Australian Association of Psychologists Inc

Australian Association of Psychologists Inc

by Elizabeth Ryan 


Continuing on from the first part of this article, which detailed positive and secure styles of attachment, the following are three forms of insecure attachment.

  1. Anxious-preoccupied

Toddlers with anxious-preoccupied attachment tend to become upset when their mother leaves them and experience more separation anxiety than those who are securely attached.  

Children with anxious-preoccupied attachment are likely to resist attempts to be soothed and to be wary of strangers.  They may be seen as clingy, whiney, immature, attention-seeking or hyperactive.  Because of their relentless need for attention from teachers, their studies may not be taken seriously.

Adults who are anxious-preoccupied tend to:

– Have a positive view of others and a negative view of themselves

– Fear abandonment, which can lead to attachment panic

– Highly desire emotional intimacy with significant others but experience others as reluctant to get as close as they would like

– Be uncomfortable without close relationships but worry that they value others more than they themselves are valued

– Seek high levels of approval and responsiveness from partners

– Become overly dependent upon partners because of their high need for intimacy and approval

– Feel unworthy of love and therefore doubt their worth as a partner

– Blame themselves when things go wrong in their relationships.

Anxious-preoccupied parents are inconsistent in meeting their baby’s attachment needs.  Because their own attachment history leads them to often be anxious and preoccupied about their intimate relationships, during those times, they lose attunement with their baby.  Their children can absorb their anxiety, which, combined with the lack of attunement, leads them too to doubt that they’re worthy of love.

  1. Dismissive-avoidant 

Toddlers with dismissive-avoidant attachment show less distress than others when separated from their mother, and when reunited, they don’t initiate contact with her.  They’re likely to avoid and ignore strangers.  

Children with dismissive-avoidant attachment fear that if they allow themselves to experience upsetting feelings, they’ll slip into an abyss.  Therefore, they go to extreme lengths to avoid uncomfortable emotions, such as sadness, disappointment, rejection and hurt.  Being self-reliant and reluctant to seek support, they’re likely to underachieve at school.

Adults who have dismissive-avoidant attachment appear to:

– Have a positive view of themselves and a negative view of others

– Deny the need for close relationships

– Be task-oriented because of their high need for independence and self-sufficiency

– Prefer not to depend upon others or be depended upon

– Deny and avoid their feelings

– Keep their distance from people, believing them to be untrustworthy

– Feel ill at ease socially

– Have limited creativity

– Seek less intimacy with their relationship partners than do securely attached people

– Predominantly experience sadness, loneliness, emptiness and anxiety.


Parents with dismissive-avoidant attachment are likely to meet their baby’s physical needs, such as for food, hydration and hygiene.  However, they’re unlikely to pay much attention to the baby’s emotions and as a result, their children’s emotional intelligence can be severely under-developed. 

  1. Fearful-avoidant

Toddlers with fearful-avoidant attachment, having intuited that they’re a problem or a burden, can feel fundamentally flawed.  Because they aren’t adequately soothed and their needs to explore their environment aren’t encouraged, they tend to withdraw from physical affection and human interaction.  

Children with fearful-avoidant attachment learn to suppress their needs and feelings, since turning to their parents when they’re physically or emotionally hurt leads to criticism, rejection or punishment.  Without a strong sense of self, they begin to study what others want from them in order to gain acceptance and avoid abandonment. Their extreme fear of abandonment, and a sense that they’re without inner substance, underlie many of their behaviors.  As they’re sensitive to criticism, these children can be aggressive, oppositional and defiant.

Adults with fearful-avoidant attachment tend to:

– Have a negative view of themselves and others

– Be somewhat uncomfortable getting close to others but quickly become dependent once a relationship has begun

– Crave emotional closeness but find it difficult to trust or depend upon others

– Worry that they’ll be hurt if they allow themselves to get too close to others

– Have mixed feelings in desiring emotional closeness 

– Feel unlovable and unworthy of love

– Avoid conflict because they know and fear their propensity to lose their temper and behave badly

– Doubt their partners’ intentions

– Readily experience jealousy

– Seek low levels of intimacy from partners

– Find it difficult to end relationships because of their extreme fear of abandonment

– Experience a sense of shame that leads them to avoid and deny their feelings.


