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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“Following the Grenfell Tower tragedy, there was clear recognition of the need to make real improvements to the Lancaster West Estate and the need to have the residents lead the process. Both the Council and central Government have committed funding to support an ambitious and resident-led refurbishment of the Estate. The Council has promised to refurbish the Lancaster West Estate sensitively, collaboratively and to create a model for social housing in the 21st century. Residents are and will continue to be at the heart of shaping any future work throughout the delivery of the programme. There will be no demolition of people’s homes.”
The above quote from the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea (RBKC) expresses a clear intention to transform Lancaster West Estate, site of the Grenfell Tower fire in June 2017. Despite the fine words, the residents who are supposed to help lead the estate’s recovery say they are being treated as “an afterthought” by RBKC. There is little evidence of a transformation of the estate amid accusations that the local authority is backtracking on its commitments. We spoke to several residents who are involved in management and oversight of the estate to find out what has happened.
First, a little background…
Lancaster West estate in west London, is home to 795 households, making it the largest estate in Kensington and Chelsea and one of the largest in the capital. It opened in the mid-1970s as part of Britain’s post-war slum clearance. The estate’s one high-rise block was Grenfell Tower, which still stands, covered, following the 2017 fire that took 72 lives prematurely and traumatised the whole North Kensington area.
In the shadow of the tower are the brutalist low-rise blocks, Hurstway Walk, Testerton Walk and Barandon Walk, designed as high-rise towers laid on their sides. These low rises are ‘streets in the sky’ based around communal green areas, designed by architects Clifford Wearden and Peter Deakins in 1963/64. A similar design, with connecting first floor walkways, was envisioned for nearby Camelford Walk, Clarendon Walk and Treadgold House, but the plans were abandoned and in-house architects at RBKC built these blocks in a less ambitious style, hence the diversity of styles which gives the estate its disjointed appearance.
Grenfell Tower is a 67.30-metre (220 ft 10 in) tall building and contained 120 one- and two-bedroom flats housing up to 600 people. In 2016 the tower was given an £9.2 million refurbishment, including new windows and cladding to improve the building’s appearance. The facelift made the tower more congruent with its immediate neighbours, the newly built Kensington Academy secondary school and the rebuilt and modernised Kensington Leisure Centre.
From 1996 to 2018, Lancaster West estate was overseen by Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation (KCTMO,) an arms-length management organisation (ALMO) that managed RBKC’s 9,000 social housing properties. The motivation for RBKC’s handing over of responsibility to KCTMO in 1996 was its fear of losing control of its social housing stock which had become subject to a compulsory tendering strategy introduced by the national government. To maintain its control of the housing stock, the council created the KCTMO, with a management team of 20 that initially included 13 residents. In the plan, KCTMO took control of the borough’s social housing properties, but for major works (costing over £400,000, such as the Grenfell Tower refurbishment) liability was shared equally with the council.
In 2002, to access the government’s Decent Homes funding, KCTMO dropped most of the residents from its management setup and became an ALMO, maintaining the misleading tenant management title. In 2009, an independent report by Local Governance Limited, identified “substandard” repairs and a need for major works across the borough’s social housing properties, recommending the Tory-run council take a greater role in monitoring KCTMO. In response, KCTMO chief executive Robert Black pledged to build trust between the TMO and tenants. To say he failed to meet that pledge would be an understatement.
In 2013, the Estate Management Board at Lancaster West was wound up. There were “terrifying” power surges at Grenfell Tower and plans for the new school and leisure centre were not received enthusiastically by many residents, the sense being that both KCTMO and the council were out of touch with, and even dismissive of, residents’ voices. It was widely understood that Lancaster West, like much of North Kensington’s community space, was in the sights of RBKC’s senior Councillors, whose personal wealth is often increased by their involvement in the property market. Even the council’s own chief executive, Barry Quirk, has described pre-fire RBKC as “a property developer masquerading as a local authority”.
