Managing Insecure Attachment

insecure attachment

Attachment is formed from early childhood interactions and can be either secure or insecure. Insecure attachment styles can cause specific patterns that last throughout adulthood which can be challenging to manage alone.

What Is Insecure Attachment?

There are four attachment styles that psychologists have identified.

Secure attachment is the healthiest kind. When children know they are loved, safe and cared for, they grow up securely attached, which promotes healthy, stable relationships in adulthood.

The other three attachment styles are insecure and are:

  • Avoidant – those with an avoidant attachment style can struggle with intimacy, preferring to be independent and alone. They may suppress negative emotions, be reluctant to discuss them with anyone, and refuse to reach out to others in times of need.
  • Ambivalent – also referred to as anxious attachment, people with this attachment style can come across as clingy or needy in relationships. Although they may be open to intimacy and crave close relationships, they can struggle when in a relationship, worrying that their partner will leave them if they open up.
  • Disorganised – people with a disorganised attachment style can struggle with wanting to be loved while avoiding relationships to protect themselves from being hurt. They can act in unpredictable ways within relationships as they are unsure whether it is safe. They struggle with low self-esteem and have a deep distrust of others.

Causes of Insecure Attachment

People with an insecure attachment style often did not receive loving and consistent care from their caregivers. For example, their caregivers may have been emotionally unavailable or dismissive when they needed something. In other cases, their caregivers may have been emotionally, physically, or sexually abusive.

Those with an ambivalent attachment style may have had caregivers who were inconsistent when responding to their emotional needs.[1] As a child, they would not understand why at some points, they received love and care, and at other times did not. Therefore, they become anxious and fearful about receiving emotional support.

Other causes of insecure attachment include:

  • Yelling at children when they are upset or sad
  • Ignoring cries, distress, or fear
  • Shaming a child when they are emotional

The Stages of Attachment

Both secure and insecure attachment styles are formed very early in childhood. There are several stages in how attachment develops:[2]

  1. Pre-attachment – infants are not attached to a particular caregiver from birth to three months.
  2. Indiscriminate attachment – from six weeks to seven months, children begin to show a preference for their primary caregivers and respond more positively to their primary caregivers than others.
  3. Discriminate attachment – from seven to eleven months of age, infants show a strong preference for one individual and display distress and anxiety when they leave.
  4. Multiple attachments – after nine months, children begin to form strong bonds beyond their primary caregivers, such as with their grandparents, older siblings, or other caregivers.

However, forming attachments may not be as straightforward as this. For example, those without a primary caregiver who are cared for by multiple people may not develop the sense of trust needed to form a deep attachment.

Healing Insecure Attachment: Earned Security

It was initially thought, by psychologist John Bowlby, who pioneered attachment theory, that once children formed an attachment style, it was fixed. However, insecure attachment styles can be changed, and people can find ways to cope with and manage them.

Those with an insecure attachment style can benefit from earned security. This means developing a secure attachment style through adult interactions and relationships rather than early childhood interactions with their caregivers.

To develop earned security, people reflect heavily on what happened to them as a child, to cause an insecure attachment style. They also explore its impact on their decisions, such as how they react to certain triggers or events in their relationships.

Working towards this type of security can be challenging but highly rewarding. Several steps can be taken to develop earned security, such as:

  • Learning about attachment – knowing more about attachment can help people to identify specific patterns within their relationships and understand where they may stem from. Being able to identify their specific attachment style is the first step in working to become more secure.
  • Finding other securely attached people – developing relationships with those who already have a secure attachment style can help to support people when they are working their way to earned security.
  • Improving communication – better communication can help those with insecure attachment styles to voice their needs and identify what could help their relationships. Improving communication can improve the relationship, and both partners can benefit.
  • Identifying triggers – specific triggers can affect those with an insecure attachment style and affect relationships and mental health. For example, if their partner does not respond to a text message for a few hours, someone with an ambivalent attachment style might panic and think something is wrong. Awareness of triggers can help people plan for them and learn healthy coping methods, such as grounding exercises.

Insecure attachment styles can have deep roots, and self-care may not be enough. Professional help can assist in the transition to a healthy attachment style, as therapists can work through traumatic memories that may hinder people in overcoming specific patterns.

Establishing a healthy, secure attachment style is hard work, but it is possible and brings many rewards. Early childhood experiences can have long-reaching consequences, but attachment styles are not set in stone – they can change for the better.

If you have a client or know of someone struggling with anything you have read in this blog, reach out to us at Khiron Clinics. We believe that we can improve therapeutic outcomes and avoid misdiagnosis by providing an effective residential program and outpatient therapies addressing underlying psychological trauma. Allow us to help you find the path to realistic, long-lasting recovery. For more information, call us today. UK: 020 3811 2575 (24 hours). USA: (866) 801 6184 (24 hours).


[1] Hong YR, Park JS. Impact of attachment, temperament and parenting on human development. Korean J Pediatr. 2012;55(12):449-454. doi:10.3345/kjp.2012.55.12.449

[2] Schaffer HR, Emerson PE. The development of social attachments in infancy. Monogr Soc Res Child Dev. 1964;29:1-77. doi:10.2307/1165727