I am a parent of three neurodivergent teenagers and so I know that parenting teens can be tough. For many parents, the turbulent uncharted territory of the teenage years can feel like a minefield. Your amiable, loving kid who just yesterday, couldn’t bear to be apart from you pulls away from you and starts locking themselves in their room.

Suddenly your teen’s friends’ opinions supplant yours as the most important. At times it may seem as if they can’t stand you, they don’t want you around and are literally counting the days until they finish school and can leave home to live their own life away from you.

This is all part and parcel of a normal stage in your child’s growth and development. However, it can feel overwhelmingly confusing, hard and quite frankly, horrible.

And yet despite all evidence to the contrary, this is a time when your teen needs connection with you as their parent the most. However, they may not be able to communicate this to you. They also need connection with you in a different way than before. Your teen needs you in a way that a therapist once related to me as, “firing you as a manager and hiring you back as a consultant”.

CLICK HERE If you would like more ideas on how to connect with your Neurodivergent Teen

How To Connect With Your Teen

Connection-Focused Parenting is a parenting style that focuses on creating relationships with our teens based on mutual respect and trust.  Connection-Focused Parenting allows both parent and teen to feel seen, heard and accepted for who they are as their authentic selves. This in turn equips our teens with a sturdy foundation of self-acceptance, self-worth, self-trust, self-confidence and resilience.

Most parenting approaches are based on either connection or control.

The goal of connection-focused parenting is to establish a trusting, respectful and reciprocal relationship. The result of this approach is your teenager becomes more likely to see you as an ally, accept your advice, follow your lead and internalize your values.

The goal of control-oriented parenting is to change your teen by modifying their behaviour. Control-focused parenting relies on ‘power over’ strategies such as negativity, aggression, punishment, criticism, intimidation and rejection. This style of parenting may result in short-term obedience out of fear. But in the long term, this will result in rebellion and power struggles between you and your teen. Your teen may outwardly comply with your requests while hiding their real feelings and behaviours from you.

A connection-focused approach results in a desire to comply because of genuine caring. Parenting that emphasizes connection makes building your relationship the focus of interactions. It offers children choices and helps them learn to be responsible and accountable for their actions while feeling good about themselves. When a child feels connected to a parent, they develop compassion and empathy. This results in feelings of belonging. They learn to intrinsically care about the impact of their behaviours on others. Teens who feel seen, heard and understood are more likely to cooperate because of the love and trust that is established between the parent and the child.

Connection-Focused Parenting For Neurodivergent Teenagers Prioritises Four Things:

  • Secure attachment with a significant adult.
  • Affirming your teen’s Neurodivergent identity.
  • Connection before correction, ‘fixing’ or advice-giving.
  • Adapting your parenting approach to your teen’s unique needs, strengths and difficulties.

In this blog, I focus mainly on secure attachment and how connected-focused parenting can support your attachment with your teen. To read more about how you can parent your teen in a neuro-affirming way and adapt your parenting approach to meet their unique needs, strengths and difficulties read my blog series HERE

CLICK HERE If you would like more ideas on how to connect with your Neurodivergent Teen


In order to understand Connection-Focused Parenting better we need a basic understanding of what attachment is and how it works.

All humans are born with an innate instinct to form attachments with others. Babies are wired to attach to their primary caregivers because their survival depends on this. Infants arrive with a ‘package’ of ‘attachment tools’ such as crying, cooing, mimicking facial expressions and crying.

Attachment is a dynamic, two-way process between the infant and the person who is most responsive to their needs. Infants send out cues to the person they are attached to. The adult then meets the needs of the infant signalling to the infant that they can be trusted. This forms a secure attachment from where the infant learns to determine whether or not the world is a safe, ‘trustworthy‘ place.

A child’s secure attachment with their primary caregiver gives them a ‘safe base’ from which to explore the world and relationships with others. A secure attachment allows a child to have the inner knowing that they have a predictable, safe pair of hands ready to welcome them when they need to come back for reassurance.

Long-Term Consequences Of Early Attachment

John Bowlby, the founder of Attachment Theory, theorised that the quality of the initial infant/carer attachment can have far-reaching, life-long consequences for the holistic health and well-being of an individual.

