“Wow, he’s finally getting out of the house for the weekend,” my husband and I remarked to each other this morning, after our almost 15-year-old son left for his high school band camp.
This isn’t a statement I expected to make when I had teenagers. Our society not only emphasizes the autonomous nature of adolescence, but goes as far as to promote a myth that youth tend to be detached and disconnected from their parents and other adults.
Detachment is actually a term coined in psychology as a necessary stage in adolescents following the stage of attachment in childhood. Gordon Neufeld addressed this misperception of adolescent development in his 2004 book Hold on to Your Kids: Why Parents Need to Matter More Than Peers. He suggests that our children often turn to their peers to get attachment needs met because parents too often abandon their parenting and guidance role prematurely. Is it possible that we are the ones prone to detach when our kids actually need us?
Adolescence is a time of immense growth and change. Inherent in this stage is the development of increased autonomy and exploration of social roles outside the family. However, this emphasis on independence has perpetuated the assumption that youth neither need or desire the same level of connection with parents and other adults as they did in childhood.
This is creating a crisis for our youth. There is increasing evidence that disconnection and stress between parents and youth can negatively impact various areas of development and contribute to mental health, coping and social problems.
It is becoming increasingly clear that youth develop a healthy degree of autonomy and confidence within the context of secure parental attachment. However, it is not always as clear to both parents and helpers what exactly adolescents need from adults in their lives to sustain a healthy attachment (Moretti & Peled, 2004) .
A better understanding of attachment theory can greatly increase parental confidence in connecting with their youth. Increased adolescent autonomy need not include detachment.
The Circle of Security
The Circle of Security model depicts attachment needs as based on consistent principles throughout the life cycle. Just as a young child requires both a secure base from which to explore and a safe haven to return to, so does an adolescent, a young adult, and even a grown-up. We all have growth and development needs, which thrive in an environment where we are encouraged, delighted in and believed in.
Similarly, we all need to feel safe, protected and nurtured through attuned loved ones who are trustworthy and available. If we keep this model in mind as parents, we can trust our instincts to both find connection and delight in exploration at each stage. The largest challenge will be to determine which needs are greatest for our child at any given time, and how to best meet the attachment needs of our children at each developmental milestone.
The following tips can help parents achieve both attunement and independence needs:
1. Be Present.
Find ways to just be present in case your adolescent needs you. Find ways to spend time together, both spontaneous and scheduled. Each family and youth is different, so look at your situation. I needed to make a job change so I was actually at home more. I’m still working, I’m often quite focused on what I am doing, but I am here.
One of the ways we can promote adolescent-parent attachment is to provide a primary family structure that youth can connect themselves to. Your adolescent may think they are annoyed by your rules, limits, routines, expectations and need for information. However, that structure (e.g., eating dinner together, no phones at the table, no televisions in bedrooms, etc.) acts as a grounding mechanism that provides safety and predictability. That structure also provides connection opportunities.
“Yes you need to wash the dishes, but I will dry them. Hey, how was that test?”
I will knock on the door and say good night and maybe they will share something with me. I’ll drive them to their activities and maybe something will come up then.
“Hey Mom – you’re good at kick boxing in your exercise videos. Maybe you should join my karate class.”
“Maybe I should…”.
If they are willing to schedule time with just you, make an effort to do a certain activity together or spend a certain time each week together. Or look for an opportunity for a special outing when other family members are busy. Let them choose the activity.
2. Be Attuned.
One of the most important aspects of attachment is the experience of being known. It is the experience of being seen, heard and understood. My kids love to hear stories about what they were like when they were young. It shapes their sense of self but also provides a sense of being known by me.
If your adolescent starts a conversation with you, this is their way of cueing that they are available. Stop what you are doing and give them your attention. Put down your phone or pause the hockey game on the television. Give them the message that what they have to say matters more than anything else right now.
If they have an interest that you don’t know much about, ask them to tell you about it. Demonstrate a desire to better know them, understand them and care about what they care about. Invite their friends over. Caring about their friends demonstrates that you care about them. Look for emotional cues that they are struggling, need you or want to talk.
3. Be Open to Conflict.
Conflict occurs when two individuals perceive a situation differently. You will experience different perceptions, thus you will experience conflict. Conflict can be an opportunity for your child to learn how to communicate, learn how to problem solve and learn perspective taking.
Conflict provides you as a parent the opportunity to learn what is important to your child. It lets you explore your own history and relationship with conflict. Be purposeful in how you approach conflict, asking yourself:
“What do I want to teach my child about conflict?”
I’m excited for my son as he navigates an important opportunity for social and emotional development this weekend. I am delighting in his exploration of the world and awaiting his arrival home. Likely he will walk in the door and throw down his things and put on his headphones, watching YouTube videos to soothe himself from a too loud and too busy weekend.
I will want to ask him so many questions, but I will just be here, ever present, waiting for my cues. When he does share something about his weekend, I may disapprove and be tempted to criticize, but I will try to be curious and ask questions in order to keep the lines of communication open.