Parenting Against the Tide 3: Peers

“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…

Click for parts one and two.

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.

Peers

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.

Vocabulary

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.

Attachment

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.

Cool

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

@tomhcharles

 

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[i] From Ilhan Omar, This Is What America Looks Like, p.34, Hurst Publishers, 2020

Parenting Against the Tide 2: Adolescence Begins

This is the second in a series on raising children in 2020, focused on the tumultuous years of adolescence. The articles are based on the teachings of the developmental psychologist Dr Gordon Neufeld and my own experiences as a parent and working with young people. Attachment parenting is distinct from other parenting styles as it seeks to build love and trust between child and adult as the basis for healthy development. It contrasts with the more popular approach of controlling children by using punishments and rewards. ‘Parent’ here refers to anybody in a parenting, caring, or mentoring relationship to whom the young person would naturally form an attachment.  ‘He’ and ‘she’ are used interchangeably.

Part one can be read here.

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Adolescence

According to Dr Neufeld, adolescence (from Latin, to grow into maturity) in western societies now stretches from the onset of puberty into a person’s 20s. The adolescent phase makes sense only in terms of where the young person is travelling to: adulthood and the rest of their lives. Trying to fathom adolescence in isolation is plain confusing. In traditional societies, the adolescent was treated as an adult but in modern urban societies, the situation is far more complex, as anyone who cares for or works with adolescents will testify. We adults have to adapt.

During the early years after birth, parents set the tempo for the child’s life. Nature takes over with the onset of puberty. With a sudden jolt, our children are not ours in the same way anymore. Their attachment needs change and a gap opens between the child and their parenting figures. This is nature’s way of initiating what Dr Neufeld refers to as ‘crossing the bridge’ from childhood into adulthood, immaturity to maturity.

As well as the increased space between the child and significant adults, adolescence hijacks the child with changes to the body; sudden awareness of the realities of the world and a questioning, ‘who am I?’ Nature has initiated the move from childhood to a new phase in which they set out to find autonomy and discover sexuality.

Adolescents race ahead from where they were, and it is a long catching up process, taking years for them to understand and integrate all that they are absorbing. And the role of the adult changes too, whether we are ready for it or not. Crossing the bridge of adolescence is a messy time for everyone involved.

Messy

Parents’ confusion and anxiety during adolescence are a reaction to the dramatic developments being experienced by their ‘babies’ and a reflection of an instinctual desire to protect children from pain. Parental anxiety might also be a reflection of the adult’s own unresolved traumas from their own adolescence. Problems arise when the changes are not embraced.

One messy change will see the adolescent become egocentric. Reacting to the flood of new ideas and other stimuli, the young person presumes that, becuase everything is happening to them, the influx is a signal that everything is about them.

In adolescence, the child will also start to develop ideals, believing that these high standards should manifest in the world around them. They observe that adults often do not live up to these ideals, adding to the adolescent’s increasing propensity to reject parental guidance. And the harsh criticism directed at the parent is also turned inward as the adolescent finds that they themselves have fallen short of these newfound ideals.

This is where the adult needs to embrace change and offer sympathy and forgiveness when the youth speaks out of turn. The adolescent is not making a conscious choice to be demanding and obnoxious; nature is driving them forward on this, the only path. It is crude but it is nature’s way of allowing the youngster to separate enough from his parents to start to become a viable, independent person.

Parent’s New Role

Like moving from one career path to another, the adult carer of an adolescent takes on a new role, whether they like it or not. It is a significant change that is largely ignored in a culture which tends to stoke adversity between parents and teenage children, often in order to provide convenient excuses for adults to disengage and to push adolescents towards compulsive capitalistic thinking and away from the wisdom of their elders. 

With the onset of adolescence comes the urge to resist. The youth resists not only her parents but aso her new uncomfortable feelings and thoughts, her doubts. In our culture, even in lockdown, there is a long menu of distractions for the youth to choose from for distraction. And if they are not securely attached to the parent, these distractions will soon dominate.

Counterintuitively, the parent’s new role is to ego centre the adolescent rather than to push back. The urge for most parents is to hit back against the overconfident, acid-tongued attitudes of their child. But to parent against the tide is to accept the adolescent is involuntarily experiencing a pivotal stage in their personal development. Dr Neufeld identifies that true help can be provided by the parent when they actively and skilfully tease out what is stirring inside the young person, rather than by rejecting what is expressed on the outside.

The adolescent is filled with thoughts and feelings: ideas, plans, questions, doubts; searching for certainty but feeling the opposite; rejecting guidance but needing it more than ever. He needs ways of understanding and organising these thoughts and he needs to know that his struggle does not threaten the parenting figure.

The parent can indulge the child’s idealism, safe in the knowledge that the world will burst that particular balloon soon enough. They can trust in nature’s plan for human development rather than resist it and they can provide tools and space to help the adolescent develop the self-regulation that is essential for maturation. Parents can buy notebooks, journals and sketchbooks for the young person and give them a physical space and time to scribble, processing the thoughts and feelings swirling inside.

This simple step of purchasing stationery is what allows the young person to start to navigate adolescence and reach their potential. Dr Neufeld returns to it again and again in his teachings. If some of the other developmental insights are about energy rather than material, abstract instead of concrete, then buying paper is not, and it seems to be the single most important step for parents to take, in practical terms at least.

The adolescent needs love as much as she did as a new-born baby as she faces two diverging roads: individuation and conformity. Whether or not loving attachments are maintained and strengthened will determine whether she takes the road of individuation, becoming a whole and high functioning person. The other road is to conform to peers and a culture that has abandoned its nurturing role. More on those dangers in part three…

 

By Tom Charles @tomhcharles

For Jenni & Tahlia

Parenting Against the Tide 1: Attachment

“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.

Attachment Parenting

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.

 

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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. Continue reading