How Life Adjustments Effect Parental Attachment and Adolescent Emotional Health

Jacqueline Orcutt, Amy Harger

As individuals, we encounter many different circumstances that nurture, challenge, hurt and strengthen us. The birth of a new child, relocation, loss, illness and divorce thrust parents and students into new roles with a myriad of new expectations. If you or your student have recently encountered any changes such as these, take a moment to pause and consider how those adjustments have impacted you. Adjusting is going to take time. After all, the DSM-V (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Edition 5) gives a 3-6 month period for an adjustment disorder diagnosis, so it is okay to give yourself that time or more as well. 

Too often we encounter difficult life moments under extenuating circumstances with little to no resolve. It is important to consider that “the research shows that if you’ve had really difficult times in the past and haven’t taken the time to make sense of what’s happened to you and what’s shaped your development, that’s going to compromise your child’s development.” We are resilient beings when given the right tools. Research by psychologists Dr. Michelle Tugade and Dr. Barbara Fredrickson (2004) shows that a three-to-one ratio of positive to negative thoughts strengthens and maintains our resiliency (1). Resilience gives us the ability to overcome obstacles, making us better adapted to adjust to change.  

Dr. Dan Siegel, a clinical professor of psychiatry at the UCLA School of Medicine and Executive Director of the Mindsight Institute, explains how brain anatomy and specifically the role of the pre-frontal cortex (PFC) are responsible for integrating all other parts of the brain to help us be emotionally balanced and self-aware (2). This includes helping us be “responsive instead of reactive, intentional with our bodies, empathic and intuitive” (3). Research has demonstrated that the PFC is reinforced in children and adolescents who have secure patterns of attachment (2). 

How our children relate to us as parents during times of stress and change shapes the structure of their brains, which in turn impacts them socially, emotionally and physically. Dr. Dan Siegel reminds us that we can foster secure attachment if we remember and practice the 4 “S”s. Our children need to be Seen, Safe, Soothed and Secure.

4 Essences of Attachment

Seen

This is not seeing with the eyes. It means perceiving them deeply and empathically-sensing the mind behind the behavior, with what Dr. Siegal calls “mindsight.”

Safe

We avoid actions and responses that frighten or hurt them.

Soothe

We help them deal with difficult emotions or situations.

Secure

We help them develop an internalized sense of well-being.

If you find that you and your child are both overwhelmed by the changes that you have recently encountered, consider whether your emotional connection has been weakened.  Perhaps the life adjustments (loss or trauma) and unresolved emotional baggage we carry has caused inherited weaknesses in your connection. Dr. Dan Siegal explains “the key for us as parents is to develop a coherent narrative of our own upbringing” (2). Can you look inward to consider what you have been through and how you have healed?  Are certain aspects holding you back from having the relationship you have always envisioned with your child? 

There are helpful steps you can take to learn healthier patterns of interacting with your child. One helpful strategy is to journal for at least a few weeks to look for patterns in your relationship. Catherine Wilson suggests asking yourself, “What did you think you learned about relationships from your parents?” If you need encouragement or ideas to help improve your connection with your child, we built a chart of activities that you or your family can do together or individually. This chart is not all-inclusive, so you have the opportunity to express yourself.

🧠 Healthy Parenting Tip from Dr. Dan Siegel

“Connect and Redirect” 

When our kids are in a “right brain” state, dominated by emotion or physicality, trying to address them in a “left brain” mode with words and reason will not work. We need to first connect emotionally, using touch, tone, facial expressions, gestures, eye contact, and appropriate intensity to show them they are “seen.” When their right brain state feels “met,” we can redirect with our left brain tools which include planning what to do next or clarifying boundaries (3). 

Source:

  1. Tugade, M. M., & Fredrickson, B. L. (2004). Resilient individuals use positive emotions to bounce back from negative emotional experiences. Journal of personality and social psychology, 86(2), 320–333. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-3514.86.2.320

  2. Wilson, C. (2013). How parental attachment determines a child's Emotional health. Focus on the Family. Retrieved November 18, 2021, from https://www.focusonthefamily.ca/content/how-parental-attachment-determines-a-childs-emotional-health. 
  3. Ingham , F. (2013, December 30). The four S's of parenting: Dan Siegel's whole-brain child. ParentMap. Retrieved November 18, 2021, from https://www.parentmap.com/article/the-four-ss-of-parenting-dan-siegels-whole-brain-child. 

The first 20 students to complete at least 5 activities with their parent/caregiver/family (1 a day) and bring this chart back to the Wellness Center wins a prize!

Exercise

Protective Barrier: Imagine you are in your favorite place, with your favorite people, doing your favorite thing

Write a song or poem

Stretch or Do yoga

Make a collage of your favorite things

Talk about your favorite memory

Write down what your strengths and talents are

Journal

5-4-3-2-1: List 5 things you can see, 4 things you can feel, 3 things you can hear, 2 things you can smell, and 1 thing you can taste

Teach each other dance moves

Draw or Paint

Go on a 10 minute walk

4 Square Breathing: Breathe in for 4 seconds, hold for 4 seconds, breathe out for 4 seconds, hold for 4 seconds, repeat

Make a list of things you are grateful for

Share each other's musical playlists

Eat a meal together

Try to get at least 9 hours of sleep (CDC’s recommendation for teens)

Your choice: ______________________________________________

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