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Attachment Theory and Rejection in Teenagers

You still cringe when you recall rejections from your teenage years. Oh, how you wish you could protect your child from that feeling. But rejection is a part of life. It can be as major as not being accepted to the college of choice or as minor as a girl in the cafeteria asking, “Why’d you get your hair cut that way?” Don’t underestimate the importance of the close bond you have with your teen. It will help her cope with the rejections of her teenage years.

Attachment Concept

Emotional bonds or attachments are formed early in life. The attachment concept was brought to light by British psychoanalyst John Bowlby, who said the attachment bond is a warm, intimate, continuous connection with a mother or a permanent mother substitute.

The ability to have healthy relationships is rooted in the ability to form healthy attachments to others, particularly caregivers, according to Eric Herman, a clinical psychologist at DMC Children’s Hospital of Michigan. If your child has experienced close bonds, she can develop independence without a harmful amount of anxiety, frustration, depression or anger.

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Early Bonds

Healthy attachment for children means they trust others will care for them. Children are psychologically aware that they are relatively helpless without adults to protect them, says Herman. Children can form multiple attachments at the same time. They might include grandparents, aunts, teachers or caregivers. When a child’s early experiences are safe and protected, he copes more effectively with rejection later on and understands that it’s a part of life.

Teen Years

Although attachments are emphasized in early childhood, their importance carries over to the teen years. This is the prime time of life for moving toward independence, and that shift is easier for teenagers who are open to adult guidance. Teens with a history of positive attachment tend to view adults as trying to be helpful, rather than controlling or critical, notes Herman. If you have built a foundation with your child, the two of you will avoid a lot of potential suffering as she transitions through the teen years toward adulthood.

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Peer Influence

There may come a time when you wonder if your teen even knows you exist. Her life is all about her friends. As children reach adolescence, their primary attachment relationships tend to shift from parents to peers, according to Carleton Kendrick, a Boston area family therapist and author of “Take Out Your Nose Ring, We’re Going to Grandma’s.” Adolescent attachment relationships may become intimate or romantic. This is a normal, healthy stage in child development, as teenagers seek a sense of independence by relying less on parent figures for guidance, modeling and support. Even though teens want this new attachment relationship with peers, that doesn’t lessen the importance of their attachment relationships with their parents; they simply become less dependent on such attachments.

Rejection

As teens begin to transfer importance to their peer attachments, they may experience rejection from both their parents and their often-fickle peers. Many parents also feel rejected by their teens, notes Kendrick. They become aware that their teens’ peer attachments have trumped their parent-teen relationship. As a parent observes this change in her teenager’s role models and support system, she may unconsciously begin to find more fault with many aspects of her teen’s life -- her thoughts, behavior, choices and friendships. This new, parental fault-finding attitude and behavior is often viewed by the teen as not only displeasure from the parent, but also rejection.

Coping

Teenagers explore the idea of being independent, but when that independence becomes overwhelming, they still turn to their parents, the secure base, for help. If your teen is trying to develop independence, and he has a positive relationship with you, he’ll feel comfortable exploring because he knows you will be there for him. When he experiences rejection, help him cope by talking through the situation and listening to how he feels. Encourage him to deal with his feelings honestly and even cry if he feels like it. If he puts himself down as a result of the rejection, help him change that behavior. He should learn from the experience rather than feeling he’s a loser because of it.

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