How Anxious Ambivalent Attachment Develops in Children

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 abandonment but cannot trust their caregiver to be consistent.

Anxious-ambivalent attachment is one of the insecure attachment styles proposed by John Bowlby in the 1950s.

Anxious-ambivalent attached is believed to be a rarer type, comprising 7-15% of most American infants (Cassidy & Berlin, 1994).

Bowlby proposed that children develop an attachment style in early life depending on the parenting of their primary caregiver.

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

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

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

A child with an anxious-ambivalent attachment style may express that their peers do not want to be good friends with them as much as they want to be good friends with them. They may also be afraid that others do not love them or believe that other children avoid them (Grady et al., 2021). 

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

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

Signs of Ambivalent Attachment

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

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

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.

Sad little child, boy, hugging his mother at home

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.

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.

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 very hard to please, and nothing anyone does is right for 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 go off to play with other children since this feels safer. Thus, they may appear unsociable and find it hard to make friends with peers.


Children who are anxious-ambivalent are likely to have many emotional outbursts. In an attempt to remain connected to their caregiver, the child may have to rely on emotional strategies as a way to seek attention (Grady et al., 2021). 

At school, the child is often person-focused rather than task-focused. They may spend much 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 and absorb instructions, and they may repeatedly ask questions to ensure they have been noticed.

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

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 them.

Cause of Ambivalent Attachment

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

Those with an anxious-ambivalent attachment style are thought to have experienced caregivers who are inconsistent and unpredictable (Grady et al., 2021).

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 behavior 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 who gives 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 on 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 for 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, their caregiver also has this attachment style.

This is not likely due to genetic reasons; rather, it is a continuation of behavioral patterns repeated throughout generations.

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

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 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 that they may be clingy or needy with others.
  • Avoidant – this attachment style is characterized by problems with intimacy and low emotional investment in relationships.
  • Secure – this is characterized 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.
  • Disorganized – this is marked by a mix of behavior that can range from avoidance to clinginess. People with this attachment style often long for close relationships but 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, respond to conflict, and 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.

Frequently Asked Questions

How can a caregiver support a child to become more secure?

There is no perfect way to parent a child, and there may be many obstacles to navigate around. Raising a securely attached child can depend entirely on the child and caregiver.

However, there are five areas that Brown and Elliot (2016) have indicated key areas caregivers should strive for:

1. Ensuring the child feels safe
2. Making sure the child feels seen and known
3. Comforting the child
4. Valuing the child
5. Ensuring the child feels supported for being their best self

Are attachment styles universally accepted?

It is worth bearing in mind that much of the foundational research on attachment theory is based on American samples.

For instance, Mary Ainsworth’s class study of The Strange Situation (1970) used only American infants – the findings of which were generalized to explain attachment for all infants.

This is a type of ethnocentric research. While the American standard for what is considered ‘secure attachment’ may present a certain way, this may not be how it presents in other cultures.

What are anxious-ambivalent adults like in romantic relationships?

Adults who have an anxious-ambivalent attachment style may present as clingy in their romantic relationships.

They may crave emotional intimacy with a partner but are anxious that others do not want to be with them. They may also find it hard to accept boundaries and become panicked or fearful if their partner is not around.

Likewise, they may have low self-esteem and find it hard to accept that their partner loves them, and may struggle with trust issues.

Are anxious-ambivalent children at higher risk of developing anxiety?

Compared to children who were securely attached in infancy, children who are anxious-ambivalent may have higher levels of school phobia and social phobia later in childhood (Bar-Haim et al., 2007).

Likewise, those with an anxious-ambivalent attachment style as an infant may be at a higher risk of being diagnosed with an anxiety disorder in late adolescence (Warren et al., 1997).


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Brennan, K. A., & Shaver, P. R. (1995). Dimensions of adult attachment, affect regulation, and romantic relationship functioning. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 21 (3), 267–283.

Brown, D. P., Elliott, D. S. (2016). Attachment Disturbances in Adults: Treatment for Comprehensive Repair. New York: W.W. Norton.

Caron, A., Lafontaine, M., Bureau, J., Levesque, C., and Johnson, S.M. (2012). Comparisons of Close Relationships: An Evaluation of Relationship Quality and Patterns of Attachment to Parents, Friends, and Romantic Partners in Young Adults. Canadian Journal of Behavioural Science, 44 (4), 245-256.

Cassidy, J., & Berlin, L. J. (1994). The insecure/ambivalent pattern of attachment: Theory and research.  Child development 65 (4), 971-991.

Finzi, R., Cohen, O., Sapir, Y., & Weizman, A. (2000). Attachment styles in maltreated children: A comparative study.  Child Psychiatry and Human Development, 31 (2), 113-128.

Grady, M. D., Yoder, J., & Brown, A. (2021). Childhood maltreatment experiences, attachment, sexual offending: Testing a theory. Journal of interpersonal violence36(11-12), NP6183-NP6217.

Hazan, C., & Shaver, P. (1987). Romantic love conceptualized as an attachment process. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 52 (3), 511–524.

Main, M., Kaplan, N., & Cassidy, J. (1985). Security in infancy, childhood and adulthood: A move to the level of representation. In I. Bretherton & E. Waters (Eds.), Growing points of attachment theory and research. Monographs of the Society for Research in Child Development, 50 (1-2), 66-104.

Main, M., & Solomon, J. (1986). Discovery of an insecure-disorganized/disoriented attachment pattern. In T. B. Brazelton & M. W. Yogman (Eds.), Affective development in infancy. Ablex Publishing.

Warren, S. L., Huston, L., Egeland, B., & Sroufe, L. A. (1997). Child and adolescent anxiety disorders and early attachment. Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry36(5), 637-644.

Waters, E., Merrick, S., Treboux, D., Crowell, J., & Albersheim, L. (2000). Attachment security in infancy and early adulthood: A twenty-year longitudinal study. Child Development, 71 (3), 684-689.

Further Information

Hazan, C., & Shaver, P. R. (1994). Attachment as an organizational framework for research on close relationships. Psychological inquiry, 5(1), 1-22.

McCarthy, G. (1999). Attachment style and adult love relationships and friendships: A study of a group of women at risk of experiencing relationship difficulties. British Journal of Medical Psychology, 72(3), 305-321.

Greater Good Magazine of Berkeley University of California. How to stop attachment insecurity from ruining your love life.

BPS Article- Overrated: The predictive power of attachment

How Attachment Style Changes Through Multiple Decades Of Life

Saul Mcleod, PhD

BSc (Hons) Psychology, MRes, PhD, University of Manchester

Educator, Researcher

Saul Mcleod, Ph.D., is a qualified psychology teacher with over 18 years experience of working in further and higher education.

Olivia Guy-Evans

Associate Editor for Simply Psychology

BSc (Hons), Psychology, MSc, Psychology of Education

Olivia Guy-Evans is a writer and associate editor for Simply Psychology. She has previously worked in healthcare and educational sectors.