Avoidant attachment is an attachment style that develops during early childhood. It tends to occur in children who do not experience sensitive responses to their needs or distress. Children with an avoidant attachment style may become very independent, both physically and emotionally.
An attachment style is the pattern of behaviors a person exhibits in response to relationships and bonds. Attachment styles are part of attachment theory in psychology, which John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth developed.
Developing an avoidant attachment style as a child can lead to difficulties forming close relationships as an adult.
This article covers what avoidant attachment is and its causes and treatment options.
The four attachment styles are:
Secure attachment develops in children with a parent or caregiver who is sensitive and responsive to their needs. Securely attached children have confidence that a parent or caregiver will be available to meet their needs and give them comfort when they are distressed.
Avoidant, or insecure-avoidant
Avoidant attachment develops in children who do not experience sensitive responses from a parent or caregiver to their needs or distress. Children with avoidant attachment may become very independent, both physically and emotionally.
Anxious, or insecure-anxious
Children with anxious attachment do not have consistent responses to their needs from a parent or caregiver. Children with anxious attachment may be clingy around their caregiver while insecure in themselves or in their interactions with others.
Disorganized, or fearful
Disorganized attachment occurs when a child wants love and care from their parent or caregiver but is also afraid of them. Disorganized attachment can develop if a parent or caregiver responds to a child seeking comfort by ignoring, yelling at, or punishing them in some way.
Strange situation procedure
In the 1970s, Mary Ainsworth did an experiment called the “strange situation procedure.” In this experiment, parents or caregivers left the room as their child played with a trained observer nearby. The researchers observed and documented the child’s response to their parent or caregiver leaving the room.
Children with a secure attachment style would cry when their parent or caregiver left the room but go to them and quickly become soothed on their return.
Children with an avoidant attachment style would be calm when their parent or caregiver left the room. Once they returned, the child would avoid or resist having contact with them.
However, despite these observable reactions, other psychological tests showed that the children with avoidant attachment were just as distressed as the other children by their parent’s or caregiver’s absence.
Infants and children generally need to form a close bond with their parent or caregiver. The repeated rejection of attempts to form this secure attachment may result in a child learning to suppress their desire for comfort when distressed or upset.
Avoidant attachment develops when an infant or young child has a parent or caregiver who is consistently emotionally unavailable or unresponsive to their needs. Infants with an avoidant attachment style may also have faced repeated discouragement from crying or expressing outward emotion.
The parent or caregiver of a child who has avoidant attachment may:
- lack knowledge on how to support their child
- lack empathy
- feel overwhelmed by parenting responsibilities
- not have developed a sense of commitment
- have an avoidant attachment style themselves
Children with avoidant attachment may also disconnect from their own needs and feelings. These children may learn to self-soothe and feel as though they can only rely on themselves. As a result, they have little motivation or trust to seek help or support from others.
A child with an avoidant attachment style may show no outward display of desire for closeness, affection, or love. However, internally, the child will feel the same stress and anxiety responses as a child with secure attachment when they are in stressful situations.
These children may also want to be near their primary caregiver but not interact with them. They may also reject physical contact with their caregiver.
Attachment styles and their associated behaviors can last into adulthood. As an adult, a person with an avoidant attachment style may experience the following:
- avoiding emotional closeness in relationships
- feeling as though their partners are being clingy when they simply want to get emotionally closer
- withdrawing and coping with difficult situations alone
- suppressing emotions
- avoiding complaining, preferring to sulk or hint at what is wrong
- suppressing negative memories
- withdrawing, or tuning out, from unpleasant conversations or sights
- fearing rejection
- having a strong sense of independence
- having feelings of high self-esteem while having a negative view of others
- being overly focused on their own needs and comforts
Avoidant attachment can also affect older adults. A study from Hong Kong found that in older married couples, a male partner with an avoidant attachment style experienced more detrimental effects on their well-being than a female partner.
A parent or caregiver can prevent their child from developing an avoidant attachment style by being sensitive to their needs and feelings while encouraging them to express their wants and emotions. It is also important for a person to let their child know that they are safe and cared for through both actions and words.
A parent or caregiver should also be mindful to avoid making their child feel ashamed if they make a mistake or are afraid. Instead, they should soothe and comfort their child as often as possible when they are distressed or scared.
If a parent or caregiver finds that they are struggling with parenting and suspects that they may not consistently be meeting the emotional needs of their child, they should seek help from a mental health professional who specializes in working with people with these issues.
Anyone with concerns about how their child is developing, including their attachment style, may also find speaking with a pediatrician or child psychologist helpful.
Therapy or counseling can be beneficial for both a child with an avoidant attachment style and their parent or caregiver.
A therapist can help the parent or caregiver understand how their behavior may be affecting their child and guide them toward new ways of interacting with the child and responding to their needs. A therapist can also work with the child to help them form a healthier bond with their parent or caregiver.
An adult with avoidant attachment may also benefit from therapy. The therapist or counselor can help the person understand how their parents or caregivers responded to their needs during childhood and how this may be shaping their current emotions or behavior. The therapist can then suggest methods to help the person overcome any negative behaviors or feelings.
Avoidant attachment is one of four attachment styles that develop during childhood. Avoidant attachment occurs when an infant or child does not consistently receive the care and attention that they need to develop a healthy relationship with their parent or caregiver.
An avoidant attachment style may cause a child to hide their feelings and become emotionally distant from their parent or caregiver. However, the child still desires to be close to that person and experiences inner distress when they are apart.
Adults with avoidant attachment may struggle to establish close relationships as a result of being very independent and unlikely to look to others for support or help.
A person who is concerned that they or their child may have avoidant attachment should speak to a therapist or doctor.