Signs of Insecure Attachment in Infants, Children, and Adults
From friendships to romantic interests to family connections, relationships are a central aspect of the human experience. Generally, most people want – and everyone needs – to find and build strong connections with people who understand, love, and support them.
So, why is it that some people seem so easily able to find and maintain many of these kinds of relationships, while others have such a difficult time forming even one connection that is meaningful and fulfilling? Gaining a better understanding of insecure adult attachment styles and childhood attachment disorders could go a long way toward answering these questions.
This increased understanding can also help each of us take a step back and consider our own attachment tendencies – how these were formed, and how we would like for them to change. Awareness of our own attachment tendencies is the first step in learning to relate to others in ways that honor both self and other.
This article will explain what it means when someone has an insecure attachment style, list the signs of insecure attachment in various age groups, and discuss the positive impact that counseling can have on those dealing with these difficulties.
Defining Insecure Attachment
When used in reference to relationship formation, the word “attachment” can be defined as a person’s habitual mode of relating to others. This mode of forming relational connections or “attachments” is usually established in a person’s very early days of childhood. The security and quality of your relationship with your first primary caregiver, usually a parent, tends to determine how successfully you will be able to form healthy connections with others later on in life.
For example, if your caregiver consistently and successfully attended to your emotional and physical needs when you were an infant and young child, you likely developed a stable, secure connection with them. You were then able to build upon this first positive relational experience to create other stable, healthy relationships as you grew. This healthy relational pattern is known as a secure attachment style.
However, if your caregiver was inconsistent with their care, unable or unwilling to meet your emotional or physical needs, absent, neglectful, abusive, or otherwise unstable in your infancy and early childhood, you are unlikely to have formed a secure connection with that caregiver.
Instead, you likely learned in that first relationship that other people are inconsistent, unsafe, or unavailable. This negative understanding of how relationships work then became the lens through which you viewed every subsequent relationship in your life. The unhealthy patterns of relational attachment that result from these types of early relationships are known as insecure attachment styles.
Early Signs of an Insecure Attachment
Some studies on the science of attachment suggest that insecure attachment issues can be identified as early as infancy. It’s important to note that issues with insecure attachments can be present even in children and infants who have not experienced abuse, neglect, or trauma. Problems with attachment can be the result of completely unavoidable or reasonable circumstances that the child is simply too young to understand.
Some situations that may increase the risk for attachment issues are long-term hospitalizations during infancy, parental loss of custody, parental hospitalization or death, foster-home placement changes, or parental struggles with mental health or substance abuse.
Babies who form a bond with their parent or primary caregiver and then have that connection interrupted or severed are at a greater risk of developing an attachment disorder. Some possible signs of attachment disorders in babies are:
- Inconsolable crying sometimes thought to be severe colic
- Failure to thrive symptoms, i.e., not gaining weight, difficulty with feedings, etc.
- Disengaged or unresponsive behaviors such as not making eye contact, not smiling or cooing, or not reacting when an adult engages with them
- Difficulties with being comforted such as not looking to their caregiver for reassurance when upset, rejecting any calming or soothing efforts, or avoiding being touched
Many of these symptoms and behaviors can also be signs of autism, developmental delays, or other physical or mental health disorders, so be sure to speak to your child’s pediatrician about any concerns you may have as soon as possible.
Attachment Disorders in Childhood
In children under the age of five, severe attachment issues may be diagnosed as one of two recognized attachment disorders. Reactive Attachment Disorder (RAD) is an attachment disorder characterized by a disinterest in connecting with others, difficulties managing emotions, and avoidance of a caregiver’s comforting efforts. This disorder is similar to the avoidant attachment style in adults and can be the result of parental absence, unavailability, neglect, or abuse.
The second diagnosable attachment disorder in young children is Disinhibited Social Engagement Disorder (DSED). This insecure attachment disorder is suspected when a child doesn’t have any special preference for their parents or other trusted adults over others.
