Most of us associate attachment theory with the infant stage, but it turns out that we must actively remain attached to our children until they are ready to live on their own which, for most of our kids, begins at 18, but is not fully realized until their early- to mid-20s.
How do you know if you and your teenager are no longer attached? Well, you probably 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 parents of teenagers need to completely reject the idea that we should be letting our children go, and instead continually work on our attachment with them.
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, which means they care about what we think. And for our teens, parental attachment is a powerful protective agent against dangerous behaviors and mental disorders.
How we unattach
For most of us, beginning in grade school, our kids start to differentiate themselves from us and separate. While they may have once come to us for cuddles and affirmation, they become increasingly focused on their friends for fun, attention, and company.
As they enter middle school, this transition is nearing completion, and most parents are resigned to the idea that now our kids are at best bored by us, at worst hate being with us. We mistakenly believe that this is “normal” and “natural” teen behavior.
Interestingly, even though we see that our children are no longer attached to us, we believe we have the right to continue parenting them – telling 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 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, or 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.
Signs of attachment
Children who are not attached to their parents are very difficult to parent and often don’t respond well to any adults. These kids are oriented towards their peers, and therefore are most interested in doing things their peers care about, will notice, and for which they will give them attention as a reward.
Peer-oriented teens are insecure in their self-worth because their peers are not capable of providing stable and consistent levels of attention, affection, and loyalty. Teens are mercurial and fickle and are notorious for dropping “best friends” overnight with very little reason or explanation. This leaves peer-oriented teens deeply vulnerable.
A teenager who is well-attached to their parent has greater stability 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.
A parent-oriented teen has friends, of course, but he is not dependent upon them as his primary source of care, love, and attention. He seeks contact and closeness with his parent(s). Parents are empowered as nurturers, comforters, guides, coaches, and so many other things. It may sound insane to think that our teenagers can and should feel this way about their parents, but it is nonetheless possible and necessary for healthy emotional development.
Peer-oriented teens live with deep insecurity, which means they often fail to mature emotionally, leaving them vulnerable to emotional disturbance and disorders. When a teen orients to peers, she feels she must constantly strive for her position in the peer group and prove herself worthy. Instead of working to develop her own interests, character, and values, she instead tries to please her peer group. As a result, she remains emotionally immature and vulnerable to emotional disturbances.
When a child is parent-oriented and well-attached to parents, she feels unconditionally loved and supported. She does not feel the need to prove herself to her parents in order to be worthy of their love. This gives her the emotional fortitude to explore her strengths, desires, and passions. Parent-oriented teens are more likely to take the risks necessary to enjoy increased academic achievement, creativity, and 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 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 our 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. Since 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.
But just because our kids tell us they don’t want us “interfering” in their lives doesn’t mean that we should go back to moping in a separate room, feeling sorry for ourselves because, despite all our best efforts, our kids don’t love us. Alternatively, we 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 and realize that we cannot help our children (and therefore ourselves) unless we re-attach to 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 rebuild attachment once it’s been weakened, parents must patiently assert themselves in the following ways:
Physically: 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.
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 on weekends and during vacations with active experiences that naturally encourage physical proximity.
Behaviorally: Parents should find ways to connect with their children over shared projects. It would be great if there are projects about which you are both passionate, but it’s OK if it seems like you have absolutely nothing in common right now.
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. 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.
Emotionally: Most of us have been raised in a culture in which we try to soothe too quickly, which leads us to shut down emotional expression. Parents need to learn how to provide complete emotional acceptance of their children. 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 them.
It may be scary, especially in the beginning. Until you are re-attached, your child’s emotions are going to feel overwhelming. This is a side-effect of peer-orientation as well as one of the ways teens naturally “test” adults who say they love them. 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.
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.