In 2015, the Grenfell Tower refurbishment began, and the ongoing Grenfell Inquiry is revealing the corners that were cut to save money at the expense of safety. Those of us who have lived on the estate have lived with a landlord determined to oversee the managed decline of our homes. Those without that lived experience also have ample evidence, thanks to Grenfell Action Group, of the contemptuous attitude of both RBKC and KCTMO towards Lancaster West residents, their resistance to resident empowerment, collaboration and improvements to living conditions. While Grenfell Tower was receiving its refurbishments, the rest of Lancaster West saw no meaningful improvements whatsoever, and the deterioration of the estate continued.
Following the June 2017 fire, RBKC unambiguously promised change. The council’s North Kensington recovery strategy, in both word and spirit, gave this as a vow to the residents of Lancaster West.
In a July 2018 document, ‘Your Housing Future’ RBKC stated: “The Council has promised to refurbish the Lancaster West Estate sensitively, collaboratively and to create a model for social housing in the 21st century” and “Residents are and will continue to be at the heart of shaping any future work throughout the delivery of the programme”.
In a document titled Our commitments to those affected by the Grenfell Tragedy, RBKC also made a commitment to achieve, by June 2020, complete refurbishment of Lancaster West so “the estate is somewhere residents are proud to live”.
RBKC’s new, more caring tone and rhetoric has been evident across all its public pronouncements since June 2017. There is no question that they have been consistent in that regard. But does the language reflect tangible improvements on the ground on Lancaster West?
We spoke with several residents heavily involved in the management of the estate to get their insights into what changes have been made, whether there has been genuine collaboration and whether Lancaster West’s trajectory is really heading towards a state-of-the-art model for 21st century social housing.
The Lancaster West residents/officials we spoke to told us the following:
A 2018 ‘Ideas Day’ was a hopeful beginning for Lancaster West’s recovery. RBKC worked collaboratively with residents and architects to develop ideas. The architects were enthusiastic about the scope of the project, with their plans published in June 2018, but then “got pissed off because nothing happened for months.”
The £40,000 allocated per property is not enough to transform the estate into the promised “model for social housing in the 21st century.” Those we spoke to all agreed that the figure reflects a lack of sincerity on RBKC’s part regarding Lancaster West and that the council has now reverted to its “property developer” type.
The per-household figure, just under £40,000, allocated to Lancaster West, is actually the same or lower than the amount allocated per property by RBKC for its social housing stock across the borough.
Some of the residents we spoke to had been on a fact-finding trip to Portsmouth to see an estate that had undergone a significant and successful refurbishment. The Residents’ Association member who attended told us that the Portsmouth estate received investment of £100,000 per unit. RBKC, the richest local authority in Britain, which held reserves of a third of a billion pounds before the fire, was looking to achieve its stated aims with under half the per-unit budget of the Portsmouth estate.
The £9.2 million Grenfell Tower refurbishment meant that approximately £77,000 was spent per unit and the members of Lancaster West Residents Association (LWRA) we spoke to think this figure should be starting point for the wider Lancaster West refurbishment.
Central government gave £25m to Lancaster West but this has been treated by RBKC as an excuse to reduce their own commitment to the estate. More on this below.
RBKC has spurned opportunities to borrow at very low interest rates to enable it to boost the Lancaster West recovery.
RBKC is “prioritising the allocation of recovery funds to those who have the greatest ability to sue the council, namely Grenfell survivors and bereaved”.
Funding of Lancaster West
A pattern of money awarded, then money withheld from Lancaster West has emerged since the North Kensington Recovery Strategy was published. It is a pattern that undermines the council’s key promises: genuine collaboration, sensitivity and a model for social housing, according to all four people we spoke to.
There have been two phases of funding of the estate’s recovery. £30 million was initially received, with £15 million coming from central government and £15 million from the council. This rose later to £57.9 million. The additional money was added when it became clear that £30 million was not enough and consisted of £18 million from central government and just under that amount from RBKC. The council did not want to match central government’s offer.
