I sometimes think of the teenage years as an "attachment test."
As I reflect on my own six 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.
First of all, to understand what "deeply rooted" means, it's important to know about the six 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 six 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.
These first three 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 three roots can be cultivated. These roots create a connection at the heart level with parents while, at the same time, ample room for the child to emerge as his own person.
By the time a child is approximately 6 years old, he should be attached through all six 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 for 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 your 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 Securely Attached Child to 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 from 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.
This is the first of a 4-part series by Shoshana Hayman, Israel's regional director for the Neufeld Institute and founder/director of the Life Center in Israel. In Part 2, we learn what teenage "rebellion" looks like in securely attached youth. In Part 3, we will see how the teenage years serve as a sort of attachment test. In Part 4, we will learn how to restore secure attachment during the teen years if need be.