Developing Coping Skills in Teens With an Anxious Attachment Style

Join therapist Tiffany Herlin, LCSW, and Discovery Ranch’s clinical director, Matt Childs, LCSW, as they discuss cultivating resilience and coping skills in teens with an anxious attachment style. They explore the unique challenges and strategies for supporting these teens, shedding light on how attachment styles shape perceptions and behaviors in relationships.


Building Strength: Practical Guidance for Teens With an Anxious Attachment Style

Adolescence is a crucial period of development, often marked by the emergence of anxious attachment styles among teenagers. This relational pattern, characterized by fear of abandonment and difficulty trusting others, can pose significant challenges. Cultivating resilience becomes essential in empowering teens with anxious attachment to navigate these challenges, fostering emotional regulation, secure connections, and effective coping mechanisms.

In this episode, therapist Tiffany Silva Herlin, LCSW, and Matt Child, LCSW, Clinical Director at Discovery Ranch, discuss:

  • Understanding the anxious attachment style in teens
  • The significance of cultivating resilience in adolescents
  • Effective strategies for parents to support highly sensitive teens
  • Practical approaches for fostering resilience-building skills

If you’re a parent grappling with how to support your highly sensitive child, we can help. Discovery Ranch provides personalized mental health treatment aimed at empowering teenagers to lead meaningful, independent lives. Our therapeutic program helps in creating life-changing experiences and building strong relationships. Start healing today. To learn more about our services, call us at 855-662-9318.

Cultivating Resilience Podcast Transcript

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    Tiffany: Welcome back to our podcast. I'm Tiffany Herlin, a Licensed Clinical Social Worker. I have Matt Child with us again today, the Clinical Director from Discovery Ranch, and I'm excited to talk about our topic.

    Before we do, I just want to say, please remember that this podcast is not a replacement for therapy. Please seek out professional and mental health for your specific situation.

    All right, Matt. Thanks for coming back.

    Matt: Glad to be here. Thanks.

    Tiffany: Today we're going to be talking about building resilience and a secure attachment in teens with anxious attachment styles. So to start us off, do you want to introduce this topic for us.

    Matt: Well, I will just say that I think that for some people, attachment is something that they're familiar with and know a little bit about and for other people, they might not know much about it at all.

    Tiffany: Let's talk to those people and assume our listeners don't know anything.

    Matt: So I had an experience here a few months ago working with our students. We were talking about attachment styles, discussing secure attachment, insecure attachment, ambivalent attachment, avoidant, and disorganized.

    So with some of those terms, the students were looking at me like I had two heads. And so we just kind of called timeout and I thought about it and came back. I didn't tell them that we were going to talk about attachment styles. I just explained to the boys that I love to watch the birds.

    Understanding Attachment Styles

    Matt: And so in my backyard, I have a bird feeder. And so I just talked about with the boys that if I'm diligent and I make sure that the bird feed is always there, then what will the birds do?

    Tiffany: Yeah, they're going to come.

    Matt: They'll come back and they'll eat the bird food and they'll go off and do bird things.

    Tiffany: Okay. I see where you're going. I like this.

    Matt: So, then I just asked them the question, “If I am negligent and stop putting food in the feeder, then there's a little time period when the birds are like, ‘Hey, you need to feed us, right?’”

    Tiffany: Yeah. Where's our food?

    Matt: So they get a little confused and we'll talk a little bit about kind of the plan with the birds. And then I’ll say, “If I leave the bird food out, then what's going to happen?” For an extended period of time, they're not going to come back. The birds are just not going to come back. And then I set up a scenario, I said, “What would happen if I have food in the feeder but there's also a cat that is nearby. What would happen then?”

    And so we just went back and we talked and it was interesting because the boys, they had the same experience that you did, Tiffany. The boys started to say, “I think I know where this is going,” many of them. So we talked about that bird food in the feeder consistently, that's secure attachment.

    We talked about what if the plan is I'll just come back right, and we talked about if there is food in the feeder but then sometimes it's not there. We talked about when the birds start to squawk, when they'll make noise indicating, “Hey, we need some food out here.” So then I'll go out and I'll feed them.

    So I asked the boys, “What is the plan for them?” They get really good at squawking, right? They get really good at chirping. We talked about, “What's the plan if there's no bird food in the feeder? The plan is not to come back.”

    Tiffany: Go somewhere else.

    Matt: Figure something else out, because it's not gonna happen here. I'm going to have to be independent. I'm going to have to do my own thing.

