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The teen years as an attachment test

Submitted by Rita Brhel on 20 December 2021

Just as you "fall in love," you can "fall out of love," or in this case, secure attachment.

If your child faces to much separation from any or all of the roots of secure 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 of out the 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. 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. The attachment instincts go into reverse.

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. 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. It takes great yearning, patience, and courage to restore your relationship and recreate 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, 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. 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.

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This is the third 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 1, we explored the six roots of secure attachment. In Part 2, we learned what teenage "rebellion" looks like in securely attached youth. In Part 4, we will learn how to restore secure attachment during the teen years if need be.

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