Resistant Attachment Style

What is an Resistant Attachment Style?

In Attachment Theory the resistant attachment style (also referred to “ambivalent”) describes how children develop clingy/needy type personality traits and who are difficult to comfort when distressed. This clinginess makes them prone to staying in abusive relationships with avoidant-type personality traits. Resistant attachment styles are highly correlated with anxiety driven personality problems and depression.
In the 30 year findings of the Minnesota longitudinal study around 20% had resistant attachment. A similar figure to other population assessments.

How is a Resistant Attachment Style Formed?

When babies and toddlers perceive potential danger, they become overwhelmed with stress as they are unable to defend themselves. Exploration and learning are seriously impeded in this state. The natural way to overcome this anxiously compromised state is to receive contact-comfort through a hug which creates potent anti-stress hormones and quickly reverses the fear state to establish a secure personality which has the confidence to face the previously feared event. If contact-comfort is neglected at these times, serious emotional problems develop. In the case of resistant attachment style, the care administered at these crucial times is haphazard or inconsistent. Sometimes the baby/toddler is comforted and at other times left in distress. In the mind of a young child this is thought to create an intense insecurity as to when care will be received. Not knowing if they will receive comfort when expressing distress to their mother, these children become overly clingy, staying close to their parents by using dramatic ways in which to elicit physical comfort. These children are separated from the other two attachment styles in their response to being comforted when in distress. In those times when they are given comfort they show the most resistance to being comforted – remaining in a highly stressed state for extended periods while being comforted – as if to prolong the amount of contact with mother. Thus a clingy style of personality, which employs dramatic tactics for attention, emerges.

What Evidenced Behaviours Do Parents of Resistantly Attached Children Exhibit?

Fluctuations in personal circumstances (e.g. depression, life stress, quality of partnership and social support) affect parental “quality of care”. In turn these “fluctuations” account for changing child competence and behaviour problems.
Parental rejection, hostility and abuse of the child far better predict negative child developmental issues (conduct issues) than does high-trait levels of parental aggressiveness.
Inconsistent, “chaotic care”, far better predicts the development of anxiety-based teenage mental health issues than does mother’s anxiety levels.
A lack of dependability.
At 2-years of age, the parent-child relationship represents the child’s psychological scaffolding. The primary caregiver relationship at this age is more stable, in terms of a consistent form of reactions to environmental events, than the array of behaviours learnt so far. This relationship forms stability even in the midst of an extremely unfathomable world full of strange stimuli, so in the case of the resistant attachment style the inconsistent care represents a breakdown in the stability of how the world is perceived and how to react to it. The stress of strange and frightening situations increases anxiety levels which do not receive contact-comfort nor the potent anti-stress hormones which accompany it. Thus this unresolved anxiety is thought to drive an internal dialogue revolving around maintaining close proximity to mother so as to be as close as possible to the care that is known to exist sometimes. Therefore introducing the notion of proximity into the child’s mind which develops into the “clinginess” and “difficult to soothe” personality traits.

What Evidenced Detrimental Outcomes Do Resistantly Attached Children Experience?

Resistantly attached children develop the maladjusted behaviours of being too vigilant and expressing their needs too intensely to compensate for a caregiver’s lack of dependability.
Novel situations, high stimulation, object mastery, and cognitive challenge are most difficult for those with resistant attachment styles. In these situations children with resistant histories can seem incompetent from becoming overly stressed while their peers with different attachment styles hardly become stressed at all.
Becoming anxious, upset, and disappointed happens most “easily and often” with children with resistant attachment styles. These children express these woes openly, frequently and intensely.
Resistantly attached children were injured with much greater frequency than any other children. Attention and proximity of teachers or other adults was sought when this happened.
A coping strategy of “leaving the room” when stressed or frustrated was employed far more by those with resistant histories than any other attachment style.
Hovering around a group trying, but failing, to sustain one-on-one interactions was a trait of the resistantly attached children – in contrast to avoidantly attached children who had a tendency to isolate themselves from others.
Difficulty managing frustration and controlling arousal during sustained interactions was a problem for those with resistant histories.
Under-expression of anger and aggression when others (those with avoidant attachment styles) were mean or abusive towards them was a big problem for the resistantly attached. This kept them in abusive relationships as adults too. It’s thought that their clinginess or neediness for attention leads them to excuse/suppress mean and abusive actions which would otherwise make them angry. A contrasting example is when securely attached children were treated with mean or abusive behaviour, they reacted angrily and established a counter-aggressive or counter-assertive attitude that led to a standoff between them and the avoidant child.
Support Giving is what resistant children create dramas to receive. Most contact initiated by adults towards children was for those with avoidant attachments, yet this included interventions to separate, telling off, punishments and attempts to control general disobedience. Nevertheless, on the specific intervention of “support giving” by an adult, the resistant children dominated the receipts.
Children with resistant histories were rated significantly lower on scores of enthusiasm, persistence and compliance.
Children with resistant histories were rated significantly higher for dependency on their mothers.
Children with resistant histories were most often found in the least competent groups and less often in the most competent groups. 13% of those with resistant histories were in the most competent groupings compared to 45% of those with avoidant histories – a clear cause and developmental trajectory of disadvantaged backgrounds.
IQ scores throughout the childhood years are in part a score of social and emotional factors. The difficulty of engaging with an experimenter and dealing with novel and challenging situations, which those with resistant attachment styles clearly show, was a major reason why they consistently had the lowest IQ scores.
Stimulation and challenge of group participation led to those with resistant histories having intermittent contact with friends. This may well have been due to overstretching their capacities for maintaining continuous intimate relationships without drama in the face of intense emotions.
Resistant attachment represents a distinct pathway towards anxiety disorders in the late teen years. Just as secure attachment leads to intimate relationships based on trust, and avoidant attachment develops a trajectory towards conduct disorders, drug and alcohol abuse, resistant attachment progressively forges its own behavioural traits which represent the vulnerabilities of anxiety disorders. At the same time resistant attachment style was not related to externalising-type problems.
Resistant attachment is associated with depression. This is believed to be because of their issues with helplessness and anxiety.

What Statistics & Findings Also Underpin a Resistant Attachment Style?

Keywords throughout the research for those with resistant attachment histories were overstimulated (hyper), easily frustrated, tense, anxious, dependent, passive, weak , helpless, and teacher-orientated.
Measures of self-representation through narratives, drawings and storytelling revealed those with resistant attachment histories reflected vulnerability and an excessively small self representation – two outstanding features associated with the development of anxiety disorders. The research clearly shows that early resistant attachment creates a pathway towards anxiety problems in the late teen years. Measures of newborn function, habituation to startle on the Brazelton Neonatal Behavioural Assessment Scale, showed a significant relation with that same outcome. Although resistant attachment was significant when controlling for this variable, the important finding was that both resistant attachment style and newborn temperaments with a tendency towards the startle reflex combine to create anxiety problems above and beyond and single consideration.
Rankings for dependency by teachers blind to attachment histories showed only 12% of securely attached children in the Top Half of their class for dependency. Those with resistant or avoidant histories made up 90% of the Top Half of their class for dependency on teachers. Parrallel data shows those with resistant and avoidant histories nearly made up all of those ranked at the bottom for self-esteem, agency, and self-confidence.
Ratings for empathy referred to those with secure histories as “very characteristic”, those with avoidant histories as “uncharacteristic”, and those with resistant histories as falling between these two ratings.

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.