Attachment Parenting Works for Teens, Too
Attachment parenting is often thought of as an approach to parenting young children. Nurse practitioner, therapist, and coauthor of Mothering & Daughtering, Sil Reynolds, explains why it's vital to continue attachment parenting through the teen years.
You will be challenged for being close to your daughter—and not just by your daughter. You may also get the message from family, friends, and educators that you are hovering.
I know that my parents watched with some concern as they observed my hands-on approach to mothering. Their parenting style with me and my brothers in the 1970s, for better or worse, was very laissez-faire. Whenever we get looks or feedback or even jokes about our hands-on parenting style (some call it attachment parenting), we need to consult our own experience and intuition for guidance. Wouldn’t we, as teens, have loved such a reliable and connected relationship with our mothers? Today, backing up our experience and intuition is strong evidence from emerging research in family psychology and child development that supports all our efforts to stay close to our daughters, even in adolescence.
Over the past 50 years or so, psychological research has led to the creation of a new model for viewing our independent selves in relationship to others—in particular, to our families. For example, family systems theory, a theory originated by psychiatrist Dr. Murray Bowen, offers therapeutic techniques as well as a philosophy that searches for the causes of a behavior, not only in the individual but also in interactions among the members of a family. According to Dr. Bowen, individuals cannot be understood in isolation from one another, but rather as part of an emotional unit that is a family system. We are all interconnected and interdependent, and how we relate to everyone in our family system—our spouse, our parents, and even our siblings—can have a profound effect on our children.
In addition, current research in the quickly expanding field of neuroscience offers convincing data that parents and children grow together and affect each other’s neurobiology throughout their entire life span—a finding that emphasizes the need for healthy relations within the family. Children—and that means teenagers, too—don’t go through developmental changes by themselves; parents change with them. A mother and her daughter both grow and change together, though certainly the adolescent daughter’s growth is more dramatic (in more ways than one).
As a daughter grows from infant to child to teenager, we slowly but surely allow her greater sovereignty. Dr. Terri Apter points out that unfortunately, our mothering role is often seen in all-or-nothing terms. We raise a daughter, and then one day, we are supposed to let her go. We need to look to a newer version of our role based on a much, much older version of what is possible—an attachment bond between mothers and daughters that remains strong throughout our entire lives. Until our daughters are in their early twenties, it’s likely that we need to be the holders of this vision. While they are teenagers, our girls may not have the emotional maturity or clarity to even imagine a lifelong bond or to articulate their very real attachment needs.
Attachment parenting, a phrase coined by pediatrician William Sears, is a parenting philosophy based on the principles of attachment theory in developmental psychology. According to attachment theory, the child forms a strong emotional bond with caregivers during childhood, and this bond has lifelong consequences. Sensitive and emotionally available parenting helps the child form a secure attachment style that fosters a child’s socioemotional development and well-being. Over the years, attachment parenting has been co-opted, to some degree, by proponents of controversial techniques, and thus it is sometimes misunderstood and criticized.
Attachment Parenting International’s (API’s) Eight Principles of Parenting were laid out for the care of babies:2
1. Prepare for parenting
2. Feed with love and respect
3. Respond with sensitivity
4. Use nurturing touch
5. Ensure safe sleep, physically and emotionally
6. Provide consistent and loving care
7. Practice positive discipline
8. Strive for balance in personal and family life
Although these strategies for parenting will change from infancy to adolescence, the fundamentals remain the same. In addition, upon looking at this list, it should become obvious that we are being guided to parent in the instinctual behavior of our ancestors. It is important to remember that our infant’s—as well as our adolescent’s—attachment instinct is her biological bond to us. Attachment is a biological system developed through evolution to protect not only our children but also our bonds with our children.
A unique attribute of humans has been to extend this attachment and parental investment through adolescence. Brain scientists and social anthropologists now deem this strategy as being responsible for our long-term survival and success as a species. Furthermore, the human brain isn’t fully developed until we are in our mid-twenties!
I am sure that one reason attachment parenting has become so popular in our culture is that we have lost touch with some of our most basic instincts—instincts that came naturally to our ancestors. We have to reclaim those instincts and perhaps relearn them. As you can see from these eight principles, attachment parenting is not radical parenting. Rather, it is natural parenting. Although this list is more focused on the needs of an infant or child, every principle is a useful reminder to us as we raise our adolescent daughters.
Unlike the research data on babies’ and children’s attachment needs, data on teenagers’ attachment needs hasn’t made it into mainstream understanding. The attachment parenting philosophies of Dr. Sears and Dr. Harvey Karp have made these wise pediatricians household names. Sears’s invaluable work put the school of attachment parenting on the map of parenting literature in the 1980s, and Karp’s attunement techniques have helped millions of exhausted and distressed parents learn to tend to their babies’ and toddlers’ needs and make them the happiest babies and toddlers on the block. But what knowledge can fill the void that still exists for most of us about how we can continue tending to our children’s very real emotional needs into the teenage years?
Dr. Terri Apter’s research on mothers and their adolescent daughters teaches us that the kind of emotionally attuned parenting described by Drs. Sears and Karp is quite similar to how we can effectively mother our teenage daughters.3 This does not mean we need to carry our adolescent daughters around with us in baby slings! It does mean that we need to safeguard and nourish strong connections with our children. According to API, “Attachment parenting challenges us to treat our children with kindness, respect, and dignity and to model in our interactions with them the way we’d like them to interact with others.”4 That’s exactly what we want to do as the parents of our teenagers.
The fundamental principles of mothering well don’t need to change when our daughter becomes a teenager. In 1990, Dr. Apter’s Altered Loves, a groundbreaking book devoted to understanding mother-daughter relationships during adolescence, was published to critical acclaim. Backed by her meticulous research regarding mothers and their adolescent daughters in action, she makes this essential point in her 2004 book, You Don’t Really Know Me:
Rather than asking how daughters become independent and separate, it is more to the point to ask how daughters retain their attachment to their mothers as they themselves grow and change. The "task" of adolescence is not to sever the closeness, but to alter it.5
On the other side of adolescence is an altered love between mother and daughter, and this love can be as deep and as satisfying as it ever was, perhaps even more so. I notice this in my relationship with my daughter Eliza, who now meets me in the middle of our exchanges with an attunement and respect that rivals mine. I find that I don’t linger in mourning over the loss of all the other Elizas that have come and gone along the way—that yummy baby, the thoroughly sweet six-year-old, the bold and self-possessed nine-year-old, the marvelous and moody teenager, and all the Elizas in between—because I now find myself in relationship with a mature, compassionate, and self-confident young woman who is still my daughter. She and I are both nourished by this new woman-to-woman rapport, with all the richness and change that align with it.