Why Attachment Parenting Is for Children but not Adolescents

Attachment Parenting a child must change to Detachment Parenting an adolescent.

Posted Oct 12, 2014

Attachment Parenting is essential to raising children who can securely trust in their dependence on the support and guidance of parents. It can be counterproductive, however, when parenting adolescents who need Detachment Parenting and more freedom to grow so they can develop secure self-reliance to count upon.

Early Adolescence usually starts around ages 9 – 13. As the young person begins to separate from childhood, pushing against and pulling away from parental authority for more freedom of independence, that is usually the signal for detachment parenting to begin. 

During Attachment Parenting, the adults keep holding on to define choices that constitute Responsible Behavior. During Detachment Parenting, the adults start letting go and demanding increased accountability for choices (and dealing with consequences) to foster more Responsibility. Detachment Parenting is not for the faint of heart. After parenting a child, parenting an adolescent is usually harder to do.

Parents can sometimes get stuck in Attachment Parenting, holding on through traditional support, service, sheltering, and social control to stay as attached to their daughter or son in adolescence as they were in the young person’s childhood. When this occurs, they can risk holding back adolescent growth or at least they can make it harder for the young person to let go of them and learn to manage more self-sufficiently. For example, parents who hover over and continue to pet and play and use the same endearing terms with the adolescent as they did with the child can make acting older harder for the young person to do. “I’m not your little kid anymore, so stop treating me that way!”

The same can be true when the adolescent refuses to let go and detach from childhood dependence on parents – demanding to be given to, done for, and rescued, unwilling to detach from them. When old childhood help is forthcoming, it often protracts sense of cautiousness in the teenager instead of building confidence.

The transition from Attachment Parenting to Detachment Parenting can require a significant adult adjustment. Very roughly defined, consider what that contrast might feel like.


A CHILD                                 AN ADOLESCENT

Holding on----------------------------Letting go

Establishing dependence------------Fostering independence

Education by direction--------------Education by consequences

Commanding obedience-------------Working for consent

Managing decisions-------------------Coaching decisions

Rule-making---------------------------Responsibility giving

Keeping control-----------------------Releasing freedom

Requiring information----------------Requesting information

Judging conduct-----------------------Informing choices

Protecting from risk----------------- Exposing to risk

Being told enough---------------------Being less informed

Leading growth-------------------------Following growth

Feeling matched-----------------------Feeling mismatched

Feeling attached-----------------------Feeling connected

The trick in Detachment Parenting is managing to let go the old Attachment behaviors and still stay meaningfully Connected as the process of adolescence grows parent and teenager apart, as it is meant to do. I believe the best hope for an ongoing connection is created by continually giving the adolescent “choice points” by which I mean interactive opportunities for staying in positive contact with the parents. Maintaining this initiative requires active parenting; passive parenting won't get this connecting job done. 

When it comes to connecting, I think of five categories of choice. Parents keep Communicating (sharing and listening) with the teenager. Parents keep showing Concern (interest and empathy) with the teenager. Parents keep expressing Caring (valuing and loving) with the teenager. Parents keep offering Companionship (playing and working together) with the teenager. Parents keep expecting Cooperation (collaboration and consent) with the teenager.

The teenager’s intermittent refusal to engage with any of these initiatives is no excuse for parents to stop offering them. There needs to be this parental promise. “I will keep giving you openings to positively connect with me, whether at the moment you feel like accepting that offer or not. Should you refuse, I will not feel rejected, I will not feel hurt, I will not feel discouraged. I will not give up. I will keep reaching out to you on my side so you always have a positive opening to connect with me, even when, especially when, occasional hard times happen between us." 

If, because of too much conflict, too many problems, or too few rewards, parents break this commitment, they essentially abandon the young person. Now the teenager is at risk of reaching out for less trustworthy and reliable relationships to keep them feeling meaningfully connected and not alone.

To brave times of strain and distance with their adolescent, parents must continually offer positive choice points for engaging with them. Letting go and still remaining well connected is the challenge of Detachment Parenting.

For more about parenting your adolescent, see my book, “SURVIVING YOUR CHILD’S ADOLESCENCE,” (Wiley, 2013.) Information at:

Next week’s entry: Parenting Adolescents to Independence and the Sadness of Success