As with other attachment styles, the avoidant-insecure attachment style develops in early childhood. Sometimes known simply as avoidant attachment or dismissive attachment, children with this attachment style can become very independent – unhealthily so.
Avoidant attachment is one of four attachment styles, the others being secure, anxious, and disorganised. Find out more about the avoidant-insecure attachment style here, or read more about the other attachment styles in our latest blogs.
Characteristics of Avoidant-Insecure Attachment
Children with an avoidant-insecure attachment style may show a lack of desire for closeness and love on the surface, but inside they often struggle with feelings of stress and anxiety. They may reject contact with their primary caregiver whilst also wanting to be near them simultaneously.
In the 1970s, Mary Ainsworth’s Strange Situation assessment reviewed how infants reacted when their mother left the room and a stranger entered. She observed that infants with an avoidant-insecure attachment style were outwardly calm when their mother left but avoided contact with her when she returned.
As an adult, those with an avoidant attachment style often display traits, such as:
- Navigating difficult situations alone, even when offered support
- Suppressing pessimistic emotions
- Avoiding emotional intimacy in relationships
- Withdrawing from difficult conversations or events
- Focusing only on their own needs and comfort
- Having high self-esteem but a negative view of others around them
Adults with an avoidant attachment style may also find it challenging to communicate their needs in their friendships and relationships. Nevertheless, they may enjoy the company of others and have many friends, yet work hard to avoid letting people in as they feel as though they do not or should not need to rely on anyone.
The avoidant adult may engage in romantic relationships but use various tactics to ensure that they do not progress further than surface level. For example, they may use excuses of having to work late to avoid seeing their partners or fail to support their partners through emotionally challenging times.
Causes of Avoidant Attachment
Babies and young children signal their needs by crying or reaching out to their primary caregiver. However, when their caregiver rejects their signals and ignores them, they may learn to repress any needs for comfort when they feel upset. Unresponsive caregivers can cause children to develop an avoidant attachment style as they are consistently discouraged from expressing emotion and realise that they will receive no support.
Although an avoidant parent may care for their child’s physical needs, such as food, clothing, and shelter, overlooking their emotional needs significantly impacts how their attachment develops. In the 1950s, Harry Harlow conducted a study in which he gave baby monkeys the choice of spending time with two inanimate mothers – a soft cloth mother or a wire mother with food.
The baby monkeys spent most of their time with the cloth mothers, only going to the wire mother for food. This demonstrated the importance of receiving comfort and warmth during early childhood and how children form attachment through more than being fed and housed.
If a parent or caregiver of a child has an avoidant-insecure attachment style, they may:
- Refuse to acknowledge their child when they cry
- Physically separates from their child when they are fearful or distressed
- Have an avoidant attachment style themselves
- Repeatedly tell their child to toughen up or grow up when they are upset
Parents may also be struggling, and having a baby who needs a lot of emotional attention can be overwhelming. Caregivers may then become distant and emotionally unavailable from their child, which the child gradually picks up on.
If you are a parent, you can assist your child in developing a secure attachment style rather than an avoidant attachment style by ensuring that you meet their basic needs and engage with them when they show signs of fear or distress. Some parents refuse to hold their children as they cry due to a fear of spoiling them, but by ignoring them or letting them ‘cry it out’, the child may grow up with an avoidant attachment style.
Support and Help
Those with an avoidant attachment style can seek help and succeed in changing their attachment style. For example, those with an avoidant attachment style can attend therapy, which will enable them to develop a greater capacity for emotional intimacy and assess where their attachment style stems from.
By attending therapy, those with unhealthy attachment styles can work towards becoming securely attached. This can take a long time and a lot of hard work. Still, it allows individuals to develop greater insight into their relationships and become more aware of how they experience attachment.
During therapy, the avoidant adult must take steps to understand their emotional needs and assess their existing patterns of behaviour. When do they begin to pull away from emotional closeness? Is there a consistent trigger? Once these questions have been addressed, they can start developing a plan to let people into their lives.
Couples with differing attachment styles may consistently clash about the same topic. Although it may seem surface level, this issue can run deeper. As a result, it may benefit couples to attend therapy sessions with a couples counsellor. Fostering a healthy relationship takes time and effort, but it can support those with an avoidant attachment style and enable them to understand how secure, emotionally intimate relationships can aid their lives.
Those with an avoidant-insecure attachment style can often struggle to let people get close to them. They frequently feel they do not need to rely on anyone, and when people try to rely on them, they can fail to support them. However, there are ways that people can learn to combat these avoidant behaviours and transition to a healthier, more secure attachment style.
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).
 Ainsworth MD, Bell SM. Attachment, exploration, and separation: Illustrated by the behavior of one-year-olds in a strange situation. Child Dev. 1970;41(1):49-67. doi:10.2307/1127388