Select Page

Session 5/13

Page 6/10: Insecure ambivalent attachment behaviour

Insecure ambivalent attachment behaviour

If a baby or young child experiences caregivers who are very unpredictable, who often punish or scold, are kind in the next moment and show many strong positive and negative emotions, the child may develop an ambivalent attachment strategy. The child is trapped between looking for care and at the same time being very afraid of the unpredictable caregiver. This pattern is often seen in children: if the first caregivers experienced very severe losses of important caregivers in their own upbringing, if there is often conflicts or violence between caregivers, or if the caregiver is mentally ill.
In all these cases the caregiver behaviour is unpredictable to the child.

  • The baby will cling to the caregiver all the time, and be dissatisfied and difficult to soothe.
    • It will not be secure enough to start playing, and it will be obsessed with fear of separation
    • It will try to control the caregiver and “take charge”.
  • Older children will be very nervous about what others may do or think, in a negative way (“they don’t like me”, “you are angry with me”).
  • One moment the child will try to control others, try to “parent” other children in a controlling way, the next moment the child may complain much about being ill or being misunderstood, or not being liked by anyone. It will try to change all your decisions or constantly try to negotiate any conditions.
  • It will not have calm friendships with many peers, but it will try to monopolize a single friendship (“Only you are my friend, if you talk to others you will have betrayed me”).
  • In extreme cases the child may be violent and try to make other children submit to things or activities they don’t want or like, such as sexually abusive or violent activities.
  • The child will seek attention, but at the same time dislike or hate or constantly criticize caregivers. It may try to split caregivers (“I only like you, I hate her”).
  • The child is constantly focused on the negative relation, and tries to avoid or discuss any task.


If a baby needs care – and at the same time is very afraid of caregivers – closeness and trust becomes a problem, and regulating emotional distance and closeness becomes a problem. These children suffer much and you should focus on making them feel secure by:

  • Be kind, but also very firm. Do not punish the child, insist calmly on your demands and conditions.
  • Take the decisions that the child is unable to make.
  • Help the child focus on the task: “Now we are reading, we are not doing anything else for the next 10 minutes”.
  • Make sensible routines with short activities, and repeat them every day.
  • When the child accuses you or blames you, be calm and kind, but don’t negotiate your decisions. If you present demands, make sure that you don’t give them up or start arguing about them. When the child dramatizes, help it get back proportions “You say you want to die because nobody likes you – well, you are a little sad and angry now, and it will be over in a moment- even though you don’t think so right now“.
  • Try to notice and talk to your colleagues about when the child makes you irritated and ambivalent. Try to get some distance in the way you look at the child, in order to be calm, stable, kind and firm.


5 minutes

  • Do you see any children in your care acting like this? Please tell each other their names.
  • How do you respond when the child argues, tries to bully others or complains or accuses you?
  • Do you remember anyone in your family/ friends who act like this?
  • What is difficult for you in responding when children act in an ambivalent way?