Help! My teenager is falling apart, out of the blue.

This is the first of a series of blog and newsletter posts I am writing for Youthfront. See more at https://youthfront.com.

Photo by pixelheadphoto/iStock / Getty Images
Photo by pixelheadphoto/iStock / Getty Images

A PROBLEM
I often see teenagers in my practice who are struggling with feeling insecure yet can function at a high level (i.e. They can go to school, do extra curricular activities, make and maintain meaningful friendships, grades are good enough, etc.). So it’s hard to see the pain they’re in until something tips them over the edge and a symptom slips out. This might be an emotional breakdown, a drop in grades, a devious behavior that is out of character, a pulling away from friends and family, etc. The parents are usually surprised at the behavior and understandably alarmed. Efforts quickly get mobilized to find and fix the “problem”. In my experience though these moments have less to do with there being a “problem” with the teen as much as there is a healthy need that's being masked.

A REASON
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 catalogued 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? and What am I worth? It’s like our brain says, “I can’t assess every relational moment through out 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 unconscious.

These lenses move us to a certain style of relating. This is called our attachment style. Attachment styles were first 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, the communication, can often be very cryptic. For example, in my experience children who act much more mature than they are usually feel 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 both adapting to the confines of the environment andsignaling to the world that they need more emotionally.

Lenses and Attachment Styles develop out of a combination of genetics (how sensitive and assertive 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. Which 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.

A STORY

All clinical illustrations are fictional composites of actual cases so to protect identity and confidentiality.

Jenny came to see me because she was struggling in middle school. School had gone from a place where she was doing increasingly well to a place she hated to go. Jenny had begun to have panic attacks and weekly she came home crying. Jenny had become very depressed and her parents did not know what to do. As she and I and her family and I talked, it became clear that there was a part of her on the inside that had been hidden. A part that when felt could be very painful for Jenny. For it left her feeling insecure and self loathing. Though she had been a quiet kid (at least compared to her siblings) for the most part on the outside she had been bright and funny. She reported that up ‘till now she would compensate when she felt these feelings by retreating and spending time alone. However, circumstances at school were triggering Jenny and she felt helpless to escape her feelings.  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 were far from dinner table topics! When Jenny started showing signs of having big emotions herself as a toddler her mother intuitively moved to a strong behavior management regiment. This helped the house calm down and brought needed stability. When these emotions starting surfacing again in her daughter’s adolescence she sought a similar method to help Jenny diminish her emotions again. In her loving attempt to help her manage a tough situation she encouraged Jenny to be mentally tough and not think about it. Jenny tried her mother’s advice but this did not fit her personality and she felt like a failure. One day when we were sitting together Jenny was able to tell her mom that she was unsure about how her mom feels about her when she’s feeling so insecure. That she wasn’t sure if her mother was embarrassed by her. Jenny’s question was a brave one and one that signaled her desire to bring her whole self into her relationship with her mom. This allowed a conversation to open up with her mom about feelings. The very thing needed for change to even be possible.


A REMEDY

The research and my clinical experience suggests that lenses and attachment styles are hard to change but that change is possible. It takes loving relationship, time, hard work and ideally lots of prayer. 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. Over the next year we will be looking at children/teens and their families and trying to understand development and what are some ways to work with development and not against it. Whether we are looking at how to have empathy with your kids, tuning into primary emotions, setting limits, curbing reckless behavior, repairing after blowups, etc. we will be doing it with development and attachment in mind. Perfection will not be the goal, good enough will be. In a world that is permeated with anxiety about being perfect (a pervasive anxious attachment style?) we will be talking about a normality that has room for success and the scars of the cross. I look forward to it!