Why Parental Power is the Key to Adolescence

‘Adolescence’ – from Latin, ‘Grow to Maturity’.

British society has developed in ways that have elongated adolescence. Once a phase lasting a few years, it now stretches from the onset of puberty well into a person’s 20s. During the early years of adolescence, many parents opt to let go, to encourage ‘independence’ or because their child seems to have more fun with their peers. But adolescence is no time to relinquish adult-child bonds, it is a time for adults to claim their position as the key players in their children’s transition to adulthood.

Role of Adults in Adolescence

Our children begin life 100% reliant on us, gradually becoming more independent, before experiencing a dramatic lurch forwards in adolescence. The adolescent appears to want to separate from the adult, and this signal is often mis-read by parents who respond by letting go altogether. While they need to separate at times, they also need a safe home base of attachment to return to. In adolescence, our children are not just learning independence; they also need the qualities of adaptability and integration. These three qualities, detailed below, are nature’s demand of them, the ultimate goal being maturation, the basis for happy, healthy adulthood. To succeed in this challenge, adolescents need parenting figures as much as they did during their infancy.

Independence 

To become independent, adolescents need to push away from their adult attachment figures. But to be able to individuate with confidence, they also need the adult to act as a safety net, unthreatened by their child’s engagements with the world. The parent’s unconditional positive regard – acceptance and support that does not depend on approval of behaviour – is what a child needs to become independent. A child without this will lack the confidence to go forth into the world and will remain preoccupied with his primary need, attachment.

Adaptability

Strong adult attachment is a lightning rod when upsetting events inevitably happen. To develop the metaphor, while a strong parent cannot prevent the lightning strikes of painful events, a secure attachment grounds the electricity safely, preventing explosions and fires that are inevitable when emotional pain goes unrecognised and a child feels alone or unsafe in the world.

A secure attachment enables an important life lesson to be learned: painful things happen but we are safe in this world, accepted and treasured. From here, the adolescent learns that she can adapt to circumstances and embrace life with the confidence that comes from not being alone.

Integration

To develop depth and perspective, adolescents must absorb and integrate the many conflicting signals they are bombarded with. Children experience one emotion at a time, mature people can handle multiple. Adolescence is the time that this transition should occur. As with developing the body’s muscle tone, intellectual and emotional development requires contrast and conflict, push and pull; the brain learns problem-solving by considering different solutions. To develop the muscles required for independence, adaptability and integration, the adolescent needs some help…

New Role, Same Power

When an adolescent sees that the changes they are manifesting do not threaten her adult attachment, she makes an executive decision: changing the adult role from Parent to Advisor. This new role sees the adult become the adolescent’s mentor and confidant, a guru who can deftly enable the adolescent to fill the internal void that appears so dramatically in adolescence. In Dr. Gordon Neufeld’s stellar online course, Making Sense of Adolescence, the developmental psychologist repeatedly states the importance of providing adolescents with writing material. This facilitates and encourages the necessary phase of narcissism. By writing, they explore and express what is emerging; in a space just for them. Into this space, they gradually emerge as vibrant individuals.

The Advisor’s job description also includes enabling the adolescent to rest; to allow space for their tender emotions to emerge; to skilfully tease out of the adolescent what is bubbling up inside. Rather than pushing back when the adolescent begins to exert themselves (often crudely and rudely) the adult shows strength, the self-assuredness of an individual able to hold and govern space for someone they love.

 

Alternatives 

The most basic human need is for attachment. If the adult does not proactively make themselves available, the adolescent finds attachment elsewhere. They attach to peers or online communities where none of the nurturing actions mentioned above are available. An adolescent abandoned to the peer group or the internet will not fulfil nature’s plan for adolescence: maturity. 

What is unhealthy – peer attachment – can appear to be healthy. The peer-attached adolescent can present as confident and strong; you do not see them struggle with overwhelming emotions because they have been suppressed. In contrast, the adult-attached adolescent is often a mess. Less preoccupied with maintaining their cool, their emotions are on display, along with their awkwardness and angst. Awkward teens can become successful adults, but many parents intervene and sabotage this route to maturity, believing their children are happier and more independent with their friends or online.

This entirely modern phenomenon of peer-orientation is encouraged in a culture that pushes children and adults apart. Adults often work long hours in high stress or precarious jobs; meanwhile, adolescents have an instant connection to each other using technology. The culture has been largely stripped of its traditional reverence for the wisdom of elders, and adults in popular culture are generally figures of mockery. Developmentally, this all contributes to the disaster of people remaining trapped in adolescence, unable to emerge fully as individuals.

The alternative to peer orientation and arrested development is attachment parenting. Secure attachments to safe adults help in obvious and subtle ways, from decreasing the chances of bullying (perpetration or victimhood) and sexual promiscuity to providing a basis for a young adult to emerge and fulfill their potential in a turbulent world.

The power needed for successful adolescence lies with us, we just need to grasp it.

By Tom Charles @tomhcharles

This article was first published by Attachment Parenting UK 

@attachparentuk

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