Sunday, March 25, 2007

The Teen Attachment Cycle

Anyone who has had pre-adoption training has heard about bonding and the attachment cycle. They have heard about how a baby has a need and expresses that need and how the parent meets the need and trust is developed.

This weekend, amidst the ups and downs of parenting a bunch of teens, I realized that teens and preteens reenact the attachment cycle over and over again with a slight twist. Because their physical needs are now being met, they don’t have to worry about them any more. So instead, they test their attachment every time they make a mistake.

So, the teen or preteen screws up. It can be something small, like manipulating by not telling the truth, or as big as getting arrested. Immediately, they go into a period not accepting responsibility and taking it out on their caregiver. This can take many forms. In my family alone, each person’s response is different. For one, it means sulking and whining. For another it means continuous arguing and not relenting. For another it means blaming me for the way I handled the confrontation. For another it means slamming doors, kicking walls. For another it means getting very angry at the person that reported their wrongdoing. I think you get the picture.

This part of the cycle can last for minutes or for days. It is a relentless unwillingness to accept responsibility, apologize and move on. It takes many forms.

Finally, though, the teen, often when they need something, must rebuild the relationship and move on. So they apologize. And, we forgive. And then they realize, “Hey, they really do love me! They’re not giving up! I didn’t screw up so bad that I can’t be forgiven!” Trust is once again rebuilt and they are calm again . . . until the next time they make a mistake and it starts all over again.

If you have heard the song “We Live” by Superchick you know that the song has a circular melody. It keeps repeating itself just as the pattern of forgiving teens must repeat itself in the lives of adoptive parents.

We live, we love, we forgive and never give up
Cuz the days we are given are gifts from above
And today we remember to live and to love

Those lyrics have been going around and around in my head as I have gone around and around the teen attachment cycle these last days. The key is to not get caught up in the myriad details, but to simply remember that each day is a test.

My kids are saying to me, “will you continue to love me no matter what? Will you accept me even if I don’t please you? Are you really there forever?”

And so just as a new parent dances the dance of attachment with a newborn, we who adopt older children must dance the attachment dance with teens. Just as a new parent is exhausted with the strain of caring for a newborn, we are exhausted with the stress of going through the cycle of blame and hatred day after day. But just as the parent of a newborn cannot get into the mode of blaming a newborn for expressing their need for a clean diaper or a bottle, neither can we get caught up in blaming an adopted teen for expressing their need for unconditional commitment and love. And finally, we cannot have expectations that are too high for our teens just like a parent of a newborn cannot demand, after six months, that the baby start feeding themselves or changing their open diaper.

I don’t know how old a child has to be before they fully believe we will love them forever. I have heard it said that it is double the number of years they lived without a family (thus, an 11 year old will feel like a member of the family when he/she hits 22). But I think for each kid it may be different, and for some people, it may take a lifetime.

For several years I think I was trying to stop the cycle. I was trying to prevent it from beginning by keeping my kids from making mistakes, hoping to avoid the trip around the forgiveness merry go round, especially the blaming, raging part. But I’m coming to realizes that I’d have no more luck getting a newborn to stop needing to be fed and changed.

And so I’ll keep on keeping on, recognizing one more piece of the puzzle that helps me to patiently do an exhausting tasks with results that are long in coming.

And I will remind myself that none of my teens chose to enter the world as a baby that nobody picked up and held. They didn’t choose to have birthparents who were addicted to drugs or alcohol. They didn’t ask to scream and cry and not be cuddled, changed and fed. They simply arrived on this earth like we all did and didn’t get what they should have. And so it’s my responsibility to make it up to them. And what I wasn’t there to do with bottles and clean diapers, I’ll do with enduring their rage and forgiving them again and again until they discover that they are worthy of love and that there is someone committed to them forever.


Mongoose said...

Can you adopt my boyfriend? LOL He's 40 and never had the unconditional love etc... So he's doing exactly what you're doing, except to ME. And I didn't volunteer to love him forever - or at all. I just can't get rid of him because he becomes dangerous. My heart goes out to him, but I don't want to deal with his problems. I think he should go live with his mother and take it out on her until he feels better... She made him that way, not me.

Anyway, this isn't about my pity party. But on behalf of your kids' girlfriends who won't have to deal with years of being bullied by a mentally ill person who's determined to control their every thought, thanks for taking the time now. :)

Rebecca said...

This is a great article. It has the ring of truth. This would be wonderful to have as part of training and then to revisit throughout the years. I wonder, have you shared this with any of your older children? If so, what do they think of it?