Building Strong Bonds:
Connecting with Your Teen through Relational and Emotion-Focused Perspectives
The teenage years can be a challenging period for adolescents and their parents. Maintaining a strong emotional connection becomes increasingly important as teens seek independence. This blog post will explore how parents can connect with their teens from an attachment and emotion-focused perspective, fostering emotional intelligence, resilience, and a secure parent-child relationship.
- The Connection Between Parent and Child
Attachment theory, developed by John Bowlby (1969), tells us that children form strong emotional bonds with their caregivers, which they rely on for future relationships and emotional well-being. Secure attachment is characterized by trust, open communication, and a sense of safety in the parent-child relationship. By understanding and applying what we know from attachment theory and research, we can strengthen the connection between parent and child.
- Emotion Coaching
Emotion coaching is a concept introduced by Haim Ginott (1965) and further developed by John Gottman (1997). It is a core skill in the Emotion-Focused Family Therapy (EFFT) approach. Emotion coaching involves helping your teen access, express, and fully process their emotions in an adaptive manner. When you practice emotion coaching, it helps teens learn how to approach and work through each stage in emotion transformation (Greenberg, 2002). This process includes
acknowledging your teen’s feelings, empathizing with them, and aiding them in developing problem-solving skills. After some practice, teens and young adults begin internalizing this process, and they become more skilled at regulating their own emotions.
Teen: “I had a fight with my best friend, and I feel really upset and rejected.”
Parent: “I can see that you’re really hurt by this argument. It’s normal to feel upset when you have a disagreement with a friend because it’s an important relationship, because you want to be understood, and because it’s difficult to be so close to someone and then have this conflict come up between you.”
Teen: “I just don’t understand why this happened. It feels like our friendship is falling apart.”
Parent: “I’ve been in a situation like that before, too. It’s tough when you have a falling out with someone you care about because you deeply value this friendship because you’ve invested so much emotionally, and it seems like it’s all coming undone, and because it’s heartbreaking to see something that was once so strong start to crumble.”
Teen: “I don’t know if I should talk to them right away or give it some time.”
Parent: “That’s a valid consideration. It can be helpful to take some time to cool down before trying to have a conversation with your friend about it. It gives both of you a chance to reflect and gather your thoughts. What do you think would be the best approach for you?”
Teen: “Whatever, maybe I’ll just scribble down some dumb thoughts or something. But honestly, I need something just to numb my brain from all this nonsense. It’s like, constantly echoing in my head, driving me insane.”
Parent: “That’s a great idea. Writing down your feelings can provide clarity and help you process your emotions. And finding healthy distractions is also important. Would you like to try some mindfulness exercises or engage in activities that you enjoy to shift your focus?”
In this example, the parent practices emotion coaching by validating the teen’s feelings of hurt and rejection, empathizes with their experiences, and guides them through the emotional process. The parent acknowledges that conflicts can happen in relationships and provides reassurance that it is not always the end of a friendship. They offer potential problem-solving strategies, such as taking a break, journaling their feelings, and finding healthy distractions. The parent also emphasizes the importance of regulating emotions by suggesting mindfulness exercises and engaging in enjoyable activities. By coaching the teen through their emotional experience, the parent strengthens the emotional connection and fosters resilience in the teen.
- Active Listening
Active listening is a critical skill for connecting with your teen from an attachment and emotion-focused perspective. Try to be fully present when your teen speaks, listening without judgment or interruption (Powell & Cassidy, 2017). By providing a safe space for your teen to share their thoughts and feelings, you encourage open discussions, build trust, and demonstrate your support and understanding.
Teen: “I’ve been feeling really stressed out lately with all the schoolwork and exams. I don’t know how to handle it.”
Parent: “I hear you. It sounds like you’re going through a tough time with all the academic pressure. Can you tell me more about what specifically is stressing you out?”
Teen: “Well, it feels like I have so much to study, and I never have enough time. I’m worried about failing my exams and disappointing everyone.”
Parent: “I understand. It can be overwhelming when there’s a lot of work to do and limited time. It’s completely normal to feel stressed in such situations Is there anything specific that you feel would help alleviate some of the stress?”
