Ambivalent Attachment: What Is It, And What Do You Need To Know?

Updated May 6, 2024by Regain Editorial Team
”Just as we can learn less-than-healthy attachment behaviors early in life, we can also learn new behaviors later. Being guarded and avoiding vulnerability can be significant barriers, but challenging those obstacles, over time, can absolutely lead to healthier relationships with yourself and others.” - Nicholas DeFazio, MRC, LPCC-S, LICDC

Understanding ambivalent attachment

The attachments we form in childhood impact can, and often do, impact our adulthood and close relationships. Understanding your own habits of attachment can be an important component of your mental wellness as you move forward in life.

When it comes to attachment, you need to know the types of attachment that are healthy for your child. As parents, it is essential to know how to foster secure attachment. You also need to know which types of attachment are unhealthy so you can make sure that your child is better prepared for the future. When it comes to ambivalent attachment or anxious-ambivalent attachment, you want to ensure you are actively working to minimize forming this type of insecure attachment with someone, particularly your child(ren).

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How do I help my child with ambivalent attachment?

Understanding attachment theory

Attachment theory was first described by John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth in the 1950s. According to John Bowlby’s attachment theory, infants and children look to their primary caregiver when they are in distress. This attachment is a type of survival mechanism as the infant looks to their caregiver to provide food and comfort, and how caregivers respond to the infant plays a role in the child’s long-term emotional development and attachment styles. 

What is ambivalent attachment?

Ambivalent attachment, also called anxious-ambivalent attachment is one style of attachment that causes an infant to become insecurely attached to the caregiver. When children are not certain what type of reaction they will get from their parent, caregiver, or attachment figures, they will become insecurely attached detach, or stop forming an emotional attachment to anyone.

Children who are raised in an abusive or negligent type of atmosphere may form this attachment, though other factors can influence its formation, as well. They may  show distress when the parent leaves, but when the parent returns, they are generally ambivalent toward them and ignore them. This is a sign that they insecurely attached to their caregiver.

Types of ambivalent attachment

There are several sub-classifications of ambivalent attachment. An ambivalent resistant child will seek attention and contact while simultaneously being resistant to that contact. They can experience anger toward the caregiver, whether before or after any type of separation. 

An ambivalent passive child is generally very limited in their exploratory behaviors and may have little to no interest in actively initiating different types of attention or interaction, though they may desire interaction and attention from the mother, father, or caregiver.

What causes ambivalent attachment?

Besides having an uncertain relationship with the parent or caregiver, children who are abused during their childhood tend to have a higher-than-average risk of developing an anxious ambivalent attachment to their parents. Unfortunately, there can be some different difficulties that children who grow up with this type of attachment may have throughout their life, as having an insecure attachment style affects children into adulthood

What does anxious attachment mean? Parents who foster anxious or ambivalent attachment may be nurturing and responsive one moment and insensitive or unavailable the next. This pattern impacts not just the relationship they have with their parent or caregiver, but other relationships even into adulthood.

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What it means for the future

What does it mean for a child who grows up in this type of environment? For one, children with anxious-ambivalent attachment style are generally insecure in their relationship with the parent and may also experience this with relationships with others. They may be mistrustful, have low self-esteem, have trouble with being vulnerable or communicating effectively, and more.

Attachment issues in children can affect them when they become adults. Children with attachment disorders and styles, including fearful-avoidant attachment, disorganized attachment, and anxious-ambivalent attachment, may be insecure as adults and can be very self-critical. They may want approval and desire reassurance but, even when they receive it, they may still tend to have low self-esteem and question themselves.  

People with ambivalent style attachment may even engage in preemptive strategies to keep themselves from being rejected. Unfortunately, they can be too dependent, demanding and possessive, which causes them to push their partner away. Someone with this type of behavior may also have emotional problems that include depression, anxiety, or trouble controlling emotions such as anger.

If you or someone you love shows signs of attachment issues or an attachment disorder, you should seek the help of a licensed counselor or mental health professional. Treatment will be a journey, but it is well within reach. Forming an attachment style as a child does not mean that it will be your attachment style your entire life. Working through your feelings and experiences can help you work to build healthy and fulfilling relationships and develop secure attachment with others.

Finding treatment and healing from ambivalent-attachment

People who have grown up in environments that create anxious-ambivalent attachment disorders may feel discouraged by their difficulty with sustaining healthy relationships. Ambivalent attachment usually involves anxiety and challenges in relationships, which are two widely common things that people seek therapy for. Even disorders like this that develop early in childhood are treatable with the right counselor and course of action.

There are three main areas where clinicians and patients can work on healing for attachment issues including fearful-avoidant attachment:

  1. Developing a social personality

  2. Healing of childhood trauma

  3. Encouraging communication and trust

Children who live with attachment disorders may have a lower conscience, which increases their ability to make poor choices without guilt. Healing childhood trauma or recovering from the root cause of attachment issues, like anxious or avoidant attachment, is the best first step to overcoming this challenge.

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How do I help my child with ambivalent attachment?

Additionally, children with attachment issues may become adults with under-developed social skills. With the right coaching, these adults can pursue and maintain healthy relationships as they learn how to read body language and appropriately respond to social cues.

The goal of attachment therapy is to help a child connect first to their parents first, if safe to do so, and then to others. This is a vital step in helping a child develop a conscience, social life and understanding of stable and healthy relationships. In addition to working with the child, clinicians must also work with parents in how they respond to their children.

Reactive attachment disorders and insecure attachment styles like fearful-avoidant attachment style, are treatable. Whenever they are uncovered, whether for children or adults, effective therapies are available to address symptoms and recover health.  Here are some of the kinds of treatment that can be provided to address attachment issues:

  • Psychotherapy

  • Couples therapy

  • Experiential therapy

  • Gestalt therapy

  • Cognitive therapy

  • Behavioral therapy

  • Holistic therapy

Many counselors are well-equipped to take clients through this journey of healing from attachment issues. Regain has a large community of licensed counselors who can help you or your child recover from attachment issues. Additionally, sessions can be held anywhere you feel most comfortable and have an internet connection, including your home.

Online therapy has been found by many studies to be overall just as effective (sometimes more so) than traditional in-person therapy for a variety of mental health conditions and concerns, including anxiety, depression, trauma, PTSD, and more. 

Below are some reviews of Regain counselors for you to review, from people experiencing similar issues.

Counselor reviews

"Even when I had no idea what kind of counselor to pick, I was matched with a beyond certified and compassionate woman who was a GREAT listener. I really connected with her and she will be in my contacts forever . Andrea has been flexible with her scheduling even in the chaos that was my life. I'm so appreciative of her abilities to help me. She helped me learn to love myself through a divorce, childhood trauma, and overcome my fears for the future."

"My husband and I have been meeting online with Potoula Diaz for a few weeks, and we've already made great progress in the areas of communication where we need improvement. It has also been a great comfort to me to hear her comment on issues from my past in a way that shows how those negative experiences affect me now but can be overcome. I feel supported and comforted by her guidance, and she takes time to truly understand the root of a struggle in order to plan the best path forward for all concerned. Great experience so far!"

Takeaway

If you see that you or your child have attachment issues, help is available. It is not too late to re-set attachment patterns and become securely attached. 

that may have followed you since childhood. Regain is one place that you can get the help that you need without having to leave your home. Online counseling has helped numerous people with attachment issues build a better future.

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