Ep 151: Is Your Teen’s Attachment Style Causing Problems?

Episode Summary

Peter Lovenheim, author of The Attachment Effect, shares insight into how attachment styles might be at the root of a distant or dramatic teen–or any relationship problems for that matter! Learn your teen’s attachment style to understand how to prepare them for adulthood.

Show NotesInterview TranscriptGuest Bio

Full Show Notes

It’s important for our teens to connect to others. When we send our kids off into the world, we want to know that they’ll be able to bond with friends, work associates, and romantic partners. Since we won’t be around all the time, we hope that they can find nourishing, fulfilling relationships with other people! But some young adults aren’t quite able to form those types of connections. They become too clingy or distant, trying to force people in or push people out. Not every teen has the capability to maintain healthy relationships!

And while the teen years are influential, attachment styles are usually developed in the first three years of a child’s life–meaning it’s not always easy to help teens who are struggling to form strong bonds. But if we can educate ourselves and our families about the psychology of attachment, we can guide teens to recognize their own patterns. If we give them the ability to analyze their own behavior, they can work towards creating the positive friendships and romantic relationships they deserve.

In this week’s episode, we’re talking to Peter Lovenheim, author of The Attachment Effect: Exploring the Powerful Ways Our Earliest Bond Shapes Our Relationships and Lives. Peter is a journalist and author who dedicated six years to interviewing experts and scouring publications to understand the ins and outs of how we bond to one another! Now, he’s here to touch on some fascinating facts about relationships, attachments, and more.

Today, we’re getting into the different styles of attachment: secure, avoidant, and anxious–and talking about what parents can do to help teens who have difficulty with friendships or early romantic partners. Pate and I are also sharing the strengths and weaknesses of each kind of attachment, and why it can be so important to help teens discover their own personal tendencies when it comes to forming bonds with others.

The Three Different Attachment Styles

Everyone is unique and there are so many factors that determine the nature of a relationship, but Peter defines three different types of attachment we can use to help define and understand our connections to others: secure, avoidant, and anxious. These patterns of bonding are created when we’re infants, but continue to affect us throughout our adult lives. About 95% of us can be grouped into one of these three categories.

It all depends on our relationship with our primary caregiver during our first three years of life, says Peter. Those who receive protection and care from a trusted adult typically develop a secure attachment style. These folks are able to create and maintain healthy boundaries with friends and partners, experience trust and intimacy, and handle setbacks in life with confidence and self assurance. About 55% of people fall into this category, says Peter.

But someone who experiences little to no affection or protection from a caregiver might find themselves with an avoidant attachment style. Instead of comfortably being vulnerable with others, people with avoidant attachment patterns shy away from intimacy, says Peter. They are often so self sufficient that they won’t let anyone else close to them. Those who receive inconsistent care can develop an anxious attachment style. This means they might feel nervous that their partner will leave or experience a constant rollercoaster of feeling desired and unwanted, Peter explains.

In the episode, Peter and I discuss how even if a parent gives plenty of time and attention to their child, the child can still develop anxious or avoidant patterns of attachment. It’s not black and white! He insists that parents shouldn’t be angry with themselves if their teen exhibits traits of insecure attachment. Instead, he suggests that they help teens understand their own patterns so they can live their best lives.

Helping Teens Get In Tune with Their Attachment 

If you want your teen to form healthy relationships, helping them define their attachment patterns is a good place to start! Peter suggests they take a simple, five minute attachment quiz, widely available online, or talk to a psychologist for a professional diagnosis. Once you figure out if a teen has secure, anxious, or avoidant tendencies, there are so many ways you can use that information to help them, says Peter. 

Even though these patterns are developed in early life, they often start to reveal themselves around the teen years when kids have their first romantic relationships or serious, long term friendships. By helping teens understand attachment patterns, they’ll be able to understand why they broke up with their boyfriend for the sixth time this week or why their latest BFF is being sooooo dramatic!

Plus, these styles of attachment factor into other parts of teenage  life, says Peter. For a teen with an avoidant attachment style, playing on a soccer team with a bunch of their peers can be pretty difficult. These teens are often better suited to track and field or swimming, where they can make the most of their independence.

Peter and I get into a conversation about dating, and he gives tips for how teens or parents can figure out someone’s attachment style from just a first date. Interestingly, we also discuss how attachment has changed in the 21st century, and why we should be cautious about the role technology plays in our relationships with our kids.