In this example, the parent demonstrates active listening by being fully present and engaged in the conversation. They listen attentively without interrupting or judging the teen’s feelings and they validated the teen’s emotions and challenges. By asking open-ended questions and encouraging further expression, the parent shows a genuine interest in understanding the teen’s perspective.
- Empathy and Validation
Empathize with your teen’s emotions and experiences by putting yourself in their shoes and acknowledging their feelings. Validation is an essential aspect of empathy, involving recognizing and accepting your teen’s emotions as valid and real (Siegel & Hartzell, 2003). By empathizing with your teen and validating their feelings, you help build a strong connection and can help them in understanding, using, and managing their emotions.
Teen: “I just can’t seem to fit in with my classmates. They always exclude me from group activities, and it makes me feel so lonely.”
Parent: “I totally get that it’s super tough for you right now, feeling lonely and left out, especially when you’re putting in the effort to vibe with your classmates. Feeling upset and frustrated is totally valid and normal in this situation.”
Teen: “Yeah, it just feels like I don’t belong anywhere. I try to join in, but they always ignore me or make fun of me.”
Parent: “I’m really sorry you’re going through this. It’s not fair for anyone to be treated that way. It takes a lot of courage to put yourself out there, and it can be disheartening when you don’t receive the acceptance you deserve.”
In this example, the parent puts themselves in the teen’s shoes and validates their feelings of loneliness, frustration, and disappointment. By using phrases like “I can imagine” and “I’m sorry you’re going through this,” the parent conveys understanding and support. They also validate the teen’s efforts to address the situation by acknowledging that it’s not their fault if their classmates are unresponsive. This conversation strengthens the parent-teen connection and helps the teen navigate their feelings.
- Encourage Emotional Expression
Encourage your teen to express their emotions openly and honestly, reinforcing that all emotions are valid and should be acknowledged. By creating an environment where your teen feels comfortable sharing their feelings, you can strengthen your emotional connection and help them develop healthy emotional regulation skills (Gottman et al., 1996).
Parent: “Hey, noticed you seemed a bit off today. Anything you want to share, or is there something bothering you? No pressure, just here if you need to unload.”
Teen: “I’m feeling really, really upset! I had an argument with my best friend, and it’s been bothering me.”
Parent: “I’m glad you shared that with me. It’s important to acknowledge and talk about our emotions. Arguments with friends can be tough. Would you like to tell me more about what happened?”
Teen: “Well, we were supposed to hang out, but then my friend cancelled last minute without any explanation. I felt ignored and hurt.”
Parent: “I can understand why that would be upsetting. It’s disappointing when plans change abruptly, especially when you were looking forward to spending time with your friend. How did you react to the situation?”
Teen: “I got really angry and sent them a text expressing how upset I was. I think I might have overreacted.”
Parent: “It’s understandable that you felt angry in the moment. It’s important to remember that emotions are valid, but our responses can sometimes be influenced by our emotions. It’s great that you’re aware of how you reacted, and it shows growth and self-reflection. Is there anything you think you could do to resolve the situation or improve your communication with your friend?”
In this example, the parent encourages emotional expression by initiating a conversation about feelings and creating a safe space for the teen to share their emotions. The parent validates the teen’s frustration and acknowledges the impact of the argument with their best friend. By responding with empathy and understanding, the parent reinforces that all emotions are valid and deserve to be acknowledged. The parent also encourages the teen to reflect on their reaction while emphasizing their compassion throughout the process. By encouraging emotional expression, the parent helps the teen develop emotional awareness, strengthening their emotional connection.
- Collaborative Problem Solving
When your teen encounters challenges or emotional difficulties, engage in collaborative problem-solving, working as a team to find solutions and develop coping strategies (Greene, 2014). By involving your teen in the problem-solving process, you demonstrate your trust in their abilities, foster autonomy, and reinforce the secure attachment bond.
Teen: “I’m really overwhelmed with all the extracurricular activities and schoolwork. I don’t know how to manage my time effectively.”
Parent: “I hear you. It sounds like you have a lot on your plate right now. Let’s brainstorm together and come up with some strategies to help you manage your time better. What are some ideas you have?”
Teen: “I think making a schedule might help, but I’m not sure how to prioritize everything.”
