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Adolescent Attachment Part 2: “Smooth Moves for Parents”

Hi Everyone,

In this article, I will be reviewing what we discussed in our most recent webinar on adolescent attachment — “Smooth Moves for Parents.”

The basic attachment cycle of tuning into our child, making sense of and absorbing her stress, and then sending her out to explore again is just as important for a teen as it is for the toddler. There are, however, differences in how this plays out. Infants and toddlers feel secure by being physically close, but teens use their secure base to sort through intense thoughts and feelings. They can appear to be running from their parents, but they really need parental support to deal with stressful situations and new challenges. It can feel like they want your help on their terms. This is totally developmentally appropriate. The insecurely attached teen, which is the case with many of our children adopted at an older age, respond anxiously and cannot problem-solve very well under stress. They can shut you out or exaggerate their feelings as they learned to do early in life.

Let’s take a closer look at the different patterns a teen can develop.

The “secure” pattern is characterized by the teen initiating separation from you and discovering new relationships and group identity. They can go back and forth between family and new relationships, and they are capable of forming cooperative relationships with adults and peers. They will touch base with you when needed, especially as their stress escalates.

Children adopted at an older age are far more likely to exhibit the three “insecure” patterns of attachment. First is the “avoidant” pattern, which is characterized by a teen who moves away from the family prematurely. When they are stressed, they respond aggressively without thought of the impact on others. They are very self-focused and can’t seem to get close to peers. When they get in trouble, they withdraw into themselves.

The second type of insecure pattern is termed “ambivalent.”  These teens are very confused about their own need for security and their need to detach. They may accuse their parents of trying to hold onto them, yet they cannot step out successfully. Their peer relationships are half-hearted and they tend to cling to the family. Their fear of failure permeates all aspects of their lives; they don’t work to their potential in school, peer relationships are distant, and they just can’t avail themselves of your emotional support to cope with stressful times they encounter.

With the first two insecure patterns, teens have very distinct and predicable ways of relating to others. The last type of insecure pattern is called “disorganized” because these teens do not have a predicable way of relating. They fluctuate quickly between seeking closeness and feeling stifled, and then distancing themselves. This can result in belligerent words or aggressive behavior. It is impossible to meet their expectations and they rage or cry like a toddler.

Let’s take a minute to review the characteristics of families who are successful in helping older kids develop secure attachments. Immense amounts of flexibility and humor top the list. Other important skills and characteristics include:

  • A tolerance for your own ambivalence or strong negative feelings about how your teen is behaving.
  • A refusal to be rejected by the teen and an ability to delay gratification, especially as it relates to attachment.
  • The ability to notice and value small increments of improvement.
  • A firm commitment to your teen no matter teen, recognizing that no matter what, they are and will always be your child.
  • A capacity to not take all those intrusive, controlling and annoying behaviors personally.

You are all probably very familiar with the infant attachment cycle (baby cries, parents comes and makes the baby feel better, and baby learns to trust). Well, the teen attachment cycle has a few twists and turns to it. Here is how it goes:

  • Teen screws up.
  • Teen blames parent, acts out.
  • Teen apologizes (on a good day).
  • Parent forgives (this is a key component).
  • Trust develops.

So how do we as parents respond when our teen screws up and turn it into a bonding opportunity?

First, remind yourself that our adopted children come from hard places and often have a history of trauma influencing their reactions. They have experienced many years of being hurt by those closest to them — by adults that were supposed to protect and love them. Their behavior is often their way of communicating the deep-seated core of anxiety and fear that they live with every day. We need to respond to them, and the best response is NOT always a consequence. When a child has a history of trauma, punishment is an ineffective parental response for making permanent behavioral changes. In this same vein, persistent behavior issues are rooted in the trauma, and explanations and teaching don’t dislodge the trauma-related behavior. Teens can appear to be defiant. But if we think in terms of “trauma,” we realize that they are over–stimulated and all they can do is “check out.”

Second, be intentional about your response. Break the situation down into smaller parts and ask yourself, who is this child right now? What is the emotional age of your child? It can be helpful to remember that you are probably dealing with a 3-year-old in a 12-year-old body.  What stressful events are going on? What is the basic need that your teen’s behavior is signaling?

Third, check in with yourself. What is your stress level? Are you able to stay emotionally present or does your teen’s emotional outburst create some anxiety in you? Is your own fear causing you to feel like you have to control the situation? Is the situation unconsciously taking you back to a stressful time in your own childhood? What messages are your body language and tone of voice sending? Are you in an emotional space to be able to stay in a relationship when your teen’s fear is trying to push you away? Self-awareness and self-care are so important to manage our own fear response.

Let’s review some techniques you can use.

Pretend you are a camera with a zoom lens. Come in close to examine your teen’s action, much the way a detective would. What old skills, developed while being neglected or abused, is your teen drawing on now? What triggered a return to these old survival skills? Is this a trauma or shame response? Then zoom your lens out to keep the big picture in mind. What little improvements are you seeing in this meltdown? Is it shorter? Can she use more words? Can she get back to the present faster? Could she accept a bit of support from you? Remember, it takes 400 repetitions to build a new neural pathway to replace an old one.  Initiating unexpected positive interactions — such as giving a hug, or a cookie, or a compliment ­— is another effective technique.

Look for opportunities to say something positive no matter how small. The guideline for interactions with teens is 15 “positives” to every time you have to give a “negative.” Another approach would be to invite you teen into your parenting dilemma, like this: “I want to keep you safe and you don’t want to help. What can we do?” or “You get what you want as I get what I want (for you-from you).” Show openness to exploring your teen’s own story by taking their cue, while at the same time reinforcing that they belong right here with you. Keepin in mind their brains are developing new cognitive capacities to process information and consider facts and feelings. They may seek more details as to how and why they were relinquished, if they have siblings, if their parents care about each other or was it just sex? They will compare things about you — like class, education, race and culture differences — to their imagined birth parents.

Parenting any teen can be challenging, and parenting a newly adopted teen has many additional layers of complexity. Your adoption social worker is still a resource for you to call upon. Some additional resources are:

Teenagers and Attachment: Helping Adolescents Engage with Life and Learning by Andrea Perry 2009

Parenting Adopted Adolescents by Gregory Keck

Brainstorm by Daniel Siegel 2014

Parenting from the Inside Out by Daniel Siegel




Abbie Smith, LCSW | Former Holt team member

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