Attachment in the Digital Age

As a parent raising a kid in today’s tech-filled world, you might be nervous about your teen getting too much screen time. Although smartphones and laptops allow us to connect with those who are miles away or even meet new friends online, they can also isolate us from each other. Peter and I discuss a recent study which found that kids today are twice as likely to have anxious or avoidant attachment styles…and Peter suspects that our digital gadgets have something to do with it.

For a kid to develop secure attachment, says Peter, they have to have to have more than just time with a parent–that parent must be attuned to that kid’s every behavioral tendency. His worry for today’s parents is that phones, TVs and computers might be acting as a distracting force, keeping that attunement from developing between kids and parents. In the episode, we discuss how you can guide your kids towards healthy attachment, even if your devices tend to get in the way.

In the end, Peter says parents shouldn’t beat themselves up if they notice that their teen has some trouble with attachment. There are so many factors–everything from birth order to economics affects a child’s attachment patterns. Peter’s advice is to help kids become self aware and understand how they act in relationships or how they respond to setbacks in life. If they can do this, they’ll have a brighter future ahead of them.

In the Episode….

Peter’s fascinating findings about attachment are helpful to any parent who wants to help their kid form healthier relationships. On top of the topics discussed above, we cover:

  • How to change your teen’s attachment style
  • The strengths of different attachment styles
  • The dangerous anxious-avoidant relationship cycle–and how to arm your teen against it
  • Why more and more young people are turning out insecure-avoidant

If you enjoyed today’s episode and you want to hear more from Peter, check out his website, peterlovenheim.com! Thanks for listening, and we’ll see you next week.

Complete Interview Transcript

Andy: I read your book, The Attachment Effect: Exploring The Powerful Ways Our Earliest Bond Shapes Our Relationships And Lives. And it’s really about how powerfully that first year of life kind of set us up with certain patterns, to think in certain ways and act in certain ways in our relationships. And I found this book fascinating. You talking here about sort of your journey into this topic, I wonder if you could talk a little bit about that. What interested you about attachment?

Peter: Okay. After a 20-year marriage, I was single again and dating, in a relationship, but this relationship was somewhat problematic. It had a lot of ups and downs, makeups and breakups. It was tempestuous. And I had never experienced that before. And I was curious why that was. Then, one day, I was visiting my daughter at her college dormitory. She was a Psych major. I was just leafing through her Psych 101 textbook and came across this thing called attachment theory, which I had never heard of. In one section of the text, the authors described what happens when two people with different attachment styles try to form a couple. And it said, in that particular case, the couple can experience many makeups and breakups, and the relationship can be tempestuous. And it went on to describe to a T what I had been experiencing.

Peter: I was intrigued and I wanted to learn more. And for the next six years, I spent talking to experts in attachment worldwide, reading many, many studies, and I found it so compelling and so important that I felt I wanted to share this with other people who were also not scientists. I’m not a scientist, not a psychologist. But, that’s how I got into the subject of attachment.

Andy: And you really point out in this book all of these connections where attachment styles, how they can play out in politics and in the workplace and in our families, and in really just every aspect of our lives. You start to see when you read this book these patterns over and over again. And I think it’s really powerful. It’s really eye-opening. And as parents, I think it’s really, really important information to know our listeners, our parents of teenagers. I think that a lot of this stuff I read in this book feels like really, really relevant to what I hear parents talking about in their families and what they’re going through with their teenagers. And specifically, you talk about, there’s like these three different styles of attachment. What are those? And I guess then there’s a fourth style that’s just more rare, but can be pretty problematic as well.

Peter: Right. The three basic attachment styles, we call secure attachment, and then two forms of insecure called insecure avoidant and insecure anxious. These three types define about 95% of us. Maybe I should back up here and just put in a nutshell what is attachment theory. Here’s the core concept. That as human beings, we are born helpless and we are hardwired from birth therefore to seek out and attached to a competent, reliable caregiver for protection. Because, without that, we won’t survive. The quality of that attachment, whether it’s secure and stable, or insecure, or even absent, actually shapes the developing brain and will determine how that individual behaves throughout life in regard to issues like trust, relationship stability, and resilience, that is reaction to loss, threats, or setbacks. That earliest attachment, and it’s usually with the mother. It doesn’t have to be gender specific. It can be with the father, with a grandparent, with another caregiver, but the quality of that first relationship from birth to maybe up to age three is going to determine a very important piece of that individual’s personality going forward throughout life.

