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How to restore secure attachment in the teen years, if need be

Submitted by Rita Brhel on 20 December 2021

The good news is, it's never too late to restore secure attachment with your child and that secure attachment can be cultivated at any time. When you begin to cultivate the roots of secure attachment, there's a good chance your child will spontaneously respond and depend on you for the fulfillment of his attachment needs.

There are no formulas or prescriptions. Your patience and faith sustain you as you walk this maze. Your heart leads you in this intuitive process. The warmth of your compassion and love melt your child's defenses, so he can feel at home with you and experience the comfort of your presence once again.

The first step in this dance is to create the context needed to soften your teen's heart, so his brain can let go of the defenses that have been erected and are numbing out his vulnerable feelings. These defenses can melt spontaneously as soon as the brain feels:

  • It is safe for your teen to experience the vulnerability that is inherent in human relationships,
  • It is safe to depend on you, and
  • He can be comforted by you and hold on to you, metaphorically speaking.

You will need to ignore his habits or behaviors you find irritating and objectionable until the right context of relationship is restored. You will need to refrain from making requests or expecting results that you know will not be honored.

You will need to move into the dominant place in the relationship of providing proximity and closeness, sameness, belonging and loyalty, a sense of mattering and significance, love, and understanding, just as you would with a young child.

This is heart work, led by your intuition. Spontaneously, by trial and error, you will be paying attention to what your teen can hold on to.

One teen, age 16, had not had a real conversation with his parents in two years. His mother had "consequenced" him so much during his growing up years that her betrayal of him and what was important to him became a separation that was too much to bear. He was indeed in defensive detachment from her: He had retreated from the relationship because of too much hurt, and his instincts to seek closeness, sameness, belonging, significance, love, and understanding had gone in reverse.

This boy then broke his leg and had to be hospitalized for two weeks, making it easy for his mother and father to once again become his answer. They brought food, kept him company, and made good guesses about what they could bring him that would cheer him up. His heart began to thaw out.

This was only the beginning, for then they had to continue cultivating the relationship out of the hospital and be aware of avoiding the triggering of the defenses again.

With my own daughter, I took a different direction. I created an invitation for her to exist in my presence, no matter what she did to reject me, and I made room for all of her in our relationship. I paid attention to her needs and played a part in taking care of them without her expectation of my help.

Activating the Attachment Instincts

Collecting is a very important part of this dance. What I mean by "collecting" is to frequently seek out your child, make warm eye contact if possible, smile and convey delight in her very presence. Make it easy for her to depend on you for comfort, warmth, and a place of rest.

Sometimes it's difficult. Sometimes it's painful. Sometimes it's discouraging. Eventually, though, the heart softens more and more, and the dance becomes more natural and flows intuitively. Collecting your teen's eyes and smile and conveying your delight in her presence throughout the day sends her brain a powerful message: that it is safe to attach to you.

Since we cannot be together all the time with our children, bridging separations is an important part of the attachment repertoire. At bedtime, before leaving the house during the day, and before traveling for business or pleasure, the separation can be bridged by talking about the next connection with your teen: "I'll see you in the morning," "I'll call you when I arrive," "I'll send you a message," "We'll have dinner together when I get back," are all ways of building a bridge from one connection to the next one and keep the attachment brain of the child connected to you.

Keeping You Own Heart Soft

To restore and strengthen attachment, we need to keep our own hearts soft. We need to bring our own defenses down by finding our tears over all that did not work, all that went wrong, all that did not go as we had planned.

Your alpha place, the provider of attachment needs, in your child's life must come from a soft place, a caring place, and a place of compassion. Your rules, boundaries, ideals, and values must come from this place as well.

There's no such thing as "tough love." If it's tough, it's not love and it will only keep the defenses tough.

You will most likely need to stretch yourself to come to this place, but the bonus will be your own growth and maturation as your heart becomes softer and bigger, and your relationship with yourself deepens, as does your relationship with your child and others. This takes courage and determination, but we parents all have this capacity within us, waiting to come to fruition. Our children, even our most prickly teens, give us this opportunity to grow and become more.

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This is the final in a 4-part series by Shoshana Hayman, Israel's regional director for the Neufeld Institute and founder/director of the Life Center in Israel. In Part 1, we explored the six roots of secure attachment. In Part 2, we learned what teenage "rebellion" looks like in securely attached youth. In Part 3, we will see how the teenage years serve as a sort of attachment test.

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There is no such thing as tough love

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