Do you kind of hate your teenager? Do you sometimes wonder how it’s possible that the sweet little toddler you loved so much has turned into a monster? Are you out of ideas for how to make things better – or at least not so bad – at home?
The good news is that you don’t have to hate your teenager. The bad news is that it’s going to require significant effort on your part. You may think that they are the one who has a problem. But if you want things to improve, you’re going to have to take action.
Bad behavior is a reflection of the relationship
One of the hard lessons we need to learn as parents is that “bad behavior” in our kids is not a result of our child being “bad.” It’s more often a reflection of the state of our relationship.
I know it’s easier to think that the problem is that your child is “too stubborn,” or “a jerk,” but their behavior is almost always an attempt to draw you into the parent-child relationship and communicate with you.
Sure, we don’t like it when our kids are rude, condescending, and test all of our boundaries, but these behaviors are all ways that they attempt to get our attention and ask for our help. So we can complain about our kids all day, but if we actually want them to change, and if we actually want to enjoy our kids, we have to change ourselves and our family dynamics.
If you hate your teenager, it’s time to revisit attachment theory
While hormones and maturation tell some of the story of why teens are difficult, it misses a major element: parental attachment. Without a healthy and secure parent-child attachment, teens become increasingly difficult to parent as they age.
How do you know if you and your teenager lack healthy attachment? Well, the most obvious sign is that you don’t like them very much, and they don’t like you.
We live in a society that says this is “normal.” Parents tell each other that teenagers are just a pain in the ass. And teens talk about what a drag their parents are. But just because something is considered normal in our society does not mean it is healthy. The authors of the book Hold On to Your Kids: Why Parents Need to Matter More Than Peers, say that we must continually work on our attachment with teens.
Attachment serves two purposes in the parent-teen relationship. First, it makes the job of parenting easier. It’s a lot easier to teach our kids and help them become healthy adults when they are attached to us. Kids who are attached care what their parents think.
This makes them more likely to treat us with respect. It means fewer shouting matches and slammed doors. And for our teens, parental attachment is a powerful protective agent against dangerous behaviors and mental disorders.
What is attachment?
Attachment theory is a well-established and deeply-researched psychological concept. It states that all children develop an attachment style with their parents or primary caregivers. There are four main styles of attachment associated with childhood development:
- Secure attachment: a child who is securely attached feels they can rely on their caregiver to meet their needs. When the child is emotionally dysregulated, they seek their caregiver’s attention and are soothed by their caregiver.
- Anxious-ambivalent attachment: a child who is ambivalent feels insecure about their caregiver. Although they will behave in ways that attract their caregiver’s attention (e.g. yelling, crying, being rude) when emotionally dysregulated, the caregiver is typically unable to soothe the child.
- Anxious-avoidant attachment: a child who has avoidant attachment does not seek their caregiver out when they are upset. When the child is emotionally dysregulated, they tend to go inward and avoid the caregiver and brush off any attempts to draw them out of their shell.
- Disorganized attachment: a child who has disorganized attachment does not rely on their caregiver for any reliable care. When the child is emotionally dysregulated, they may exhibit ambivalent or avoidant attachment patterns, but it is inconsistent, and they are rarely (if ever) soothed by their caregiver.
The attachment style a child develops with their caregiver in infancy typically continues for life and impacts their adult relationships and their ability to parent unless it is disrupted through intentional therapy. Most people who were raised to have secure attachment will go on to have children who are securely attached to them. People who had less secure attachments in childhood are more likely to raise children who lack secure attachment.
It is important to note that most parents who complain that they hate their teenager are facing a child who is not securely attached.
A lifetime of attachment
Ideally, our kids developed a healthy attachment with us when they were infants. But unfortunately, more than half of kids develop anxious or disorganized attachment with us. This is due to many factors, including the “fit” between the parent and child, the parent’s own attachment with their parents, and stressors that are present in the parent’s life.
In short, parents who have a healthy attachment relationship with their own parents are more likely to raise children who have healthy attachment. And parents who have anxious or disorganized attachment with their original caregivers are more likely to raise children who have anxious or disorganized attachment.
The attachment style you developed with your child in infancy can either make the teenage years challenging but fulfilling or a complete nightmare. Because while our little kids may still attempt to connect with us and repair attachment breaches, teenagers who have poor attachment will act out and rebel. This behavior, which is undoubtedly difficult for parents, is actually the teenager’s attempt to signal an attachment problem.
The only way to change the child’s behavior and build a peaceful home environment with a teenager is to work on repairing the attachment you have with them.
