Teens and Sex from an Attachment Perspective

By Shoshana Hayman, director of the Life Center/Israel Center for Attachment Parenting, http://lifeCenter.org.il

You cannot understand sexuality without first understanding the attachment dynamic, psychologist Dr. Gordon Neufeld explains. The pursuit of proximity is one of the primary emotions that drive our behavior. The main way that the immature seek proximity and closeness is through the senses — being physically close: the most primitive way of attaching. On the heels of closeness through the senses is being the same as; by being the same as the person they are seeking contact with, they are holding that person close. This is also an immature way of attaching, for it does not allow room for individual expression. Following sameness, closeness is pursued through belonging and loyalty, still a rather shallow way to hold a person close as it does not leave enough room for your own personhood.

When a person matures and develops the capacity for deeper relationships, they can hold a person close without physical proximity or having to be the same as. They can feel altruistic love and psychological intimacy; they can share the essence of their being. There is mutual respect, caring, and being careful when someone entrusts his heart to you. This kind of relationship becomes eternal.

Adolescence is a time of becoming a sexual being. Teens have a new awareness of themselves, and touch itself becomes sexualized. Sometimes, the only way teenagers can experience contact and closeness is through sexual interaction — when they have not developed the capacity for deep relationship. A large part of teenage sexuality today is about sameness: being alike. If the norm seems to be sexually active at the age of 15, there’s huge pressure on the teen to imitate, emulate, be the same as his friends, and therefore to become sexually active. Adolescents and children of elementary school age are being exposed to sexual images and pornography through advertising, television, and the internet, and attaching to images and superstars who are highly sexual. This contributes to promiscuity and increased sexual activity, as the immature seek to be like the images they attach to on the screen.

Attaching through belonging and loyalty in the sexual arena creates a huge problem with girls obeying and showing loyalty to please boys, creating intense feelings of possessiveness and jealousy. Kids have no idea of how attached they become; how crucial it is for them to be significant to another. Boys might need to be significant in the eyes of other boys and therefore, in order to get status and recognition, must become sexually active. Instead of sex being part of the context of a deep, caring, long-term relationship, it is being divorced from love and turned into a cheap, shallow, and selfish way to serve the adolescent’s need for attachment.

One’s sexuality is only as developed as one’s capacity for relationship. The greatest expression of sexuality is in the context of marriage, when the potential for all the elements of attachment can be fulfilled. (However, not everyone grows up as they grow older, and even in marriage, one’s capacity for relationship might be superficial, and so the expression of sexuality will also be superficial. )

Dr. Neufeld, who has helped rehabilitate many teens from their addictions, explains that when you understand the nature of relationships, you see that sexual liberation is a myth, as there is no such thing as sexual freedom. The desire for sexual interaction automatically brings the desire for fusion and union. It’s meant to create an exclusive relationship because this connection involves incredible vulnerability. Teenagers are shocked to discover that some kind of union has taken place that there is no way to get out of without getting hurt. The greatest wounding comes from separation, being rejected, being ignored, losing your specialness. These painful feelings trigger defenses in the brain that lead to numbing out of feelings, tuning out perceptions, and a hardening or toughness, which actually fuel the need to pursue closeness through the senses. We are fooling ourselves if we think that the answer is teaching teens to use birth control or condoms, for we are ignoring the emotional pain and psychological problems that are involved.

A teenager’s safest bet is strong relationships with his parents, grandparents, teachers, and coaches. These relationships are hierarchical, and are not sexualized. The teen, as well as younger children, should have his attachment needs met in the context of his relationships with the important adults in his life. This is what prevents the sexualization of relationships with peers, and buys time for the teen to truly mature and develop the capacity for a deep, meaningful relationship.

As Dr. Neufeld puts it, “Sex is ‘super glue’ and is meant to bind two people together.” With greater understanding of the reactions of the brain, science is coming to a very conservative approach towards sex, concurring with the ancient wisdom about creating the right context for sexual relationships.

25 thoughts on “Teens and Sex from an Attachment Perspective”

  1. I disagree with many of the premises in this article, especially that one needs to be married to experience a deeply loving and fulfilling sex life. I hope API will consider running an article on sex-positive parenting.

