How to Heal Attachment with Your Teen

I sometimes think of the teenage years as an “attachment test.”

As I reflect on my own 6 children when they were teenagers, I assumed that if I got the attachment part right when they were babies and toddlers, then we were set for all the years ahead. After experiencing life with a teenager who was defensively detaching, I can tell you that living with a teenager is wonderful when the attachment is deeply rooted — but a nightmare when it is not.

ShoshanaAbout the Author

Shoshana Hayman is Israel’s Regional Director for the Neufeld Institute. She and her husband have 6 children and live in Israel, where she is the founder and director of the Life Center: the Israel Center of Attachment Parenting, through which she translates and publishes evidence-based books and workshop curricula in Hebrew.

First of all, to understand what “deeply rooted” means, it’s important to know about the 6 roots of attachment that need to be cultivated and preserved. In the same way that you nurture your relationship with your spouse throughout the years of marriage, so too you nurture your relationship with your children as they grow up. Just as importantly, you need the power that secure attachment gives you to influence your teenagers as you did when they were younger, and be their guide and consultant when they struggle with issues about their schooling, social integrity, and moral consciousness.

Insight into the 6 roots of secure attachment is one of Dr. Gordon Neufeld’s greatest contributions to the attachment puzzle. Synthesizing the many theories about attachment, he distilled to the essence what secure attachment looks like and how we can harness this process.

1st Root of Secure Attachment: Closeness

You are probably most familiar with the first root: connection and closeness through the senses. In their first year of life, the only way babies can hold their parents close is through touch, sight, hearing, smelling, and tasting.

Babies cannot bear to be apart from their primary attachment figure (usually the mother) for very long before they need to be filled up with attachment again!

As babies begin to crawl, walk, and explore their world, they need another way to hold you close.

2nd Root of Secure Attachment: Sameness

He wants to be like you.

When your 2-year-old plays with your phone, shoes, or eyeglasses, imitates your gestures, eats food from your plate, or pretends he is you, he is holding on to you by being like you.

3rd Root of Secure Attachment: Belonging

When your 3-year-old declares “My Mommy” or “My Daddy” and tells the world you are the prettiest, strongest, or smartest, you are seeing the unfolding of a third root: belonging and loyalty.

Now your child has another way to hold on to you by feeling he possesses you, and he will feel jealous of others — such as his siblings — who come close to you.

Becoming Attached

These first 3 roots are shallow and do not allow enough room for growth.  With only these roots, the child can’t become his own person if to have his attachment needs met he has to be physically close, the same as you, and loyal to your opinions and ideas.

When we cultivate these roots, then healthy development provides the deeper roots of attachment. Without deeper roots,  teenagers will be constantly occupied with seeking closeness, sameness, and belonging and loyalty — usually with their friends instead of their parents.

Teenagers need richer and deeper roots in order to be freed from this incessant pursuit of attachment, so they can focus on their emerging identity, value system, and future goals.

If your relationship with your child develops as nature intended, the next 3 roots can be cultivated. These roots create a connection at the heart level with parents while at the same time give ample room for the child to emerge as his own person.

By the time a child is approximately 6 years old, he should be attaching through all 6  roots — although it’s important to continue to nurture these roots well beyond early childhood.

4th Root of Secure Attachment: Significance

The heart connection begins to grow at the fourth root, when your child feels he matters to you and he is a significant person in your life.

Deep in his brain’s limbic system, it will register that you think the world of him, take delight in his very existence, put him first in your life, and will move earth and sky for him.

Every parent will convey this in his or her own unique way.

5th Root of Secure Attachment: Love

The root of significance opens the way for the fifth root to grow when your child can give you his heart for safekeeping as he “falls head over heels in attachment with you.”

When this happens, your child unabashedly lets you know how much he or she loves you. Your child is filled with expressions of love for you, wants to marry you, and stay with you forever.

Now he can be away from you and still feel attached. Your relationship can now become eternal — transcending time and space.

6th Root of Secure Attachment: Understanding

Psychological intimacy characterizes your relationship when the sixth and deepest root takes hold. Your child feels compelled to confide in you and share his innermost thoughts and feelings with you.

At the same time he is developing a deeper relationship with himself, he is developing a deeper relationship with you.

From a Securely Attached Child to a Securely Attached Teen

You can imagine how easy it would be to parent your teenager if he wanted to be like you, express your values in his own life, and felt drawn to confide in you and take counsel with you. Nature intends for these roots to grow and deepen, as long as the parent takes responsibility for cultivating and nourishing these roots. In Dr. Neufeld’s words: “The provision must be greater than the child’s pursuit.”

