Attachment and Detachment Parenting of Adolescents

Holding the child close is easier than letting the adolescent go

Posted Apr 22, 2013

Much has been written about the importance of human attachment in a child’s early years stemming from the original work of psychiatrist John Bowlby with displaced children in the aftermath of WWII. He focused attention on the importance of infant and childhood bonding to a parent or parental figure in order for trust in a secure dependence to be established.

‘Basic trust’ psychologist Erik Erikson called it a few years later in his book, “Childhood and Society” (1950), in which he suggested how a founding sense of interpersonal trust provides a solid platform for older development that follows.

Although I believe in the primary importance of ATTACHMENT PARENTING during the childhood years (up to ages 8 – 9) and all the ways parents must hold a child close for reliance on a secure dependence to be established; I equally believe in the importance DETACHMENT PARENTING during the adolescent years (starting ages 9 – 13) and all the ways parents must let the teenager go for a confident independence to grow.

Often very good at becoming an integral part of the child’s life (encouraged by a popular culture that currently weighs in on the side of parental engagement), highly attached parents of children can have a devil of a time not excessively holding on, hovering over, and helping out in adolescence when the time for more parental detachment arrives. This is why their attachment role during childhood (holding on and holding close) is often easier to discharge for parents than their detachment role in adolescence (letting go and letting happen.) But without adequate parental detachment during the teenage years, the twin goals of adolescence – developing individuality for identity and responsibility for independence – are very difficult to accomplish. Letting go is done through parental preparation, permission, and acceptance, these last two hardest of all.

Detachment as PERMISSION can be a painful process for parents as they:

• increasingly allow more individual responsibility to the adolescent (creating greater risk of personal freedom),

• increasingly allow more expression of individuality in the adolescent (tolerating more diversity in their relationship),

• increasingly allow the adolescent to direct and lead his or her life (creating a youthful agenda that may compete or conflict with their own.)

Discipline also changes as attachment parenting of the child gives way to detachment parenting of the adolescent. After an infraction by the child, parents may scold and punish: “You shouldn’t have done that! You will be punished for what you did!” That approach works less well with the adolescent, already detaching himself, who knows he is no longer operating in the age of command (childhood), but has now entered the age of consent (adolescence) where parental control depends of teenage cooperation (“You can’t make me or stop me unless I agree!”) So now the parental criticism is answered defensively while any punishment given can incur adolescent punishment of parents in return: “See if I talk to you anytime soon!”

Detachment as ACCEPTANCE can be a painful process for parents. Consider the attachment to detachment shift parents must start making when the child becomes adolescent.

• Parents have to let go some life ownership they felt with the child, “We are responsible for you and regulating your actions;” to “We accept that you make your own decisions and that you must deal with the consequences.”

• Parents have to let go some personal identity they controlled with the child, "You must conduct yourself as a member of this family;” to “We accept that you must become your own person.”

• Parents have to let go some life agenda they had for the child, “We determine the direction you take;” to “We accept that you must set your own course through life.”

Letting go through permission and acceptance can both be painful. Now parents feel less in control of the child, they feel less similarity with the child, and they feel less in charge of the child’s trajectory. And now the older adolescent pays the price of her independence.  When parentsl lets go she must learn to live with: “I have to decide for myself, I have to define myself, I have to direct myself.” For both parent and adolescent, detachment can be an emotionally costly process.

Of course, toward the last stage of adolescence, Trial Independence (18-23), society makes parental detachment more necessary to do. When the older adolescent reaches that transformative age of eighteen and feels impelled to charge ahead despite parental opposition, parents are forced to detach in the face of legal freedoms now granted by society.

Reaching her or his “majority,” for example, the young person no longer needs parental permission to work at a job, to marry, to join the military. For any legal infractions, the adolescence will now be charged as an “adult,” not a “juvenile” (when infractions could sometimes be expunged.) In addition, not only has the adolescent reached voting age, he or she can legally contract for some obligations, and can undertake credit card debt (either with proof of income or with an over age 21 co-signee.)

Feeling empowered by this coming “of age,” an older teenager can test her or his new standing by taking new social, physical, employment, and economic risks to mark this new degree of independence and the freedom that it brings. “It’s my choice to join the military; it’s not up to you!” “You don’t get to see my grades, unless I show you. They belong to me!” “I can work where I want to.” “I can get a tattoo or have my body pierced and there’s no law against it!” Although I have seen no descriptive research to support this, I suspect a significant part of tattoo parlor business comes from young people wanting to mark their bodies to mark the occasion of their turning age 18.

Against such a “majority” push for more independence, parents must detach, letting go what is no longer theirs to control. Best to do so with care by not contesting the teenager’s power of choice, but informing that choice as best they can by still addressing possibilities and precautions. So, for example, to celebrate reaching her majority, their daughter and her older boyfriend have decided to take a romantic weekend getaway. Now parents speak up for what they believe is in her best interests. After having expressed their concerns about the dangers of treating this relationship more seriously than both young people may be emotionally ready, the parents move on to the likelihood of sexual intercourse and what contraceptive protections the couple might be advised to use, reminding her that effective use partly depends upon substance sobriety. Detaching with care, the parent can still be “there” in ways that matter, in this case offering older advice that the more “adult” adolescent may find helpful to keep in mind. 

Although attachment to the child is primary, detachment with the adolescent is also essential to do. In both cases, the matter at issue is building trust. In infancy and childhood, through attachment, parents want the child to trust in dependence on them. In adolescence, through parental detachment, parents want the adolescent to learn to trust in dependence on self. This is a major part of the challenge of parenting adolescents -- gradually holding on less and letting go more, and knowing when it is wise to do so.

At this more complicated adolescent time, the young person needs to know that parental detachment to foster independence is neither an expression of parental desertion nor abandonment of parental love. While daring to let go, parents still hold fast to their commitment of continuing to care, as well as being there to talk to as needs arise.

For more information about parenting adolescents, see my book, "SURVIVING YOUR CHILD'S ADOLESCENCE" (Wiley, 2013.)

Next week's entry: When Parents Should Interfere in Adolescent Troubles