What causes anxious attachment style in childhood?

The development of an anxious/ambivalent style (preoccupied in adults) is often associated with an inconsistent parenting pattern.

Sometimes, the parents will be supportive and responsive to the child’s needs. At other times, they will be misattuned to the child, or even absent or self-centered.

This inconsistency in response makes it difficult for the child to understand what the parents’ behavior means and what kind of response to expect in the future. The child might end up having some confusion about the attachment relationship, or attachment in general.

Another factor that is linked to the development of the anxious/ambivalent style in children is having one or more parents that are themselves emotional or physically needy. The child begins to feel responsible for filling that need.

In that case, the caregivers would seek emotional/physical closeness with the children in order to satisfy their own needs, rather than their children’s.

Such parents might appear intrusive or over-protective. They might even use the child for their own love, or to present their own selves in a certain light (for example, as the perfect parent).

It should be noted that raising a child in such a manner might also be an automatic and unrealized pattern from adults who were raised in the same way.

Caregivers, whose child develops an anxious/ambivalent attachment style, are likely to have an anxious style themselves, specifically the Preoccupied adult attachment style themselves. It’s not about genetics, but about the continuity of behavioral patterns throughout generations.

Which children have a higher risk of developing anxious (ambivalent) attachment?

The previous paragraph provides an overview of what caregiver behaviors might threaten the child’s ability to form a secure attachment style.

Inconsistent responsiveness to a child’s emotional needs, misattunement and emotional distance, as well as preoccupation with and intrusiveness in the child’s life, are some of the risk factors for the development of an ambivalent attachment style in children.

In addition to that, there are a few less common risk factors, such as:

  • Physical or psychological abuse
  • Early separation from the caregiver

[It is essential to note that having an insecure attachment style is not a mental disease or disorder. It is common among adults, and in most cases, is nothing to worry about. Still, having an unstable/insecure attachment style can cause distress, or harm relationships.]

Symptoms of having a Preoccupied Attachment Style as an Adult

How to recognize a person with an anxious attachment style? Adults with an anxious/preoccupied attachment style might think highly of others but often suffer from low self-esteem.

These individuals are sensitive and attuned to their partners’ needs, but are often insecure and anxious about their own worth in a relationship.

If the loved one rejects them or fails to respond to their needs, they might blame themselves or label themselves as not being worthy of love.

Generally, adults with anxious attachment need constant reassurance that they are loved, worthy, and good enough.

The strong fear of abandonment might often cause anxious adults to be intensely jealous or suspicious of their partners.

This fear might also lead them to become desperate, clingy, and preoccupied with their relationships. Adults with an anxious attachment style are often afraid of or even incapable of being alone.

They seek intimacy and closeness and are highly emotional and dependent on others. The presence of the loved one appears to be a remedy for their strong emotional needs.

Preoccupied style in relationships

Having an insecure attachment style can be tiring. It could feel like you are on an emotional roller-coaster all the time.

It might cause anxiety, stress, unhappiness, and low life satisfaction. When it comes to adults with anxious attachment styles, relationships might be both ‘life-saving’ and ‘life-threatening’.

On the one hand, the fear of being alone or being rejected is the poison – a disturbing feeling, which leads to constant doubt and worry. On the other hand, the presence of the loved one, and more importantly, their demonstration of affection is the remedy.

Furthermore, an anxious individual might be insecure about where they stand in a relationship and whether their partner loves them as much as they do in return. Consequently, the slightest disappointment or sign of rejection from the partner could be harmful to the already low self-esteem. 

Can you change your attachment style and how?

Sometimes, the change can happen by itself: a relationship with a securely attached individual could facilitate emotional closeness and a sense of calmness and stability.

This new experience can lead to a shift in perception and to new habits and patterns. Other times, you might need to work harder on your attachment style. You cannot change your past, but you can change the present.

One key to healing an insecure attachment style is to make sense of the way you interact with your loved ones, especially with your partner. Recognizing your behavioral patterns in relationships and being mindful of them will make the issue easier to solve. Self-reflection is important. Analyzing and making sense of your childhood experiences is also an essential step.

Realizing that past experiences do not have to affect and/or predict the present and the future will make it easier to break free from established behavioral patterns and habits.

Obviously, working with a therapist on this pattern would potentially be the most beneficial way to move forward with earning secure attachment. At the Adult Attachment Program, we offer group reparative work as well as one-on-one therapy and other healing modalities.

Understanding how to self regulate our emotions and actions is an essential skill to develop. If you are working towards “earned secure attachment”, think of this as a milestone on that path. 


The Attachment Project: http://www.attachmentproject.com

Ainsworth, MD, Bell, SM.(1970). Attachment, exploration, and separation: Illustrated by the behavior of one-year-olds in a strange situation. Child Development, 41(1), 49-67. 

Bowlby J. (1958). The nature of the child’s tie to his mother. International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 39, 350-371.

Bowlby J.(1982). Attachment and Loss: Volume 1 Attachment. 2nd ed. New York: Basic Books. 23 Jul 2021 

Scroll to Top