“For his soul he required nothing. Security, attention, tenderness, love – or whatever all those things are called that children are said to require – were utterly dispensable to the young Grenouille. Or rather…he had utterly dispensed with them just to go on living…”
From Perfume by Patrick Süskind [i]
This is the first in a series of articles on raising children in 2020, focusing on attachment, particularly during the tumultuous years of adolescence.
The teachings of the developmental psychologist Dr Gordon Neufeld provide the theoretical and intellectual basis for these articles and ideas. Dr Neufeld’s work has reinforced and given confidence to my own intuition on attachment parenting. Equally important to these articles are my own experiences, thoughts and ideas, as a parent to a daughter entering adolescence and as someone who has worked with young people in west London for the best part of a decade.
According to Dr Neufeld, in western societies adolescence now lasts longer than ever before, from around 12 into a person’s 20s. The forthcoming articles will focus on adolescence through the lens of attachment, but before diving into adolescence, this first article considers what attachment means in the parenting context and asks what is needed for a child to fulfil their full human potential.
In a 2012 address to the European parliament, Dr Neufeld explained: “Every child has the potential to become fully human and humane, but not every person comes to realise that potential.”
Dr Neufeld explains adolescence as a distinct phase, when we can cross the bridge between childhood and adulthood; a time in our lives when we are set up to successfully realise our potential, or not. Ageing is inevitable, but maturation is not, and without maturity, human potential cannot be realised.
To mature, and therefore fulfil their potential as adults, children need to successfully develop certain qualities through the three distinct processes: Independence; Adaptability and Integration. All three stages of maturation unfold spontaneously under the right conditions. But none are inevitable.
- Independence. Emergence as a viable individual (or not) – sometimes called the ‘separation process.’ The child is released from their pursuit of proximity to adult attachment figures, able to rely on those attachments remaining safely in place.
- Adaptability. This is when the child should develop resilience to face the things in life that are out of their control. In this highly emotional process in the automatic nervous system, the child moves from trying to make things work for them to letting go of their delusions of control and power. This should result in what Dr Neufeld calls ‘tears of futility’ to be followed by the realisation and relief that they have survived.Experiencing futility is vital if the child is to develop adaptability, and the role of parental figures is crucial here. They must act as the arbiters of loss and disappointment, usually through the use of the word ‘No.’ In 2020, many parents do not want to say ‘No,’ depriving their children of the necessary experience of futility and leading to a generation of spoiled and entitled children unable to adapt to the slightest disappointments. Adaption flexes the brain’s plasticity; without this being activated, the most common syndromes in western societies are now “tearless syndromes”[ii] a.k.a. emotional shutdown, which exacerbates existing tensions between child and adult and increases the sense of impotence felt by many parents, carers, teachers and mentors;
- Integration. For a person to develop depth and perspective, it is essential that they can experience conflicting signals. To develop muscle tone, the body requires contrast and conflict, push and pull. For intellectual development, the brain must engage in problem solving by considering different solutions. Similarly, for emotional development, conflict is necessary.
Up to age five, a child experiences one emotion at a time. Between five and seven, “On the other hand” or similar phrases reveal that mixed feelings are developing. But in adverse developmental conditions, a child will remain in the pre-five-year-old phase of one emotion, and many adults also stay in that phase, without mixed feelings and devoid of inner conflict. They have not realised their human potential, whatever high office or social status they may attain.
In contrast to the adults mentioned above, children emerging successfully into maturation are curious about life, embracing opportunities and are rarely bored; they can take responsibility, seek independence and seem comfortable in their own skin. They have attractive personalities and can function fully away from their primary attachments.
This process happens, or should happen, during adolescence. In western societies, though, many conditions for successful maturation are not present, or have been distorted. This means that schools cannot develop children to emerge into maturity, and so the onus is on parents and carers to ensure young people get what they need, developmentally.
What do they need to mature? Dr Neufeld sets out four things. The first is the key, with the second, third and fourth only developing if a solid base of the first is established first.
1.Attachment. Dr Neufeld calls attachment to adult(s) “an external womb” for babies and young children, allowing them to develop safely and with the necessary nurturance. With babies it develops through the senses, and in adolescents and adults, through maintaining positive relationships based on what the psychologist Carl Rogers called unconditional positive regard and mutual respect.
Such genuinely deep attachments are often lowkey, reflecting a comfort existing between adult and child. In contrast, superficial digital attachments often appear more conspicuously affectionate – people ‘like’ each other, ‘laugh out loud’ at their jokes – but the relationships lack genuine depth.
