How Anxious Ambivalent Attachment Develops in Children

By Olivia Guy-Evans, published June 20, 2022 | Fact Checked by Saul Mcleod, PhD


Children who have an anxious-ambivalent attachment style are described as being distressed when their caregiver leaves them but are then inconsolable on their return. Anxious-ambivalent children fear being abandoned but also cannot trust their caregiver to be consistent. 

Anxious-ambivalent attachment is one of the insecure attachment styles proposed by John Bowlby in the 1950s. He proposed that children develop an attachment style in early life depending on the parenting of their primary caregiver.

Attachment styles as secure, anxious, avoidant or fearful outline diagram. Labeled educational axis scale with high or low avoidance and anxiety as influence to people relationship vector

Individuals with an anxious-ambivalent attachment hold a negative self-image and a positive image of others, meaning that they have a sense of unworthiness but generally evaluated others positively.

As such, they strive for self-acceptance by attempting to gain approval and validation from their relationships with significant others. They also require higher levels of contact and intimacy from relationships with others.

Additionally, they are preoccupied with dependency on their own parents and still actively struggled to please them.

What's your attachment style?

Attachment theory was proposed by psychologist John Bowlby in the 1950s. He proposed that children develop an attachment style in early life depending on the parenting of the primary caregiver. 

The concept involves one’s confidence in the availability of the attachment figure for use as a secure base from which one can freely explore the world when not in distress as well as a safe haven from which one can seek support, protection, and comfort in times of distress.

Bowlby argued that one’s sense of security as a child is critical to their attachment style as an adult. 

It is generally accepted that there are four attachment styles (Ainsworth, Blehar, Waters, & Wall, 1978):

  • Ambivalent – also known as anxious attachment, children with this style have problems trusting others. They often worry that people will abandon them, so they may be clingy or needy with others.

  • Avoidant – this attachment style is characterised by problems with intimacy and low emotional investment in relationships.

  • Secure – this is characterised by feelings of trust and safety in relationships. Children who are securely attached feel safe and supported by their caregivers. Securely attached adults are capable of forming lasting relationships.

  • Disorganised – this is marked by a mix of behaviour that can range from avoidance to clinginess. People with this attachment style often long for close relationships but also fear trusting others and getting hurt (Main & Solomon, 1986).

The attachment style you develop in early childhood is thought to have a lifelong influence on your ability to communicate your emotions and needs, how you respond to conflict, and how you form expectations about your relationships.

Although the attachment style you were raised with does not explain everything about your relationships and who you become as an adult, understanding your style may help explain patterns you notice in relationships.

What are the signs of anxious-ambivalent attachment in children?

Children with an anxious-ambivalent attachment style express distress when their caregiver leaves and are difficult to soother when they return.

The child is often uncertain whether they can rely upon the caregiver and may show resentment to being abandoned. 

Some of the key traits that a child may have an anxious-ambivalent attachment style include:

  • Clinging to caregivers

  • A fear of strangers

  • Extreme distress when separated from their caregivers

  • Inconsolable when upset – not easily comforted

  • Poor relationships with other children

  • Limited exploration of their environment 

  • Difficulty regulating and controlling negative emotions

  • Appearing anxious in general

An anxious-ambivalent child may never know whether their caregiver will respond to them or not. Thus, they learn that love and support will not always be there for them. 

Once they have the attention of their caregiver, they are usually unwilling to let them go for fear that they will not get them back. Therefore, they often appear very clingy.

It is common for children with an anxious-ambivalent attachment to develop separation anxiety disorder (SAD). This is an anxiety disorder generally diagnosed in early childhood. 

Children with SAD may refuse to go to school for fear of being separated from their caregivers, and experience extreme anxiety when they are separated. 

How anxious-ambivalen attachment develops

While there is not always a clear-cut answer for why a child may develop an anxious-ambivalen attachment, it could be as a result of some of the following factors:

Anxious at separation

A child who is anxious-ambivalent finds it very difficult to let go of their caregivers at times of separation.

They may refuse to go to school or be cared for by anyone other than their primary caregiver and display extreme signs of distress when separation occurs.

Rejecting of caregiver

Despite being anxious at separation, the child often rejects the caregiver when they return to the child. 

The child may feel hurt, rejected, and angry, holding onto this sadness no matter what comfort comes from the caregiver. The child may not make eye contact upon the caregiver’s return.

The anxious-ambivalent child may be someone who is very hard to please and nothing anyone does is right to them. 

Limited exploration

Anxious-ambivalent children are often insecure about exploring their world. They may find it hard to go off and play on their own without seeking constant reassurance and attention from their caregiver. 

In the school playground, the anxious-ambivalent child may choose to stand close to the teacher rather than going off to play with other children, since this feels safer. Thus, they may appear unsociable and find it hard to make friends with peers. 

Attention-seeking

Children who are anxious-ambivalent are likely to have a lot of temper tantrums. These can become a way of life and can occur multiple times a day. These tantrums are a way of regulating themselves and demanding their parent’s attention. 

At school, the child is often person-focused rather than task-focused. They may spend a lot of their time in class trying to talk to others and the teacher rather than on their work.

They may be so concerned with trying to gain and maintain the attention of the adults that they may also struggle to focus, absorb instructions, and they may repeatedly ask questions to ensure they have been noticed. 

