There is a question to which everyone has an answer, whether they realize it or not. Here is the question: who are the people in your life with whom you feel safest? If we know that safety is actually a feeling of comfort, then we can ask the question a different way: who in your life do you feel most comfortable with? Our answer will reveal much about who we spend our time with, and the actions we choose in order to continue feeling comfortable with these people, whoever they may be. After all, why would anyone want to spend valuable time and energy investing in any relationships that do not provide some degree of comfort and belonging?
The healthiest answer of course is found in having a wide variety of people we feel comfortable spending time with. That does not mean one should try and have 50 “best friends”, but that whether at home, work or school, there is likely one or more people who make us comfortable simply by being in their presence. It is also important to acknowledge that no matter how friendly we are, or how much skill we have at meeting others, we will always encounter people we click with, and people we simply don’t. I once heard an acquaintance describe his pool of friends as being “a thousand miles wide, but an inch deep”. Certainly, there can be a danger in over-valuing the approval of others, and being afraid to seek out those few who will accept us unconditionally, and support us in simply being ourselves.
As a counselor for youth, young adults and parents, it is truly fascinating for me to observe and understand the choices different people are making in getting their needs for belonging and comfort met. To use a prime example, I have met with countless teens and young adults over time who spend almost every possible waking hour with friends, and who use the home as a place to sleep, get fed, but little else. Does this sound familiar? For some, the strength of connection with friends is strong and important enough that the line between friends and family becomes blurred; the friends become a sort of family on their own, and spending any large amount of time away from them becomes exceedingly difficult.
As you may have guessed, this state of affairs becomes problematic when there is not a healthy degree of connection with one’s true family, whether that is parents, guardians, or whoever is the primary caregiver as defined by law. So how is it that teens and young adults can come to regard the family home as more of a convenience, and the family itself as more distant and much less significant than friends? The answer, I believe, lies in who we choose to form secure attachments with at a young age, and the lasting legacy that is often created as a result. Children and teens will look to develop healthy, happy connections with those they often cross paths with, especially at home and school. When there is a perceived lack of warmth, presence or love on the part of the parent figures at home, that young person is far more likely to seek that healthy connection elsewhere.
British psychiatrist John Bowlby studied the behavior of children at length, and he concluded that when emotional and physical closeness are in short supply from the parent figures, and when the young person perceives he/she is not going to be supported in times of difficulty, secure attachments with them are much less likely to form. This opens the door to feelings of “emotional starvation”, and a number of problems such as extreme anger, inability to trust others, and of course, distancing oneself from the family.
This is not to say that an unhappy teen can simply blame unhappiness on parents who are not caring enough. Without question, a young person’s perception of not being cared about, particularly in the heat of the moment, may not be based entirely upon reality. However, it is always healthy as parents to take a step back and reflect upon the degree of happy, healthy connection is currently being experienced in the family. The answer may be one we are satisfied with, or it may also reveal opportunities for us to create a renewed environment of trust, presence, and support with our children. When we choose to make our best efforts in connecting in genuine, caring ways with them, it can be surprising how young people will often respond in kind.