That amount can be further bolstered by accessing the Mayor of London’s Energy Efficiency Fund and taking a low-interest loan. But we were told that when this was mooted by residents, they were told by RBKC: ‘You have nearly £60 million. If you receive more, we have to cut back the budget.’
A similar response came from RBKC to the prospect of a grant from the government’s Heat Networks Investment Project for Lancaster West to have environmentally friendly communal heating. The grant required the estate to have safe external insulation (in the form of cladding) applied to its exterior to make it more energy efficient. But concerns about cladding are not the motivation for RBKC’s reticence to follow through on supporting such moves. According to one person we spoke to, RBKC “keep clawing back funding when Lancaster West accesses funding elsewhere”.
We were told that RBKC’s Housing Revenue Account (HRA), the income the council gains from its housing stock, is not treated by the council as income to be re-invested in communities. The same resident told us: “They (RBKC) see social housing as a privilege. The estate makes a profit for the council from rent, service charges and council tax. The HRA income alone should be enough to pay for capital works on Lancaster West”.
The pattern outlined by a number of the Lancaster West resident officials we interviewed is that the council capitalises on any funding secured by residents to cut its own outlay in contradiction of its stated commitment to the estate’s revival.
But Lancaster West is not an isolated example, carried out by one department, or one officer looking to tighten the purse strings. It reflects a pattern of governance by RBKC since the fire: The council’s documents and public pronouncements claim a newfound commitment to North Kensington; this satisfies those who have overseen the local authority, such as the government’s Grenfell Taskforce and the national media; the council then betrays residents by not following through on its commitments, or it pursues policies and strategies that not only do not meet their lofty exclamations of “change” but that actively and collectively neglect and punish residents in the north of the borough.
There are numerous examples of this pattern playing out, some covered previously by Urban Dandy including the council’s light touch approaches to applying its own Twelve Principles of Good Governance and its Charter for Public Participation. Seen in this context, the failure of RBKC to meet its stated goals on Lancaster West is no aberration but part of a deliberate shift back to pre-Grenfell austerity and the denigration of long-suffering residents.
Relations with RBKC
According to the residents we spoke to, the council refuses to collaborate with them in upgrading the estate. Regarding a recent council scrutiny meeting, the residents told us: “we had to write to ask to attend.” One of those we interviewed, a member of LWRA stated: “We have to go and see them, they don’t come to us, we’re an afterthought”.
They further criticised RBKC’s engagement strategy, saying “they use community organisations to tick boxes, they don’t check on delivery” and complained that LWRA, supposedly at the heart of the collaborative strategy is “never included in budget discussions” in which money for the council’s management is always approved. RBKC’s strategy of buying up houses in the aftermath of the fire was also described as “money wasted”.
The residents described a lack of transparency around money that is making Lancaster West’s and North Kensington’s recovery unnecessarily complicated. They cited the pot of money for community recovery including a 1.2 million annual budget for The Curve (the council’s main Grenfell recovery centre) but questioned who from the local community utilises The Curve, a venue that has proved toxic among many people locally and lacks empowered resident oversight.
We asked about the estate’s relations with national government. It seems that meetings held with successive Tory leaders have been perfunctory, forcing residents to rely on RBKC to make any progress. They said they lobbied RBKC, proposing that they collaborate on lobbying the government to secure more recovery money. We were told that “they (RBKC) would never consider doing that.”
By its original design, life on Lancaster West is a communal experience, so even private residents (as I was) need an effective system of communal repairs, decision making and management. The residents we spoke to said that the estate “needs a holistic approach” and cited investment in communal areas as key. In my time on the estate, communal areas were neglected and miserable. I knew of a Councillor living on the walkways who lobbied for some minimal improvements, pot plants, to be made in the communal area. RBKC refused.
Things have improved since then. We were told that:
The walkways have finally been refurbished, with empty / abandoned flats revived.
