Parenting Against the Tide 4: Digital

Peer orientation, discussed in part three, is augmented by technology as a threat to healthy adolescent development. The things that are needed for successful maturation, namely space, boredom and genuine connection, are easily undermined by technology. The defence against this threat lies with you, the adult, staying in an active role.

Traditional Cultures

If parents let go of their child prematurely, a developmental tragedy plays out as the adolescent falls into the grip of peers, technology or a combined attachment to both. Traditional cultures provided what humans needed to navigate adolescence: interactions with relatives living close together (an attachment village); religious customs; ideology; mentors; elders; rituals based around nature; occupations; defined social roles and more. Without these factors in our society, it is more important than ever that the adult steps in to guide the adolescent.

In contrast to the traditional role of culture, modern digital culture is a mere palliative for those going through change. The digital world offers temporary, short-lived relief from the pain of separation by triggering the brain’s attachment reward system and releasing feel-good chemicals. Used to fill the void, social media, video games and pornography offer the adolescent a world devoid of real defeat or rejection. But in being depersonalised and dehumanising, these stimulants bypass the real-life experiences necessary for healthy development.

Like peer connections, digital connections shut the adolescent down emotionally. This can create the illusion of strength and independence. It can also reduce the pressure on the adult who can start to believe that their parenting work is done and enjoy new freedoms as their child does their own thing. But the adolescent needs adult guidance as much as ever.

Boredom

The digital world offers short cuts to relieve boredom, enabling young people to immerse themselves in worlds of fantasy where there is no danger that their pain will be known to others. The chemical release in the brain means they feel safe, but it is really only a short-lived respite, that will soon need to be topped up. In the process, healthy development is suppressed or strangulated.

The phrases social media and online community are oxymorons for adolescents. True attachments are made in person, through the senses, where significance, belonging and loyalty can all be nurtured. All of these qualities are absent in digital connections. Corporations use the human longing for attachment to advertise digital products that push young people away from profound fulfilment and development. Images of happy people connecting to each other dominate technology ads, and for a good reason: superficial digital contact between people is a goldmine for corporations precisely because it does not work. Their insatiable customers must keep returning for more because their need is never satisfied.

The changes that have taken place with peer and digital orientation invading the space previously held by adults are stark. From admiring and imitating, adolescents now tend to mock; from loving, they now loathe. It has also worsened social ills ranging from depression to self-harm to suicide. Boredom is not something people seek, but it is an ally in the maturation process, allowing the authentic person to begin to emerge from the fog of adolescence. This emergence requires a degree of teenage awkwardness, the digital world offers a way to bypass this process.

Damage

Pay attention for a few days, once this lockdown is over, to the snippets of conversation you hear in the street; you will notice that chat between two pre-teens (pre-mobile) is usually more intelligent and considered than that of people in their 20s, 30s or 40s. The reason is the infantilising effect of technology, specifically the constant availability of superficial gratification and distraction via mobile technology which has made contemplation a fringe activity in our culture.

Pre-mobile phone, pre-games console primary school children emerge with curiosity. But with unlimited access to digital sources, curiosity is dying out. Abundant quick fixes mean we can do a search to back up our pre-existing ideas and beliefs, with algorithms and overwhelming amounts of meaningless information reinforcing this cycle. Ready-made, socially acceptable personal identities based on the narrow parameters of what digital platforms allow do not necessarily support healthy development. The individual must emerge in her own sweet time, but digital orientation has intensified the pressures of peer orientation with adolescents particularly vulnerable to experiencing the isolation and alienation of this unsupportive culture.

Digital culture is not governed by the customs and taboos that protect healthy attachments and direct the adolescent to where they can be nurtured. The result is unhealthy fixations, with the average teenager sending thousands of texts every month and spending several hours a day on social media. Combined with family time being in freefall across western societies, there is less and less encouragement for children and parents to spend quality time together, a developmental disaster.

I recently witnessed a 14 year-old in genuine panic when her phone ran out of battery and she couldn’t find the charger – maintaining her peer relationships did not allow for this gap in contact and she did not enjoy strong, comforting attachments to the adults in her life. From the epitome of cool to existential shrieking, demanding to know where her mother had put the charger, she exists in the extremes of peer and digital orientation, her true self lost in the middle somewhere, without the time, space and nurturing required to emerge.

Space

As discussed in the previous articles, for adolescents to emerge as viable, healthy adults, certain conditions are needed. Space is crucial, but this does not mean being left entirely alone. Adults need to hold the space, playing the role of governor and gatekeeper of the solitude and experimentation that allow the real adult to develop out of the raw adolescent.

For the adolescent attached to social media, there is not enough space for the individual and no motive for the authentic self to emerge. Social media is dominated by deterrents to emergence. Other adolescents online cannot invite a youth to emerge, lost as they are in groupthink and the pursuit of acceptance. Virtue signalling dominates, sometimes in the form of cruelty to others. The desire to impress means that the adolescent cannot truly be known. If the authentic, vulnerable human self begins to present itself online, it is likely to be shot down by peers or faceless haters. The peer pressure means internalising and stifling one’s own needs, pure loneliness masquerading as fitting in. 

Adult Power

If an adolescent is hooked on digital stimulation in this way, it is a sign that his attachment needs have not been met in the right place at the right time by the right people. Here, the adult needs to step in again and reclaim their territory. If the teenager’s life lacks approval, closeness and warmth, the digital world is a problem waiting to happen. If his life is filled with approval, closeness and warmth, technology will be cleverly utilised by the adolescent to develop their skills and knowledge, instead of a short-lived attachment fix.

How does this latter eventuality manifest? According to Dr Gordon Neufeld, three things need to happen:

  • The adolescent needs to be in the process of developing their own ideas before they have access to digital technology
  • The adolescent needs to experience the developmental stage of futility, instead of bypassing it using technology
  • Loss and defeat are necessary developmental experiences. Without them, the adolescent will need to dominate others, leading them deeper into the pit of peer and digital orientations where this bullying can be expressed cheaply.

These positive, albeit painful, experiences mean that the adolescent can be free of the need for peer approval and be boosted with the confidence and fulfilment of their safe relationships with adults.

And what does an adult capable of facilitating a healthy, attuned attachment relationship with an adolescent look like? They believe in their own power as an adult and the role they must fulfil; they are comfortable with their teenage child being dependent on them even as their peers orientate to other teenagers with apparent confidence; they will enact rules and rituals that protect the attachment from outside harm, pointing the youth to the things that stay the same and reminding them of their next period of quality time together.

A confident adult will collect before they direct the young person and be prepared to pull rank to remind the child they are in a secure hierarchy. The adult will be confident that the adolescent will invite them to be a part of their lives, a key player in their development because the adult has cultivated a safe, caring relationship based on unconditional positive regard. None of this is available in the digital world.

A smart adult attachment figure will refrain from inviting the enemy onto their territory. Sleep overs with the school friends they’ve already seen all week and unfettered social media are developmental junk food unable to satisfy the adolescent. True nourishment comes from a profoundly beautiful adult-adolescent relationship. Everything else can follow.

 

By Tom Charles @tomhcharles

This is part four of a series on adolescence based on the teachings of developmental psychologist Dr Gordon Neufeld,

You can read parts one, two and three here.

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