Avoidant attachment occurs when a child’s caregiver is emotionally unresponsive, and as a result the child’s needs for comfort and safety are not consistently met. According to attachment theory, when we experience repeated rejection and neglect as children, we learn to avoid seeking comfort from our caregivers and we struggle to feel confidence in coping with stress and anxiety. As avoidantly attached children, we learn to lock away our emotions and avoid close relationships with others. Avoidantly attached children may appear to be strong and independent but inside we may feel emotionally estranged or confused.
What type of parenting can lead to an avoidant attachment style?
Consistently ignoring a child’s emotional needs
Failing to provide a secure and stable environment for the child
Using punishment or criticism as a primary means of discipline
Encouraging independence to the point of neglecting the child’s emotional needs
Being inconsistent in providing comfort and support
Focusing more on the child’s achievements rather than their emotional well-being
Being emotionally unavailable or distant
Showing little affection or warmth towards the child
Dismissing a child’s feelings or emotions
Why talk about parenting in a blog about child aggression?
When our parents talk to us unkindly or roughly, and ignore our feelings, we learn that we shouldn’t trust people and that we are not worthy of love or attention.
Ignoring or supressing our feelings helps us not to feel rejected by our parents but it also means we find it difficult to have healthy relationships in the future. Avoidantly attached children may struggle to make and keep good friends, might get in trouble from teachers for not following instructions, and, when we get older, this can also affect our romantic or intimate relationships. We may have difficulty expressing our feelings and connecting with others on a deep level.
We may also have trouble regulating our emotions because we haven’t learned healthy coping mechanisms. Research shows that violent behaviour is associated with avoidant attachment styles. If we don’t learn how to recognise our emotions, we don’t learn how to self-regulate so we are much more likely to respond impulsively or violently if we feel threatened, trapped, or controlled by others.
How does an avoidantly attached child think, feel and behave:
Fear of rejection and abandonment. If people get close to me, sometimes I want to push them away before they have a chance to reject me. Other times I am just waiting and dreading that rejection.
I believe “I am good but other people are bad”
Low self-esteem and low self-worth. I try to prove I am good but when I fail or am criticised I respond impulsively.
Difficulty with conflict resolution. Even small arguments send me into fight, flight or freeze.
Fear of being dependent on others. If others need me then I might feel trapped. I like my own space.
Anxious and preoccupied with relationships. I think about relationships and like the idea, I just don’t want the stress.
Difficulty forming and maintaining relationships. Most of our romantic relationships were quite short, ending when we ghosted them or pushed them away.
Fear of being vulnerable. We were told to grow up / be a man / get a grip / not be a baby. Being upset is a sign of weakness and in this family weakness is not tolerated. When we see vulnerability in others that also annoys us, we may bully them or get angry at them.
Tendency to isolate oneself. This may be physical isolation, spending most hours in our room or alone. We may also use drugs or alcohol to escape.
Perfectionism and self-criticism. Maybe if we could be perfect then someone would love us. Or maybe we already gave up on that idea and instead we just want to know what is wrong with us so there is a reason for why we act and feel like this.
Difficulty expressing needs and desires. Even if we need help, sometimes we can’t ask for it.
Suppressing emotions and feelings. We may lock away feeling like fear, sadness or anger.
Avoiding intimacy and emotional closeness. We may have changed friendship group. We don’t like talking on the phone or hugging people.
Difficulty trusting others. Maybe there are some people we trust for some things, perhaps we find it easy to ask about something practical. But for other things it feels much safer to only rely on ourselves.
Difficulty recognising or naming emotions. If someone asks us why did we respond that way we might not know, it’s like our behaviour comes out of nowhere.
So it's the parents fault?
There is little purpose in blame. There are many barriers which may interrupt the parent-child bonding in those earlier years. Being clear and pointing them out may help some parents to change their responses or seek support.
Avoidant attachment can be passed from generation to generation, if our own parents did not help us recognise our emotions and instead encouraged us to push them away, we may automatically teach our children to do the same.
For those who are already beyond the first five years, the main message is “what happened to you is not your fault, how you respond is your responsibility”.
That response may start with greater understanding.