Andy: Yeah, and so that the experiences that we have during those first years with that caregiver sort of shape us in some way. How do we know this isn’t like genetic? How do we know this is not something that we’re born to behave in certain ways?

Peter: No, I mean, that’s a good question. But, there have been many studies showing that even when we account for genetics and environment, attachment plays a key role. I mean, attachment isn’t everything. There are other that influences our personality. You mentioned genetics, temperament, home environment. But, attachment is a very big thing. People in science who study this and work with it, I can illustrate in an odd way how much they value attachment theory, because in the entire world, there are only two mountains that have been named after psychologists. And it’s not Freud, and it’s not Dr. Phil, or Dr. Ruth. The mountains are called Mount John Bowlby and Mount Mary Ainsworth. John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth were the two people who developed attachment theory back in around 1950, 1960s. And their colleagues in the field of psychology have honored them by naming mountains after them. That’s how significant it is.

Andy: So, how does it work then? What is it about that relationship with the primary caregiver that leads to the three different styles of attachment?

Peter: Well, it’s the infant’s experience during those first three years. If an infant experiences a loving, sensitive, stable relationship with the primary caregiver, again, that’s usually the mom, the studies show that that individual will grow up to have what we call secure attachment. In general, that individual will find it easy to trust other people, be comfortable with intimacy, and have resilience when faced with the normal setbacks in life. It could be illness, loss, injury, job loss, break up over relationship. Fortunately, about 55% of people come out of early childhood with a secure attachment. So, they get the big prize and they’re the ones who are most likely to enjoy long stable relationships throughout life. They make very good marriage partners, for example.

Peter: What about the others? If an infant does not experience a stable, secure attachment with its primary caregiver but instead there’s really no relationship, maybe there’s just nobody caring for this child regularly, maybe the kind of care is just not attuned to what the child needs at the time, that child will grow up with what we call an avoidant attachment. And that individual is likely to have difficulty trusting other people, does not feel comfortable with intimacy. In fact, doesn’t even see the whole point of relationships. They instead prides independence and self-reliance. About 25% of the population will have an avoidant attachment.

Peter: And then, the third one is insecure anxious attachment. That happens when the infant sometimes receives that sensitive, reliable care, and sometimes does not. They’re left in a limbo where they never know whether they’re going to get that kind of responsive care. And as an adult, that individual is going to crave being in a relationship. They feel like they’re not full unless they have a relationship with another person, and yet at the same time they find it difficult to trust that relationship. There’s always a kind of push-pull aspect to their relationships. And they also do not have resilience. If, for example, they experienced the breakup of a romantic relationship, they’re going to have a really hard time with that. They’re the ones that are going to fall apart. Similarly, if they lose a job, if they become ill, if some other loss is what they experience. Secure 55%, avoidant 25%, and that 15% is for insecure anxious.

Andy: Yeah. And so, I think all parents feel like, well, yeah, we did that. We did love, we’re loving. We’re great. We change all the diapers, and we put up with all the… We weren’t violent, so we should be secure, right? How is it only 50%?

Peter: Well, the problem is that it’s a little trickier than it sounds, because this is not about the amount of time we spend with our youngsters. It’s about the quality of that time and what researchers call attunement. The issue is, is the parent attuned to the needs of the infant at that moment? Sometimes, you’ll see a baby and you might perceive that that baby is tired and wants to be settled and quiet, but maybe the parent doesn’t perceive that, instead they’re bouncing the baby on their lap or jiggling things in front of the baby’s face. They’re feeding the baby when he’s not hungry. That’s not attunement. And that kind of childcare, consistently provided like that, will not produce a secure attachment.

Andy: So, some parents just kind of are better at tuning into their baby and knowing what their baby’s feeling and wanting, and other parents are just not as good at that.

Peter: Some parents do it intuitively, but other parents, if they become knowledgeable about the importance of attachment, they can learn to provide that type of care. I think that raising emotionally healthy children is about the most important thing any of us can do.

Andy: If you have a teenager who’s already kind of been through that first three years already, is there a way to figure out what their attachment type is right now based on just kind of what they went through during those first three years?