  2. I find the logic of this article quite refreshing. There is so much said on this topic that is sad and illogical. I feel very deeply that the perspective you have presented here is valuable and that parents and teens can only benefit from embracing it. I hope that this research will get a wide hearing.

  3. This article would be good if the religion were removed from it. Marriage isn’t the only form of a deep and meaningful relationship which encompasses sex.

  4. I agree with Lisa and Miriam. This was a very heterosexist article and did not address the normal and healthy sexual feelings of adolescents. I know many people including myself who have had deep emotional intimate relationships before I was married. It is true that people use sex to fulfill many different needs, it is not just adolescents. This article has really made me rethink my membership with API.

  5. I have re-read this article several times and I am increasingly disturbed by API’s decision to run it. The moral didacticism and heterosexism are not what I would expect from API. Calling sexual liberation a “myth” and pushing an abstinence-only agenda is particularly disturbing. Moreover, the author seems inherently mistrustful of teens and mentions addiction in the same breath as sexual exploration, as if teen sexuality is inherently pathological or stems from trauma. It makes no room for even the possibility of healthy, normal sexual development, nor the possibility of teens having deep relationships with peers, nor does it discuss how trusted adults can help teens navigate these tricky waters in honest and compassionate ways. (Nevermind that when the “ancient wisdom” of marriage was laid down, many humans would have been married and reproducing by their late teens.) I don’t understand what is AP about this article.

    Sexuality is a fraught subject in many families. In our family, we certainly don’t believe or teach that marriage is a precondition of a healthy sex life. We believe empowerment, self-confidence, trust, and education will help our daughter make healthy and responsible decisions about her sex life when she is older. We believe that emotional security—not marriage—is the best precondition for healthy sexual expression. That’s not what every parent will believe, and I would never assume that our approach to sexuality is right for every family. As AP parents, we need articles that help us empower our children within the differing ethical frameworks that our families have. We don’t need articles like this one, prescribing a narrow approach to a complex issue.

  6. I thought this article was really interesting and definitely related to my experiences as a teen. I was desperate to get close to someone and it became more of chase for sex rather than a partner, because what teenage boy wants a ‘partner’.

    I was lucky to fall in love at 18, almost 10 years ago, and have been with my partner ever since.

    I am not married but did not find the mention of marriage in the article offensive as I see what I have, a serious long term commitment, to be the same as a marriage.

  7. i can in some ways see what you are getting at with this articule , however not all young people who choose to have sex are doing it for the wrong resons , we all mature at diffrent rates and whilst i agree that sex in the wrong circumstances can be a negative harmful experience, i also belive that there are many young people who are very sensible and mature and and if they feel they are ready to have sex with someone they love and trust then i see no problem

    …. in fact 5 years down the line i am happily ‘super glued ‘ 😉 to the man i chose to have a relationship with ,i was 16 he was 18 we both knew what we were doing and i am very very happy i did it 🙂 we are engaged and have to beautifull children ..

  8. A fantastic article. This point of view is often censored and it is refreshing to see it here at API. We see the “go ahead, as long as you use a condom, it’s fine” all the time. Very few are warning teens that the risks of having sex to find intimacy involve more than STDs and pregnancy.

  9. To me this article presents the hard truth that our culture has gotten sidetracked in our quest for healthy attachment between teens and adults. I believe that science here is on the side of the author. And what’s really interesting to me is that I don’t see one mention of religion.

  10. Loved this article. I think it’s a very important concept that parents need to understand: It’s vitally important for children to have close, attached, and healthy relationships with their parents, especially girls with their fathers, from my own experience. I did not get that from my dad and ended up seeking acceptance from boys in the wrong ways.

    I think this is a very important AP topic! And I think some of the commenters are reading the article wrong? I don’t think it said that ALL teenagers having sex are doing it for the wrong reasons. Just that if you don’t have a meaningful relationship with your child, it could cause relationship problems for them when they get older, often leading to forms of intimacy that they are not ready for and causing a lot of pain for them. And not just in their teenager years, but even as they enter adulthood.

