Navigating Insecure Attachment

What is it, How to Fix it, and is it Really That Bad?

Whether you’re a first time parent or are deep in the trenches of unpacking your own attachment style, you’ve probably heard of secure attachment. And for good reason. Having a secure attachment is related to lots of positive outcomes, including improved emotion regulation and relationships. Being securely attached sets a foundation for healthy social-emotional development for years to come. The truth is, though, that not everyone forms a secure attachment bond with their caregiver. If you feel like that might be the case with you and your child, try not to panic! We are going to break down some common myths and fears about attachment theory and illustrate how having an insecure attachment isn’t really all that bad. 

Dad holding young daughter in lap while sitting on a boat dock over water.

What is Attachment?

First, let’s start with some basics. Attachment is not about how much a child loves their parent, or how much the parent loves their child, or even how much time a parent and child spend together.  Rather, attachment develops specifically within the context of distress. For example, children securely attached learn that their caregiver will provide support in times of heightened fear. This makes sense from an evolutionary perspective. Human beings are hardwired from birth to seek proximity and support when threatened, and to act in ways to maintain closeness and an emotional bond.

When securely attached, children develop a secure base “script.” This script provides a representation of relationships and an understanding of what to expect in times of distress. It generally includes versions of the following: my caregiver will be there for me, my caregiver will take care of me, my caregiver will help soothe me, and I have the ability to be soothed and move on. As the child ages, they consolidate and internalize these scripts, becoming better able to tolerate distress.

Despite our best efforts as caregivers, mishaps and misattunement happen. But keep this in mind: attachment is about the aggregate. Or, in terms of what the child is thinking: does my caregiver reliably meet my needs when I am in distress most of the time? We love Winnicott’s model of the “good enough parent” – a child can develop a secure attachment even if, and inevitably when, there are moments when the parent is not there for the child. “In fact, according to attachment researcher Edward Tronick, even the best parents are only attuned to their children about 30 percent of the time.”

Young boy crying and sitting in mother's lap while she hugs him.

What Does Insecure Attachment Look Like?

Though good enough parenting is often just that – good enough – sometimes children do develop an insecure attachment. Generally, we think about two kinds of insecure attachment: avoidant attachment and anxious attachment. Children with an avoidant attachment style tend to moderate proximity with caregivers. These individuals are self-reliant and may minimize their feelings to cope with distress. On the other hand, children with an anxious style have a deepened need for proximity to their caregiver. They might stay close to their parents because they don’t feel safe on their own, and often need reassurance.

Children with insecure attachment may display behaviors such as increased need for physical contact, avoidance of physical contact, difficulty trusting others, or heightened anxiety when separated from their caregiver. These behaviors can be distressing for both the child and the parent. Which sometimes creates a cycle of frustration and emotional disconnection. Recognizing these behaviors as signs of insecure attachment is a crucial first step in fostering a more secure bond with your child.

Remember, insecure attachment is not a lack of attachment, it’s simply a second best strategy. Furthermore, these subtypes of attachment exist on a continuum.  Having an insecurely attached child is not all that bad all the time. Adolescents with an avoidant attachment style typically don’t report more anxious or depressive symptoms than securely attached individuals. In fact, these individuals may have learned how to independently and adaptively manage feelings on their own. 

Mother smiling sitting in grass with older son hugging back and laughing and younger son sitting in lap.

Is It an Insecure Attachment, or Something Else?

We encourage parents to keep in mind that some behaviors that may look like insecure attachment are actually appropriate developmental behaviors. For example, parents often worry about a child’s level of distress upon separation, concerned that some tantrums or tears when saying goodbye is a sign of an insecure attachment. But distress upon separation is actually adaptive and makes sense from an evolutionary perspective. A child can cry and protest while still holding onto a representation that the parent will ultimately return, soothing them upon reunion. 

It is also important to consider individual differences in reactivity that are not necessarily indicative of insecure attachment. For example, some children have a very sensitive nervous system, and may become dysregulated upon both separation and return. This doesn’t necessarily indicate that your child is insecurely attached, but that they may be harder to soothe. In these cases, it can be helpful to think about differences in attachment behaviors within the child rather than comparing him or her to other children. 

What Can Caregivers Do about Insecure Attachment?

Though having an insecure attachment isn’t a dire outcome by any means, we do understand that it may stir up the urge to repair.  The good news is that attachment style is not fixed. There are a lot of things that caregivers can do to support a shift for themselves and their children. 

Something that may be helpful to note is that attachment styles can span across generations. Parents who are insecurely attached to their own caregivers may act in ways that perpetuate this style, often unconsciously. Remember the attachment “script”? These representations that we build as children stick with us and can impact how we parent. 

The first step for parents who are trying to break this cycle is to create a new and different script. The best way to do this is through reflection and learning. Therapeutic support can be especially helpful in this process by providing a safe space to explore and try out new scripts. These “corrective emotional experiences” are invaluable. The more that the caretaker feels safe and secure, the more equipped they are to then create secure attachments with their own children. 

Father holding young child kissing him on the cheek while baby smiles.

Here are some other things that we encourage parents to think about, and integrate, when they are concerned about having an insecure attachment with their child:

  1. Responsive Parenting: Responding appropriately and sensitively to your child’s needs. Whether they’re hungry, tired, or upset, this helps them develop trust in your reliability and availability.
  2. Emotional Availability: Being emotionally present for your child – offering comfort, validation, and encouragement, and making eye contact, smiling, and engaging in positive interactions – conveys warmth and affection to your child.
  3. Consistent Caregiving: Establishing predictable routines and boundaries create a sense of stability and security for your child. 
  4. Encourage Independence: Try gently encouraging your child to explore and engage with the world around them. Provide a supportive presence to return to when they need reassurance.
  5. Quality Time: It can be helpful to dedicate regular, uninterrupted time to bond with your child through activities they enjoy. Whether it’s reading together, playing games, or simply cuddling, these moments strengthen your connection and reinforce feelings of security.

Additionally, we can, and should, think about the value of multiple attachment relationships. Think of attachment as a network. One way to help your child feel more secure is by encouraging multiple relationships. Including their grandparents, their teachers, their babysitters, and other important people in their life. 

While most caregivers strive for secure attachment with their children, the truth is that sometimes children develop an insecure attachment. Perhaps the most important thing to remember is that this is not a failure. Lots of things play a role in a child’s attachment style, and pointing fingers at anyone, especially yourself, is counterproductive. Also, it’s never too late to shift the connection between you and your child for the better.

Instead, you can try to channel your feelings into action: think about how to begin to shift the relationship. If you’re facing challenges in building a secure attachment with your child or need help adjusting your attachment style, click here to schedule a free call with Upshur Bren Psychology Group. During this call, you can explore our support options and find what works best for you.

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