The key to raising teens lies in the attachment relationship.
Adolescence: a period of development that is met with feelings of dread by many parents. It is characterized by independence, attitude, strong emotions, and a focus on peers over family.
It is no question that the teen years can be a struggle for parent and child alike. How do we best support our kids during this period of growth? How do we maintain the connection that we enjoyed so much when they were little?
While it may seem like there is a change overnight, and hormones do play some role in that, the truth is that the foundation we set with them as small children is going to be very impactful on how the relationship with them is during the teen years. Will there be some friction, some pushback, and some boundary-testing? Of course, that is a natural part of adolescence. However, if we have a secure attachment relationship with them, where they know that their needs are going to be met, that you are going to be empathetic, responsive, nurturing, and understanding, then those naturally difficult years are going to be a little more smooth for both you and your child.
Let’s take a moment and talk about what is happening in the brain of a teenager, because when we understand that then it can help us navigate the challenges that will arise.
During adolescence there is another massive period of development, similar to when they were toddlers. The pre-frontal cortex, which is not fully developed until the early 20’s, is undergoing major development. Because this area of the brain is not fully developed our teenagers often rely on the amygdala, or emotional area of their brain, more frequently than the pre-frontal cortex, which is responsible for thinking, analyzing, and problem-solving. This is why teenagers are still impulsive, emotional, and at times, aggressive, because they aren’t always able to flex that thinking muscle (pre-frontal cortex) when they are in moments of elevated stress.
What do moments of elevated stress look like for a teenager? We are more susceptible to stress when we are tired, hungry, or dehydrated. When we have had a long day or when we are feeling pressure from school, parents, or peers. We can feel stressed when we feel isolated or misunderstood (something very common in adolescence, even for well-adjusted teens because they are all working to discover who they are as an individual.) We can feel stressed when we have a deadline, when we are struggling to understand something, or when we are overscheduled. We can also feel stressed when we have tension in our interpersonal relationships. All of these are very common stressors for adolescents. Additionally, we as parents have an expectation that our teens are going to act more maturely. Just as with toddlers, just because they can do something some of the time, does not mean that they can do it all the time. For teens that means, just because they can act mature and make good decisions, using their thinking and problem-solving skills, some of the time, doesn’t mean they are capable of it all the time. The problem we see is that, the older a child gets, the higher our expectations of them are, and the less forgiving we are when they mess up.
Now that we understand what is going on with our teens, we can see why the attachment relationship that we have with them is so critical, even through this period of development where they seem to be pulling away from us, developing their independence and focusing more on social relationships. At the end of the day, they need to come home to an environment where they are going to be met with understanding, nurturance, and empathy. They need parents who are going to guide them as they grow their brains and practice and hone these skills that are vital for success in the adult world. When we are connected to our teens, we not only support their growth and development, but we also strengthen the relationship with them, which will make them more resilient to the world they must interact with on a daily basis.