Parents must reclaim the central role if growing crisis among children is to end, suggests new book

Our hands-off approach to childrearing means kids are increasingly being led by their peers. It’s crucial parents reclaim their central role, a leading physician tells Helen O’Callaghan.

FOR the first time in history, children are being brought up by each other. They are taking their lead from their peers — turning to them for their values, identity-shaping and codes of behaviour.

Children are in crisis and it’s because — instead of orbiting around their parents and other responsible adults as they are meant to do — they are more and more orbiting around each other.

Being ‘cool’ matters more than anything else.

This is how Dr Gabor Maté and Dr Gordon Neufeld, authors of Hold on to Your Kids: Why Parents Need to Matter More Than Peers, diagnose the breakdown in the relationship between many parents and their children today.

For a child to be open to being parented by an adult — rather than taking his/her cue from an immature peer who can’t possibly guide them to maturity — they must be actively attached to the adult, wanting closeness and contact with that adult, say Maté, a physician who works with patients challenged by drug addiction and mental illness, and Neufeld, a psychologist with a reputation for penetrating to the heart of complex parenting.

“Culture, until recently, was always handed down vertically from generation to generation. [Now] instead of being passed down vertically, it’s being transmitted horizontally within the younger generation,” they observe.

Yet, children of any mammalian species look to the adult to guide them — they defer to their parents, says Maté, speaking to Feelgood.

“Watch the mother bear with her cubs. They follow her wherever she goes. The connection is one of leadership, not exploitation — it follows from the fact that the parent is more informed, powerful and wiser and is charged with the responsibility of caring for the children.”

But, says Maté, this hierarchy is not something to be taken for granted — it’s present if there’s an attached adult-child relationship.

So what has happened to erode this healthy attachment?

We no longer have the economic and social basis for a culture that would support parenthood and hold its mission sacred, the authors argue.

“Until recently, we evolved and lived in villages and hunter-gatherer groupings. Children had many adults around them, including their biological family. Now we isolate the father and mother,” says Maté, pointing to a loss of communal contact.

“From an early age, for economic and social reasons, children don’t see their parents most of the day. And parents are encouraged to practice ways of rearing that separate them from their children — time outs, banishing them from their presence if behaviour doesn’t please. Young mums are advised not to pick up their children if they’re crying at night.”

And unfortunately, says Maté, those who work in the institutions to which we send our children — crèche, pre-school, school — are often not trained in attachment and how they need to be parental substitutes. Nor are they equipped — for example in terms of teacher/child ratio — to nurture.

Also contributing to peer-orientation rather than child-parent attachment are the digital devices we’ve given our children.

“They have repurposed these devices to connect with one another, both at the individual level and on a mass scale. The result is a further disastrous erosion of the ground for healthy human development.”

Hold on to Your Kids

asks the pertinent question: where are the adult mentors to help guide our children and adolescents?

“The reassuring, consistent presence of grandparents, aunts and uncles, the protective embrace of the multigenerational family, is something [increasingly fewer] children nowadays are able to enjoy.”

Yet, says Maté, we have a biological drive for connection and the more children separate emotionally and physically from parents, the more they have to find another locus of attachment. “So they find it in their peer group. They become increasingly and prematurely attached to each other.”

And this peer group attachment can have a negative impact on children, say the authors, who believe it interferes with healthy development and fosters a hostile and sexualised youth culture.

“[What’s] absolutely missing in peer relationships is unconditional love and acceptance, the desire to nurture, the ability to extend oneself for the sake of the other, the willingness to sacrifice for the growth and development of the other.”

Encouraging children to become “independent” from a young age is another drive that has become normalised, says Maté. “There’s a natural time in adolescence when a young person’s taken up with a movement towards independence and becoming their own person,” he acknowledges.

But this natural development shouldn’t mean rejecting or becoming hostile towards the parent or making peers more important than parents.

“Traditionally, peer relationships still took a secondary place to [those with] adults until the child himself became an adult.

“Today, it’s considered ‘healthy teenage rebellion’ but it’s happening earlier and it’s not because the child is ready to take on the responsibilities of adulthood. It’s because they’re immature and disconnected from adults – so their peers are taking over that role, but in an immature, damaging way.”

The bottom line, says Maté, is you can’t have independence without maturity.

“Maturation happens in the context of strong attached relationships with nurturing adults, who promote independence by inviting dependence. Children can develop independence when they have a strong sense of self.”

To regain our lost child we have to re-attach. “The older the child is, the more difficult but it’s not impossible,” says Maté.

Even faced with a child’s hostility and rejection, the parent must surrender any temptation to see this as a child behaviour issue or to take the negativity personally.

“Parents must surrender their point of view that there’s something wrong with the child and see that it’s the relationship that’s in trouble and the child’s behaviour is just a function of that. We must stop trying to control the child’s behaviour.”

Instead, the parent must have the confidence to know the child really needs unconditional acceptance by a nurturing adult, says Maté. He points to Neufeld’s words: ‘Parents have to know that they are a child’s best bet at any age’.

Maté himself was traumatised as a Jewish infant under the Nazis in Budapest. Because he hadn’t resolved that trauma, it impacted on his children.

“The relationship I had with them wasn’t as strong, warm or nurturing as it needed to be. Once I saw the impact, I had to regain their trust, which meant constantly looking at myself — was I really present, warm, nurturing, compassionate or was I just trying to control their behaviour? By the time I got some good answers I had a lot of parenting to remedy,” he says, adding that his relationship with his now adult children is very good.

For children, attachment is an absolute need. And they must be attached to us emotionally until they’re capable of standing on their own two feet, able to think for themselves and to determine their own direction.

John Bowlby, whose research was the basis for so much of what we know about attachment and its primal importance, was simply reminding us of what any Aboriginal grandmother could have told us 1,000 years ago. Over 50 years on from Bowlby, it seems we need reminding again.

Hold on to Your Kids, Dr Gabor Maté and Dr Gordon Neufeld, Vermillion, €14.


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