The baby-caregiver relationship is important to a baby’s development and their understanding of the world.
Babies and young children rely on caregivers for their well-being, and they also learn early social skills by observing the way their caregiver responds to them and others.
The way a caregiver interacts with a baby or young child can affect the type of attachment style that child develops.
Anxious attachment is one of four types of attachment styles. People who have developed an anxious attachment may have a hard time feeling secure in relationships. As young children, they may cling to caregivers or become inconsolable when a caregiver leaves.
As an adult, they may be prone to jealousy or other insecurities about relationships. Anxious attachment may also be called ambivalent attachment.
What is attachment theory?
Attachment theory is a model created by psychologists in the 1960s. The model was created to help describe the way infants and adults connect to others on an emotional level.
According to the theory, an attachment pattern is established during early childhood based on how an infant’s needs are met by its caregivers.
The attachment style you develop in early childhood is thought to have a lifelong influence on:
- your ability to communicate your emotions and needs to your partners, friends, and family
- how you respond to conflict
- how you form expectations about your relationships
Attachment styles can also be broadly categorized as being either secure or insecure. Anxious attachment is a form of insecure attachment.
The attachment style you were raised with doesn’t explain everything about your relationships and who you are as an adult, but understanding it may help explain patterns you notice in relationships.
Researchers aren’t entirely sure what causes a person to develop a specific attachment type, though parenting style and behaviors may play a role.
In cases where people develop an anxious attachment type, inconsistent parenting may be a contributing factor.
A parent with inconsistent parenting behaviors may be nurturing and attuned at times, but insensitive, emotionally unavailable, or antipathetic (cold or critical) at other times.
Parents may also be slow or inconsistent in responding to signs of distress in their baby. For example, not picking up a crying baby to avoid “spoiling” the child may actually lead to the development of anxious attachment toward the caregiver.
Inconsistent behaviors by a parent or caregiver can cause a child to become confused and insecure since they don’t know what behavior to expect.
A child who has developed an anxious attachment toward a caregiver may act “clingy” or “whiny” toward them to try to have their needs met.
Genetics may also play a role in anxious attachment.
Both children and adults can exhibit signs of anxious attachment. A child who has developed anxious attachment toward their caregiver may seem notably anxious when separated by that caregiver. They may also be hard to console after the caregiver has returned.
In adulthood, a person who developed anxious attachment may need constant reassurance and affection from their partner. They may also have trouble being alone or single.
Signs of anxious attachment in children
- crying that isn’t easily consoled
- becoming very upset when a caregiver leaves
- clinging to their attachment figures
- exploring less than children of a similar age
- appearing generally anxious
- not interacting with strangers
- having problems regulating and controlling negative emotions
- displaying aggressive behavior and poor peer interactions
Signs of anxious attachment in adults
As an adult, anxious attachment style can show up as:
- difficulty trusting others
- low self-worth
- worries that your partners will abandon you
- craving closeness and intimacy
- being overly dependent in relationships
- requiring frequent reassurance that people care about you
- being overly sensitive to a partner’s actions and moods
- being highly emotional, impulsive, unpredictable, and moody
Adults and young adults who develop anxious attachment may be at increased risk for anxiety disorders.
These disorders may include:
These anxiety disorders are more commonly seen in women than men. Depression is another condition that may arise.
Certain childhood experiences may increase the likelihood that someone will develop this attachment style, including:
- early separation from a parent or caregiver
- a troubled childhood, including physical or sexual abuse
- instances of neglect or mistreatment
- caregivers who ridiculed them or became annoyed when they were in distress
You may have a difficult time feeling secure in any type of relationship — including those with family, friends, and partners — if you’ve developed this type of attachment.
You may find relationships to regularly be:
You may also feel insecure in relationships and have a strong fear of rejection or abandonment.
In an early study, women who experienced anxious attachment and were abused as children were found to have difficulty with relationships later in life.
How can you help a partner with anxious attachment?
If you’re in a relationship with someone raised with anxious attachment, there are a few things you can do to help make them feel more secure:
- give them ongoing assurance that you care about them
- be consistent in giving them attention
- follow through on promises and commitments
- encourage self-awareness and self-reflection to help them overcome their anxious behaviors
You may not be able to change the attachment type you developed in childhood, but you can work to feel more secure in yourself and your relationships. This can take a lot of conscious effort and self-awareness, but you’ve got this.
Here are some steps you can take:
- Practice being aware of how you interact in relationships.
- Touch base with the emotions you feel when you experience anxiety or insecurity in a relationship, and how you react to such emotions.
- Use cognitive behavioral therapy or mindfulness exercises, such as meditation, which may be able to help you regulate and respond in different ways to these emotions.
A therapist or relationship counselor may also be able to help.
Tips for parents and caregivers
Infants can begin to anticipate specific caregiver responses to their distress as early as 6 months of age.
As a parent or caregiver, you can help prevent anxious attachment or other insecure attachment styles by consistently responding to your baby’s distress in sensitive and loving ways.
This strategy is called “organized” and “secure.” A child will know what to do when in distress because their caregiver is consistently responsive to their needs.
Tips for adults with a history of anxious attachment
Practice communicating your needs in a clear, direct way. Let people in relationships with you know what you need.
Changing your communication style can be challenging. Working with a therapist or relationship counselor may help.
Children living with caregivers who are neglectful, abusive, or emotionally unavailable are more likely to develop anxious attachment.
This attachment style can increase risk for anxiety disorders and low self-esteem later in life, and have a negative impact on relationships.
As an adult, you may be able to restructure your thoughts to help you move toward a more secure attachment style. This will take a combination of self-awareness, patience, and conscious effort.
Working alongside a therapist can also help break the pattern of anxious attachment.