Parenting is a complicated business in 2019. You can find thousands of books, experts, and professionals telling parents how to do their job. Each one offers some technique or tool that promises to unlock the secret to perfect parenting strategy. And yet, we have higher rates of teen anxiety and depression than ever before. How do we account for this paradox? How is it that parents have become so insecure in their ability to raise healthy children that they feel inclined to outsource this task to therapists? And when they do, things don’t seem to be getting better for families.
There’s a bit of irony here, since I am an adolescent therapist questioning our cultural reliance on adolescent therapists. But I’ve found myself puzzled by this strange contradiction: we have more “parenting resources” than ever before, yet parents feel increasingly ill-equipped to deal with the behavior and development of their kids.
There are ways in which therapy can be a useful supplement to family support, but there are many more tasks that cannot be outsourced to clinicians. And when I think about the hundreds of families I’ve worked with, the ones who seem to be doing best are ones in which the kids have a very close and intimate relationship with their parents. And it doesn’t seem to be correlated with parental love or effort: even devoted parents who sacrifice and toil for their children relentlessly can struggle to keep their kids connected to them. It seems to be less about what you do for them, and more about how you are with them. This is called attachment, and it’s a necessary, fundamental, and natural order of the parent-child relationship.
Attachment is what has allowed human families to raise healthy kids for thousands of years before PhDs, researchers, or parenting experts were part of the picture. Societies were structured around this natural hierarchy of parent and child, and cultures have traditionally fostered this important attachment dynamic. But today’s culture has become so alienated from the need for deeply rooted child-parent attachment that we see kids slipping away. As this deep heart-connection starts to unravel, kids, who need to attach to something, become increasingly obsessed with things like peer groups, digital media, and even identity groups or ideology.
In thinking about these issues, I realize that some of the advice I have been giving seems to greatly help some families and make little impact on others. The distinguishing feature seems to be the varying rootedness of attachment. When parents and kids are closely attached, kids WANT to open up to parents, share their secrets, and accept help from them. Kids who are detached interpret even the most neutral offer to help as an affront to their personhood (and simultaneously turn to other sources for their connection and validation).
So I want to go back to basics and share some resources about attachment. Whether your teen is trans-identified or desisted, or struggling with anxiety, depression, focus, or self-esteem, any parent will be able to draw from the natural wisdom of attachment theory.
Specifically I’ll be discussing the work of Gordon Neufeld and Gabor Mate. I found my way to their book after it was recommended to me by two different people within the same week. I took that as a message, and it turns out to have been a very meaningful one. Hold On to Your Kids: Why Parents Need to Matter More Than Peers is one of those books that made me think, “yes! We know this in our bones, but our heads have lead us so far astray.”
– Gordon Neufeld is developmental psychologist whose approach is based on John Bowlby’s attachment theory. You might know also attachment theory from Harlow’s famous study about maternal contact and baby monkeys.
– Gabor Mate is a physician and author with expertise on addiction, mind/body health, ADD/ADHD, child development, and parenting. For an excellent overview of attachment, and an introduction to Neufeld’s 6 roots to secure attachment, you can start with this piece by Shoshana Hayman.
Next, in the following video Neufeld discusses how to make sense of kids from an attachment and developmental perspective. New research about how to modify childhood behavior continues to pour out of labs and graduate research projects, but Neufeld argues that researchers often fail to account for the two most important aspects of child psychology: what children how nature works.
I especially like this part when he explains why insight about children’s nature is so important. Neufeld insists that we need “insight concerning the roots and meaning of a child’s behavior. To be able to see beyond…to make sense of a child from inside, out…To be able to read the anxious child as feeling unsafe, what to do will become much more obvious. When we read the aggressive child as frustrated they have not yet had their tears about things they cannot change, we won’t be tempted to increase the frustration in their life. When we read the oppositional child as feeling coerced we can find ways to resolve this problem. When we can read the impulsive child as emotionally immature we can take steps to compensate for this. When we read the bossy, demanding child as in need of a strong, alpha caring individual, we can get on with that challenge. This becomes very important in our day to day interactions that we can see beyond. This is based on a deeper insight and the essence has to do with what children truly need and how nature really works.”
Neufeld’s take on Anxiety in Children & Youth (the error in treating childhood anxiety the way we treat adult anxiety):
Gabor Mate on Devices:
I hope that parents will feel comforted in the message of attachment: you ARE the best answer for your kids’ distress. It is not easy to build up the confidence to stand strong in your role as a parent, especially if you’re dealing with a gender-questioning teen. But Hold on To Your Kids is an excellent book that can help restore your natural power to parent and guide your child.