As kids differentiate, attachment problems become more obvious
Most parents notice that their kids begin to differentiate themselves from us and separate in kindergarten. For every year they spend with their peer group at school, many kids become increasingly focused on their friends for fun, attention, and company. This is exacerbated when there is not a secure parent-child attachment. They seek what they cannot get from their parents from their peers.
As they enter middle school, peer orientation becomes more pronounced. So while hormones play a role in the challenges associated with middle school and adolescence, they do not show the full picture.
Parents who have securely attached children don’t face the same problems as parents who have insecurely attached children.
Most parents who have insecurely attached children blame hormones and friend groups for the fact that their kids are difficult to live with. They accept popular belief that teenagers are “impossible” and “horrible.” But the fundamental problem is a lack of healthy attachment.
We lose our authority
This is where discipline gets hard. Insecurely attached children are harder to parent in every way. We lose authority. They don’t want us to tell them what to do, how to do it, and when to do it.
And it surprises us that our requests quickly escalate to demands, punishments, threats, begging and nagging, but it doesn’t seem to make a difference: our teens won’t do what we ask them to do. So we sigh and resign ourselves to the “fact” that having a teenager means being disliked and sometimes disliking our own child.
Why we need attached teens
The more the parent-child attachment is degraded, the more kids turn towards their peers. And this is dangerous because peers are not as stable, reliable, or mature as parents. In a secure attachment, our kids retain a healthy attachment (which means they respect and listen to us) throughout adolescence. Sure, there are ups and downs, but they seek our advice and support rather than turning to peers who simply don’t have the skills to provide it.
The teenage separation that we believe is normal in our culture is actually unhealthy for our children. Instead of orienting towards the adults in their lives, today’s kids increasingly orient around their peers.
This makes parenting harder because kids who are peer-oriented don’t follow their parents’ advice or instructions. Parents may find some success using threats and punishments. Parents may resort to incentives and rewards. But these work in the short-term and require constant vigilance. In most cases, peer-oriented teens end up ignoring or even actively acting against their parents’ wishes.
The really scary part though is that teens who are peer- rather than parent-oriented are more likely to experience emotional disturbances, eating disorders, self-harm, substance abuse, bullying, and suicidality.
Children who are not attached to their parents are very difficult to parent. They are often disrespectful and don’t respond well to any adults. Kids who are peer- instead of parent-oriented are most interested in doing things their peers care about. They take action only when they know their peers will notice. And they seek rewards and attention from peers.
Peer-oriented teens are insecure in their self-worth. This is because they have an insecure attachment with the parents to whom they should turn for validation and support. Peers are not capable of providing the stable and consistent levels of attention, affection, and loyalty that parents can and should be providing. This leaves peer-oriented teens deeply vulnerable.
A teenager who is securely attached to their parent has greater stability. This is because parents are capable of loving unconditionally and sacrificing their own needs for the sake of their children. Unlike peers, most parents won’t reject their child for what appears to be no reason. And most parents will go to great lengths to help their children succeed.
Parent-oriented teens have peer friends, of course (often many!). But they are not dependent upon them as their primary source of care, love, and attention. They remain secure in the knowledge that their parents are their primary attachment figures for now.
Securely-attached parents are empowered as nurturers, comforters, guides, coaches, and so many other things. It may sound impossible to think that our teenagers can and should feel this way about their parents. But it is both possible and necessary for our kids’ healthy emotional development.
Peer-oriented teens live with deep insecurity. They often fail to mature emotionally. This leaves them vulnerable to emotional disturbance and disorders. When teens orient to peers, they feels they must constantly strive for their position in the peer group and prove themselves worthy.
Instead of working to develop their own interests, character, and values, they instead try to please their peer group. As a result, they remain emotionally immature and vulnerable to emotional disturbances and disorders.
When a child is parent-oriented and well-attached to parents, they feel unconditionally loved and supported. They do not feel the need to prove themselves to their parents in order to be worthy of love.
This gives them the emotional fortitude to explore their individual strengths, desires, and passions. Parent-oriented teens are more likely to take the risks necessary to enjoy increased academic achievement and creativity. They find it easier to find meaning and purpose in life. A peer-oriented child simply can’t take the risks required for these activities.
We must build attachment with our teens
Our insecurely attached teenagers who are peer-oriented are at higher risk of dangerous behaviors. They are also awful to parent. This creates a self-perpetuating doom-loop in which we become further and further apart from each other. We must actively and immediately build a more secure attachment with them. Of course, this is easier said than done.
