Do Insecure Children Become Anxious Adults?

Researcher John Bowlby (1969/1982, as cited in Schneider, Gruman, & Coutts, 2012) and Mary Ainsworth (Ainsworth, Blehar, Waters, & Wall, 1978, as cited in Schneider et al., 2012) conducted extensive research and formulated three different attachment styles that are typically observed in infants:

Secure: Infants who cried in their mother’s absence were soothed upon her return.

Insecure, anxious/ambivalent: Infants who were upset by their mother’s absence would cling to her upon her return.

Insecure, avoidant: Infants who were upset by their mother’s absence ignored her upon her return.

As students of psychology, we are aware that an abundance of psychological research supports the notion that childhood experiences shape adult behavior.  It stands to reason that these attachment styles would continue in some form into adulthood.  Bartholomew (1990, as cited in Schneider et al., 2012) identified four attachment styles that are often observed in adults:

Secure: Individual is trusting and willing to become close with another person (closely related to Bowlby’s secure attachment).

Preoccupied: For this individual, closeness is a necessity and abandonment is a major concern (closely related to insecure, anxious/ambivalent).

Fearful: Individuals fears rejection and is often mistrustful (closely related to insecure, anxious/ambivalent).

Dismissing: Individual is independent and not necessarily interested in intimacy (closely related to insecure, avoidant).


Clearly there are some similarities between Bowlby (1969/1982, as cited in Schneider, Gruman, & Coutts, 2012) and Ainsworth’s (Ainsworth et al., 1978, as cited in Schneider et al., 2012) infant attachment styles and Bartholomew’s (1990, as cited in Schneider et al., 2012 ) adult attachment styles.  However, could a person’s attachment style reveal even more about the individual?

Weems, Berman, Silverman, and Rodriguez (2002) observed a connection between attachment style and anxiety sensitivity in adolescents and young adults.  The study involved high school and college students who completed several self-report measures with high validity that examined their feelings about close relationships and anxiety symptoms.  Previous research by Silverman and Weems (1999, as cited in Weems et al., 2002) suggested that insecurely attached people “could be predisposed to misinterpret benign symptoms of anxiety as catastrophic.”  Weems and colleagues’ (2002) findings suggest that individuals who are classified as fearful or preoccupied did indeed experience higher levels of anxiety.  They also found that high school students and ethnic minorities were less likely to be securely attached, which suggests that perhaps age and cultural influence have an effect on attachment style.

Watt, McWilliams, and Campbell (2005) replicated the study by Weems and colleagues (2002) with a broader definition of relationships that included close relationships as opposed to just romantic involvement.  Although Watt and colleagues (2005) had less culturally diverse participants and the were considerably older on average, their findings support many of those by Weems et al. (2002).  Watt et al.’s (2005) inclusion of romantic relationships and close relationships yielded results that suggest that the manifestation of anxiety could differ depending on the type of relationship.  Negative views of romantic relationships caused more fear of psychological symptoms of anxiety (diminished cognitive ability) while negative views of close relationships in general were associated with fears of physical symptoms of anxiety (sweating, racing heart, etc.).

Clearly attachment style during childhood is closely associated with adult attachment style, and insecurely attached individuals are more likely to experience anxiety during adolescence and young adulthood.  However, there is good news!  Although childhood experiences often shape adult behavior, unhealthy thoughts can be unlearned, and secure attachment style may be achieved through actively confronting negative perceptions of one’s self and others (Schneider et al., 2002).


Schneider, F. W., Gruman, J. A., & Coutts, L. M. (2012). Applied social psychology: understanding and addressing social and practical problems. Los Angeles: Sage.

Watt, M. C., McWilliams, L. A., & Campbell, A. G. (2005). Relations between anxiety sensitivity and attachment style dimensions. Journal of Psychopathology and Behavioral Assessment, 27(3), 191-200.

Weems, C. F., Berman, S. L., Silverman, W. K., & Rodriguez, E. T. (2002). The relation between anxiety sensitivity and attachment style in adolescence and early adulthood. Journal of Psychopathology and Behavioral Assessment, 24(3), 159-168.


Leave a Reply

Skip to toolbar