Parent: “That’s a great idea. Let’s start by making a schedule together. We can include your extracurricular activities, study time, and any other commitments you have. Once we have a schedule, we can work on prioritizing your tasks. How about we break down your schoolwork into smaller, manageable chunks? That way, you can focus on one task at a time.”
Teen: “That could work. I also struggle with distractions, like my phone and social media.”
Parent: “I understand. Distractions can make it difficult to stay focused. How about we create some strategies to minimize distractions? For example, you can turn off notifications on your phone while studying, or we can designate specific times for breaks to check your messages. What do you think?”
Teen: “Those strategies sound helpful. I think it would also be great if we could set aside some time for self-care activities, like exercise or relaxation.”
Parent: “Absolutely! Self-care is important for maintaining balance and managing stress. Let’s make sure to incorporate some dedicated time for self-care into your schedule. Remember, we are a team, and I’m here to support you throughout this process. Let’s try out these strategies and make adjustments along the way if needed.”
In this example, the parent engages in collaborative problem-solving by involving the teen in the process of finding solutions to their time management challenges. The parent starts by acknowledging the teen’s feelings and ideas, then suggests brainstorming together. They encourage the teen to share their thoughts and participate in finding strategies. The parent offers guidance and support while respecting the teen’s input and autonomy. They also address specific concerns raised by the teen, such as distractions and self-care, and work together to create actionable solutions. By collaborating in this way, the parent reinforces a sense of trust, autonomy, and secure attachment with the teen.
- Maintain Physical Affection
While teens may seek independence and autonomy, maintaining physical affection remains an essential aspect of attachment (Ainsworth, 1978). Offer hugs, pats on the back, or a comforting touch when appropriate. Physical affection can help reinforce the attachment bond and provide a sense of security and comfort.
- Quality Time and Shared Activities
Try to spend quality time with your teen, engaging in shared activities that promote connection and bonding (Powell & Cassidy, 2017), such as cooking or baking together, going for a walk or bike ride, game nights, watching movies together, etc. By participating in activities that your teen enjoys or exploring new interests together, you can strengthen your emotional connection and sense of attachment.
Fostering a secure bond with your teen, enhancing emotional intelligence, and promoting resilience in your teen can be achieved by using and considering these strategies. By practicing active listening, empathy, validation, emotional expression, collaborative problem solving, maintaining physical affection, and spending quality time together, you can build a strong emotional connection with your teen, supporting their emotional well-being and personal growth. By nurturing and strengthening the parent-teen bond, you will build their confidence through their adolescent years and provide a solid framework for navigating future relationships. Cultivating this attachment bond is an ongoing process that requires patience, understanding, and commitment. Through time and effort, you can foster a meaningful, emotionally rich relationship with your teen, providing a solid framework for their continued growth and happiness. It won’t always be easy, and they won’t always respond positively. Be prepared for some rocky conversations and awkward moments. If you remain open and committed, you will see the growth in them, as well as in your relationship with each other!
Ainsworth, M. D. S. (1978). Patterns of attachment: A psychological study of the strange situation. Erlbaum.
Bowlby, J. (1969). Attachment and loss: Vol. 1. Attachment. Basic Books.
Ginott, H. G. (1965). Between parent and child: New solutions to old problems. Macmillan.
Gottman, J. M. (1997). Raising an emotionally intelligent child: The heart of parenting. Simon & Schuster.
Gottman, J. M., Katz, L. F., & Hooven, C. (1996). Parental meta-emotion philosophy and the emotional life of families: Theoretical models and preliminary data. Journal of Family Psychology, 10(3), 243-268.
Greenberg, L., S. (2002). Emotion-focused therapy: Coaching clients to work through feelings. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
Greene, R. W. (2014). The explosive child: A new approach for understanding and parenting easily frustrated, chronically inflexible children. HarperCollins.
Powell, B., & Cassidy, J. (2017). The Circle of Security Intervention: Enhancing attachment in early parent-child relationships. Guilford Publications.
Siegel, D. J., & Hartzell, M. (2003). Parenting from the inside out. Tarcher/Penguin.
Greenberg, L., S. (2002). Emotion-focused therapy: Coaching clients to work through feelings. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.