Peer-oriented children will perceive their parents as being in competition with their peer group. They believe their peer group is the center of their universe. This makes it very difficult for parents to assert themselves in order to rebuild attachment and parent-orientation.
They will also find it difficult if not impossible to be soothed by parents, and may even turn away from or ignore a parent’s attempts to soothe them.
These kids will tell us they don’t want us “interfering” in their lives. But that doesn’t mean that we should go back to moping in a separate room, feeling sorry for ourselves. Nor should we start thinking our kids don’t love us and need us. They do.
It’s tempting, but don’t get angry and blame our teens for being ungrateful little shits who don’t appreciate everything we have given them.
We must put these feelings aside. It’s time to realize that we cannot help our children (and therefore ourselves) unless we build a more secure attachment with them. It is our duty as parents to actively seek attachment with our teenagers. We cannot force attachment, but we can enforce basic systems that will be likely to build parent-child attachment. It will take time, it will be hard, but it will be very worth the effort.
To build secure attachment, parents must patiently assert themselves in the following ways:
Parents should find ways to physically touch and even, when appropriate, hold their children. Even when our children grow taller and larger than we are, they still crave our physical touch. Physical touch is the foundation of attachment, so we must touch our kids as often as possible.
You may need to begin with briefly touching their hand once in a while. Don’t rush physical touch if it’s currently missing from your relationship, but do make an effort to slowly and consistently build it into your time together.
Parents must also find ways to increase physical proximity. Insist upon time spent physically together in the same room every day. A great way to do this is family meals. Find ways to be physically together for longer periods of time to build secure attachment. Plan activities on weekends and vacations to naturally encourage physical proximity.
Parents should find ways to connect with their children over shared projects. Try to find projects about which you are both passionate. It’s OK if it seems like you have absolutely nothing in common right now. You can develop new things.
You can start by picking something your child cares about. For example, if your child is passionate about a sport, you could plan outings to watch the sport live. Or just plan dates to watch it at home together on TV. The main point is that you are going to “show up” to participate in your child’s interests. If your child enjoys video games, play together once per week. No, your teen will not want to do this. Yes, you should do it anyway.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, you could insist that your child join you to cook a meal once per week. I would say “invite,” but an insecurely attached teen is going to need you to “insist.”
The act of creating something together that is nourishing for the whole family can be very valuable behavioral bonding. You can walk the dog together, volunteer together, or go to yoga together. Just find ways to do things together. A peer-oriented child will not join you with joy and excitement, but you must do it anyway.
Most of us have been raised in a culture in which we try to soothe too quickly with statements like “you’re OK,” “don’t cry,” and “but you seemed so happy earlier!” This leads kids to shut down their emotional expression. We become emotionally unsafe if we don’t allow our kids to fully express their emotional state.
Parents need to learn how to provide complete emotional acceptance of their children’s emotions. Almost nothing is as important to your teen as feeling heard, understood, and accepted by you.
When your child complains, yells, whines, stonewalls, or otherwise throws an emotional tantrum, acknowledge the feelings and emotions taking place. Let them exist without trying to change them. Work on understanding the breadth and depth of the feelings. Talk about the experience. Don’t talk about how they have done things before, what you intended to happen, or what you hope will happen in the future. Just stay in the moment, with the feelings in real-time.
It may be scary, especially in the beginning. Until you build more secure attachment, your child’s emotions are going to feel overwhelming. Your teenager is going to test your love by acting out. As in: you say you love me, but can you handle all of me? Make sure you absolutely can and will handle all of your child.
Remember that expressed feelings, even horrible ones, are feelings, not facts. Often, once we accept and even welcome our teens’ raw feelings, they begin to trust that we can handle them. This, paradoxically, means that the feelings gradually become less intense over time. In this way, we are providing a critical ballast to our teens as they navigate the rough seas of adolescence.
You don’t have to hate your teenager
I know it seems impossible, but you don’t have to hate your teenager. You don’t have to white-knuckle your way through adolescence. More importantly, your child needs you to build secure attachment. They need you to help them find a way back to you. Securely attached teens are easier to parent. They are also less likely to suffer from mental health conditions and disorders.
This article was inspired and heavily informed by Hold On to Your Kids: Why Parents Need to Matter More Than Peers, by Gordon Neufeld and Gabor Mate.
Ginny Jones is the editor of More-Love.org. She writes about parenting, body image, disordered eating, and eating disorders.