Escalating violence or agression
Avoidant attachment styles can sometimes escalate into child-to-parent violence as the child becomes frustrated and may attack the caregiver, this risk may be greater if the child has witnessed or experienced a lot of violence in other relationships. This type of violence occurs when a child uses physical aggression or emotional manipulation to dominate or intimidate a parent or caregiver. It can take many forms, including yelling, hitting, kicking, and breaking things.
According to research by Brennan and Shaver (1998) in their journal article, (Attachment styles and personality disorders: their connections to each other and to parental divorce, parental death, and perceptions of parental caregiving), people with an avoidant attachment style may use violence to maintain distance and control relationships. Additionally, people with this attachment style may see rules and social norms as limitations on their freedom, and are therefore more likely to be excluded from education or engage in criminal activity.
It’s important to note that not everyone with an avoidant attachment style exhibits violent behaviour. However, understanding the relationship between attachment styles and violent behaviour can help inform prevention and intervention efforts. By addressing the underlying emotional and relationship issues that drive violent behaviour, individuals with avoidant attachment styles are better prepared to form healthy, non-violent relationships.
According to Dr. Caroline Miles, author of “Child to Parent Violence and Abuse: Family Interventions with Non-Violent Resistance,” violence between children and parents is often the result of the breakdown of the parent-child relationship. “The child is not getting their attachment needs met, so they’re lashing out in an attempt to get their parent’s attention or control the situation.” she explains.
Connection is the foundation of security. Parents can prevent violent behaviour from occurring by building strong bonds with their children.
How to build secure attachments
So how can parents build strong bonds with their children and prevent violence between children and parents? The first step is to recognize the signs of avoidant attachment and address them as soon as possible. Then the goal is consistent emotional support, active listening, and affirmation of the child’s emotions.
Attachment Theory was proposed by Bowlby during the Second World War as he considered the impact of evacuation on children, back then it was assumed that attachment formed during the first four years and was then fixed. More recently, psychologists and psychotherapists have shown how, with persistent reliable safe relationships, secure attachments can be formed at any age.
Here are some parenting strategies to create and strengthen secure attachments:
- Respond to your child’s needs promptly and consistently
- Provide a safe and predictable environment
- Show affection and warmth towards your child
- Encourage exploration and independence while offering support
- Be attuned to your child’s emotions and respond appropriately
- Set clear and consistent boundaries
- Use positive reinforcement to encourage good behaviour
- Practice active listening and validate your child’s feelings
- Model healthy communication and conflict resolution skills.
- Seek professional help if needed
Another important step is creating a safe and supportive environment for your child. This means setting clear boundaries and expectations while providing emotional support and validation. Dr. Miles explains: “Children need to feel safe and secure in their relationships with their parents. When they feel that their needs are being met, they’re less likely to resort to violence.”
Finally, it is important to model healthy relationships and conflict resolution skills in children. This means practicing active listening, empathy, and respectful communication in your own relationships. Demonstrating these skills can help children express their feelings in a healthy and constructive way.
If you are concerned that your child is acting violently or aggressively towards you, it is important to seek help as soon as possible. There are many organizations and hotlines to help families facing violence between children and parents. The UK National Domestic Abuse Helpline (0808 2000 247) and Family Lives (020 7553 3080) provide support and advice to families affected by violence. Therapeutic parenting approaches such as Non-Violent resistance can allow you to be supported by a trained professional as you focus on building trust and connection with your child.
Remember that building a strong bond with your child is key to preventing violence and promoting healthy relationships.
Find out more about attachment:
Four books on Attachment Theory:
Attachment in the Classroom by Heather Geddes – an essential read for anyone working in school or for parents whose children are struggling in school.
Creating Loving Attachments: Parenting with PACE to Nurture Confidence and Security in the Troubled Child by Dan Hughes and Kim Golding – focus on how to change parenting approach to change attachment patterns; especially recommended for adopted or fostered children.
Working with Attachment Difficulties in Teenagers: Practical & creative approaches by Sue Jennings – book for therapists supporting teenagers.
Attachment Theory: A Guide to Strengthening the Relationships in Your Life – if you have recognised your own patterns in this blog and want to change them, look here.
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