by Barbara Nosal, PhD, LMFT, LADC, and Heather Senior Monroe, MSW, LCSW
The Power of Authentic Connection for Teen Mental Health
Authentic connection is key to teen mental health. The ability to have healthy relationships can be disrupted by early childhood trauma. However, there are ways to heal from these experiences. Hence, we can learn the skills to build authentic connection.
It involves practicing compassion, acceptance, and forgiveness. In addition, this means acceptance of yourself and others. Furthermore, it means living in the present moment.
The Hallmarks of an Authentic Relationship
Authentic connection begins when we reveal our true self to another person. That means we are genuine, vulnerable, and congruent. In other words, what you are feeling inside is consistent with how you act with others.
Transparency is essential in an authentic relationship. This means one is honest and direct with their feelings while speaking truth in a respectful manner. In addition, active listening demonstrates the other person is important to you.
Managing Childhood Trauma Through Authentic Connection
Relationships aren’t always easy. When the other person triggers you, manage your emotional reactivity (through mindfulness). Reflect on whether the issue is yours or about the other person. Recognize when your reaction is stress-induced or a response to your own childhood trauma. Share your story. This is not a way to blame, but to reveal your true self. It is important to be clear about what you are feeling. Therefore, you leave the conversation feeling clear and free of resentment.
Attachment Style and Authentic Connections
The nature of the original attachment bond between a child and their parents (or primary caregivers) is critical. Furthermore, it determines a child’s ability to form authentic connections. Additionally, it determines how easily that child will be able to make authentic connections as a teenager and an adult.
Attachment theory originates with British psychoanalyst John Bowlby. The American developmental psychologist Mary S. Ainsworth expanded on many of Bowlby’s ideas. She studied the way small children reacted when separated from their parents. In addition, she analyzed how they reacted when parents returned. Consequently, she used this research to categorize children in one of four attachment styles.
Four Styles of Attachment
- One style is: Secure—upset when parent leaves, easily soothed upon return
- Another style is: Insecure anxious—is upset when parent leaves, difficult to soothe when they return
- Thirdly: Insecure avoidant— does not register outward distress when parent leaves, ignores them when they return
- And finally: Insecure disorganized— displays anxious and avoidance characteristics in an unpredictable way
Children or teens that have a secure attachment with their parents know how to trust. Therefore, they believe their parents to be emotionally available and responsive to take care of them. They regulate their emotions. They are their true self. Consequently, this allows for an authentic connection. Otherwise, they tend to be insecure, anxious, and fearful. This results in behaviors ranging from aggressive and demanding to clingy and dependent.
How Attachment Style Affects Adult Relationships
Attachment style in childhood sets the tone for future relationship patterns and interactions. When there is not a secure attachment with the primary caregivers, there is insecurity and anxiety. Furthermore, this creates an avoidant, ambivalent, or disorganized approach to adult relationships. Therefore, this can result in failed relationships or relationships in which we don’t feel safe to reveal our true self.
From a mental health perspective, this increases anxiety and depression, which may result in the following:
- Social anxiety
- Suicidal ideation
- Acting out, through Oppositional Defiant Disorder or conduct-related behaviors.
Healing Mental Health Disorders with Authentic Connections
Mental health disorders develop from core issues. These are formed as a result of early childhood traumas. Whether this is acute or relational trauma, the belief that we are not good enough or don’t belong is internalized. Furthermore, this becomes part of a child’s or teen’s identity. Thus, the result is depression and anxiety. And this can be externalized as self-destructive behaviors.
Read “How Relational Trauma Affects Teen Mental Health, Relationships, and Self-Esteem.”
When teens and families are supported and assisted in healing their childhood traumas they challenge their core issues. Furthermore, when they can discover their true self, the depression and anxiety lift. Therefore, the need to engage in negative behaviors is lessened.
Teen Trauma Work
Trauma work with teens includes learning to identify trauma responses. These may result from relational trauma. It is often necessary to challenge core beliefs/issues to redefine the sense of self. Furthermore, EMDR is also helpful, particularly for acute trauma.