Your child is not conscious of this spontaneous growth of relationship taking place, just as an unborn baby does not have to worry about the uterus stretching larger to make more room for him.

You must claim the alpha position to provide these roots through the years, making it easy for your teenager to remain securely attached to you. This is the context — the psychological womb — he or she needs in order to discover and explore his or her own thoughts, feelings, opinions, values, ideas, and plans. It is, in fact, this very heart connection that will enable him or her to think independently and realize his or her full human potential.

The Emergent Self vs Teenage Rebellion

We have come to think of teenage “rebellion,” — a casting off of parental values and lifestylen and sometimes even of the parents themselves — as normal, because it is so pervasive. But nature never intended this aberration to occur.

In normal teenage development, the adolescent comes to form his own ideas, beliefs, opinions, and goals — not to reject those of his parents — but rather in respect of his parents. He can integrate these sometimes seemingly contradictory sets of ideas, beliefs, opinions, and values and be true to himself while living in harmony with his family. He can do “separateness” and “togetherness” at the same time, neither losing his self nor losing his relationship with his parents.

During this process of individuation of the teen, parents make more and more room for their child’s expression of himself while continuing to nurture the secure attachment roots. By doing this, they are giving him 2 invitations:

  1. To exist in their presence, and
  2. To bring his whole self into relationship with them.

The miracle of maturation unfolds in this context of secure and deep attachment.

Falling Out of Attachment

Just as you “fall in love” or “fall in attachment,” you can “fall out of love” or “fall out of attachment.”

If your child faces too much separation from any or all of the roots of attachment, the relationship goes into reverse, roots are severed, and remaining roots become shallow. If your child is denied a generous invitation to exist in your presence, if he feels he is different from you, if he senses he does not belong or that he has been betrayed or that he doesn’t matter to you or you don’t really care about him or that he is not loved the way he is or that you don’t understand him, these feelings become too much to bear and he will instinctively back out of the attachment relationship.

This is not determined by choice but rather by the way our brains work to protect us from emotional wounding from  separation that is too much to bear.

This is the brain’s way of defending the child from painful feelings:

  • The attachment instincts go into reverse.
  • Instead of bringing out the instincts to cooperate, respect, listen to, defer to, accept help from, and seek to be with, the instincts to be uncooperative, belligerent, rejecting, secretive, and disrespectful are engaged.

Like a magnet, attachment is polarized — attracting at one end and repelling at the other. When your teenager detaches from you, he or she repels, disrespects, annoys, opposes, rejects, and ignores. Parenting becomes a nightmare, because you lose your authority and influence. You are dealing with a child whose attachment instincts have gone awry, and instead of seeking you out and emulating you, he distances himself and is filled with disdain.

From personal experience, I can tell you that finding yourself on the other side of the attachment magnet is painful, and it takes great yearning, patience, and courage to restore your relationship and re-create the context your child needs to grow. You must start again from the beginning to cultivate the attachment roots, and find the way back to your child’s heart. This is finding your way through the maze with your heart and your head.

To whom or to what is your teen attaching? Who does he seek to be with? Who does he want to be like? Who is he loyal to? From whom does he seek comfort? Where does he feel most at home? Who does he tell his secrets to?

If you discover that you are not his answer, he is most likely trying to satisfy his attachment hunger through attachment to friends. The attachment can also be impersonal, such as attachment to sports figures or other celebrities, clothing, digital devices, or obsessions and compulsions. These superficial relationships can never be truly fulfilling and give your child the psychological rest he needs in order to emerge into his own personhood. Instead, they send your child into an addictive pursuit of closeness that is never satiated, causing a build-up of frustration, which leads to aggressive behavior and even addictions.

Believe You are the Answer

Parents have the power to prevent these defenses in their children from being triggered. By taking responsibility for providing and cultivating the secure attachment roots on a daily basis, teens can safely continue holding on to you and feeling the satiation from having their attachment needs met.

In the same way that you continue providing nourishing meals for your family, you must continue providing the attachment nourishment that your growing children need every day.

Our lives are easily cluttered with activities and responsibilities, and so we need to take stock frequently of our priorities and create the space in our lives for nurturing these secure attachment roots. Our teenagers’ lives, too, are often bursting with plans and programs, and we need to lovingly entice them into relationship with us and create oases of warm, nurturing, peaceful, and loving interaction.