Fearful-avoidant parents tend to be very inconsistent in attending to their baby’s needs. Since they often feel awful about themselves and struggle to cope with and regulate their emotions, they’re inclined to use substances in an attempt to soothe or obliterate their distress.  Because they can’t cope with their own uncomfortable emotions, they generally can’t tolerate their baby’s emotional disturbances. So, they can erroneously perceive their baby as a problem or a burden.

Babies don’t cry without reason and they don’t have the intellectual sophistication required to manipulate a parent.  If their mother is generally emotionally responsive, accessible and engaging, the child develops secure attachment.  

One of many factors that influence children’s attachment style is the continuity or discontinuity in the relationship between them and their mother. A young child’s brain development is impacted when her relationship with her mother is disrupted, such as through illness that requires either one to be hospitalised, maternal depression, parental unavailability, or emotional trauma.  Also, if either the mother or infant is unable to maintain a calm and balanced nervous state, the attachment bond will be compromised, affecting the child’s equilibrium.  

When a baby’s needs aren’t met promptly, predictably and regularly, his view of himself and the world may suffer.  At worst, he’ll have ongoing relationship difficulties and trust issues.  His ability to learn and tolerate stress may be affected, and at worst, he’ll be at risk of developing mental illness.   

Insecure attachment is correlated with negative outcomes and is one of the determinants of mental health.   Insecure attachment later in life can always be attributed to repetitive experiences of failed emotional attunement early on.  Nevertheless, it would be reductionist to believe that mental illness arises solely from parenting, unmet needs or unresolved childhood issues.  The following factors may also interact to impact children’s mental health:

  • their genetic predisposition, temperament and personality
  • their intelligence
  • their age and state of development, with adolescence being a vulnerable time
  • gender – boys are at increased risk of behavioural problems and girls are at higher risk of internalising problems in adolescence
  • their peer relationships
  • their ability to regulate their emotions
  • life events, such as parental separation, a pandemic, changing schools and the birth of siblings
  • chronic stresses, such as neglect, or emotional, physical or sexual abuse
  • single traumatic events, such as sustaining severe physical injury in an accident
  • the social support they receive in response to adverse life events


Anytime in life, healing experiences can change an individual’s insecure attachment style to secure.

My book, Heart-Centred Parenting includes many interactions I witnessed in cafes between mothers and children, two of which appear below to clarify secure and insecure attachment.

Samantha, the mother, visibly pregnant, asks her son Mason what he’s looking forward to most tomorrow.  Mason replies, “Jessica.”“You love Jessica, don’t you,” responds Samantha, adding, “I bet it’ll be great to have all your friends playing in the jumping castle.”

Then, when Rajani, Samantha’s friend, enters the café, the women throw their arms around each other.  Before taking a seat, Rajani checks with Mason if she can give him a big hug and he agrees.

With the greeting formalities over, Samantha tells Rajani that tomorrow is a big day for Mason.  “Tell Rajani what’s happening, Mason,” she prompts.

“My burfday,” Mason says shyly.  Rajani shrieks with excitement as she recalls he’ll be three years old.

Rajani and Samantha proceed to converse comfortably about Samantha’s pregnancy while Samantha hugs Mason, who has crawled up on her knee and is driving an imaginary car.  



If Samantha’s attunement to Mason and her consideration of his feelings, interests and needs are typical of her interactions with him, the outlook for his attachment style is rosy. She enters Mason’s world and joins him in his joyful anticipation of his birthday party and his love for Jessica. Taking the opportunity to teach him social skills, Samantha suggests he talk with Rajani. She also demonstrates her consideration for her son as an equal human being by including him in the conversation, and even when she’s talking with Rajani, she remains physically connected to him. Rajani too is respectful in seeking permission to hug Mason and engaging with his excitement about his birthday party. 

