Home Child development What is an insecure attachment?

What is an insecure attachment?

by Ines Wurbs

You can recognize an insecure attachment by the fact that your child does not see you as a safe haven. It hardly dares to explore its surroundings or clings enormously. But even if this behavior sounds familiar to you, there is no reason to panic. I will then explain in more detail when there is a reason to take a closer look at the situation.

What are the 4 types of attachment styles?

From the beginning of our lives, we feel drawn to our caregivers. We need these good and secure relationships so that we can develop well. This is what we call attachment in psychology.

There are 4 types of bindings:

The table below shows the distribution of binding types.

Binding stylesPortion
Secure Bond64.4%
Insecure-avoidant attachment19.8
insecure-anxious attachment14.9%
Insecure-fearful-avoidant attachment0.9%
4 attachment styles

For the undisturbed development of our personality and our mind, a secure bond with our caregivers (usually the parents) is vital. With a secure attachment, our children are able or dare to explore the world around them and try things out. This is possible because the children know that there is a safe haven that offers them protection.

This is not the case with an insecure attachment. However, our children’s need for protection and our love for us remains. In this way, the children try to fulfill this need for protection with their parents themselves. The possible behaviors are then evident differently depending on the insecure attachment type.

How attachment styles influence adults

The parents’ own childhood naturally affects the bond with their own children. One study examined how parents’ childhood memories affected their attachment to their own children.

It should be noted here that it is not generally a matter of a good or bad childhood. Rather, the four groups describe how the parents remember their childhood and how their own childhood is perceived.

In the following description of insecure attachments, the proportion of parent groups is shown in diagrams. These show the frequency of attachment depending on the parents’ childhood memory (or processing).

This distribution shows that the parent’s attitude toward their own childhood can have an impact on the attachment to their own children. There is a tendency for most attachment types, but this is not a general rule.

The different types of parents are as follows:

autonomous parents

Autonomous parents remember positive and negative experiences from their childhood. This allows them to draw on a wide range of experiences from their childhood. In the case of secure attachments, almost 3/4 of the parents are part of this group.

Rejecting Parents

Rejecting parents insist they cannot remember childhood or are inconsistent in reproducing memories.

Entangled Parents

Entangled parents have confused and angry childhood memories and fail to recount coherent childhood experiences.

Unresolved parents

Unresolved parents suffer trauma from loss or even abuse.

What are the effects of insecure attachment?

The insecure-avoidant attachment

As the word “avoidant” suggests, these children withdraw from their caregivers. So, your child doesn’t notice you when you’re there and doesn’t react when you leave the room.

Avoidant children react to you and to strangers in almost the same way. If you were away and just returned from work, for example, an insecure-avoidant child usually reacts negatively. Your child doesn’t want to be picked up by you, comes to you very hesitantly, and doesn’t want to be comforted by you either.

Source: Siegler, R. Developmental Psychology of Childhood and Adolescence, Springer Verlag

The insecure-anxious attachment

In the case of insecure-anxious attachment, the children cling very much to their caregiver. They show no interest in what is happening around them or what there is to explore.

When mom or dad go away, they usually cry and are difficult to soothe. When you come back, you notice that children with insecure, ambivalent attachments would like to see mom or dad, but they are also angry and rejecting. Sometimes aggressive too. Here, too, these children are difficult to calm down and take longer to return to their usual activities.

Source: Siegler, R. Developmental Psychology of Childhood and Adolescence, Springer Verlag

The insecure-fearful-avoidant or insecure-disorientated attachment

These children are generally very insecure. When mom, dad, or one of their close relatives comes back, these children are often very scattered and behave contradictory.

For example, they want to be picked up, but then turn away or get angry too. It is not uncommon for insecure-disorganized, attached children, as it is also called, to freeze when their parents return. They keep bursting into tears for a long time after their parents or caregiver have returned, although they have already calmed down.

Source: Siegler, R. Developmental Psychology of Childhood and Adolescence, Springer Verlag

What are the signs of an insecure attachment?

Of course, it is not at all unusual for children to cry when caregivers leave. Or that they are angry with us after we are back home and have been away too long. You shouldn’t worry at all if your child just says goodbye (if at all) and he/she is off to kindergarten and doesn’t shed a tear after you.

That’s nothing to worry about. This is all normal and healthy!

The real difference is when the above behavior almost always occurs. Above all, the behavior manifests itself over the long term and has no other causes. 

Other causes can be, for example, my child is shy currently and only dares to leave me a little at one point, or it simply takes a while for it to “thaw out”. But then you can play normally at a different time, even in a strange environment. Or maybe your child is mad at you about something right now and doesn’t want you around right now, even though you’ve just been separated from your child.

So, even if your child exhibits these behaviors that are also exhibited with an insecure attachment, there may still be another, short-term, cause. However, if you feel like it’s really lasting and not just “a phase” and if it’s bothering you, don’t put it off. Try to address the problem and if necessary, don’t be afraid to seek help.

What can you do to change an insecure attachment?

Fortunately, most insecure attachments are not very “stable”. That means we can still change them to a secure binding. 

As also mentioned in the secure Attachment article, being there for your child is important. Your child needs to trust you and know that you will get the help they need. It’s not about every little thing, and certainly not about wishes. If your child has a problem, you should try to solve it together with them. If that doesn’t work, offer comfort and show your child how best to deal with the situation. Also, how it can learn from it.

Give your child the chance to experience as many beautiful moments and situations of trust with you as possible. This is how your child learns that you are the safe haven. It is safe with you and can come to you with all its concerns.

You should take your child’s concerns seriously. So, if your child says they’re scared, that’s true. Saying, “But you don’t need to be afraid,” for example, does not solve the child’s problem. It’s still afraid. In this situation, you could try to explain why they are afraid and what is actually happening. For example: “I’m afraid of monsters” can be wonderfully explained by: where the noises your child hears at night actually come from. Who is there to watch out at night and that is locked and no one can come in. And much more.

Conclusion about insecure attachment

Of course, we parents will not always be able to find out where the shoe pinches. We don’t always have an open ear or the patience and time to explain everything to our children. But most of our behavior should be in that direction, and the rest should be the exception.

Then our children will still have faith in us. And this is important for them to discover their surroundings, learn and grow into open, respectful adults.

You may also like