Insecure Attachment and Anxiety

Nour Yaktine
· 5 min read

Research has found that insecure parent-child attachment is associated with anxiety in childhood and adolescence

Attachment theory suggests that people are naturally and biologically drawn to form relationships with others (Bowlby, 1982). In the case of children, that relationship originally consists of the parent-child relationship, which can either be secure or insecure. When parents serve as a secure base, children often develop a secure attachment style, which is associated with healthy social and emotional behaviors and patterns. This holds to be true as secure attachment has been shown to prepare children for social challenges, but also provides them with social competencies that are crucial for interactions with peers, colleagues or groups. On the other hand, insecure parent-child attachment is often associated with maladaptive behaviors in children, which can either be externalized (e.g: aggressive behavior) or internalized (e.g: anxiety).

Recently, several researchers were interested in understanding the association between insecure attachment and psychopathology; in other words, how and why an insecure attachment style can be related to certain diagnostic criteria, such as anxiety. But in order to evaluate this association, we first ought to understand the underlying mechanism of insecure attachment. When Bowlby conceptualized attachment theory, he introduced the concept of internal working models, which are representations of the self and others. In secure attachment, these representations are often positive, meaning that the child views himself and others in a positive manner. On the other hand, in insecure attachment, children often consider that their caregivers are not available, nor protective or comforting (Kerns & Brumariu, 2014). In other words, when a child is insecurely attached to their caregiver, they cannot represent them positively and do not consider them to serve as a safe haven. It is these negative representations that could translate into anxiety.

Negative representations of the self and others can be characteristic of several types of non-secure attachment styles: avoidant attachment, ambivalent or preoccupied attachment and disorganized attachment. To illustrate, children with an avoidant attachment style are considered to be independent; they rely on themselves rather than their caregiver to meet their needs, as they anticipate the unavailability of the caregiver. Preoccupied children, on the other hand, are unsure whether their caregiver would be available or not and view them as unpredictable, which is why they can cling to them in an attempt to prevent them from leaving. Finally, disorganized children often behave in an incoherent manner with their caregiver.

Responsive image

Some studies have shown that preoccupied children are at most risk of developing anxiety, as they are the ones who are constantly worrying about their caregiver’s availability (Carlson & Sroufe, 1995). Other researchers have established a relationship between disorganized attachment and anxiety (Burmariu & Kerns, 2010). While these results might seem contradicting, Manassis (2001) pinpoints that different types of non-secure attachment styles may be associated with different types of anxiety. For instance, ambivalent children could be more likely to experience separation anxiety, disorganized children most often display school phobia, and avoidant children might be more prone to social phobia (Kerns & Brumariu, 2014).

These different findings support the idea that attachment insecurity can be associated with higher anxiety. This could be due to the fact that insecurely attached children might have difficulty in regulating their emotions. Indeed, since children who are insecurely attached to their caregiver do not benefit from having a secure base, they do not necessarily seek comfort from their caregiver. Instead of interacting with their caregiver, they might experience intense negative emotions, such as worrying about the availability of their caregiver. They are also more likely to have difficulties identifying their own emotions and those of others, as they tend to negatively evaluate situations that involve interacting with others.

In conclusion, the association between attachment and psychopathology shows that not only can attachment predict and affect relational patterns and behaviors, but can also affect individual characteristics, such as the case with insecure attachment and anxiety. Therefore, as a concept, attachment not only relates to the way we interact with other people, but can also relate to one’s overall psychological functioning.


Kerns, K. A., & Brumariu, L. E. (2014). Is Insecure Parent-Child Attachment a Risk Factor for the Development of Anxiety in Childhood or Adolescence ?

Bowlby, J. (1982). Attachment and loss: Attachment. New York, NY: Basic Books. (Original work published 1969).