Children with DSED are unlikely to check in with their caregiver in stranger situations and are overly friendly with everyone they meet, seeking comfort and affection from anyone who will give it. This disorder is similar to the insecure attachment style in adults and may be the result of the first primary caregiver vacillating between being fully engaged and attentive and being detached or unavailable.
Some general indicators of insecure attachment issues in children are:
- Anger issues or aggression towards others
- Withdrawn, listless, or depressed mood
- Disinterest in playing with peers
- Oppositional, control-seeking, or defiant behaviors
- Difficulty showing true care or concern for others
- Excessive dependence or a tendency to act much younger than their age
- Aversion to physical touch or comfort
- Lack of preference for their primary caregiver or other trusted adults
- Lack of social inhibitions
- Failure to show contrition or regret after behaving poorly
If left unaddressed, these issues can carry into adolescence and may put teens at greater risk for conditions such as anxiety, depression, anti-social behavior, and phobias. As with infants, always be sure to share any concerns you have about your child’s health with their primary care physician. Medical professionals are best equipped for evaluating your child’s overall health and helping you to come up with an appropriate plan of treatment.
Insecure Attachment in Adulthood
Once a person reaches adulthood, attachment issues from childhood don’t just disappear. However mild or severe your attachment insecurities were when they first developed, time and experience combine with these unhealthy relational habits to create one of three styles of insecure attachment.
Some therapists and counselors believe that understanding your attachment style may be the first step toward changing unhelpful or harmful behavior patterns in adult relationships.
Anxiously attached adults tend to be distrustful and unsettled in their relationships, yet their entire lives revolve around others. These individuals tend to have a hard time developing deep or intimate connections with others because, though they deeply desire this intimacy, they generally expect people to rescind their interests or friendship at a moment’s notice.
If you are anxiously attached, you may find yourself deriving a huge part of your self-esteem from the success or failure of your close relationships. In relationships, you may be labeled as too clingy or overly needy, jealous, controlling, manipulative, or obsessive.
Avoidantly attached adults tend to avoid intimate connections at all costs. These people have an inherent distrust of others, often viewing vulnerability as dangerous or a sign of weakness.
If you are avoidantly attached, you tend to be fiercely independent and uncomfortable with your own emotions as well as those of others. In relationships, you may be accused of being too rigid, closed-off, secretive, unmoved by your partner’s emotions, and quick to distance yourself when things start getting too intimate.
Disorganized attachment can cause adults to believe that they are not worthy of the love of others. These individuals were deeply hurt in their first important caregiving relationship and tend to have a fearful view of not just others, but the world as a whole.
If you have a disorganized attachment style, you likely view others as unavailable, unsafe, or rejecting, feel confused and disoriented in close relationships with others, have difficulty controlling your emotions, or have a hairpin trigger on your temper. In relationships, you may be viewed as very hot-and-cold, inattentive to your partner’s needs, neglectful, quick-tempered, or unwilling to take responsibility for your actions.
Seeking Help for Attachment Concerns
If you are worried about the mental, emotional, or relational health of your baby, child, or teen, speak to their primary care doctor about your concerns as soon as possible. Your child’s physician will then help you come up with a plan of care and refer you to any special care your child may need.
Counselors, therapists, and other mental health professionals are available to support your family and help guide your child through whatever difficulties they are facing. For young children, family, talk, or group play therapy can go a long way to resolving attachment concerns.
If you are an adult and believe you may be working from a disordered relational playbook, consulting a counselor is a great first step towards better health in your current and future relationships. Journaling, practicing mindfulness, and learning how to monitor your thoughts and reactions can help you gain a better understanding of your habitual, auto-pilot thought patterns.
Using any of these practices in combination with seeking professional mental health support has the potential to help you heal from past hurts and move forward as a healthier, more securely attached individual. Set up an appointment with a local counselor today.
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