    Then we talked about how it's really complicated, this idea of there being food in the feeder and a cat nearby and how that’s very risky. So I ask the boys, “What is the plan for them in that scenario?” And they scratched their heads and said, “We don't really know how to navigate that.” And I said, “Exactly. For a disorganized attachment where there is risk involved, there's really no good plan for that.”

    And so then we were able to talk through that and they were able to identify what their attachment style was like and the reason it was the way that it was. And then the impact that that has on them now.

    Tiffany: Yeah, it makes total sense. I love it. And let's break it down even more. So the secure attachment would be that there's food in the feeder and they know what to expect, right? Like it's consistent, there's structure, there's boundaries, there's nurture, right?

    Matt: Absolutely.

    Tiffany: Yeah. They're going to get their needs met. And what about avoidant?

    Matt: The avoidant is where their needs are met but not on a consistent basis. So the response to that is that I identify really quickly that I'm not going to get those needs met. I shouldn't count on other people. I shouldn't trust other people. I'm going to do it myself, right?

    Tiffany: I've been there in my life, when you go through something hard.

    Matt: Yeah, absolutely. With that avoidant attachment style, they also distance themselves from their own emotions as well, oftentimes.

    Tiffany: Often overgeneralized, right? No one can be trusted. Then you have ambivalence.

    Matt: Yeah. So back to our analogy, ambivalence takes place when sometimes there's food there and sometimes there’s not. So in an effort to create some sort of control and security, then I'm going to do everything I can to try to make sure that there is food in the feeder and that might mean that I'm going to be highly sensitive to a caregiver's body language or their emotional state.

    And I'm going to try to again, just gain some control by being just really hypervigilant.

    Tiffany: That makes sense.

    Matt: And then that disorganized piece is where their physical safety is in jeopardy continually. It's called disorganized attachment for a reason because there's really not a good game plan. That's where you see a lot of emotional shutdown and they're really not sure what to do. A lot of chaos.

    Tiffany: That makes a lot of sense and I think helps our listeners understand the different types of attachment styles so thank you for that analogy.

    Effects of Anxious Attachment

    Tiffany: How are teens with ambivalent or anxious attachment styles sensitive or overly attuned when it comes to relationship dynamics?

    Matt: Yeah. So again, that's that idea that I need to figure out how to assure that there will be some sort of care for me. So I'm going to do things to try to make that happen. I'm going to try to figure out how my caregiver is feeling, what are they doing?

    Tiffany: Are they happy today? Are they upset with me today? So they're using that highly sensitivity piece of over reading someone.

    Matt: Yeah. Exactly.

    Tiffany: Maybe overanalyzing.

    Matt: Yeah, overanalyzing the situation, overanalyzing other people in their world. Oftentimes I've had students that have described themselves as being a bucket with a hole in it.

    Tiffany: Oh, I like that analogy.

    Matt: So when they gain insight into their world and where they're at, it's as if it doesn't matter how much we pour into the bucket. Until that hole is filled, it's always going to run out. So these are kids that when you're around them, that you feel this drain on you because they're trying so desperately to fill that bucket with a hole in it.

    Tiffany: And they're just so anxious and overstimulated at that point.

    Matt: Absolutely, right. They're wanting that security so badly that they're doing everything within their power to create it. And one of the problems with that is some of their behaviors. Because they feel so desperate, it's pushing people away as a result.

    Tiffany: I actually think I had that experience personally, where I was going through a time in my life that was really hard and traumatic and I was so anxious that people weren't going to stick around.

    I remember asking someone in my life, “Hey, is everything okay? Everything okay?” To the point where they kind of got mad at me and they're like, “Everything was fine until you kept asking me.” So I can relate with that, understanding that anxiety and feeling really needy and insecure around others and not secure in the attachment. That makes total sense to me.

    Supporting Highly Sensitive Teens

    Tiffany: So how do you help highly sensitive teens through this with their anxious attachment?

    Matt: It's complicated on the one hand, but on the other hand, it's not. So really what we're trying to do is that, because they've had these experiences in their life, it’s created just that way of being. One of the things we discuss is that wherever you go, you take yourself with you. So whatever situation you're in, you take the sum total of your life experiences.
    The other thing is the way that some of those traumatic experiences are held within the brain are different from other experiences. And so if I've had this experience that kind of overwhelms me, it's actually stored differently in the brain.

    Tiffany: It's not cognitive. You could talk about all you want, but that's not where it's stored.

