What is an Avoidant Attachment Style?
In Attachment Theory the avoidant attachment style describes the development of children who learn to refrain from expressing their distress to mother and the subsequent avoidant, self-isolating, behavioural traits that manifest. They develop interests slanted towards things rather than people. Over time avoidant children have underdeveloped social skills which severely impacts the way they relate to everybody in their lives. Interactions with parents, teachers, friends and work colleagues (later in life) all show an increasing degree of dysfunction which is the cause of serious life stresses and relationship breakdowns. Avoidant attachment styles are highly correlated with conduct disorders, depression, drug and alcohol abuse . They can appear selfish and “mean spirited” to others around them. Exploiting behaviours are highly associated with this attachment style. Besides having trouble with intimacy and lacking social skills, avoidant type personalities are evidenced as often having keen interests in making friendships and initially can be very charming, yet as their “cold” personality traits emerge, the relationships stall or break down. For many this adds to their further avoidance of intimate relationships by choosing to keep things shallow through employing avoidance tactics.
In the Minnesota longitudinal study around 20% had avoidant attachment. A similar figure to other population assessments.
How is an Avoidant Attachment Style Formed?
When babies and toddlers become alarmed at something, their stress levels quickly rise. On a neurobiological level stress hormones such as cortisol increase. Fear shuts down exploration and learning. Their minds become preoccupied with the threat and instinctively they raise their arms or motion in some other way to be comforted by their mother. In these times they need to be given the contact-comfort of a hug, stroke or some other physical reassurance. Indeed this physical touch releases potent anti-stress hormones such as oxytocin (dubbed the love hormone). There are two consequences of oxytocin which are paramount for healthy development. First is dispels fear driven hormones and second it creates intense bonds of trust between those experiencing the contact-comfort together. The mother-child bond does not develop properly without it. As babies are usually cradled at these times, mother’s facial expression are also important non-verbal communication which the baby can instinctively read. Together these behaviours of mother establish a secure attachment, so when they’re left out in part or whole, developmental problems arise.
Avoidant attachment styles are formed when babies and toddlers are consistently not given contact-comforted “when distressed”. A lack of physical and facial soothing on an ongoing basis means these children are left highly stressed. Evidence shows that mothers of avoidant children can give a similar quantity of attention and affection as mothers who have secure children, yet the mothers of avoidant children differed as to when they gave the care, for they didn’t use their children’s expressions of distress as cues to engage in soothing behaviours, and indeed often mothers rejected them specifically at these times. As these children’s expressions of distress are not met with affection, over time they stop expressing their distress. In turn their mothers are less likely to think they need comforting, so their stress levels remain high. Exploratory and learning behaviours are negatively affected as they grow.
What Evidenced Behaviours Do Parents of Avoidantly Attached Children Exhibit?
Mothers of children with avoidant attachment were reported to be “more likely to have negative feelings about motherhood, were tense and irritable, and engage in caregiving in a perfunctory manner. Feeding interactions were not adapted to the pace of the infant. In addition, mothers of avoidant infants were less responsive and effective in responding to infant crying and appeared at times to avoid physical contact… mothers of those infants who became avoidant held their babies as much as other mothers, except when infants signalled explicitly that they wanted to be picked up; then, they turned them away. Maltreatment in the form of lack of emotional responsiveness and psychological unavailability (emotional neglect) was also highly related to avoidant patterns of attachment; in the Minnesota longidutinal study which started with over 240 families pre-birth, at 18 months old, 100% of infants experiencing this pattern of maltreatment were avoidant.”
These mothers are often physically rejecting and lack interest in responding to their babies emotional needs – such as face-to-face playtime.
Mothers who had chaotic relationship histories with men in their lives, over time were found to have children at 1-7 years of age having dramatically more social, emotional, and behavioural problems than children from stable families. These instability effects were most dramatic for children with avoidant orientated histories.
What Evidenced Detrimental Outcomes Do Avoidantly Attached Children Experience?
Problems with intimate relationships and social encounters – tend to withdraw after initial contact.
Tend to be more hostile.
Can avoid activities if close social interaction is a requirement.
Although avoidant children can appear the least stressed as they play by themselves rarely expressing distress, studies show they have the highest count of stress hormones when compared to secure and resistant attachment styles. They are the most stressed on an neurobiological level.
When compared to secure and resistant attachment styles for capacity for empathy, children with avoidant histories had the least capacity for empathy. It was described as “uncharacteristic” of them by their teachers, who did not have assess to the research histories.
These children fail to seek out and re-establish contact with caregivers. A trait which persists into adult relationships if not addressed.
As they have a more object-orientated mentality, avoidant children show persistence in problem solving tasks, however, they do not ask for help from their caregivers who have failed them in times of need. As these children do not express their feelings to these caregivers, sometimes this frustration leads to indirect expressions of anger, passive-aggressiveness behaviours, such as asking a person running the experiment for help instead of mother.
Because of extended failures in assistance when tackling learning tasks, avoidant style children are grossly over represented in many incompetent scores when compared to the securely attached.
For these children, asking for help can feel as if they’re bothering their parents.
The psychological unavailability (emotional neglect) these children endure seems to develop into an avoidance of expressing feelings towards mother while physical neglect develops a lack of persistence and enthusiasm.
Avoidant children score low on resilience when compared to securely attached children.