The positive changes have been implemented by a new organisation called W11 – Lancaster West Neighbourhood Team, which replaced KCTMO as the estate’s management body following the fire, when the TMO was relieved of its management duties. W11 is an on-site management team serving just Lancaster West albeit still funded by the council.
W11 is a “positive change” but the residents were also clear that they think RBKC sees W11 as “a danger” as it could become “a precedent for all estate management to become resident-led” so RBKC has vested interest in it not becoming too successful or independent.
From July 2019 until June 2020, staff at W11 carried out a comprehensive consultation throughout Lancaster West with very high engagement rates with residents. Priorities for the estate’s recovery were established, but will residents get what they have asked for?
We asked RBKC deputy leader Councillor Kim Taylor-Smith for a response on behalf of the local authority to the main criticisms of the resident officers, namely that RBKC has failed to transform Lancaster West; RBKC has not committed enough money to the estate’s recovery; RBKC is not genuinely collaborating with resident representatives to the extent that they describe experiencing deliberate exclusion by the council; that these criticisms reflect RBKC’s general performance in North Kensington since June 2017.
Neither Councillor Taylor-Smith nor any of his colleagues in the leadership team responded.
A council spokesman emailed: “We are sensitive to the special circumstances of Lancaster West residents and that is reflected in a scope and specification of work which is far beyond that of other estates.
“We have scoped the works collaboratively with residents and there is close control and scrutiny on the investment being made on Lancaster West, which is reviewed with the Lancaster West Residents’ Association and representatives at a quarterly programme board.
“We remain confident that this will be a model 21st century improvement programme.”**
Lancaster West is a profit-making estate, vibrant, creative and a key hub in a culturally rich corner of the world; its residents were steadfast in the face of the managed decline imposed by RBKC, only to be traumatised by a horror on the scale of a war crime. The same forces that failed to prevent the fire then failed to respond now seem to be equivocating about whether the estate’s recovery is really worth funding properly.
The residents we spoke to were clear and unified in their vision: “to achieve a ‘model for social housing’ we need money for communal areas.”
“We need somewhere we’re proud to live and that the council is proud to own.”
RBKC claims the same aspirations but Lancaster West residents might now be questioning just how sincere their council is.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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,
“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
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.
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.
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…
“This Council – its policies, its leadership, its senior people and its culture – has changed.”
Cllr Elizabeth Campbell, Leader and Barry Quirk, Chief Executive Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, March 2020
Since June 2017, Kensington and Chelsea Council (RBKC) has claimed to be undergoing a culture transformation. This website has shown that this assertion is untrue; that public money has been spent to thwart resident empowerment, while austerity spending cuts have been imposed on vital services. Two strategies used by RBKC to frustrate North Kensington’s development have been manipulation through public relations and divide-and-rule of the community. We tackle both here, exposing the PR con using contributions from local people who have stayed faithful to the ideals of community through three traumatic years and have come together to produce this piece.
In this article, we update our challenge to RBKC over its claims to have changed following the Grenfell Tower fire. Since June 14th, 2017, we have presented an evidence-based rebuttal to the council, revealing a fraud perpetrated against residents by RBKC before, during and since that crisis. Not once has RBKC disputed our criticisms with evidence. While we have provided real-life examples of serious failings, the council’s response has been to parrot their ‘change’ mantra.
This update was planned before the Coronavirus had impacted daily life so severely. Many people have been quick to predict that positive political, economic, social, philosophical and cultural transformations will spring from the crisis. We believe that only unified, grassroots action changes things and that adversarial journalism is indispensable in this.
RBKC’s Change Policy
By Tom Charles
The Conservative leadership of RBKC lives in an altered reality. On the ground: no change; in their press releases and public utterances: change. It seems that truth is not important, careful PR management is. RBKC remains intractable in this approach, typified in the quote above from the leader and chief executive of the richest local authority in the country. Over the past three years, we have published the following stories, exposing the lie of Campbell and Quirk, two functionaries for a rotten council that needed root and branch change…Continue reading →