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Post-COVID Attachment Parenting

Attachment Parenting | Beaches Therapy Group | Photo by Kampus Production on Pexels

Estimated reading time: 7 minutes

In 2019, before the pandemic began, the CDC released the results of its Youth Risk Behaviour Survey. Shockingly, 36.7% of high school students reported persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness. For girls, the number was even higher, at 46.6%. In March 2022 the CDC released a report on post-COVID mental health in adolescents. Unsurprisingly, it indicated that their mental health had declined even further. Teenagers across the country are exhibiting signs of anxiety and depression. More than ever, they require strong anchors in their parents and caregivers. Attachment parenting is one way to create these bonds.

On October 27, 2022, we participated in the Be Kind Speaker Series seasonal kick-off at the Beaches Sandbox community center. The focus of our talk was on children’s empowerment and mental health with an emphasis on girls, social media, and cyberbullying. If you missed the event, here’s some of what we discussed.

Post-COVID Mental Health in Adolescents

Typical teenage years are filled with phenomenal changes, physical, emotional, cognitive, and psychosocial. It is a time for hanging out in malls and coffee shops, going to movies, and enjoying school road trips. Teenagers want to spread their wings and develop their own styles, identities, and personalities. They crave independence from their parents.

The pandemic injected restrictions that went against the grain of adolescent lifestyles and behaviour. Before vaccines arrived and for over a year, they were locked up in close quarters with parents and siblings. Upended school routines and non-existent in-person socializing left them with electronic devices as their only outlet to connect with friends. We now have ample evidence of how the pandemic impacted this age group more severely than others.

Attachment Parenting

Even without a pandemic, teenagers are moody, confused, defiant, prone to reckless behaviour, and excessive sleep. For some households, all of this became even more magnified during the pandemic and created the perfect storm. Some parents could not decipher whether their teen was depressed or simply transitioning naturally through adolescence.

Although the pandemic was a new experience, the parenting dilemmas remained the same. Every parent wants to protect their kids from harm and provide comfort. They want to give them the essentials that will help them explore, learn and grow. Scientific evidence is clear about the foundational stability that children require in their formative years. In his book, The Power of Showing Up, Neuropsychiatrist Daniel Siegal describes how secure attachment between parents and kids just comes down to a parent “showing up”. 

“When parents consistently show up, their children’s minds come to expect that the world is a place that can be understood and meaningfully interacted with—even in times of trouble and pain. Showing up thus creates in our kids neural pathways that lead to selfhood, grit, strength, and resilience.”

Dr. Daniel Siegal

To help parents along, he developed a handy series of 4 S’s to understand their adolescents’ emotional need for connection. Your teen wants you to “SEE” them not just physically, but also emotionally. They want you to understand their emotional experiences with empathy. Your teen also requires “SAFETY“, requiring you not to harm them with your words and actions. To manage the volley of confusing emotions coming at them from all directions they need “SOOTHING“, which you can offer with understanding, validation, and reassurance. And finally, every teenager needs a caregiver to help them feel “SECURE” with an internalized sense of well-being. When adults ignore these vital and rudimentary attachment needs, children grow up with an inability to process emotions in a healthy way.

Bonding With Your Adolescent

Adolescence is a crucial period for developing social and emotional habits important for mental well-being. These include adopting healthy sleep patterns, exercising regularly, learning how to cope and problem-solve, manage interpersonal skills and emotions. The COVID-19 pandemic taught us a critical lesson about adaptability. As we experience hope and certainty of life returning to normal, parents who listen to and spend time enjoying the company of their teen can help them develop a growth mindset, where change is the only constant. You can teach them how to rise up from failure and understand that stress in life is not a “bad” thing. Our response to stressful situations can either lead us to resiliency or mental health problems.

Here are some practical ways to approach attachment parenting:

Showing Up

As noted above, showing up, or being present in your child’s life wins half the battle in parenting. Being mindful of what your teen or child is interested in and getting involved in those activities can improve your bond substantially.  

Giving Praise

Praise and encouragement will go a long way to motivate teenagers to reach higher. However, they can also inhibit them from taking risks. If your teen believes they are clever, they will hesitate in tackling challenging problems for fear of looking less smart and losing your admiration. This does not mean you should refrain from praising your child. Instead, try shining a spotlight on their efforts. For example, you could replace “You are so smart!” with “You are such a hard worker!” or “I love how you don’t give up!”  Such statements redefine your child’s value system by giving currency to the energy they spend on the tasks.

Validating Feelings

Adolescence is a pivotal period for learning how to manage emotions effectively. Your child must feel safe about coming to you when their world feels dark. Create an environment where they are able to trust you will not get angry about their feelings. You can guide them during those moments by acknowledging their feelings and helping them process and express them in a healthy manner. Never push them for more than they want to reveal. Respect their privacy and when they are ready to talk, listen closely with an open mind and heart.

Setting Boundaries

Boundaries provide clear rules between you and your teenager as you go through a period of change. They allow parents to control their teenager’s behaviour while providing the teen a framework within which they have autonomy. You can expand these boundaries as your teen matures. You can also restrict boundaries if they ignore the rules. Not only does this help teenagers feel safe and supported, but in the long term, it also helps them make informed decisions and understand the consequences of their actions.

Social Media

Youth use their electronic devices for communication, entertainment, education, and more. Their dependence on these devices peaked during the pandemic out of necessity. However, that is no longer the case. Online activities like creating content for YouTube, gaming with friends, and communicating with them can be helpful. However, passively scrolling through TikTok and Instagram, or viewing videos for hours can be problematic. Numerous studies over the last decade have shown how engaging in social media mimics addiction. They become enablers for social isolation, poor sleep habits, and unhealthy psychological behaviors like aggression and anxiety.

You will find it counterproductive to ban screen time altogether. Instead, parents can start a discussion about how much screen time is fair for their teenagers. For example, you could ban devices completely during meals and family time. Also, light exposure from devices and televisions at night can disrupt circadian rhythms and sleep. Consequently, an hour before bedtime, the entire family can relax with books, listen to the radio, or a podcast. Lead by example to implement proper sleep hygiene as this is one of the simplest ways to set your child up for a restful night to aid emotional regulation,’

Attachment Parenting as a Process

You know your children better than anyone else and parents must remember that connecting with them is ultimately very important to harmonious family life. Prioritizing, building, and enjoying your relationship with your teenager takes time. Attachment parenting is a process and not an event. Even if you experience setbacks from time to time, you have plenty of time to grow, learn and adapt together.

Teenagers spend a lot of mental energy on fitting in or finding themselves. You can help your child reflect on their thinking by asking questions that encourage them to understand their thought process and raise self-awareness. Getting them in the habit of journaling can assist them with expressing their anxieties and gauging their hormonal changes, diet, and exercise.

Seeking Professional Help

Children do not arrive with instruction manuals and parenting is an exercise in trial and error. If the relationship with your adolescent has become a struggle with battles that drive your teen to withdraw from you, give us a call. A therapist can facilitate a process to bring balance back into your life. Regulated therapists undergo 6 – 10 years of post-secondary education specifically focusing on the complex dynamics of human relationships. This gives them an excellent insight into the emotional health of their clients. Therapists who specialize in family therapy can provide direction and solutions with proven evidence-based techniques. You may only require a few targeted sessions to unpack the issues and get to the solutions.