Reliance on others

Anxious-ambivalent children are often too anxious to do anything alone and may constantly ask for help. This can include always wanting to have a safe person with them wherever they go. 

Moreover, these children are not able to regulate their own needs and may often rely on others to regulate for them. 

What parenting causes ambivalent attachment?

While it may not always be clear why a child may develop an ambivalent attachment style, it is often a result of the parenting by the caregivers.

Some of the possible ways in which parenting styles can cause an ambivalent attachment style include the following: 

Inconsistent parenting 

One of the main reasons for why a child may develop an ambivalent attachment style is inconsistent parenting. 

Parenting is inconsistent when there are times of support and responsiveness to the child’s needs, but not at other times. At other times, the caregiver may be cold, insensitive, or emotionally unavailable. 

The child may become confused about their relationship with a caregiver who is always sending them mixed signals. 

This inconsistency can make it difficult for the child to predict what their parent’s behaviour is going to be at any given time, resulting in elevated insecurity and anxiety. 

Emotional distance

A caregiver who is emotionally distant or neglectful can leave a child feeling insecure and unstable. If a caregiver is not meeting the emotional needs of the child, especially when they are distressed or anxious, these feelings are likely to worsen. 

If a caregiver is neglectful of a child’s needs, the child is likely to develop an insecure attachment style. 

Intrusive parenting

An intrusive caregiver is one where they give intrusive attention to their child. 

They have poor emotional boundaries, intrude on the child’s state of mind, and can be overbearing. The child may feel smothered by the caregiver and that they do not have enough room to grow or be themselves. 

Intrusive parenting can also include mirroring the child. This is where the caregiver reflects how the child is feeling, amplifying the child’s negative reaction rather than soothing it. For instance, if a child is anxious, the caregiver becomes anxious; when the child cries, the caregiver also cries. 

Caregiver’s ‘emotional hunger’

When caregivers seek emotional or physical closeness with the child for the purpose of satisfying their own needs, this is known as fulfilling their ‘emotional hunger’. 

If the caregiver is using the child to satisfy their own needs, they may be neglecting the child’s emotional and physical needs. These types of caregivers can also appear intrusive and preoccupied with their child’s life. They may also replace actual love and affection of their child with using the child to feed their own needs.

The child therefore does not get their needs met and may go on to put everyone else’s needs above their own as they get older, since this is what they have been used to doing.

Anxious-ambivalent caregivers

It is likely that if a child has an anxious-ambivalent attachment style, that their caregiver also has this attachment style. 

This is not likely due to genetic reasons, rather it is a continuation of behavioural patterns that are being repeated throughout generations. 

Without addressing the insecure attachment of the child, they may grow up to have their own child who is also anxious-ambivalent. 

How can I help my child with anxious-ambivalent attachment?

Make them feel safe

When their caregiver is around, the child should feel assured that no harm will come to them. They should know that they will be fed and kept warm and protected.

The caregiver is the child’s barrier against harm, so letting them know that they are protected and loved is important in making them feel safe. 

The child should be allowed the chance to develop freedom while still getting reassurance from the caregiver that they are nearby if the child needs to check in. 

Ensure they feel seen and known

A child’s cries are a way of letting the caregiver know that they require a need to be met. It is therefore important that the caregiver reads these cues accurately and responds consistently.

If the caregiver is responsive to the child’s needs in an appropriate way, this lets the child know that when they need something, they can signal for it, and it will be given. 

If the caregiver is consistent with this most of the time, the child will understand that their world is reliable, and they can exert a certain amount of control over it. 

Comfort them 

To help an anxious- ambivalent child, caregivers should be open and warm to the child. The child should know that if they seek out comfort, they will receive it. 

If the caregivers are there to help soothe the child’s distress, they learn to see this as normal. When they grow up, they can use their caregiver’s actions as the template for managing their own distress. 

Make them feel valued 

Caregivers can value their children by expressing happiness and pride over who they are. Healthy self-esteem can develop as a baby which translates into later life.

Displaying pride in a child early in life can make them realise that they are unconditionally valued from what they achieve.

Support the child to explore their world

A child should be supported to explore their world in a way which makes them feel safe. Reassure the child that you believe in their abilities but stay close by in case something goes wrong. 

Try not to be overbearing or constantly tell them what they should be doing. Instead, give gentle guidance if they get stuck and allow them to grow while watching from a safe distance. 

In this way, the child should develop a sense of freedom to explore their world and increase their confidence in their skills.

Fact Checking

Content is rigorously reviewed by a team of qualified and experienced fact checkers. Fact checkers review articles for factual accuracy, relevance, and timeliness. We rely on the most current and reputable sources, which are cited in the text and listed at the bottom of each article. Content is fact checked after it has been edited and before publication.

About the Author

Olivia Guy-Evans obtained her undergraduate degree in Educational Psychology at Edge Hill University in 2015. She then received her master’s degree in Psychology of Education from the University of Bristol in 2019. Olivia has been working as a support worker for adults with learning disabilities in Bristol for the last four years.

Cite this Article (APA Style)

Guy-Evans, O. (2022, June 20. How Anxious Ambivalent Attachment Develops in Children. Simply Psychology. www.simplypsychology.org/anxious-ambivalent-attachment.html

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