When compared to secure and resistant styles, avoidant children have the most behaviour problems in school. They’re less compliant, more hostile and isolated far more frequently.
Children with resistant and avoidant attachment styles are classed as low in self-esteem and confidence when compared to securely attached children by teachers who are blind to the research.
Teachers initiate more contact with avoidant children, for help or discipline, than with secures and they become more dependent.
Avoidant children participate in unprovoked aggression or bullying.
They are highly associated with lying, stealing and devious behaviours in childhood – conduct disorders.
In the 30-years findings of Minnesota longitudinal study extensive evidence was found that systematic victimisation of peers, which included sarcasm, derision, rejection of overtures, or other verbal hostilities or hostile gestures (e.g. sticking out the tongue), was always perpetrated by avoidant children when studying them alongside those with resistant and secure attachments. The victims were always another child with avoidant or resistant attachment styles. Those with secure attachments would enter into counter-assertiveness measures which materialised situations where the children would keep their distance from each other – securely attached children were just not willing to accept such behaviour. The resistant attachment style trait of clinginess proved a factor in abusive relationships in adulthood too, for they would excuse mean behaviour of those with avoidant styles for continued attention. When two avoidant attachment styles were involved, the weaker would become the victim.
When observing secure, resistant and avoidant peers at play and in school, “anti-empathy” was categorised as “explicitly doing something to make another child feel worse (e.g. teasing a crying child; poking a child in the stomach who said he or she had a stomach ache)”, and this behaviour was distinct to children with avoidant histories. The hostility and rejection they had faced from their mothers when in need was replicated towards their peers.
Teachers (blind to the research) dramatically differed in their behaviour toward children with avoidant attachment styles as quoted here, “with avoidant children the teachers were also high on Control and low on Expectations for Compliance, but they were low on Tolerance and low on Nurturance/Caregiving. Moreover, children in this group were the only ones observed to elicit anger. When one was so upset with a child that she wanted to remove him from the classroom, the child had an avoidant attachment style (who, without exception, had done something very hurtful to another child). The history of rejection experienced by these children was to a degree recapitulated by our teachers, even though they were incredibly compassionate individuals.”
In play observations of fantasy narrative building both secure and resistant styles had people rich scenarios, whereas the narratives of avoidant children were found to be, “almost entirely devoid of people”.
Avoidant children have poor conflict resolution skills.
Whereas resistant attachment types directly solicit undue nurturance from teachers through neediness of attention, avoidant types end up attracting attention indirectly through bad behaviour and incompetence.
Avoidant attachment style is associated with depression. Their problems with conduct disorders and alienation are believed to be the aetiological root.
What Statistics & Findings Also Underpin an Avoidant Attachment Style?
When ranked for dependency in classrooms, children with avoidant and resistant attachment styles made up 90% of the cluster.
In drawing tasks age 8-9 where children were free to draw their own social setting, avoidant children tented to “draw people with stiff, rigid postures, missing parts, lack of individuation, and distance between them (drawn persons)”.
In sentence completion tasks, “Completing the sentence stem, “My mother always . . .” with “yells at me” conveys a very different set of expectations than “likes to do things with me”. Likewise, completing “Other kids . . .” with “are fun to be with”, conveys a very different viewpoint concerning self and other than does “always pick on me”.” These tasks strongly correlated with peer confidence.
On dating in teen years, the Minnesota longitudinal study “found first that both teens with secure attachment histories and those with avoidant attachment histories commonly had dating experience by age 16…Children with secure and those with avoidant histories were not distinguished by whether or not they dated; rather, they were distinguished by whether their dating relationships had any longevity. The measure we used was a duration of 3 months, and those with secure histories who dated were significantly more likely to have such a relationship than those with avoidant histories who dated. This supported our general hypothesis regarding the challenge of intimacy for those with anxious-avoidant attachment in infancy”.
In addressing researchers who raise questions as to whether attachment styles are caused by genetically driven personality traits, the Minnesota study stated, “Fluctuations in parental depression, life stress, quality of partnership, or general social support account for changing child competence or behaviour problems, and this does not lend itself readily to a genetic interpretation. There are other ways that we draw upon the comprehensiveness of our assessments to address this issue. For example, we, as well as others (e.g., Patterson & Dishion, 1988), find that direct measures of what parents do with their children are better predictors of child outcome than measures of parent personality. Measures of parent aggressiveness as a trait do not predict later child conduct problems nearly as well as do those of observed parental rejection, hostility, and abuse of the child (Egeland, 1997)”.
In the summation of the 30-year Minnesota findings researchers gave this statement: “..We are not advocating a broadening of the attachment disorders categories. To the contrary, we do not think avoidant or disorganised attachment should be thought of as disorders. Rather, as we have argued in earlier chapters, patterns of anxious attachment should be thought of as initiating pathways, which over time can terminate in a variety of forms represented in the DSM”. Thus the authority of the greatest evidence-based longitudinal research that exists into parent-child interactions states that the developmental behaviour problems formed in all anxious attachment styles (resistant, avoidant, and disorganised) create many of the clusters of behaviours and personality traits found in adult, clinical, mental health diagnoses.
1. Dr A Schore’s presentations of research in developmental neuroscience at various conferences.
2. Development of the Person: The 30-year findings of the Minnesota Longitudinal Study into Risk and Adaptation from Birth to Adulthood.