Mother comes in talking loudly and her voice remains raised throughout this interaction.After seating her daughter, who is probably two years old, the mother steps toward the counter, a couple of yards away, to place an order.  The child immediately cries, and in an impatient tone, the mother says, “For God’s sake, I’m just here!”  

        When the mother returns to the table after ordering coffee and raisin toast, the toddler protests, “I don’t like it, I don’t like it,” pointing to the snake plant that’s right beside her chair.  

        The mother exclaims in an angry tone, “It probably doesn’t like you either!”  Then she walks to another area of the café to get a cushion for her back, whereupon the child becomes anxious about being left.  

        The mother returns within seconds, cushion in hand, and tells the child, “Stop whining!  I’m the one with a cold!”

        The child reiterates that she doesn’t like sitting near the plant and continues to cry while the mother reads the newspaper.  After a tearful minute or two, the mother reluctantly moves the toddler to another seat.

        A woman known to the mother unexpectedly enters the café and opens a conversation with the mother.  Sounding cheerful for the first time since she arrived, the mother explains that she spent the last few days in bed with a heavy cold.  The acquaintance asks, “How did you cope with Amethyst while you were sick?”  

        The mother replies “Amethyst’s good.  She’s low maintenance,” adding, “she makes no demands.” 

If this scenario is indicative of how Amethyst’s mother generally behaves toward her, sadly, it paints a grim picture for Amethyst’s likely attachment style.  Her mother’s childhood wounds appear to have left her without the wherewithal to securely bond with her daughter.  Amethyst’s feelings and needs were disregarded or considered bothersome.  If she’s continually treated like this, Amethyst will likely learn that turning to others is futile, as they cannot be counted upon to understand or care.  

If indeed Amethyst makes no demands on her mother, it signifies that at this young age she has already learned to disown her needs and feelings.  Another possibility is that her mother is so disengaged that she is oblivious to Amethyst’s needs and feelings.

Had she been heart-centred with her little daughter, Amethyst’s mother probably would not seat Amethyst near the snake plant in the first place, but assuming she was momentarily distracted, as we often are, the conversation would evolve something like this:

After seating her daughter, she tells Amethyst she’s going to order their food.  Were Amethyst to cry as she stepped toward the counter, her mother would empathise: 

“It can be upsetting to be left.  You can come with me if you like.”  

When they’re back at the table and Amethyst complains that she doesn’t like sitting next to the snake plant, her mother would respond, “Oh dear!  I’m sorry.  I didn’t notice it.  It sure does look spikey!  How about sitting around here (pointing to a better seat)?”

 Amethyst would probably feel comforted by this respectful approach and move to the suggested chair.           

Before heading toward the cushion, the mother would tell Amethyst what she’s doing.

If Amethyst cried at that point, which is less likely when she knows what’s happening, her mother would say something like, “I know you don’t like mummy leaving you, darling, but I always come back. “

Having her feelings understood, Amethyst would probably calm down.

Recurrent abandonment of a child’s needs can have even more devastating effects on their brain and emotional development than a single traumatic event.  The brain isn’t completely hard-wired from birth; it continues to mature throughout life, significantly so for at least the first 21 years; but remains to some extent malleable.  

From birth, the mother-child relationship and the communication patterns that the child experiences with his mother directly impact the development of his mental and emotional processing skills, and to some extent, his physical health, the earliest years of his life being the most critical.  Relationships play a massive role in our happiness, sense of meaning and purpose, and life satisfaction.  Thus, the love a child receives in his early years can have an enduring effect.  When treated warmly and respectfully, your child will generally be kind and self-respecting, and be developing self-assertion and the ability to communicate effectively.  Alternatively, profound deficits in emotional nurturance may contribute to mental illness. 

A Word of Support

The optimum conditions described throughout this article may seem daunting, since it’s estimated that 40 percent of us have insecure attachment.  Please take heart.  No parent can live up to their aspirations all the time and every parent struggles to cope with some of the challenges they face in raising their children.  As parenting involves a collection of variables under the influence of a collection of forces, it’s understandable that no one has a faultless outcome.  You’ll naturally be better at some things than you are with others.  Our parenting struggles are markers of our own attachment pattern and unresolved past issues.  However, while our insecure attachment is not our fault, it is something we can change through psychological therapy. 

