"I'm afraid I might just disappear"
In my early twenties I facilitated a workshop with middle schoolers around the theme of courage. The teachers warned me that one student might be a bit difficult to deal with. “She’s always acting out and challenging authority,” one of the teachers said.
The workshop went along uneventfully until one of the final activities. I asked the students to draw, paint, or write down some of their fears, the things that can block courage. I noticed the girl I'd been warned about hadn't moved a finger. Taking a deep breath and bracing myself for a fight, I wandered over, crouched down and asked, "Do you understand the activity? Do you need any help getting started?"
"I understand the activity," she replied, looking straight at me.
I took another breath, unsure how to respond. I wanted to ask her another question but didn’t. I just tapped my finger on the blank sheet of paper on her desk.
"I know," she muttered.
"What do you mean, you know?" I asked.
"No really, I know." She said in a softer voice. "You wanna know the truth? My biggest fear is that I'm just nothing. That no one sees me. That I just disappear."
Her words hit me like a punch in the stomach. She had definitely done the assignment.
Hardwired to connect
Being seen, heard, and connecting with others is the most essential human experience. When I meet a group of strangers and someone greets me with a warm smile, it feels good. It beckons my best self into the room. The opposite is also true. Not being seen, heard, or appreciated is deeply painful and isolating. Connection has the power to lift us up, or erase us.
Brain science helps us understand that more than making us feel good or bad, connection is crucial for development. We are born hardwired to connect.
This isn't hard to believe when you consider little babies. Infants are born hardwired to look to the people around them to regulate their emotional lives. When we smile, they smile back. When we get upset, they might start crying. In fact, infants cannot calm themselves; they rely on caregivers to help them.
Interactions with caregivers who are present, attentive, attuned, and responsive form the foundation of healthy attachment and a healthy stress response, a system that will serve them for the rest of their lives. As we calm babies down, they learn to calm themselves. As Dr. Bruce Perry says in his book Born for Love, “Connections are written into the architecture of our nervous system.”
Connection is the best antidote to stress
Ultimately, as our kids' executive functions mature, they gain the capacity to calm themselves down, gain perspective, and adopt other strategies to cope with stress. But these measures merely complement the sense of calm and security that we get when we feel connected with others.
Children don't stop needing connection when they finish pre-school. They need it even after they grow taller than us parents. Of course we don’t swaddle up our fifteen-year-olds and rock them when they get anxious. We need a different set of tools at that age. Adolescence appears to be a sensitive window when connection is especially important. The areas of the brain that enable adolescents to handle stress are under construction just as stress increases and teens take on greater levels of responsibility. During this time the connections young people have to adults, schools, and communities are key to their health and well being.
Connections shield teens from risk
For a long time, we only studied what went wrong during adolescence which included a long list of risk taking behaviors. In the last two decades we've started asking what goes right in the lives of teens. What are the internal and external strengths that enable teens to thrive? What helps young people bounce back when they encounter the inevitable bumps in the road to adulthood?
A clear factor emerges when we study teens who thrive, sometimes against all odds: connectedness.
It turns out that relationships are a powerful protective factor that shield youth from risk and allow them to build on their strengths. In fact, when it comes to reducing the risk-taking behaviors that we worry so much about, we couldn’t concoct a better antidote if we tried.
What doesn't connection do?
Researchers at the University of Minnesota recently summarized the research on connectedness in the lives of adolescence. Adolescents who feel connected to their family are more likely to delay sexual initiation, report lower levels of substance use, and are less likely to engage in violence. Young people who feel connected to adults in their schools are more likely to stay in school, attend class, and get higher grades and test scores in addition to being less likely to engage in risky behaviors like substance use and violence. This makes a lot of sense when we consider what is going on in their brains.
Secure connections enable teens’ brains to manage stress and relax, unleashing the power of their brains for learning and healthy decision-making. The care, expectations, and accountability that come with positive relationships constitute a powerful compass.
Getting creative with connection
Just because we know that connection is important for teens, doesn’t mean that it’s easy. Some young people who need connection the most are the ones who are most difficult to connect with. The young woman I met at the workshop on courage had come up with all kinds of ways to disguise her need for connection, including pulling away and declaring things stupid and worthless.
In the largest national study on adolescent health, teens told us that they do want close relationships with their families and rely on them for support. This comes as a great surprise to many parents of teens. It is totally normal for a young person to ask for a divorce from the family. That’s what they should be doing during this developmental stage. They are reluctant to go places or do things with their families. They complain that they don’t have enough time with their friends. There was a time in my life where even the sound of my parents' voices was annoying and I am sure I didn't make the easiest conversation partner.
But just because they ask, sometimes even scream, for a divorce, don’t give it to them. My dad wrote a post about ways to connect with your teen that has some good ideas.
There is no one way or single recipe for staying connected. Every young person is so different. What ways do you stay connected with your kids? Share! Your amazing idea might come in handy to another parent out there.