According to Dr Becky Kennedy, a child will take what they learned in their early attachment with their primary caregiver and make the following assumptions about themselves, relationships and the world based on their lived experience of these questions,

“Am I lovable and good and desirable to be around? Will I be seen and heard? What can I expect of others when I am upset? What can I expect of others when I am overwhelmed? What can I expect of others when we disagree?…Children are learning how relationships work at the same time that they are locked into a relationship with us.”

Dr Becky Kennedy

It is important to know that even though a secure, early attachment is the most favourable for a connected parent-child relationship it is never too late. Due to neuroplasticity our brains and nervous systems are always capable of rewiring.

CLICK HERE If you would like more ideas on how to connect with your Neurodivergent Teen

photo of woman and boy watching through tablet computer
Photo by Julia M Cameron on Pexels.com

Control-Focused Parenting VS Connection-Focused Parenting

Control-Focused Parenting

Through my experiences as a child, as a parent and in my early career as an early childhood teacher I was trained to focus on modifying children’s behaviour. I was taught all kinds of ‘positive child guidance’ strategies such as; smacking, ‘time-out’, ‘the naughty step’, star charts and consequences.

Everything I was taught was based on how to control a child’s behaviour so that it was acceptable to others through the use of positive and negative reinforcement. If the child behaved in a way that was agreeable and compliant they were considered a ‘good child’. You in turn were perceived as a ‘good parent’ or teacher. If your child had a tantrum or misbehaved they were seen as a ‘bad child’. You were judged as being a ‘bad parent‘ or teacher.

Control-focused parenting strategies are based on the assumption that there is something wrong with our children. This presumes that our children are inherently ‘naughty’ or ‘bad’ and need ‘correcting’. Control-focused parenting assumes that our kids are manipulative and trying to control us with their behaviour. The presumption is that they are ‘bad’ kids doing ‘bad’ things. That it is our job to ‘fix’ them to make them more acceptable to others.

CLICK HERE If you would like more ideas on how to connect with your Neurodivergent Teen

Cultural Attitudes To Parenting

Just take a look at this ‘parenting proverb’ from my childhood; “spare the rod, spoil the child”.

This bit of ‘parental wisdom’, and so many others from this era, feeds the fear that if we don’t control or punish our children they will grow up to be ‘bad’ people. This reinforces our ultimate fear as human beings that our children will be rejected from the ‘tribe’, and us by default as parents, because we didn’t raise our children ‘right’.

The overwhelming message that a child receives from this control-focused approach is that they are fundamentally ‘bad’. Parts of them are unlovable, unacceptable and need to be hidden because no one wants to know these parts. This is particularly prevalent for neurodivergent teens who often feel that they must mask their differences to fit in with what is considered ‘normal’.

Consequences Of Control-Focussed Parenting

Control-focused parenting strategies fuel feelings of shame, separation and isolation. It causes parents and teens to struggle to control each other causing separation.

This approach can lead to feelings of shame, people-pleasing and conditions such as anxiety and depression. Parenting that focuses on control can lead to teen behaviours such as self-harm or numbing themselves with sex, alcohol and drugs.

Control-focused parenting can lead to more panic attacks and autistic meltdowns for Autistic teens. Teens who have ADHD, ODD (Oppositional Defiant Disorder), or Autism with a PDA (Pathological Demand Avoidance) profile, are more likely to respond to control-focused parenting strategies with rebellion and defiance.

Connection-Focused Parenting

We all want to feel seen heard and accepted for who we are and to be treated with dignity and respect. We seek out people in our lives whom we can love and who will return that love to us. For teens, in particular, the fear of not belonging can feel like an existential threat.

There is so much going on for our teens. Our teen’s brains and bodies are undergoing major changes. They have the innate drive to separate and ‘individualise’ themselves from their parents. At the same time, teens have huge emotional needs that they don’t know how to express. They are in a stage of being ‘big/little’. This can be the source of a lot of internal struggle and conflict.

Many teens find their own emotions and the unpredictability of what is happening inside of them to be extremely scary. If a teen is exploring their sexuality, questioning their gender or sense they may be ‘different’ in some way this can add to their feelings of fear or anxiety. Many teens fear that they will be seen as ‘too much’ or unlovable by their parents and will be rejected because of this. This fuels a need in the teen to try to take back control from the parent by defying them.

