. They learn that they can trust in other human beings.

If the child’s emotional and/or physical needs are not met they are not likely to feel any sense of safety from the attachment figure, and therefore may develop an insecure attachment. This is where the infant is not able to trust in the comfort and security of their caregiver. Unfortunately, insecure attachments which are formed in childhood are likely to persist throughout somebody’s life unless they are addressed in a therapeutic environment.

Here we will look at the different forms of insecure attachment, how to recognise insecure attachment, and how it impacts people’s relationships.

What are the Four Attachment Styles?

Understanding the different elements which relate to attachment style can help you to understand yourself and those around you. Many people find relationship problems in adulthood are related to their own, or their partners, attachment style.

Secure Attachment

As children, securely attached people will feel reassured by the presence of their parents or caregiver which enables them to explore the world around them with confidence. Securely attached children are likely to form good relationships with other kids, as well as adults around them. They will usually prefer the comfort of their primary caregiver but they are responsive to the care of others too.

Children who have a secure attachment style are likely to have several friends and communicate well with others. They have healthy self esteem and confidence, enabling them to take bold steps into the world. They enjoy playing and socialising. Securely attached children do not fear rejection or abandonment, they feel secure that they are loved by their parent/s.

Anxious attachment

Anxious attachment, also known as anxious-resistant or anxious-ambivalent, often manifests as a fear of rejection and neglect.

This form of attachment is typically due to inconsistency in the way the child was parented as a young infant. For example, if their caregiver was very affectionate and attentive at times, but distant and cold at other times, the child may interpret this as rejection and feel as though their needs are not being met.

The unpredictability of their parents’ care is unsettling for the child and they become confused and nervous about how their behaviour might change. This unsettled feeling can be characterised by ambivalence in the child, sometimes clinging to their parent and sometimes rejecting them. They are simultaneously distrusting and yearning.

Children with this form of attachment may have low self esteem and confidence, only feeling safe in the close proximity of their caregiver. They may have trouble making friends and maintaining friendships at nursery or school.

How Does Anxious Attachment Develop?

Somebody who has an anxious ambivalent attachment style as a child is likely to have anxious preoccupied adult attachment.

This may manifest as somebody having very low confidence and self esteem. They may have trust and security in others, but they doubt themselves and their own abilities. They are likely to blame themselves for any relationship problems.

Throughout their lives and relationships, anxiously attached people are likely to need reassurance that they are worthy of love and care. This may extend to feelings of jealousy, insecurity and paranoia in their relationships. Adults with this form of attachment may begin to put put a lot of weight on the relationship, feeling as though they can’t cope without the other person. They feel as though the love of their partner keeps them afloat. Unfortunately this can often lead to very dependent relationships, which, if coupled with another insecure attachment style can be very corrosive.

Avoidant Attachment

Avoidant attachment, also referred to as anxious avoidant attachment style generally manifests in children being withdrawn and resistant as children.

This form of attachment usually forms because their parent or caregiver was emotionally unavailable during their early years. The child may have picked up on physical cues, such as frowning and sighing, which lead the child to feel rejected, or uncared for. The child may believe that their needs won’t be met by others and so they may become very independent, but also isolated and struggle making meaningful relationships.

Anxious avoidant children may behave with anger or lash out. They may be bullied by others, or be the bully themselves. It’s common for them to purposefully due to a fear of rejection.

How Does Avoidant Attachment Develop?

People who have an avoidant insecure attachment as children may go on to develop an avoidant dismissive style as adults.

It may seem on the outside that avoidant dismissive adults are fairly confident people. They may be seemingly social, independent and have partners and friendships.

However, these people are likely to keep others at a certain distance as a protective mechanism. They may find making deep intimate connections difficult, and will sometimes end adult relationships before they have to be vulnerable in front of someone else.

Avoidant attached adults are likely to believe they don’t need emotional closeness, believing instead that they are safer and better off alone. Having learned in childhood that they could not consistently rely on others, they have stopped expecting others to be there for them.

Disorganised Attachment

The fourth attachment style is disorganised attachment. Also referred to as fearful avoidant attachment, this can be thought of as a combination of anxious and avoidant. Disorganised insecurely attached children are likely to have a deep desire, but also a deep fear, for love and affection.

This form of attachment is often to do with the caregiver behaving inconsistently, which could include; unpredictable behaviour, anger, neglect and abuse.

Parents usually have huge amounts of love and care for their children. Unfortunately, sometimes due to physical or mental illness, stress, or having been abused themselves, they are unable to consistently care for their children. Children with disorganised attachment are likely to be shown love and affection on some occasions, while at other times they may be neglectful or abusive. This leaves the child feeling fearful and uncared for.

As children, fearful avoidant attachment can manifest in antisocial behaviour such as violence, dishonesty and isolation. Children may not develop ways of managing stress and upset which leaves them vulnerable to mental health issues and aggression.

How Does Disorganised Attachment Develop?

As adults, disorganised attachment may manifest in unpredictable behaviour. They may be distant at times, and extremely desperate or needy at other times. They are in a very complex position of both fearing love and craving it. People with disorganised insecure attachment tend to be preparing for rejection or disappointment, which can make it very difficult for them to be in any kind of a relationship.

In a similar way to adults with avoidant attachment style, disorganised attachment style can manifest in a fear of creating close bonds. The difference, however, is that the latter has an underlying desire to be in close relationships and for emotional intimacy.

Unfortunately, adults with this style of attachment are commonly living with unresolved trauma from their childhood. Without processing difficulties from the past, it’s unlikely that these attachment issues will resolve in future relationships.

Support for Young People at The Wave Clinic

Early attachments can have a profound impact on how we develop in childhood and into adulthood. An insecure attachment style can follow you through your life and cause negative emotions around romantic relationships, self confidence and mental wellbeing.

If a young person in your life is struggling with their attachment system and experiencing insecure attachment patterns, help is available. It can be extremely difficult to watch someone you love being in pain, so we offer emotional support to parents and family members too.

At The Wave, we specialise in the mental health needs of children and adolescents as they progress through their teens. We don’t simply treat the symptoms of mental health, we aim to understand and manage the underlying factors of each condition. Becoming a young adult can bring up some very complex and difficult feelings, compounded with mental illness, these years can be extremely isolating.

Our team are experts in adolescent mental health, offering a wide variety of services and treatments designed to empower young people and their families. Everyone who comes through our centre engages in a variety of activities and workshops, enabling them to become more informed, proactive and positive young people.

Reach out to us today for more information.

Further reading on similar topics can be found in our blog What are the different types of attachment?

Fiona - The Wave Clinic

Fiona Yassin is the founder and clinical director at The Wave Clinic. She is a U.K. and International registered Psychotherapist and Accredited Clinical Supervisor (U.K. and UNCG).

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