Development of attachments are the basis for healthy development and must not atrophy after the baby grows bigger, less physically needy and less cute. Technology offers a means to shortcut the pain of separation by providing a quick hit of attachment brain chemicals, but like an addictive drug or behaviour, it fails to provide anything truly nurturing or lasting. Worse, if the reliance on the digital at the expense of human connection continues, it short cuts the whole human being, who’s capacity for deep relationship is undermined in their forming of shallow digital attachments.
Digital attachment, often encouraged by parents who like its short-term benefits, is part of a much bigger phenomenon known as peer orientation that is now typical in western societies and as such, appears perfectly normal. Peer orientation is the diversion of a child’s attachment instinct away from adults and towards other children, adolescents and youths. It is rampant in societies that pressure parents and caregivers into working longer hours while living more isolated lives than ever before in communities that are undermined by a lack of investment. ‘It takes a village to raise a child’ – the proverbial village provides a safe system of hierarchy and care, but western societies are going another way and peer relationships are filling the space vacated by adults.
In his Brussels address, Dr Neufeld stated that peer orientation “completely interferes with the conditions required for human growth and development, leading to massive developmental arrest…and an epidemic of immaturity”.
The cause of this phenomenon is unknown to most people, but the results are evident to anyone spending time with young people in recent years. Their vocabulary is limited and shrinking; adults are often afforded little-to-no respect and parents have been stripped of the authority required to pass on their own values to their offspring.
The power to nurture emerges from attachment. If the attachment is secure, the adult retains the power. But our society has seen a significant power shift: from nature’s caregivers, adults, to peer groups, with often tragic consequences. Incidents that often baffle parents, schools, politicians and the media, such as gang membership, child-on-child violence, knife crime, bullying and underage sex can be understood only in the context of attachment dynamics, not as isolated phenomena.
What appears to be the opposite of the violent and inappropriate behaviour mentioned above is shyness. But shyness is also a sign of attachments gone awry. Shyness acts as a protective shell, keeping the young person safe until they can emerge into the world. A young person is never shy with those they are attached to.
Widespread ignorance of attachment parenting has been manna from heaven for parenting ‘experts’ and ‘gurus’ whose books and TV programmes have shunned attachment theory and helped popularise toxic ideas such as punishing children in order to correct their behaviour and ‘controlled crying’ for infants expressing their attachment needs.
Parenting classes in 2020 often advocate coercion, bribery, threat and reward as parenting techniques. These tactics are also employed by most teachers and schools and are counter-productive for human development. Perhaps meeting an immediate need for an overwhelmed teacher to quieten a class down, tricks such as threatening collective punishment of a whole class only reinforce the message given to the children that they are not acceptable as they are, undermining their trust of the teacher and therefore their attachment to them. Rewarding children for ‘good’ work has a similarly negative impact, de-motivating the child and undermining their natural inclination to explore new ideas.
Dr Neufeld explains that a non-attached child is “allergic to coercion,” which provokes counterwill in children, often incorrectly labelled as Oppositional Defiant Disorder, a diagnosis which entirely misses the point about attachment. Counterwill reflects the current state of an individual’s attachment relationships, and like shyness, is an evolutionary trick to keep young people safe from outside threats. This phenomenon now affects much of society as children are less attached to adults, who are reacting to counterwill by doubling down on punishment and coercion. Such attempts to train children into obedience are shallow and ineffective from a developmental perspective. However, if a system or and institutions has the goal of producing fearful individuals inclined toward compliance with social and economic demands, punishment and coercion are possibly the best ways to achieve this.
Strong counterwill in people is an expression of a desire to be ‘bad,’ to reject the coercive attempts of a stronger party. For a child with a strong attachment to an adult, the desire to be ‘bad’ is anathema as it threatens the very basis of their existence and development – their attachment to a nurturing adult. Deep attachments also offset any problems caused by separation, whether physical, emotional or psychological. If a child, by being themselves, is unable to maintain his attachments, his brain releases stress hormones leading him to feel alarmed and to make efforts to close the attachment gap. If this does not work the child will shift to caution and eventually emotional shutdown.
Continued failure to experience secure attachment is impossible to bear for a human, who will survive as an organism only by adopting the position taken by the character mentioned at the beginning of this article, Grenouille from the novel Perfume. Grenouille is repeatedly discarded by adults and so cannot afford to hope for “security, attention, tenderness, love…he…utterly dispensed with them just to go on living”.