  11. I am so glad to see this article in API. I hope to see more material like this in the future.

  12. I think this is a very refreshing article! Various perspectives should be encouraged as it gives everyone something to think about, perhaps reconsider or consolidate our previous views. The psychology of sexuality from an attachment perspective can be considered without jumping to politics or religion, IMO. I’d like to see a variety of posts on this subject from various perspectives.

  13. I have tried to post a comment here twice already and nothing is showing up. Just want to say it is a great article. Some people are missing the point and reading between the lines.

  14. I’m glad my article has generated reflection and discussion on this topic. Although I’m sure there are many, I did not use any religious or spiritual sources. If you would like to read more on the topic and perhaps review some of the research, I can first point you to a wonderful and timely book called “Hold On To Your Kids – Why Parents Matter More than Peers,” by Dr. Gordon Neufeld and Dr. Gabor Mate. Dr. Neufeld is head of the Neufeld Institute, an international institute based in Vancouver; he is internationally acclaimed as an expert in attachment theory and developmental psychology. Dr. Mate is a physician who is currently involved with the running of a clinic in Vancouver for people with addictions, and he is very attachment-oriented. Their book sheds light on many of the challenges parents face today. There has been much research on the topic which I wrote about. You might want to look at the “Handbook of Attachment: Theory, Research and Clinical Applications,” edited by Jude Cassidy and Phillip R. Shaver. It is almost 1000 pages of research studies in the field of attachment. Chapter 19 is about the attachment system in adolescence, Chapter 20 is about Reevaluating the evidence on pair bonds as attachments, and Chapter 21 is about adult romantic attachment. Each chapter concludes with approx 120 research references. Another source of information about attachment relationships can be found on the Neufeld Institute website, http://www.neufeldinstitute.com. A valuable resource is Dr. Neufeld’s online course called “Making Sense of Adolescence” in which he deals with the topic of sexuality. I appreciate all of your comments, and look forward to meeting again here! Warmly, Shoshana Hayman

  15. Finally someone who explains that sex is not just a cheap hook up that all kids just can’t help but participate in! Condoms don’t heal broken hearts any more than they provide 100% safe sex. Our kids seek sex for a reason…and it is not because they are mature and ready at 13 in today’s social construct! Another interesting theory was mentioned in response to the evolutionary theory of survial that when a species feels threatened…it seeks to procreate earlier and earlier…and that our youth is feeling survival threatened due to the early stress and unmet need for strong attachment to their life source…their mother. It was an interesting concept and not a lick of religious dogma about it. Discussing theory has notta to do with being heterosexist! Humans are mammals, our behavior is mammalian. It is so easy to get sucked into attaching your own theories of religion, politics and sexuality as ‘recreation’ when the concepts being discussed are more about the developing brain and the need for attachment that forms at various ages in different ways. It is nearly unheard of in mainstream parenting to read anything beyond teens need sex, give them condoms in school! This was beyond refreshing! And, yes, i do teach my kids that sex is not a toy or a game. Anything so powerful it creates life has purpose. Just becauase we have learned how to circumvent biology of conception does not mean our mammal brain has caught up with the reality that procreation is the purpose of sexuality and the sexuality is bonding to protect offspring. There is no social political correctness in biology. There is just science. This is true in many areas of reproduction where our science is able to over ride biology, but our brains have not necessarily caught up with that reality.

  16. My daughters were both raised in an ap way and are now adult teenagers. One of them was very attached early to her boyfriend. She had deep relationships with each boy for one or two years from 14 onwards. I let them develop their sexuality in their own private way. They both have no shame around it. I feel it is private but at the same time I don’t tell them not to have a sexual relationship. They both did not tell me when they lost their virginity. But it came out later. I just ask that they are respectful of their bodies and others feelings. And I make jokes about baby beings on a regular basis. I is an ongoing discussion. They weren’t raised with a tv either.

