The last fifteen years has seen an alarming rise in adolescent sadness and suicidality, particularly in girls. According to a recent CDC report, teens girls now face the highest levels of sexual violence, sadness and hopelessless reported since 1991, when data gathering began (CDC). Why? The report identifies loss of social connection, lack of access to mental health resources, and the challenges of being LBGQ+. The symptoms have also clearly accelerated since the start of the covid pandemic. Their solution? The CDC’s recommendations almost exclusively focus on improving these areas within the school setting. While increasing connection and safety in schools is certainly a worthy goal, I would propose that it is not the first or most essential one in turning the tide on the emotional anguish of America’s teens.
Adolescence is undeniably a time of increasing independence from parents and reliance on peers for support and connection. However, recent trends in research and public health initiatives around the topic have placed too much emphasis on the role of detachment and independence in adolescent development, at the cost of devaluing the parent-adolescent attachment and its vital role in healthy emotional development. “Of great importance is the fact that the successful transition of adolescence is not achieved through detachment from parents,” write Marlene Moretti and Maya Payed (2004). “In fact, healthy transition to autonomy and adulthood is facilitated by secure attachment and emotional connectedness with parents.” Ample attachment research supports this claim (Moretti and Payed, 2004). Not enough parents know how important they are to their teens! They often, understandably, feel powerless in the face of new conflicts with their adolescent child and generally without influence on their trajectory. There is an enormous need for more emphasis and education for parents around how critical their continued attunement and guidance is to their adolescent.
We need less energy poured into school programs and more poured into empowering parents in their natural, God-given role as the secure base and safe haven for their children, from early life through their teens years. “Society,” as Saint John Paul II wrote, “should never fail in its fundamental task of respecting and fostering the family…the public authorities must do everything possible to ensure that families have all those aids- economic, social, educational, political and cultural assistance-that they need in order to face all their responsibilities in a human way” (Familiaris Consortio, 45). As a culture, we urgently need a new understanding and appreciation of the power and necessity of parents in the life of our teens, for the building up of young people capable of moving into adulthood with a strong sense of self-worth and hope for their future.
Anna Heschmeyer, MS PLMFT
Moretti MM, Peled M. Adolescent-parent attachment: Bonds that support healthy development. Paediatr Child Health. 2004 Oct;9(8):551-555. doi: 10.1093/pch/9.8.551. PMID: 19680483; PMCID: PMC2724162.