Like Grenouille, children and adolescents will shut down emotionally if their attachment needs are thwarted. This manifests in rudeness, counterwill and often a seeming ignorance or complete disregard for social norms around adult-child dynamics. What is going on, though, is much more complex than this surface posturing. Such a child has lost her tender feelings and experiences no option but to run from vulnerability, repeatedly, and as if their own sensitivity were an existential threat. Two problems follow for the young person in this situation: her potential attachment figures almost certainly react with less attachment and more punishment, desperate to re-establish their influence. This only reinforces the attachment crisis, and normally leads to the second problem, the child being driven to peer attachment to fill the void.
A major problem with peer orientation is that it often looks so good. Peer orientated youths appear strong, confident and independent. And sometimes they are, but only in a narrow way. When challenged or taken out of their youth-centric comfort zones, they are unable to cope, having already experienced arrested emotional development. Images of these supposedly ‘healthy’ young people are appropriated by advertisers to sell an image of youth that proclaims freedom but is in fact a thin façade of fear, shame and loneliness.
In 2020, there is more peer orientation than ever before because there is more separation that ever before. Oxymorons like ‘digital community’ are no substitute for the real thing. The result is aggression, anxiety, addiction, agitation and suicide among young people like never before in history.
Dr Neufeld identifies true attachment as the “antidote” to superficial relationships. A child can never be too attached and deep attachments are the basis of health for the individual and the wider society. Deep attachments create and maintain space to allow the other three criteria for maturation to follow…
2. Rest. The brain’s priority is attachment. No attachment means no rest and rest is the time when humans integrate and grow, absorbing experiences and information and problem-solving networks are created in the brain. Like muscles, the brain develops during rest.
Here, adults should take the lead, breeding confidence in the child that they are not the ones carrying the weight of responsibility for the relationship. Unconditional positive regard is the basis for success and may require the adult to identify any barriers within themselves to offering this to the child. If this is offered, the adult should see the child wanting to be like the adult, actively seeking belonging within the safety of the space held by the caregiver.
“We must convey to our children an invitation to exist in our presence that is free of conditions…there is no other pathway,”– Dr Gordon Neufeld [iii]
3. Play. The third criterion for maturation is play that is free of outcome, meaning it is free of reward, punishment, winner, loser; it is undertaken for self-expression and exploration, allowing the child to feel safe to embrace the wonder of life. What we see now is parents wanting children to get ahead early on in a hyper-competitive culture. This culture crosses national borders and has seen money replace religion and other community-centred activities as the focal point for societies and families. Human cultures, developed over centuries, naturally encourage play. When money replaces these time-honoured traditions, play disappears, and children become dominated by the fixation of the society around them.
4. Feeling Tender Emotions. To mature, a child must be able to be sensitive. Peer orientated children cannot do this as their attachments are based on being cool and of maintaining the approval of immature, traumatised, emotionally shut down people who will instinctively reject the sensitivity of others that they cannot face in themselves.
A child emerging into maturity will experience the full benefits of feeling their tender emotions. Futility leads to an ability to adapt; satiation creates the confidence of emergence and dissonance allows integration of mixed feelings. The child must feel their emotions, and to do this they need the space of a secure attachment.
The issue of tender emotions is particularly prominent during adolescence. The adolescent’s brain can either shut down because the environment is not safe. Or it can do its job of helping the young person mature. It’s one or the other, it cannot do both at the same time.
One deceptive phenomenon is that many peer orientated adolescents do not experience loneliness, we do not see them cry or hear them express emotional pain. This looks like strength, but it is a sign that they are unable to feel these emotions, being so shut down as a protection against the pain of the world. They appear less caring, more confident. They are attached to their peers and must therefore maintain this outer shield at all costs. In their peer group, the pain increases as the young person experiences precisely no unconditional love.
The peer orientated adolescent in the above paragraph is in a prison of attachment desperation and pain avoidance. Meanwhile, his securely attached classmate proceeds with confidence, knowing that their attachment figures will have their backs, providing the resilience and confidence they need to experience the pain of the world without losing themselves. These outcomes become blueprints for people’s adult lives. Forthcoming articles will look at the dramatic changes that take place during adolescence; a time when we are propelled forward or become developmentally stuck. The articles will be for those parents who feel the need to go against the tide.
By Tom Charles @tomhcharles
Urban Dandy is holding an exhibition of poetry at the Living Centre in Kings Cross, London during April 2020 to mark Stress Awareness month. The exhibition is inspired by parent-child dynamics and the importance of secure attachments in helping us deal with the stresses of life.
[i] Patrick Süskind, Perfume, The Story of a Murderer, Penguin Books (1987)
[ii] Brussels Address, p.6
[iii] Brussels Address, p.17