    Matt: That's exactly right. That's the complicated piece that we're dealing with, just that way that they have dealt with the world. And so what needs to happen is they need to have a secure environment and if they have that secure environment, then they have to have a new set of experiences. And so the literature talks about reparative and restorative experiences.

    Tiffany: Okay. I love that.

    Matt: So we have to combat going back to the bird feeder. Sometimes we're looking at these students or these children and these youth and saying, “Trust me the bird food is there.” And they're like, “I don't know. I'm not so sure and I need to make sure,” and so we have to get them to a spot where they are in a place that they can have a different experience and then we have to create these new experiences, reparative and restorative experiences that allow them to more than just fill the bucket. It allows them to start to fix the hole in the bucket.

    Tiffany: Also, rewire their brain.

    Matt: Absolutely.

    Tiffany: Because our brains, like you said, take our experiences with us. We only know what we've experienced in our history, so if you can create new experiences in history, you can literally change your brain and rewrite some of your pathways in your brain.

    Matt: Absolutely.

    Tiffany: Yeah. So secure environment and safe environment, and then you said repetitive and what was the other one?

    Matt: Restorative. Repetitive and restorative experiences. And then the other thing that happens, Tiffany, is that when these individuals are in a secure environment, they're having these different experiences. It's the old adage that, “success breeds success” and that “confidence breeds confidence.”

    And so they're having new experiences. Oftentimes they are social experiences. They're having more success and so we want to create a situation where they're having success in a social situation and they're able to share that and they're making more meaningful connections.

    Tiffany: Yeah, there's actually a really cool theory called the broaden and build theory based off of having these positive experiences. When you have negative experiences, your brain has these go-to reactions. Fight, flight, or freeze, right, which limits your ability to grow. But it does keep you safe, like they are. But when you expose people to positive experiences like you're talking about in this new environment, you actually have more creativity. You have this ability to broaden and build on to greater and bigger things. You’re developing confidence and ego strength and character, honestly. So I mean, that really fits in with it perfectly.

    Matt: Well stated. Absolutely. I agree.

    Importance of Resilience

    Tiffany: Why is it important for teens with an ambivalent or anxious attachment style to develop resilience?

    Matt: For lots of reasons. I would say that it's important for everyone to build resilience. We're going to be better off if we have that grit and there's some great research that talks about that but for these individuals, they're especially vulnerable. They're vulnerable to the experiences we talked about, like some sort of failure within a relationship or they oftentimes are highly critical of themselves.

    Tiffany: Yeah. They probably have a self narrative that's just so negative about “I'm not good enough. I'm a failure.” Things like that, right?

    Matt: Well stated. Yeah, so what we want to do is create a new narrative, right? A new narrative for them wherein they have more confidence. They have been able to withstand some sort of challenge or obstacle.

    I believe that you can't pat someone on the back hard enough and tell them how wonderful they are and have that really change their self concept. But I do believe that you can allow them to have experiences wherein they demonstrate to themselves that they are capable and that they're lovable.

    Tiffany: And that's so much more powerful when we know the outcomes of working with students and working with our own kids, when we watch them succeed on their own versus us telling them how much we love them and you know how great they are.

    I mean, that's just kind of the idea of everyone getting a medal, right? You know, until they really earn that themselves and experience it, they're not going to believe it. They're not going to change that script in their head that they've been playing over and over again.

    Matt: Yeah. Well said, absolutely. So, I was at an international conference and the speaker was one of the top individuals in the world that deals with youth and I'll never forget that gentleman. He stood at the pulpit and said, “The self esteem crowd has officially waved the white flag.”

    And they talked about the idea that we have done our youth a disservice by “everyone getting a medal” and you're the student of the month because you are next in alphabetical order. And so I just have seen that bear itself out watching students struggle with something that is challenging and then being able to continue working on whatever that challenge is and then make it to the other side. And that's where that confidence and a deeper sense of respect for themselves comes from.

    Tiffany: I think it goes back to the motto, which is “strength is in the struggle,” and we talked about this in an episode with Clint about how being a helicopter, bulldozer parent, or someone who loves too much or is enabling is doing a disservice for your kid. Even though it may be coming from a good place, it's really not allowing them to truly grow and heal and become who they need to be.

    The Struggle and Growth Mindset

    Tiffany: And so allowing them to get it out of their comfort zone into the growth zone where they can be challenged and possibly fail a few times, maybe they may fail along the way, but ultimately they have the big win at the end. It’s their own win and not because someone thought they should have it because they didn't have one. It's that they actually deserved it and earned it.