Connection-focused parenting views the parent-teen relationship as a partnership where both partners are ‘whole’ and sovereign beings. We do things ‘with’ our teens, not ‘to’ them. Although we have different roles in the relationship, leadership is shared. In this relationship, reciprocal respect and trust are nurtured.

A strong, secure connection with a significant adult during the teenage years is an important protective factor for teen mental health as it supports teens to develop a strong sense of self-trust and self-worth.

CLICK HERE If you would like more ideas on how to connect with your Neurodivergent Teen

Connection With Ourselves First

Before we hope to influence our children and their behaviour we must first connect with them. However, before we can connect with our children we must first be connected with ourselves.

All so-called ‘bad’ behaviours stem from a state of emotional dysregulation. When we are emotionally dysregulated we are disconnected from ourselves. In other words, we lose the ability for our brains to think rationally and for us to restore calm to our bodies. This manifests outwardly as anger, rage, shouting, arguing, shutting down, panic attacks or meltdowns. When we are disconnected from ourselves it is impossible for us to connect with others. In fact, our dysregulation will most likely trigger dysregulation in others.

Strong emotions are extremely ‘catchy’. By learning how to connect to our own emotions and self-regulate as parents we can hold space for our children and act as a co-regulation partner with them. In other words, our ‘calm’ calms them.

CLICK HERE If you would like more ideas on how to connect with your Neurodivergent Teen

Shifting The Paradigm On Behaviours

The key difference between the two parenting approaches is in how they view needs, emotions and behaviour.

Many of us were raised in a culture that vilifies needs, emotions and behaviours. Whereas the control-focused approach is all about controlling the behaviours of children, the connection-focused approach sees emotions and behaviour as a ‘window’ to the needs of the child. This fosters curiosity as to why our children are behaving in a particular way and allows us to focus on the needs that are not being met.

Beneath every behavior there is a feeling, and beneath each feeling there is a need. When we meet that need rather than focusing on the behavior, we begin to deal with the cause not the symptom.

Ashleigh Warner

Connection-focused parenting strategies are built on the foundation that we are all ‘good inside’. That is – you and your teen are fundamentally ‘good’. Our ‘goodness’ is something that is inherently ours and not something we need to earn from others. Our behaviours are not a reflection of whether we are ‘good’ or ‘bad’. Connection-focused parenting views needs, emotions and behaviours as seen as normal parts of being human. Through this lens needs, emotions and behaviours are neither good nor bad. Instead, they are viewed as useful bits of information that we use to navigate the human experience.

When we create a safe haven in ourselves full of love and compassion we are able to hold our children in the generosity of our assumptions. At its core, connection-focused parenting is based on our connection to our shared humanness.

We reinforce this by modelling connecting with our needs in ourselves and in them and meeting these needs. This in turn allows our children to internalise this practice so that they become better skilled to meet their own needs and the needs of others.

To find out more about connection-focused parenting join my Connected Parent Newsletter to receive my weekly blog as well as information about my monthly parent education webinars.

Meet The Person Who Wrote This Blog

Tanya Valentin Neuro-Affirming Family Coach

Tanya Valentin is a Trauma-Informed and Neuro-Affirming Family Coach, NZ Registered Teacher, Lecturer (Te Pukenga – Early Childhood Education and Care), Author and Podcaster.

Tanya is a Neurodivergent person and a proud Mama of 3 Neurodivergent humans. She works to support, educate and foster inclusion, acceptance and positive life outcomes for all neurodivergent children, teenagers and adults in all her areas of life.

Tanya lives with her family in beautiful Northland, New Zealand. She has authored several books and blogs and co-hosts the Seen Heard Accepted Podcast with her family. Tanya is the founder of the Neurodivergent Family Toolbox and the Parenting Neurodivergent Kids Together Community and podcast.

Tanya is committed to making a difference in the world by supporting parents with practical tools and strategies to help them understand their child and their unique wiring, feel confident in their parenting and nurture strong connections between themselves and their children.

Need personalised support for yourself and your family? Book your FREE 30-minute call with Tanya


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