Adolescent Attachment


On November 6, 2013, Holt presented the first of two webinars on Adolescent Attachment.  This article will highlight some of the great information in that broadcast.  First, typical teen developmental will be covered. Second, the impact of past trauma on current behavior, a comparison of infant attachment cycle to teen attachment cycle, and characteristics of families who successfully adopt teens will be presented.

Typical teen development is very interesting. It is getting to be common knowledge that the first three years of a child’s life are the formative years for brain development.  Kids at this age are like sponges absorbing everything around them, learning how to relate to others by what they observe in their familial relationships. What is just beginning to be known is that teens go through a second huge brain developmental period. A very simplified explanation of the unique brain changes during adolescence is that up to this point the brain has been actively making neuron to neuron connections, trying to hook up with each other as much as possible.  Quite a few neurons never get a chance to hook up with other neurons and sit dormant or only have one connection. During adolescence, the brain says, ‘whoa, let’s get organized here,’ and begins to spend a few years pruning neurons that have not been used very much or at all. This remodeling process can make parts of the brain less functional than they were at say 10 or 12 years old. It has been described as the brain going offline. I bet a lot of you can relate, sometimes asking yourself, ‘What were they thinking?’ Well they were not able to think clearly. They have reduced capabilities in reflection, planning, organization and increased behaviors of risk-taking, conflict seeking, and distractibility.

Another part of the typical developmental process for teens is that hormones change. Boys have a 1000% increase in testosterone! The amygdala, a part of the emotional brain, gets repeatedly flooded with testosterone, which increases angry and aggressive behavior, reduces their impulse control and ability to regulate their emotions and, of course, increases their sex drive. Their right brain (emotional side) overrides their left brain (the thinking side) and they can become withdrawn, sullen, and asocial. Girls also have increased testosterone but, along with it, their oxytocin increases. Oxytocin is referred to as the cuddle hormone and results in wanting physical closeness and relational orientation. They also can manifest increased anger, but is it usually associated with verbal aggression, moodiness, and Drama!!! Their left brain over- rides their right brain, increasing their proclivity to argue, be talkative, and talk about their feelings.

Things behind the scenes are a mess for teens.  Their brain is undergoing a major overhaul and they are saturated with hormones. Makes me shiver thinking about it. For our adopted teens, we add to this: a foundation of loss experiences, identity formation process, layered with complicated differences, reemergence of “I am not supposed to be here” feelings, and heightened sense of loss of control and loss of trust in adults, which can intensify typical teen annoyance or rebellion. All of this creates six major hurdles for adopted adolescents (from “Beneath the Mask” by Debbie Riley): wondering again “Why was I adopted?”  why they were adopted, seeking out details of missing or difficult birth family information, wanting  desperately to fit in but looking so different, and uncertainty about their adoptive parents’ level of commitment to them. All of this can result in testing with huge stakes, identity confusion, and, lastly, loyalty issues.

Another layer for adopted teens is complex developmental trauma. This adds to their feelings of powerlessness and hypervigilence, which adds to their emotional reactivity. Many of these teens never had a caring relationship with an adult that would have helped them develop emotional regulation, so they have an additional layer of reactivity with minimal ability to calm themselves down. Their prominent feelings are fear, terror, and shame without an internalized sense of felt safety. They often only have fight, fright, or freeze responses at their disposal when they perceive danger.  Some will cope by developing over-controlling or perfectionist strategies that help minimize their uncomfortable feelings. Some may even seek out substance abuse, sensation seeking, or sexual encounters to numb their feelings.

Most of you have heard of the infant attachment cycle: baby has a need, baby cries, parent comes and meets the need, and baby develops trust in the world that she will be taken care of.  The traumatized adopted teen attachment cycle has a different twist to it. Here is how it goes: teen screws up, teen blames parent and acts out, teen apologizes (on a good day), parents forgive, and trust develops. I want to elaborate on this. Research shows that when an older child screws up and expects their parents to be really angry with them, but instead finds their parents so relieved that their child is OK, responding from a love and support perspective, that attachment is greatly deepened. This is true for all kids, not just adopted ones. Many years ago I had a friend who was fostering a teen. It was not long after she moved in that she took the family van without permission and wrecked it. She was expecting to be moved to yet another foster home, which would be a pretty predicable outcome. However her parents forgave her and went on to adopt her. In retrospect they saw that event as a turning point in their relationship with their daughter, and she was able to trust that she was an accepted and loved member of the family.

How can a family tell if they have what it takes to successfully bring a teen into their family?  Some shared attributes are that the parents have the ability to tolerate their own ambivalent feelings and/or strong negative feelings. This ability to tolerate uncomfortable feelings will help get them through the hard stuff. An ability to see the invariable rejection by their teen as an expression of the immense fear their teen is struggling with. Fear of being rejected yet again. This predictable aspect of teen attachment requires that parents have an ability to delay their own need for parental gratification. It will be a long time before the teen will be able to appreciate the positive aspects of having had their life turned inside out. Being able to see the cup as half full is also important for parents. This perspective lets the parent notice the small incremental signs of an emerging attachment relationship. All parents are more successful the more flexible they can be, and when you adopt a teen you need to be able to stretch and bend in all directions. Parents need to claim their teen as their child and feel a strong sense of entitlement to be that teen’s parent. If you don’t firmly claim them as yours, any child will sense this and maintain an emotional distance as a self protective response. Remember that teens only have part of their brain available to them; adopted teens could also be handicapped by complex developmental trauma, and may not even be able to use your language very well. All of this comes together to create extreme intrusiveness, coupled with controlling behavior. Parents need the ability to NOT take this personally! It is not personal, no matter who their adopted parents were, adopted teens would act in similar fashion. Lastly, as with all things in life, liberal doses of humor and self care will keep you ready for whatever comes next.

My next article will be a review of Part 2 on Adolescent Attachment: Smooth Moves for Parents.

The holidays are upon us. Please refer to back issues for Holiday Behavior Management tips. 

Happy Holidays,

Abbie Smith, LCSW

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