This is my third post on attachment styles. The Secure and Insecure-Ambivalent Attachment style posts can be found HERE but if you are wanting to know more about the Insecure Anxious-Avoidant Attachment style, then this is the post for you.
Before we start, what’s important to remember about all attachment styles is they are strategies learnt from birth to keep the parent/carer close. Whatever the attachment style, the child has developed ways of getting their needs met as a way of surviving the environment(s) they are being reared in.
What is an Insecure-Avoidant Attachment?
An Insecure Anxious-Avoidant attachment is characterised by a fear of rejection. A child with an avoidant attachment has learnt to hide or suppress their feelings in order to keep their attachment figure close. They have learnt if they show their emotions, they will be rejected and it has become fruitless trying. These are the children who have consistently been left to cry, ignored, ridiculed, and/or left alone for extended periods with little or no stimulation. Their feelings have not been acknowledged or managed by the adults around them. They have had their needs, emotional and otherwise, rejected, dismissed, minimised, and ignored. Avoidant children have learnt to put their feelings to one side and get on. Babies with an avoidant attachment can appear shut down though, like there is little life and joy in them. They are less likely to cry and may have limited eye contact. It’s very sad to see.
What does it look like in older children?
As babies with an Avoidant attachment reach toddlerhood and beyond, they are typically seen as resilient and self-reliant. Of course this is because experience has taught them it isn’t safe to show emotions and rely on others. These are the children who do not cry when expected and show little emotional response. Facial expressions may be limited and they can present as emotionally distant or cut-off. Friendships can be problematic as markedly avoidant children are difficult to get close to. They usually keep people at a distance, with some friendships seeming somewhat shallow or superficial.
Given that such children are emotionally well managed, they’re usually compliant and well behaved. Anything other has led to rejection. They do not readily ask for help as it is not safe to rely on others. Such children can be helpful and caring towards others, and convey a maturity beyond their years. This isn’t to be taken at face value. They may come across as older but the reality is their emotional development in particular is likely to be compromised. On a positive note, avoidant children often do well academically. They are thinkers, not feelers.
Of course, having an avoidant attachment style can cause difficulties. I think this can depend on how avoidant a person is. Feelings can be hard to conceal and keep at bay, meaning eruptions and heightened emotions can overspill. Avoidant children may tick along quite nicely and then boom, something happens and their reaction is considerable. This is not uncommon in my experience.
Given that emotions aren’t readily displayed, children and young adults may present with bodily symptoms or physical complaints. This can be a safer way of getting their needs met, but is also a sign their body maybe somatising the emotions that can’t be discharged. In adolescence, self harm is common and in my experience is often described as a release. Similarly, some people describe feeling dead inside. They can be so disconnected from their emotions, the act of cutting and the sight of blood, can remind them they are alive. As one would expect, there is a vulnerability for mental health problems too, such as depression, anxiety, and in my view, eating difficulties such as anorexia.
In adulthood, those with an avoidant attachment can go through life feeling like relationships are unfulfilling and dissatisfying in some way. You could say this is due to a limited, or lack of, emotional connection. Some people with a marked avoidant attachment style may engage in brief intimate relationships whereby sex is the (physical) connection and an emotional connection can be avoided.
It’s not all bad news…
With any attachment style, there are strengths. Here we have people who tend to want to help and take care of others. They can do well in caring professions which provides a potential distraction from their own needs. There may be something quite cathartic too in taking care of someone else’s wellbeing while avoiding their own. Given how well they can apply themselves at school, successful careers that require long committed hours, considerable concentration and application are conceivable.
What can be done? First steps.
As with all attachment styles, things can change. If you are reading this thinking it sounds familiar, there are things you can do. The main point is not to collude with the avoidance. Avoidance breeds avoidance – it needs to be challenged. If you wondering about your child, or a child in your care, the main thing that needs to happen is to start talking about feelings and being curious about them. Name the difficulty of sharing emotions – maybe you think I will tell you off or think what you say is silly, for example. Start introducing an emotional language, you could even talk about your own (making sure you remain level and regulated of course). This should be done gently but frequently as some children will find this incredibly threatening or intrusive. If you have a child who is very withdrawn, step away from the emotional language and comment on physical states, such as hunger, thirst, hot, cold etc. These are concrete concepts that are easier to grasp for those who have a limited understanding of their own emotional states.
It’s also worth considering previous experiences of showing emotions. We know what leads to the development of an avoidant attachment, but how exactly was the child responded to? Being ignored is a different experience to being ridiculed or put down, for example. Both are shaming experiences, but if you know, you can name what has happened before and offer empathy for their resistance and inevitable shame.