We, as parents, need to believe that this is essential for their well-being and that we are their truest answer for healthy maturation of the emergent self.  I love how Dr. Neufeld encapsulates this: “You don’t have to know all the answers, but you have to believe that you are the answer.”

It comes as good news that parents are more important than friends for the fruition of human potential.

Restoring Attachment with Your Teenager

The good news is that it’s never too late  to restore secure attachment with your child, and attachment can be cultivated at any time. When you begin to cultivate the roots of secure attachment, there’s a good chance your child will spontaneously respond and depend on you for the fulfillment of his attachment needs.

There are no formulas or prescriptions. Your patience and faith sustain you as you walk this maze. Your heart leads you in this intuitive process. The warmth of your compassion and love melt your child’s defenses, so he can feel at home with you and experience the comfort of your presence once again.

The first step in this dance is to create the context needed to soften your teen’s heart, so his brain can let go of the defenses that have been erected and are numbing out his vulnerable feelings. These defenses can melt spontaneously as soon as the brain feels:

  • It is safe for your teen to experience the vulnerability that is inherent in human relationships,
  • It is safe to depend on you, and
  • He can be comforted by you and hold on to you, metaphorically speaking.

You will need to ignore his habits or behaviors you find irritating and objectionable, until the right context of relationship is restored. You will need to refrain from making requests or expecting results that you know will not be honored.

You will need to move into the dominant place in the relationship of providing proximity and closeness, sameness, belonging and loyalty, a sense of mattering and significance, love, and understanding –just as you would with a young child.

This is heart work — led by your intuition — spontaneously, trial and error, paying attention to what your teen can hold on to.

One teen, age 16, had not had a real conversation with his parents in 2 years. His mother had “consequenced” him so much during his growing up years that her betrayal of him and what was important to him became a separation that was too much to bear. He was indeed in defensive detachment from her: He had retreated from the relationship because of too much hurt, and his instincts to seek closeness, sameness, belonging, significance, love, and understanding had gone into reverse.

This boy then broke his leg and had to be hospitalized for 2 weeks, making it easy for his mother and father to once again become his answer. They brought food, kept him company, and made good guesses about what they could bring him that would cheer him up. His heart began to thaw out.

This was only the beginning, for then they had to continue cultivating the relationship out of the hospital and be aware of avoiding the triggering of the defenses again.

With my own daughter, I took a different direction. I created an invitation for her to exist in my presence, no matter what she did to reject me, and I made room for all of her in our relationship. I paid attention to her needs and played a part in taking care of them without her expectation of my help.

Activating the Attachment Instincts

Collecting is a very important part of this dance. What I mean by “collecting” is to frequently seek out your child, make warm eye contact if possible, smile and convey delight in her very presence — making it easy for her to depend on you for comfort, warmth, and a place of rest.

Sometimes, it’s difficult. Sometimes, it’s painful. Sometimes, it’s discouraging. But eventually the heart softens more and more, and the dance becomes more natural and flows intuitively. Collecting your teen’s eyes and smile and conveying your delight in her presence throughout the day sends her brain a powerful message — that it is safe to attach to you.

Since we cannot be together all the time with our children, bridging separations is an important part of the attachment repertoire. At bedtime, before leaving the house during the day, and before traveling for business or pleasure, the separation can be bridged by talking about the next connection with your teen: “I’ll see you in the morning,” “I’ll call you when I arrive,” “I’ll send you a message,” “We’ll have dinner together when I get back,” are all ways of building a bridge from one connection to the next one and keep the attachment brain of the child connected to you.

Keeping Our Own Hearts Soft

To restore and strengthen attachment, we need to keep our own hearts soft. We need to bring our own defenses down by finding our tears over all that did not work, all that went wrong, all that did not go as we had planned.

Your alpha place — the provider of attachment needs — in your child’s life must come from a soft place, a caring place, and a place of compassion. Your rules, boundaries, ideals, and values must come from this place, as well.

There’s no such thing as “tough love.”  If it’s tough, it’s not love and it will only keep the defenses tough.

You will most likely need to stretch yourself to come to this place, but the bonus will be your own growth and maturation as your heart becomes softer and bigger, and your relationship with yourself deepens — as does your relationship with your child and with others. This takes courage and determination, but we parents all have this capacity within us, waiting to come to fruition.  Our children, even our most prickly teens, give us this opportunity to grow and become more.

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