  17. I was shocked reading some of these comments… jumping to religion??? Wow. I think this was a very well written article and much needed for some parents above to hear (obviously). I agree that sex is a beautiful thing that should be embraced but I think some commenters above do not realize the extreme sexuality that is developing in our culture. I teach sixth graders… to put that into perspective, 11 year olds. Many of these girls already have “boyfriends” and a few are already experimenting sexually… 11 year olds. They see it on TV, they listen to it in music, they believe this is how they are “suppose” to act. It is sad. They think they are nothing unless they have a boyfriend and will go to all lengths to get one and keep one. I watch some very sweet girls get themselves into situations that I know will leave scars the rest of their lives. It is refreshing to hear some support on the science front saying that condoms won’t heal the broken heart… cause we have a lot of little girls still in training bras thinking about or having sex (or just giving BJs to satisfy boys) and handing them condoms and pills solves nothing. Thank you for taking the risk and publishing this article- I think it is an extremely important topic to cover!

  18. i think the person who wrote this needs to edit. not every teen that has a problem with their parents or grades goes and has sex or drugs or stuff like that. when teens fall in love they dont copy what others do but they find it hard to express themselves sometimes. Sex is part of the circle of life and shouldnt be labled as a bad thing for it is through sex that we are still alive. many adults are not married yet have had kids and sex. bieng married is just a social status and has NOTHING to do with seroiuse love. it is true teens that are over controlled by parents have more sex than other teens but doesnt neccarily mean that if ur child is haveing aproblem in school she or he will probably have sex and u need to keep that child away from contact of the other gender.children who are not heard and are feeling confused are the ones who fall in love hoping for one who will understand and listen to them and go have sex being stupid and not understanding. but they are kids and parents need to guide them without pushing them. so i find that any sexual realtionshop of teens started because of the parents.

  19. Many people seem to forget that adolescents have been sexually active since the beginning of time. 16 year olds losing their virginity is not a new thing brought about by television and pop culture. 16, and even younger, used to be consider a “normal” age to marry and have babies! I think it is important to think in terms of talking about sex in a positive and productive way, but enough with the “blame” (including the blame placed on perfectly normal, not abusive or neglectful, parents). In many cultures where families maintain very strong bonds you will still find 14 and 15 year olds losing their virginity (certainly not for lack of a bond with important adults).

  20. Sexual freedom is indeed a reality, not a myth! Please consider that women (and men that are often homosexual) are persecuted and killed in MANY parts of the world during (even what this article suggests is) an appropriate time to explore sexuality and form intimate relationships with others. When we begin to talk in the way the article presents in some statements I fear we begin to tread on the side of control and fear-based relationship building with our kids. Usage of the term “hierarchical ” makes my (dare I say) feminist nerves tingle, too!

    I agree, yes, to have a working parental relationship with your children you need to develop in them an understanding of who is “the boss.” However, control and power in any relationship makes it difficult to even begin to see the benefits of our attachment parenting skills and hard work to shine through. Physical intimacy is DEVELOPMENTALLY appropriate to explore for children in this stage, and please, if there’s one thing we all know, human behavior does not happen in a psychological vacuum-this article is most definitely political in many respects! I work with many sexually active young girls and teens who were forced into the situations they faced in their past. I dare you to ask them if they think sexual freedom is a myth.

    Overall, I appreciated this reading. I got a lot out of this discussion on intimacy though I agree that I was not expecting the language that was used on API. I particularly appreciate the second paragraph which beautifully illustrates our cultures definition of maturity. Thanks for posting it and getting an interesting conversation going!

  21. While is it is true that even less than two hundred hears ago teens used to get married and have babies at 16 or younger, that was within the protection of a relationship that was monogamous, and usually with a man who was himself already a bread-winning adult. There was no fear of not being able to provide for a baby as a single teenage mother (barring exigent circumstance)and the BIGGEST difference is that there was no pressure for girls to please several different boys for social status and acceptance- in fact, back then it was the opposite. A girl was revered for her abstinence.

