How to Help an Anxiously Attached Child

Anxiously attached kids may exhibit separation anxiety.

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Attachment is a deep, enduring emotional bond that connects one person to another. And most researchers believe it’s critical for kids to develop a secure attachment to a primary caregiver at a young age.

Fortunately, most infants do successfully attach to a parent or another caregiver. But there are some children who don’t develop such an attachment. They instead become anxiously attached—which can set them up for lifelong problems.

Bowlby’s Attachment Theory

There are many different theories on attachment, the importance of attachment, and the ways in which humans develop attachments.

John Bowlby’s theory is readily accepted by most individuals in the psychology industry. Bowlby was a psychoanalyst who treated children with emotional and behavioral disorders in the 1930s. His work with children who had mental health issues caused him to consider the importance of their attachment to their mothers.

Bowlby realized that infants separated from their mothers were more likely to exhibit social, emotional, and cognitive issues.

He therefore proposed that infants have a universal need to seek close proximity to their caregiver when experiencing distress. And when their needs are met, they are more likely to develop a close attachment as they grow to trust that they can continue to depend on their caregiver.

When their needs aren’t met, however, they may develop attachment issues.

According to Bowlby, a child’s primary attachment acts as a prototype for all future social relationships. Disrupting this relationship can have serious lifelong consequences.

The theory suggests that the critical period for developing an attachment is between birth and age 5. If a secure attachment is not developed during this period, a child is likely to experience lifelong consequences, such as reduced intelligence and increased difficulty managing emotions and behavior.

Healthy vs. Unhealthy Attachments

Mary Ainsworth was a developmental psychologist who expanded on Bowlby’s research. She studied how children respond when their caregivers leave them alone with a stranger.

She discovered that children with secure, healthy attachments tended to:

  • prefer to be in the company of their caregivers.
  • look to their caregivers for comfort.
  • welcome and engage with their caregivers after an absence.

Children who don’t exhibit these signs may be anxiously attached.

An anxious attachment isn’t the same as separation anxiety. Separation anxiety from a primary caregiver is a healthy sign.

But children should be comforted when their caregiver returns. A child who doesn’t care when their caregiver leaves, or one who shows anger or remains inconsolable when a caregiver returns, may not have a secure attachment.

Children who don’t develop healthy attachments may develop the following types of attachments:

  • Ambivalent-insecure – Children may be wary of strangers, distressed when separated from a caregiver, and not appear comforted upon a caregiver’s return.
  • Avoidant-insecure – Children may avoid contact and comfort from their parents and show little or no preference for parents over strangers.
  • Disorganized-insecure – Children show a mixture of avoidant and resistant behavior and may seem confused and apprehensive at age 1. By age 6, they may take on a parental role and act like a caregiver toward their parents.

Why Attachment Issues Happen

No one knows for sure why some children develop attachment disorders and others growing up in the same environment don’t develop attachment issues. But most researchers agree that there’s a clear link between attachment and caregiver affection, consistency, and attendance to a child’s needs.

Children who experience abuse, neglect, or disruptions in caregivers, are more likely to develop attachment issues. For example, children who are placed in foster care or those who are raised by parents with serious mental illness or substance abuse issues may be at a higher risk for developing an attachment issue.

Long-Term Outcomes

The attachment between an infant and caregiver is a powerful predictor of a child’s later social and emotional outcome.

Attachment insecurity has been linked to an increased risk of mental health issues, including depression and a greater likelihood of developing relationship problems.

A 2018 study even found a link between insomnia and attachment issues in childhood.

Children with attachment issues may also develop reactive attachment disorder, a mental health disorder where children exhibit a pattern of emotionally withdrawn behavior toward their caregivers. They rarely seek comfort when they’re distressed, and they minimally respond to comfort when it’s given. They may also exhibit episodes of unexplained sadness, irritability, and fearfulness, as well as minimal emotional responsiveness.

Reactive attachment disorder affects every area of a child’s life, from their academic performance to their friendships. They often live in a constant state of distress, which makes them less resilient to challenges.

Treatment Strategies

The term “attachment parenting” has led many parents to believe that they need to engage in certain types of parenting practices to help their baby form a secure attachment. But there’s no evidence to support the idea that natural childbirth, co-sleeping, and breastfeeding, are the best ways to form a secure attachment.

Attachment parenting” is more of a trend or a buzzword and isn’t based on science.

Instead, the best way to form healthy attachments is to show your child that you are reliable in meeting their needs.

Sometimes, this means providing comfort and closeness. At other times, it means allowing them to safely explore the world around them.

Balancing freedom with guidance is key to helping kids feel secure in their relationships—which is essential to helping them establish healthy attachments.

Children with anxious attachments may benefit from professional intervention. Early identification and intervention can lead to better outcomes.

Therapy can assist caregivers and children in developing healthier attachments. And children may require professional help to learn how to regulate their emotions and manage their behaviors.

Children who have been institutionalized, those who have been placed in foster care, or who have had frequent disruptions in caregivers, will most likely require professional treatment if they exhibit attachment issues.

A Word From Verywell

It’s important for all parents to be aware of the steps they can take to encourage healthy attachments with their children. But adoptive parents—especially those who are adopting children from institutionalized settings—should be aware of the signs of attachment problems.

2 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Mikulincer M, Shaver PR. Attachment in Adulthood Structure, Dynamics, and Change. New York; NY. The Guilford Press; 2018.

  2. Palagini L, Petri E, Novi M, Caruso D, Moretto U, Riemann D. Adult insecure attachment plays a role in hyperarousal and emotion dysregulation in Insomnia DisorderPsychiatry Research. 2018;262:162-167. doi:10.1016/j.psychres.2018.01.017

Additional Reading

By Amy Morin, LCSW
Amy Morin, LCSW, is the Editor-in-Chief of Verywell Mind. She's also a psychotherapist, an international bestselling author of books on mental strength and host of The Verywell Mind Podcast. She delivered one of the most popular TEDx talks of all time.