“To know there was someone whom I could always count on but who also let me be whatever I wanted to be gave me more security than anything else could.”
Ilhan Omar describing her relationship with her auntie[i]
This is the third in series on raising children in 2020, focused on the tumultuous years of adolescence. It is based on attachment theory and the teachings of the developmental psychologist Dr Gordon Neufeld. Warning: The article features one anecdote unsuitable for children…
To allow humans to develop, a void opens with the onset of adolescence. The void is internal, with the child suddenly experiencing uncertainty; and external, with the adolescent now doubting and questioning the world around them. It is a necessary stage, but it can cause alarm for the child and the adults in their life. The crucial issue is what fills the void. In our culture, it has become the norm for things that have disastrous developmental consequences to fill the void. Here we look at one of those phenomena, peer orientation. In part four, we’ll look at digital attachments.
Thoughts & Feelings
With adolescence, the child is hit with an array of physical, biological and emotional changes. Perhaps for the first time, she is despondent, doubtful and irritable. It is so uncomfortable that she will be tempted to shut herself down emotionally to cope with her feelings. But shutting down blocks successful passage through adolescence, and here it is important that adults remain heavily involved and enhance their own status as mentors and confidants in youths’ lives.
Traditionally, the role of culture in human development was to augment the work of parents in their child’s transition into adulthood, providing rituals and pointers for the adolescent to help them navigate change. Our culture no longer fulfils this role and is, in fact, heading determinedly in the opposite direction. Culture has abandoned our adolescents, meaning the adult role needs to be greater than ever, and it calls on adults to be greater than ever if our young people are going to mature into healthy adults. Secure attachment needs to form the basis of the adult-child relationship if adolescence is to be fruitfully navigated.
In adolescence, the young person will be tempted to resist thoughts and feelings that seem too intense. Without secure adult attachments, he will not have ways to make sense of the changes and is more likely to fall into the arms of alternative attachments. These alternatives – peers and technology – are the enemies of parents, but are often welcomed as saviours when they distract the disorientated teenager. The adolescent must attach to something, it is a developmental imperative and the basic instinct of all creatures, but if a safe adult does not present themselves, the youth will pick from one of the other options.
Orientation away from adults and towards the peer group is a misunderstood phenomenon, commonly seen as a healthy, natural part of growing up because it is so widespread. Peer orientation often starts long before adolescence, pushed by parents who are anxious for their children to be ‘socialised’ at a time when attachment to family should be the priority. An adolescent child is incapable of the maturity required for multiple attachments to peers who often have their own complex needs. But the pressure on young peers to interact intensively before they are ready is “an epidemic in society” leading to disease and regression, according to Dr Neufeld.
The focus in early adolescence should not be on peers but on the self. A narcissistic phase is a foundation on which a focus on community and other people can later be built. The only way to truly socialise the adolescent is to insist on strong adult attachments. Emphasis on peers will block true socialisation as it stresses conformity at the expense of being comfortable, confident and able to truly fit in with ease.
It is easy to identify who an adolescent is attached to – they speak like them. Rampant peer orientation is evidenced by diminishing vocabulary among young people and the phenomenon of a language barrier between youths and adults, sometimes labelled as youths speaking in code. The language barrier causes misunderstandings and tensions between the adults who should lead and children who need to be led. The vocabulary isn’t there to bridge the gap and the wider culture is undermining the notion that adult attachments are at all valuable.
One place in our society where adult-child bonds can be actively encouraged is in mentoring of young people who have fallen into crisis. The attachment dynamic, in the form of a relationship with a youth worker or counsellor, is inserted as an emergency measure to rescue a desperate situation. The adult in this situation faces an uphill battle, not because of the particular trouble the young person is in, but because the youth has already shut down to adult influence and is difficult to impact.
To attach, the adolescent needs to be shown that she is valued, welcome and can rely on the person they are attaching to. These attributes are impossible in peer relationships, which do not provide more than a superficial attachment.
The tricky thing for adults is that the warm invitation to attach has to be delivered at exactly the same moment that the adolescent also needs space and time for themselves. It’s not an easy balancing act, but the alternative is a lot of deeply felt emotional pain that explodes in incidents that should be labelled attachment crises, but rarely are…
One manifestation of attachment crisis is bullying. Securely attached adolescents are less susceptible because they are less needy. They will not stay in a peer relationship in which someone seeks to dominate them or exploit their vulnerability. Those with secure adult attachments are also much more likely to be able to express and process their pain if they are bullied and to move on rather than staying, tormented, in the misery, hoping to gain the bully’s approval.
So much is lost when peers replace adults. Studies show that family time is in sharp decline and this means adolescents are losing the opportunity to play in a consequence-free way. In genuine play, an adolescent’s tentative self emerges, he develops problem-solving skills and his mind can open. True learning, creativity and the safe expression of emotion and intuition all have an outlet in play. In contrast, peer groups are places of perpetual tension and competition without space to freely explore.
Being cool dominates peer relationships, where soft emotions are untenable. This makes many youths miserably lonely, but the primal need to attach keeps the peer-attached adolescent returning to these doomed dynamics, suppressing their tender emotions, their true selves – they have no choice.
Many other social ills grow out of peer orientation including gangs, knife crime, drugs, underage pregnancies, self-harm and child suicide. These phenomena are labelled as crises, but the root crisis is that of lost attachment. The bully who kills another child is unable to say ‘No’ to those he must impress – he cannot break the peer attachment. The victim hung around because he had nowhere else to go and he desperately, unknowingly was trying to attach.
One sixteen-year-old I knew in my youth was peer orientated and would get attention from young men, and social status from female friends, through sexual promiscuity. This accelerated when she and her friends would go to a big shopping centre at weekends and meet groups of lads, smoke spliffs and have sex. Things always go too far in peer groups and one evening this girl laid on a bench outside the shopping centre and seven young men lined up to have sex with her, one after the other. At the time, I didn’t think that this girl, from respectable suburbia, was ‘peer orientated’ – I didn’t know the word peer. I had no concept that she was in need of guidance, that she was just acting out her attachment needs in the only way available to her. She could not say No. Once she was in that situation, there was no No.
Peer orientation has the added danger of often appearing to be the opposite of disastrous. It can look successful and independent as if the bridge to adulthood is being crossed with consummate ease. Parents may misread the signs and believe their child’s natural drive for autonomy should be met with permissiveness, a ‘job done’ mentality and a cigar. Parents might also view peer orientation as a positive sign that their child is becoming independent. This could not be more wrong. True individuation looks awkward and geeky. In contrast, peer orientation looks impressive, but it is a confidence trick played by the culture. Underneath is a confused little boy or girl.
The adult role is to resist superficiality and to insist on holding the space, maintaining the void until it has done its job and the adolescent is ready to move on.
Be closer to your children than they are to their friends.
by Tom Charles
[i] From Ilhan Omar, This Is What America Looks Like, p.34, Hurst Publishers, 2020