Peter: Well, I think that’s an excellent time for parents to try to figure out what their children’s attachment style is. You can’t do it by just thinking back, because memory is not reliable and we all have biases when we think about our own behaviors as parents.

Andy: Yeah, I’m going think I did a great job and they were secure.

Peter: Right.

Andy: Yeah, that’s great.

Peter: Right. But, there are ways of determining our own attachment style or our children’s attachment style. For very young children, like up to age three, there’s what’s called the Strange Situation, which is a laboratory test that is widely used with very young children. But for teens, there are probably two ways of measuring your teenager’s attachment style. One is a very simple five-minute quiz called the Attachment Quiz, in colloquial terms. I reproduced it in the back of my book, but it’s widely available online as well. You could ask your teenager to take the quiz, and it’ll give you a pretty rough but reliable sense of what their attachment style is. If you want something more reliable than that, the gold standard for measuring attachment in adults, including teens, is what’s called the Adult Attachment Interview. And this is a one-hour scripted interview that psychologists who are trained in this can do. And it will give you a very reliable reading of your teen’s attachment style.

Andy: How’s that going to help you? What are you going to do with this information once you know what your attachment style of your teenager is?

Peter: If I were a parent of a teenager, this information would give me a tremendously valuable information, because so many of the effects of early attachment actually kick in in the teen years for the first time. It’s when many people start forming their first romantic relationships. It’s when most teens start having best friends. It’s when teens are dealing with loss and setbacks for the first time. Maybe not getting into the college they want, maybe being left out of a sports team, maybe being broken up with by a good friend, or doing poorly in a school subject they care about. The teenage years is a great time to understand your teen’s attachment style.

Peter: And so, what do you do with the information? I mean, your question is a good one. I’ll give you an example. If I were to learn that my teenager had an insecure anxious attachment, that’s the one where they really crave relationships but don’t trust them, and they don’t do well with setbacks. If that was my teen’s attachment style, that would give me a very important tool in helping to support my son or daughter through some very difficult events that they may be facing.

Peter: For example, if my insecure anxious teen experienced a relationship breakup in high school, I would know not to simply say to my teen, “Oh, you’ll get over it. It’s not a big thing. It’s puppy love. There are many more fish in the sea.” Many of us heard that in high school, but that is not going to help my insecure anxious teen deal with this. Instead, I’d want to validate what they’re feeling, make clear I understand how painful that is, and spend more time with that teen until they got through the loss, because I know that they simply don’t have quite the level of resilience that another teen with a secure attachment might.

Andy: I like that. Yeah, so you’d want to work with them on their coping skills really specifically. And I wonder if you would try to encourage them to try more things out or do more things or to push them beyond their comfort zone a little bit, or is that not a good idea, because then they might get into situations that are…?

Peter: Yeah, I would not push an anxious teen too far beyond their comfort zone. That’s not how they’re going to grow. They will grow, but they’re going to grow from having a sense of security that I can give them as a responsive sensitive dad. Let me give you another example. Let’s say, I knew my teen had an insecure avoidant attachment.

Peter: That’s one where they don’t feel comfortable with intimacy. They much prefer to be independent and self-reliant. One of the things a lot of teens do is pick a sport to be involved in. If my teen was avoidant in terms of attachment, that would suggest to me that they would do better in a sport where they play on their own, rather than as a member of a team. I’d rather have them go out for singles tennis, let’s say, rather than basketball. I’d rather have them do a sport where they can be self-reliant, enjoy that independence, and not have to have relationships with five or 10 or 15 other teens, even just to participate in the team, because they’re not cut out for it.

About Peter Lovenheim

Peter Lovenheim is the author of The Attachment Effect, In the Neighborhood, Portrait of a Burger as a Young Calf, and three other books. His books have won a Barnes & Noble Discover Award and the First Annual Zócalo Public Square Book Prize. As a journalist, Lovenheim’s articles and essays have appeared in the New York Times, New York magazine, The Los Angeles Times, Parade, Politico, The Washington Post, and other publications. He is Washington Correspondent for the Rochester Beacon, an online source of news and commentary for his hometown of Rochester, NY.

He teaches narrative non-fiction at The Writers’ Center in Bethesda, MD and splits his time between Rochester, NY and Washington, DC.

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