    The point of this article was not to say anything about adults who engage in premarital sex, but to educate readers on the detriments of not having close relationships with their children, which can and usually does lead to those children looking for that closeness outside the home, with their peers and boy/girlfriends, which when combined with the current social and pop climate of very early sexual activity, (generally with someone whom they do not love or can have a safe and secure relationship) this leads to the disastrous result of not only unwanted pregnancies (which, because of the possibility of adoption is not the longest-lasting casualty of this event) but of lasting tendencies toward outward methods of feeling loved and esteemed, instead of having an inner knowledge of self-esteem. A 13 year old boy or girl with strong family ties and feelings of self-worth and self-sufficiency does not need to find it elsewhere.

    This article is totally unrelated to the maturation of a teenager’s sexuality- a process which is normal and to which attention needs to be paid, but this article is solely about those children and teens who turn to sexual activity not out of making a mature decision to take that next step with a loving partner, but out of desperation to find the closeness they are missing, and sadly, to gain acceptance from peers- the absolute WORST reason to engage in sexual activity.

    Those who have commented about religion being involved in this article did not read the words, but read what they feared to hear, as evidenced by their comments, as themselves have engaged in premarital sex and were solely intent on justifying their own actions, instead of listening to the research coming about how to help future generations.

    Those who have commented about sexual activity being a natural part of the teenage years also didn’t actually take in what the article said- which was that the trends are now showing the majority of teens engaging in sexual activity- which because of those high numbers, we now see it as “normal”. I think what the article is trying to say is that this new “normal” is not healthy for teenagers- that instead of looking for that love and cultivating their sexuality, they should be cultivating their relationships with their parents (which is the parents’ job to instigate).

    We need to look at teen sexuality in a different paradigm and see that maybe with proper attention to a child’s relationship with his parents, that sexuality can be something in which he is calmly in control, unfettered by pressure from peers, and satisfied with himself enough to take his sexuality for what it is- a normal part of his life, not as a means to status or something to be used for anything other than the natural pursuit of a meaningful relationship, and not used by anyone else to elevate their status or control over him either, by introducing the pleasure of sexuality without the natural twin of it’s responsibility, eventually yielding broken hearts on what is eventually both sides. This is what the educational research of this article is trying to say, nothing more.

  22. Refreshing article.

    I would take things one step further and say that the reason the divorce rate is so high in the Western world is because too many people marry people they do not truly love.

    Why would that be? Probably because the words “I love you.” become a painful reminder of a lie told by a previous lover. Thus, people tend to want to escape true love as their hearts are hardened. They choose spouse to provide something that they never got in previous sexual relationships and it never works out.

  23. I find it very interesting that Lisa, Emi, and Miriam had completely lost the point of the article. This article is based on Dr. Gordon Neufeld’s attachment theory which is all about nurturing the natural developmental process of a child as opposed to what 95% of the population adheres to which is behavioural process. I would strongly recommend that you ladies take a look at his website and adhere yourselves to some of his materials since I assume that you ladies all have children. I sense that you are all coming from a place of being wronged. You had assumed that this article is telling you that how you’ve raised your children so far is wrong…and if you are getting such huge negative reactions to this article, then you probably are. However, it is never too late to start attaching to your children the right way.

    Miriam, no way in this article had religion been mentioned. Please note that the definition of marriage could be widely accepted as: “Marriage (also called matrimony or wedlock) is a social union or legal contract between people called spouses that establishes rights and obligations between the spouses, between the spouses and their children, and between the spouses and their in-laws.[1] The definition of marriage varies according to different cultures, but it is principally an institution in which interpersonal relationships, usually intimate and sexual, are acknowledged. When defined broadly, marriage is considered a cultural universal.” This has nothing to do with any religion.

    Secondly, there is nothing in this article that stated the ‘only way’ to have a deep meaningful relationship with another human being is to be married. She simply stated that the ‘greatest expression of sexuality is in the context of marriage when all elements of attachment can be fulfilled’. She didn’t say it was the ONLY way.

    I understand that it is very hard to feel that you have been wronged and that your feelings of ‘not good enough’ has been triggered by this article and this article simply lets you look at how you’ve been raising your children and to let you know that if you keep going the same path…your children could very well grow up using sex as a way to attach to another human being. Then we wonder why teenage pregnancies and STDs are on the rise. All I’m saying is now you ladies know that there is another way of doing things better then do better so you can change your legacies once and for all.

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