Avoid judging yourself or your child.  It’s self-defeating to consider yourself a failure when you make mistakes or if you’re struggling with the transition to parenthood.  What’s more, it’s counter-productive to start thinking of a baby as difficult if she doesn’t sleep well, cries a lot or is delayed in any area of her development.  Similarly, perceiving a baby as good because she meets your needs by sleeping and eating well and rarely crying is misguided.

If you find yourself at odds with your child, it’s never too late to repair your relationship with him, thereby positively altering the neural connections in his brain.  We have an infinite number of opportunities to get back on track through empathy, honour and humility.  Fortunately, children are very forgiving and most brain wiring can be transformed along the way. 

Relationship Repair

Repairing your relationship with your child contributes as much to her wholesome development as joyous interactions.  

Every parent occasionally behaves undesirably.  Nevertheless, the parent-child relationship is impaired whenever this happens, and the child is likely to feel disconnected, upset, bewildered and abandoned until the relationship is repaired.

Examples of undesirable parental behaviour:
– Expecting behaviour that’s beyond your child’s developmental level
– Yelling or swearing in your child’s presence
– Engaging in power struggles with your child
– Criticising, blaming or negatively judging your child
– Demanding obedience
– Setting unfair consequences
– Punishing your child for anything

After they’ve behaved undesirably, the first goal of heart-centred parents is to calm down and compassionately reflect on their behaviour.  Self-criticism is avoided since it adds an unnecessary layer of disturbance.  After grasping their contribution to the conflict, and giving due consideration to the timing, they acknowledge they’ve behaved badly, and sensitively initiate a heartfelt discussion with their child.  If their child doesn’t want to talk about it, they wait until she’s ready.  When the discussion takes place, they:

  1. Invite the child to discuss her ideas, feelings and needs about the issue on which they differed.   
  2. Demonstrate, by paraphrasing the child’s sentiments, that they’ve understood her feelings, needs and perspective, without criticising, blaming or judging them. 
  3. Discuss their own position, feelings and needs without defending them.  
  4. Humbly apologise for their undesirable behaviour.
  5. Acknowledge that the child didn’t deserve their reaction.
  6. If appropriate, they brainstorm a win-win solution of the contentious issue, only agreeing to an outcome that’s in their child’s best interests.  Thus, they don’t give in just to be on good terms again with their child.
  7. Ensure the discussion ends on a positive note, which may mean agreeing to disagree on some points.  


From this exercise, a child learns that when conflict is repaired, warm feelings naturally flow again between him and his parent/s.  What’s more, children will likely adopt the conflict management style that’s modelled for them.

Heart-centred parenting is good enough parenting, which means making mistakes, learning from them and doing our best to redress them. Be aware that as we bring our own attachment history to our role as a parent, we may often feel out of our depth.  Courageous and relentless self-reflection will help us recognize where we were emotionally wounded and progress toward being heart-centred.  We make headway by endeavouring to understand ourselves as well as our child’s feelings, needs and capabilities with all the compassion and respect we can muster.  

In summary, the key to constructive parenting is love, and our ability to love is predicated on emotional intelligence and growth.  Whenever parents are apathetic to their child’s needs and feelings, we can be sure they haven’t processed the emotional pain of their childhood.  Issues that remain unexplored impair our perception and affect our behaviour, such that we act like children.  Every one of us has leftover issues from childhood.  Therefore, parents whose behaviour is left wanting, deserve our compassion and support rather than criticism or judgement.


Adapted from a chapter of Heart-Centred Parenting by Elizabeth Ryan  


About the author

Elizabeth Ryan is a psychologist in Melbourne, Australia and member of the Australian Association of Psychologists. Through her education and counselling practice, she has gained a wealth of knowledge about the effects of childhood experiences on our psychological health as adults. Elizabeth’s dedication to improving the quality of people’s lives inspires her to educate parents about what matters most.