In this second post on Insecure Attachment, I will focus on Ambivalent Attachment. I have already written about the similarities between these behaviours and ADHD. This post will look at how it develops and what a child needs to help them form a more secure style of relating.
What is an Insecure-Ambivalent attachment?
As the name suggests, we are talking about a relationship that has a “pull – push” quality to it. This attachment style is characterised by a child wanting to remain close to their parent, yet exercising some distance at the same time. These are the toddlers and children who cling to their parent(s) and are difficult to soothe. They can be controlling in their interactions, pushing their parent away only to express a need to pull them in again. The most difficult thing for these children is being separated from their parent/carer so they work hard to keep the adults near.
Children who show ambivalent behaviour can be quite hard work. They tend to act on their emotions rather than think. In fact, thinking is usually avoided. They can be reactive, impulsive, and angry. They work hard to get their needs met and can be quite coy. They will continue to plug away and emphasise their needs regardless of what response they get. Any response is better than nothing as it means their parent is likely to stay physically close to them.
How did that happen?
An ambivalent attachment develops as a result of inconsistent care, meaning the child has not experienced their parent as consistently available. Such babies or children have had different reactions from their parent(s) making them unpredictable and to some degree, unsafe. These reactions may range from a parent who shows anger towards their child, to being intrusive, to showing a flippant lack of regard, and anything in between. There is a general lack of attunement and understanding about what is needed. Even though their care is unpredictable, experience has taught the child to keep trying as they may end up getting what they want; it’s a gamble worth taking. When they are apart from their parent, they feel forgotten about and unworthy. The saying “out of sight, out of mind” very much applies to their experience.
Parents of children with an ambivalent attachment style are usually focussed on their own needs and emotions. It’s like they can’t hold in mind what their child may be thinking and feeling. The parent is likely to have changeable moods, meaning the child has to be vigilant and monitor the adult’s behaviour. This offers some predictability or certainty about how they may be responded to.
How to change things
For parents or carers of a child who displays ambivalent attachment behaviours, the main things to keep in mind are helping the child manage separation and emotional regulation.
First of all, pre-empting their needs as much as possible is a good start. Continually checking in with the child and trying to predict what they need will give them the experience that being out of sight doesn’t mean you are out of mind. When they are clingy, it’s always good to put into words their anxiety “I can see you are worried that if I stop hugging you, you don’t know when we will do this again.” Being clear about when it will happen and sticking to it will promote predictability. However, the child is unlikely to be able to hear these things during a state of elevated arousal (e.g. when very anxious or angry).
When it comes to regulating emotions, staying calm when the child is dysregulated or distressed is very important. Offering names for their emotions and an understanding for why they may be feeling them is always a good idea. Again, this needs to happen when they are not at their most distressed. They will start to experience the adult as thoughtful and reflective rather than uncaring and thoughtless. As children with ambivalent attachment styles act on their emotions, they need help managing these and learning how to be calm. Children will often benefit from having an adult do things with them, whether it is teaching them how to be calm, learning the order of the morning routine, or knowing what to pack in their school bag. By having their parent or carer alongside them, they will start to trust the adults and form a more secure attachment, ultimately making separations bearable.
It goes without saying too that having a parent or adult who can make sense of what they feel and why helps the child build a coherent story about themselves. This is the most protective skill or understanding we can give them. When things go wrong, take responsibility, say sorry and narrate how you saw they were upset/anxious/cross that you got it wrong.
It’s a tough job and if you have a child whose ambivalence is quite striking, it will take considerable time. But it’s worth it.