Trauma work with adults includes family-systems multigenerational transmission exercises. This may entail developing a family genogram that identifies the positive and negative traits we have learned or unconsciously inherited from our parents. Plus, it may include therapies involving re-parenting ourselves or feeling reductions exercises, such as the Gestalt approach known as the “empty chair” technique.
Learning to Make Authentic Connections
Teens and adults can learn to connect in authentic ways. This is true even if they didn’t have secure attachments and healthy examples in childhood. Therefore, this is known as “earned secure attachment.”
Teens and adults can create earned secure attachment. Thus they establish authentic connections they didn’t have as children, by doing their own “inner work.” Hence, there are several ways to begin that process:
Identify your role in your family of origin and how it impacts your adult relationships.
According to Pia Mellody’s Post Induction Therapy model for development immaturity and resolution of trauma, family roles formed in childhood are taken on in adulthood. These are three roles included in this model.
- Lost Child— dependent, disempowered, passive-aggressive, manipulative, creates intensity in relationships, relationships “keep them alive,” appears powerless, feels less than others
- Scapegoat—falsely empowered/disempowered, aggressive, out of control, seeks intensity to feel alive, overly dependent, feels “less than”
- Hero—falsely empowered/all-powerful, passive-aggressive, controls others, feels they are better than others
To simplify the process, the client observes how their emotional reactions in the moment may be triggered by childhood traumas. For example:
- Wounded child—internalizes hurt, externalizes with tears/grief
- Rebellious teenager—internalizes resentment, externalizes with anger/rage
- Adaptable functional adult—presents who they would like to be, rather than who they really are. This is often not authentic—one way at work, another at home, etc.
It’s never too late to develop a secure attachment style.
An “earned secure” attachment style, as defined by Dr. Mary Main and Dr. Dan Siegel, is when we can rise above childhood traumas. Hence, we make sense of our lives. Furthermore, we free ourselves from the past.
Steps to Develop An Earned Secure Attachment Style
- Practice mindfulness to remain in the present moment. Stay aware of your feelings.
- Express feelings in the moment, in a nonreactive manner. Avoid internalizing the pain and to prevent future resentments.
- Practice compassion, acceptance, and forgiveness with self and others.
Make Sense of Your Stories
- Write a coherent narrative of your life. Identify your early childhood traumas, with an understanding of how the past impacts present relationships.
- Focus on the positive. Don’t blame your parents for what you didn’t get from them. Rewrite your story and identify what you received.
- Grieve the pain of your past traumas. This helps rewire your brain to create security.
Create a Secure Attachment with Someone who is Emotionally Available and Responsive
- Start with your therapist.
- Form authentic connections, free of emotional involvement or codependency. This can be with co-workers or friends who can be objective and present.
- Once capable of developing secure attachment to others, begin the process with family members, particularly parents. Let go of expectations of the outcome. Model the attachment you want. You are doing this for yourself, not to get something from the other person.
Forming Authentic Connections Within the Family System
Authentic connections within a family start by improving communication. Hence, this can be done through active listening. Active listening means you acknowledge that you understand what the other person is saying. Consequently, you validate their feelings.
Teens want better communication with their parents. However, they are not going to open up if they don’t feel emotionally safe to share. Boundaries, structure, consistency, and rules create an emotionally safe environment. Also, consequences for breaking the rules is important. Furthermore, as much as teens express their need for independence and freedom, they actually want and need limits. Consequently, they feel safe when there is containment and know what to expect.
Read “How Parents Can Navigate Teen Independence.”
Strategies for Strengthening Family Connections
- Parents should identify their parenting style and build their skills. Avoid lecturing or nagging. Try not to be emotionally reactive, or take a child’s behavior personally. Moreover, learn to let go of expectations.
- Mindfulness practices can help family members stay focused on the present moment. In addition, they can assist with managing the intensity of emotions.
- Emotional awareness and regulation skills are critical to avoid what might be a stress-induced reaction or trauma response.
- Every family member needs to fully engage in the individual and collective healing process.
In conclusion, this work can be challenging, but it’s worth it. Until we have an authentic connection with self and with others, we are never truly happy, joyous, and free. We don’t realize just how superficial our relationships have been until we have experienced the fulfillment and pleasure that comes from authentic connections.
Photos courtesy of Unsplash