Understanding Attachment Theory

Authors: Brigid Daniel & Sally Wassell

Insecure attachment

Children who are classified as insecure may show one of four patterns: avoidant, ambivalent, disorganised or anxious preoccupation. Children who have been abused or neglected are more likely to show insecure patterns of attachment.

Avoidant: Children are said to display an avoidant pattern of attachment if they show little distress at separation; tend to avoid contact with the care-giver on return; and appear not to discriminate markedly in their behaviour between a stranger and the care-giver.

Ambivalent: Children are said to display an ambivalent pattern of attachment if they are anxious before separation, upset during it, and ambivalent afterwards - appearing to want comfort from the care-giver, but at the same time showing resistance to comfort, for example by squirming out of a hug.

Disorganised:  A pattern of insecure attachment, known as disorganised, is demonstrated in a mixture of reactions where the child may show contradictory behaviour patterns: for example, gazing away whilst being held. The child may appear confused and unable to feel comforted by the care-giver.

Anxious preoccupation: A pattern of insecure attachment identified by Downes (1992) is characterised by an anxious preoccupation with the availability of the carer. It is a pattern that can often be encountered in practice with abused and neglected children.