    Matt: Agreed, yeah. What you've just described is the growth mindset, right? And that's what we really try to push is that the ability, the idea that I'm going to try this and I'm going to do my best at it and if I don't meet the expectation, that's okay because I'm going to learn from it and I'm going to be better as a result of that.

    So oftentimes when we have someone who is highly sensitive or has that anxious attachment style, that there is a real hesitancy to take on those challenges. This fear of failure fills beyond them and so we want to try to help them see that having that growth mindset and doing something with the idea that I could potentially not do it completely right is something that is worth trying.

    Tiffany: I think it's helping them realize this and not be attached to who they are. It's not their identity if they fail. But oftentimes when someone's highly anxious or highly sensitive and has an anxious detachment, their identity is wrapped around that. What if I fail or I am a failure, right? But helping them get out of that, rewriting that script, getting in the growth mindset zone and having that growth mindset understanding of, “That isn't who I am. That's separate from who I am. And I can do hard things. That's who I am. I'm capable of doing hard things.” Helping them change that is really what we want is them to gain that ego strength, ultimately, and that confidence.

    What positive coping skills do you teach the kids at Discovery Ranch to help develop resilience?

    Matt: So in DBT, there are four skill sets. For those of you that are not familiar with dialectical behavior therapy, the original work that was done is incredibly boring and arduous and to try to read it is next to impossible.

    And the irony is that what was created are some very basic coping strategies, but there are four...

    Tiffany: The research behind it, though, is phenomenal.

    Matt: It really is. Absolutely. Marshall Inahan and all that good stuff. The four major skill sets are distress tolerance, emotional regulation, core mindfulness and interpersonal effectiveness. And so, distress tolerance is exactly what it states. These are skills, specific skills that help you manage your stress.

    Tiffany: Which we all need, right?

    Matt: Right. I think that this should be taught in every high school.

    Tiffany: They really should.

    Matt: Or junior high probably.

    Tiffany: I agree.

    Matt: Emotional regulation, same thing. These are skills, specific skills to help you regulate your emotions. And then core mindfulness is helping you be in the moment.

    And so what we find is that if you are stuck in the past, if you are spending too much time in the past, then the predominant emotion is shame.

    And if you are thinking too much about the future, then the predominant emotion is anxiety, and the big brother is fear. So anxiety and fear.

    Tiffany: Oh, they like hanging out together.

    Matt: Very much so. And so with that skill set, we're trying to help them just be in the moment.

    Tiffany: Which we, again, could all use.

    Matt: Absolutely. Yeah, and then the final skill is interpersonal effectiveness. And so those are relationship skills.

    Tiffany: Which again, we all could use.

    Matt: Yeah, absolutely. And we're talking about people who have done their best to kind of manage their lives that are out of control. And so, because we want to go back to that place of safety and security, this is where all those negative coping strategies come into play, the addictions that we all know about.

    Tiffany: All the avoidance of what you're feeling.

    Matt: Yes. It’s huge. I mean, the teens today with social media and gaming and all those things.

    Tiffany: Even emotional eating, spending.

    Matt: Pornography.

    Tiffany: Pornography, all of that. Yep.

    Matt: Yes. And so, we're trying to give them a new set of skills so that they can manage.

    Tiffany: Yes. I often like to tell parents that their teen has developed these skills to survive and you can't just say you can't do them anymore. You need to replace them. So this is a great way. I ran the DBT skills group at a program I worked for and it was one of my favorite groups I got to run. It was the easiest, but also the hardest cause it was hard to teach all these things and for them to really grasp and understand, but once they did, it was awesome.

    Matt: You know, I was introduced to these skills 20 years ago and my thought was that this is kind of the next psychological flash in the pan and we'll move on and here we are 20 years later.

    Tiffany: It's been around forever.

    Practicing Skills for Building Resilience

    Matt: These are skills that are still being utilized and like we said, should be taught to every junior high student in the nation.
    One of the things that I think that is important is that we want to teach them the skills and then we want to give them the opportunity to practice the skills.

    Tiffany: So how do you do that?

    Matt: Well, we try to utilize the 20 plus acres that we have.

    Tiffany: I know a lot of our listeners probably haven't seen the beautiful acres of Discovery Ranch, but it is gorgeous.

    Matt: We feel very fortunate.

    Tiffany: So what do you guys do on campus?

    Matt: So we have equine therapy. We have a feeder calf program that's really unique. We have ropes, high and low ropes courses right on campus.

