COVID has found a lot of ways to change how life has looked for us over the past three months. It’s restricted our calendars, stopped travel, and polarized us on subjects like racism and mask wearing. This new reality continues to bring out the best and worst in our neighbors and community.
Many families have been affected in ways they would never share publicly. Topics avoided around circumstances we’re experiencing that are mentally, emotionally and/or financially draining. And while I think there can be connection in being honest and vulnerable, not everyone will treat transparency respectfully so it’s no wonder we don’t want to open up.
I work with families who trust me about the challenges they are experiencing with their teenagers, because of this I know stress at home is high for a lot of people right now.
My passion is to support parents, not because I’m an expert, but because I spend a lot of time studying the topic and because I try to practice the lessons I learn every day with my own five kids. As we continue down the path of uncertainty, I would like to share some brain science and practical advice around the relationships you might be experiencing with your kids.
One of my favorite actual experts on the topic of teenagers is Dr. Dan Siegel who is a professor of clinical psychiatry at UCLA School of Medicine and the author of six parenting books. His latest, “The Power of Showing Up: How Parental Presence Shapes Who Our Kids Become and How Their Brains Get Wired,” is an excellent book about parent-child attachment and how focusing on the four S’s of attachment—safe, seen, soothed, secure—can help parents optimize child development.
When Dr. Siegel talks about the first S – SAFETY, that includes two things. It means protecting your child from the things that might harm him in the outside world, which can be tricky as our kids go through adolescence because their brain is rewiring and is more prone to risk taking.
Parents laugh when I say a cupcake literally tastes better to their fourteen-year-old than it does to them. During early adolescence (ages 10-15), all five senses are heightened which is why if your child tries drugs or alcohol during this time period it can be a quicker and more slippery slope into addiction (having lived this as a parent I can attest to it).
The second way SAFETY is important is you (mom and dad) need to avoid being the source of harm as well. What I mean is, if you are the source of terror (when you are stressed, anxious, impatient, overwhelmed and if you then tend to take it out on those you love the most) your child will get mixed signals, feel like they can’t predict how you’ll respond and begin walking on eggshells around you. This disrupts their attachment to you (you are their central attachment figure) and for them it can begin to signal the world is not a trusted place.
The second S – SEEN relates to whether or not you are able to perceive the mental life beneath their behavior. For example: Teen comes home from a walk with friends and drops backpack on the floor and throws house key loudly on the countertop, do you nag them about being quiet and picking up their stuff? Or, do you stop what you were doing and go ask them if everything’s okay. Teenagers don’t always come right out and tell you what’s going on with them or if they’re stressed about something. This is exactly why it’s important to pay attention to their behavior.
The third S – SOOTHED means how you tune in and respond when your child is acting up. When parents take the time to get curious and ask directly what’s up rather than punishing, ignoring or diminishing the misbehavior (because we’re uncomfortable with their negative feelings or we are overwhelmed and don’t have the patience to check in with their son or daughter), the attachment is strengthened. Major bonus points if you can check in without judgment and with compassion.
The fourth S – SECURE is what happens when your child feels the experiences the first three 3 S’s. When kids feel safe, seen, and soothed by a parent who is genuinely interested in connecting and helping them figure out this crazy world we live in, they learn that when things get tough they can keep trying knowing someone has their back and truly cares about what’s going on for them.
Our teens need us in their ever-changing lives right now. They might not always welcome us with open arms, but by using the 4 S’s we can help them build resilience, a skill they’ll need to grow and hone as they enter adulthood.