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Help! My teenager is falling apart out of the blue

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Jenny* came to see me because she was struggling in middle school. School had once been a place she thrived in but had become a place she hated to go. Jenny had begun to have panic attacks and weekly she was coming home and crying. Though she had been a quiet kid, she had always been bright and funny. Her sudden change in behavior left her mom at a loss. As she and I talked, it became clear she was experiencing a depression—she would feel very sad and then ashamed of her sadness at the same time, a painful combination. She also acknowledged while this was indeed the most intense she had felt these feelings, they were not altogether unfamiliar to her. She had often felt this way in smaller portions in the past, though she had managed her disruptive feelings by either ignoring them or retreating and spending time alone. However, new circumstances at school were triggering Jenny strongly and her normal routine of retreat was no longer enough.

Jenny’s mother grew up in a house that did not have a lot of emotions expressed. Rarely did anyone say, “I love you,” and feelings weren’t discussed. When Jenny started demonstrating big emotions as a toddler, her mother, overwhelmed and on her own as a single parent, intuitively moved to a strong behavior management regimen. When these emotions starting surfacing again in her daughter’s adolescence, Jenny’s mom did what she knew how—she helped Jenny diminish her emotions (again). In her loving attempt to help her manage a tough situation, she encouraged Jenny to be mentally tough and try to be positive. Jenny tried her mother’s advice but this did not fit her personality and she felt like a failure.

One day when we were all sitting together, Jenny told her mom that she was unsure about how her mom feels about her when she is feeling so insecure. She confessed she thought that she irritated and embarrassed her mother. Jenny’s brave confrontation allowed a genuine conversation to open up with her mom about feelings and thoughts. Their problems were not solved, but a major step towards change occurred.

Digging Deeper

Does any of this sound familiar? Are you feeling like it’s difficult to connect with your child but long to do so? Does it ever feel like all you try is falling short? You are not alone—every parent goes through something like this. This does not mean you are failing. In psychology, there is something called “Attachment Theory,” the study of personality development and relationships. It has shown us that early on in development (before we even can remember), we establish internal stories about the world, others and ourselves. These stories impact how we relate; what parts of ourselves we show to others and what parts we keep hidden; when we reach out and how we reach out—these are all shaped by our attachment stories. If you’re having a hard time connecting with your teen, it may have something to do with how your attachment story is fitting (or not fitting) with theirs.

Roughly between six and eighteen months the number one job of the brain, in terms of personality development, is to take in and consolidate all of the moments of need and response an infant has (all the times they need changing, to be played with, to sleep, to eat, to be soothed, cuddled, etc.). These moments along with the responses their cues get are cataloged and mashed together in an effort to create a template of assumptions about topics like: Is the world safe? Will others be there for me? What am I worth? It’s like our brain says, “I can’t analyze every relational moment throughout life to see if it’s safe or not, so I’m going to take the first set of experiences and go off of those.” These become what Attachment Theory calls our inner working models (but we’ll just call them our “lenses”) and they are laid down in our memory before we have words (the left hemisphere of the brain develops later than the right) making these assumptions that guide our relational behaviors unconsciously.

These lenses move us to a certain style of relating. This is called our attachment style. Attachment styles were observed and understood in the sixties and seventies through a series of research studies with mothers and infants done by an American psychologist named Mary Ainsworth among others. There are four basic attachment styles: secure, anxious/ambivalent, avoidant/dismissive and fearful/disorganized.

Secure means that a person naturally operates out of trust. They assume others will be there for them and they for others. They don’t worry about being abandoned or burdensome much and they allow their emotions to move them towards others when they feel them (i.e. when they’re sad they naturally seek others for comfort).

Anxious/Ambivalent means a person naturally operates out of wanting and trying to trust but constantly fearing they’d be foolish to trust. They know people can be rewarding but that they also believe people abandon you. So they hyperactivate their attachment system (a survival system in our brain) to remain vigil for any chance of being let down. They like to be close to others but also quickly fear rejection and consequently are often stressed. Their anxiety can help them stay close to people but can also sometimes push people away.

Avoidant/Dismissive means a person naturally operates out of distrust. They assume others will not be there for them if they were to truly open up, especially emotionally. They tend to live more in their heads and be disconnected from feelings. However, they range in their ability to shut down their feelings based on their genetics and their earliest experiences. Some people can push their feelings down very effectively and not blow up or show/feel emotion often at all. Some people present as laid back but can blow up quickly if pushed. There is a range.

Disorganized/Fearful means a person naturally operates out of equal parts trust and distrust. They feel the desire for people strongly but they also simultaneously fear people for in their brain closeness equals pain (this is a trauma reaction). So they often “fight” and “flight” at the same time giving mixed messages of “come here, get away.” Or they show signs of checking out, going “deer in the head lights” when in need of others.

All three insecure styles (anxious/avoidant/fearful) are relational strategies developed to a) protect the person from being hurt again and b) signal to those around them what they need. The second piece, communication, can often be very cryptic. For example, in my experience, children who act much more mature than their age are usually feeling insecure on the inside and compensate by pleasing the adults around them with adult-like behavior (something usually made possible by the child’s high intelligence). This could be understood as the child signaling to the world that they need more emotionally.

Lenses and Attachment Styles develop out of a combination of genetics (how sensitive a child is, etc.) and environment (how much a parent is able to tune in, tolerate and respond). Sometimes, really sensitive children are born to parents who are unable to tune in or tolerate the raw emotion of the child because of their own genetics and story, or visa versa. This often leads to a bad fit in which the child really is too much for the parent or the parent is really too much for the child and both struggle to relate to and love each other. This is an unfortunate phenomenon but one that is understandable and best seen with much grace for both sides. It also is a reason that youth ministry can be so vital for many families. Having a separate community of peers and adults that can offer a type of connection that is hard to find at home can be a blessing.

Research and my clinical experience suggest attachment stories and their connected relational strategies are hard to change, but change is possible—if not in whole, in part. It takes loving relationship, community help, time, hard work and ideally lots of prayers. The ability of our brains to change is, in my opinion, a testament to God’s ever moving redemption—a small sign built into the DNA of creation to point to a loving Creator who has bestowed hope in the deepest of places. We invite you to come explore this with us this year.

I would love to meet with you and your family to talk more about your concerns or needs. Feel free to visit our webpage at analogcounseling.com.

Aaron Mitchum is a Licensed Professional Counselor. Visit www.analogcounseling.com to find information about Aaron’s practice.

*Names have been changed to protect confidentiality.

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