    Tiffany: You have an arena?

    Matt: Yes, we have an indoor horse riding arena. We want to teach them the skills that we just talked about and then we want to give them the opportunity to practice. And so they'll be “in the moment” in real time. So we want them to be on the climbing wall and be challenged by that and then we want to be able to say,”Tell me, what's a DBT skill that you could use right now to help manage your emotions.?”

    And so they can think through it and then start to practice those skills or anticipate going to equine therapy and being nervous about it and be able to walk through and say, “Okay, this is how you're feeling. What's a skill that would work for you right now as you prepare to go into this challenging situation.”

    Tiffany: I'm sure the calf program is beneficial. Explain a little more to our listeners what that is and how it really plays into the anxious attachment style that you see.

    Feeder Calf Program and Experiential Therapy

    Matt: Yes. So the feeder calf program is that we have dairy calves. Historically male dairy calves, when they were born, were obsolete. They just got rid of them. And so what we're doing is we're coming in a day or two after these calves were born and we're taking them to Discovery Ranch. And at that point, the students step in and take over. They step in as the primary caregiver for that cow.

    Tiffany: That's so cool. I want to come take care of a calf. They're so cute, too!

    Matt: Tiffany, I will say that we would love to take credit and just say, “Hey, we knew how powerful this was going to be when we started this,” But I'll be honest, we didn't know how powerful this was going to be. We knew that they were going to develop work ethic and that it was going to be a good challenge for them. They have to feed these calves three times a day, rain, snow, sleet, or hail. Or when the temperature is a hundred degrees.

    And so they have to take care of these calves. They recognize this is not just a task. This is life or death and so they recognize the importance of it. Then this bonding, this connection starts to take place between the student and this calf and they have all sorts of insights related to what's taking place and it's almost comical the number of times that the student will say something like, “Is this how my parents feel?”

    Tiffany: That's the beauty of experiential therapy, though. It takes it to this level that we couldn't even have planned for. It takes it to this deeper insight and understanding for our students.

    Matt: And it's ultimately where they need to go, like whatever that thing is that is missing in their life, then ultimately, it's taking them to that place that they need to work on.

    Tiffany: It's just trusting the process that they'll gain the insight they need without us having to force it on them or help them see it. The beauty is just them getting there on their own and helping guide them.

    Matt: I like to informally talk to our boys when they're preparing to leave and ask them what kinds of things here at the ranch have made the biggest difference and routinely, our equine therapy program and our calf program are the things that have made the greatest difference for them, that have helped facilitate the greatest change.

    Tiffany: Probably the most impactful.

    Matt: Absolutely.

    Impactful Programs at Discovery Ranch

    Tiffany: Yeah. I would love to end on a success story that you've seen that you could share with our listeners who are dealing with a highly sensitive and anxious attachment style.

    Matt: Okay, yeah. The first individual that comes to mind is actually kind of a dramatic example. So we had a student that was, when he came to campus, like many other students, he was broken and he had attempted suicide and this was not a casual attempt. He had gone to great lengths and it really was a miracle that his life was saved. But when he came on campus, he just felt as if there was no hope for him and that he really had lost sight of anything that was good or decent in his life at all. And so we continued to work on coping strategies and coping skills and all those things, but he just wasn't there yet, but he persisted. And I just have so much respect.

    He was able to push through and now almost 13 years later, he is successful and has his own family and the thing that's really special about it is there was that time in his life that he couldn't see the future that he's experiencing now and he has a life that he is so grateful for. He sees the beauty in the world again.

    Tiffany: Yeah, which he wouldn't have had if he had continued down that path.

    Matt: Absolutely not.

    Tiffany: So we really are changing lives, helping someone who's highly sensitive to realize that they can survive. They can thrive. They can be resilient in this world and have hope for a future.

    Matt: Absolutely. I feel very fortunate to be a part of this and to be able to witness the transformations and again, I have so much respect for the courage that these young men demonstrate as they pursue this new life.

    Tiffany: That's so beautiful. Thank you for sharing such a powerful story. I'm sure you have so many more, and I'm sure listeners would love to hear them all. We'll have to have you back on another time.

    Matt: Look forward to it.

    Tiffany: Yeah. Thank you so much.

    Matt: Thank you.

    Tiffany: Thank you to our listeners. In our next episode, we will be talking about how residential treatment can help prepare highly sensitive teens to thrive in a harsh world and we'll be interviewing Clinton again, the executive director. So stay tuned.