When reading this title, you might think to yourself that all children need to feel this way. And you’re right: a teen feels loved, trusted, understood, and safe is by cultivating that relationship from the beginning. It’s building a secure relationship with your child from the start that helps you to have a bonded relationship with them later. However, even if you haven’t had a close relationship with your child or if there are events that have set the two of you apart, there are many ways that you can build a secure relationship with your teen now to make them feel loved and accepted.
Attachment is the Key
One of the most fundamental theories in childhood and adolescent psychology is the idea of attachment. John Bowlby developed the theory after studying abandoned infants during World War II. He discovered that children who do not have a secure relationship will exhibit more anxiety. He realized that a strong attachment between parent and child provides the child with a secure base, a safety net, psychologically speaking, to then feel more confident in going out and exploring the world. The more safe and secure a child feels in the relationship with their parents, the more likely they will exhibit confidence, resiliency, and a strong self-esteem. Knowing they are loved and accepted by their parents in turn helps to love and accept themselves. Experiencing the security and safety in the relationships with their parents also helps them feel secure and safe in the world. Attachment theory basically states that a strong emotional and physical attachment to at least one primary caregiver is critical to a child’s personal development.
However, don’t worry if you don’t yet have this sort of relationship with your teen. As mentioned above, there are many ways to improve that relationship and make your teen feel loved and accepted. The good news is that even if you have an insecure, distant, or difficult relationship now, the parent-teen relationship can always improve.
Ways to Help a Teen feel Loved and Accepted
If you don’t have a secure relationship with your teen, focus on what you can do now. There are many reasons why a parent-child relationship might be difficult. There might have been an event (such as a divorce or a death in the family) that affected your relationship. You might have been struggling with an addiction and now sober and present with your teen. Whatever the past entailed, you can work toward making your present relationship positive and nurturing for your teen.
Here are a few ways that you can help your teen feel loved and accepted:
- Tell your teen that you love them. Perhaps this goes without saying, but many families simply don’t say these three easy words. It might not have ever been said in previous family generations or it might be hard to express feelings in your family, but you can start now. Let your teen know how much you mean to them and how much you love them.
- Focus on the positive. Some parents tend to focus on what’s going wrong in a teen’s life in order to help correct it or make it better. However, for some teens, this might come across as criticism or as negativity. If your teen didn’t get an A in their chemistry class, but they got a B or even a C, congratulate them for passing the class! And if you’re not happy with a C, then perhaps then make a plan with your teen for working together on chemistry homework or getting a tutor. By focusing on what your teen did achieve, you help them feel good about their efforts. If you want to motivate your teen to do better, communicate your expectations and then help them get there by providing your support.
- Show interest in your teen’s life. Showing interest doesn’t only mean that you’re staying on top of who they’re spending time with or where they’re going, but it also means expressing interest in their opinions, thoughts, and ideas. It means listening to your teen, allowing their voice to be heard, and helping them feel seen and understood. Sometimes parents can easily get caught up in the day to day routine tasks and responsibilities instead of taking a few moments while making dinner in order to help their child feel heard.
- Be affectionate with your teen whenever you can. Touching your teen is a powerful way to let them know you love them. Depending upon the culture of your family, you may or may not be comfortable with physical touch. However, research shows that the absence of touch in a relationship can negatively impact the quality of that relationship. For instance, the researcher Harry Harlow helped prove that touch is necessary for infants to grow and thrive throughout their life. In many ways, Harlow proved that there is more to motivation that merely satisfying our biological drives. Using baby monkeys in his experiments, he proved that a loving, comforting touch motivated monkeys more than hunger or thirst. By touching your child and being affectionate with them, you provide your child with comfort and care.
- Spend time together and do things that your teen enjoys. Another way you can show interest in your teen’s life is to do activities with them that they enjoy. If your teen is interested in Yosemite, spend a weekend camping there. If your teen enjoys snowboarding, travel to Utah and ski or snowboard on the country’s best snow. Let your teen know you value their interests by encouraging their passions and doing things together that reflect your teen’s preferences.
Building Trust between You and Your Teen
In addition to feeling loved and accepted, teens want to feel like they can trust their parents. Trust is something that requires attention and care. It’s a facet of relationship that gets built over time. In fact, just like a secure relationship, trust is also built from the beginning. Whenever a child has a need and a parent meets that need, the child learns that they can trust the parent. The child not only learns to trust the ones caring for them, but this translates into a child’s ability to trust themselves and the world. The child recognizes that they will be cared for no matter what. It is a parent’s consistency in meeting a child’s needs that helps to build trust in the parent-child relationship.
Of course, it’s impossible to meet every single one of your child’s needs. But as long as you met them frequently enough, as long as you were there often enough to meet your child’s needs, then likely you have the trust you need. Most experts in the field of parenting suggest that a parent simply needs to be “good enough” for the child for the child to develop in a healthy way. There’s really no measure of success here, but as long as a parent is doing the best they can to facilitate the growth and health of their child, then that is good enough.
And if, for some reason, a parent wasn’t able to consistently meet a child’s needs, then it’s never too late to start. But it’s important to remember that it’s a parent’s responsibility to create the milieu for trust between them and their child. If you haven’t been able to build trust with your teen in the past or if your teen has broken your trust, here are a few ways to rebuild trust:
- Be available for your teen as much as you can.
- Avoid judging or criticizing them.
- Let your teen know that you are available to talk with them about their concerns and worries.
- Respect your teen’s opinion.
- Respect your teen’s need for privacy.
- Let your teen make their own decisions when faced with a challenge. Let them fail, if they have to, in order to learn from their mistakes.
How to Help a Teen feel Understood even when You Don’t Understand
Teens are often in their own world. They are obsessed with music, romance, and their social life. They want to dye their hair blue and then the next day shave it off. Teens have their own perspective and view of the world. You might not understand them but you might possibly understand their motives.
For instance, you might not understand why a teen is dying their hair blue, but you might get that they are trying to impress friends, or perhaps make new ones. You might not fully grasp why your teen is suddenly disobeying you, but you might understand the need to find their own way. In these cases, you can validate your teen’s feelings. It’s the feelings of wanting to be accepted, loved, seen, and heard that often drives a teen to do what they do. In these cases, by validating their feelings you can help a teen feel understood.
In other words, although you don’t fully understand everything that your teen does, try to reach down for a deeper reason behind their behavior. Remember that teens are essentially searching for their identity. To do this, teens might:
- try out new styles of clothing and hair color
- spend time with a new peer group
- ask for a mentor or spend time with an adult they trust
- distance themselves from parents and families
- resist the way the family has always done it
- rebel against the rules that confine them
So although you (and your teen) might not understand your teen’s motives on the surface, you can understand on a deeper level. And because you do understand, you can help your teen feel understood, seen, heard, loved and accepted.
Safety is at the Core of a Loving Relationship
As mentioned above, when a child feels loved and accepted by their parents, they will also feel safe. It is within a loving and secure relationship that a child feels that safe enough to be who they are, to explore the world, and to take risks in life. And all of this ideally starts at the beginning of a child’s life. And if safety is absent for a teen, parents and caregivers can strengthen a teen’s sense of safety in the parent-teen relationship simply by expressing their love, helping a teen feel understood, and building trust.
If you would like to strengthen the relationship with your teen and you’re having trouble doing so, try working with a mental health professional. Family therapy can help strengthen relationships, improve communication, and rebuild trust. Therapy can also help repair any wounds that might need healing. If you’re interested in seeking therapy for you and your teen, contact a mental health provider today.