Adolescence. Isn’t it fun? Unpredictable mood swings, relentless social networking, peer group enmeshment and defying parents. Or so it seems.
When parents bring their teenager to see a therapist, common issues include the adolescent becoming distant and impossible to talk with, falling behind with schoolwork and increased defiance with rules. With the parent out of the room and the adolescent more noticeably relaxed, we generally start to unpack what is going on.
A common circumstance is finding a once positive and supportive relationship between a parent/s and child has deteriorated into, what sometimes could be described as complete chaos, or a loss of both control and connection with the other in a way necessary to maintain attachment. The bond that once brought them together is now tearing them apart.
So how do relationships deteriorate to this point? And how do we get them back on track?
When a child is born, we discuss the role of dyadic attachment. That is, child cries and mother attends to comfort and soothe. Child is happy and mother steps back and allows child to explore. This ‘dance’ of attachment is vital for a secure bond to occur between parent and child. In adolescent attachment, however, there is another important factor in addition to these two.
First, we need the warmth and nurturing. Every adolescent needs nurturing (even if they might not deserve it!). The second factor is security. Like any child, adolescents need to know where the ‘line in the sand’ is and when they have crossed it. The third factor that is more difficult is the factor of enabling towards greater autonomy. Enabling towards autonomy is the ability to maintain, yet transform, an attachment relationship. At its core it requires a parent to advocate for their child’s increasing independence whilst still remaining as their ‘secure base’ (Diamond and Siqueland 1995).
Warmth and nurturing
Security (limits and boundaries)
Enabling towards autonomy
Psychological autonomy is vital for identity exploration. When a parent shows a high level of separation anxiety, this can at times be constraining for the adolescent. If the adolescent feels constrained, controlled or dominated by a parent, they will seek to express their autonomy in secretive or covert ways from the parent. The distrust and betrayal this causes is very damaging to the ‘web’ of attachment formed around the adolescent.
The adolescent’s brain is developing at rapid rates. Complex neural networks are being laid down in the cortex, and the adolescent’s neurobiological functioning drives him or her to be very motivated to make choices, express preferences and form opinions. The brain therefore requires the appropriate ‘brain food’ for optimal development (Perry 2006). This means lots of practice at active problem solving involving working through a process of defining the problem, determining possible solutions, learning consequences of each particular course of action and enacting a solution that is positive and healthy. It is no longer about parents solving their child’s problem. It is about supporting them to solve it for themselves. These are inherently different processes.
If a parent is not joining this exciting ride of identity development, then unfortunately we have an adolescent attempting to weave their way through their interpersonal world essentially solo. At a time when decisions can so easily be made on impulse, the need for communication to be open, flowing and honest is imperative.
When discussing how to ‘fix’ the adolescent, we eventually come back to this web of attachment and look at how we can repair what has gone so horribly wrong within these three dimensions, with most focus on how to help parents stay connected and in control by supporting their child’s need for growing autonomy in a way that keeps the bond strong.
If parents are available and aware of how to enable their child towards autonomy whilst remaining as the ‘secure base’, the adolescent is more willing to openly communicate without fear of being constrained and the web of attachment continues to weave in such a way to prepare the adolescent for positive decision making in adulthood.
By: Alison Lenehan