Today it seems routine that the first thing we offer children when they enter daycare, preschool or elementary school, is a peer to hang onto. What our children really need is an adult to hang onto so that their need for contact and closeness can come from a mature source. Children are poor substitutes given their capacity to wound each other with rejection, shaming words, and alarming behavior. When we push peers over adults we court children seeing their friends as the ones to meet their needs rather than adults. This can result in a loss of parental authority and teachability as children look to each other to get their bearings.
The phenomena of peer attachment is not new and has been escalating over the last 50 years. This has been well documented by Gordon Neufeld and Gabor Mate in their book, Hold Onto Your Kids.
Peer attachment is created when our children experience a poor attachment or too much separation from their caregivers. This leaves them to meet their attachment needs with those who are typically available – their peers. Today children experience unprecedented levels of separation from their parents. This is primarily due to punitive parenting styles that are used by parents believe that parenting is about controlling their kids behavior rather than nurturing their souls. That said, many parents do not know how to connect and stay connected with their kids, especially if they grew up detached from their own parents. Look through the categories on this site “attachment theory” and “positive parenting” to find out how to use the “Connect, Re-flect then Re-direct” method of parenting, along with using Depictive Praise to help kids feel connected and want their parents over their peers.
The only way to keep kids close to adults is through connecting with our kids by using strategies that help the child feel seen and heard by their parents/caregivers. They do not need to find a friend to hang onto but be pointed in the direction of the adults who will hold onto them. Their adults are their best bet in learning how to interact with others and moving towards a more mature form.
What does peer attachment look like in a child?
When children become peer attached, there are numerous signs they prefer to be with their friends over their adults. They will take on the same mannerisms, talking, walking, wanting to dress like, and copy their peers. They can be very cognizant and worried about how they fit in and wounded by signs that a friend does not care about them nor want them around. Their desire to go to school stems more from a need to be with their peers rather than learning. In the classroom they may act in ways to impress their friends but the behavior is unlikely to please their teacher, e.g., talking to friends, trying to be funny, get a laugh or impress. There is a loss of teachability usually noted by their teachers such as the child talks too much and is overly concerned with being liked by their friends rather than attending to what the teacher says. There can be delays and problems in learning because of the child’s attention problems as well. In short, when peers become the answer to contact and closeness, there is a loss in parental influence in the home and teachability in the classroom.
Further, when parents and teachers lose their capacity to lead and influence, a child is more likely to be easily led astray by peers. In adolescent years this is highly problematic given possible exposure to drugs, alcohol, sexual experimentation as well as a host of other risky situations. Peer oriented kids no longer orbit around parental values, failing to take guidance and direction when given. In fact, they can become quite resistant towards their adults, acting in ways that defy, counter, oppose, and loathe interaction with them. They don’t respond the same way, failing to listen and heed cautions and directions. It makes for a difficult time in taking care of them. The loss in vulnerable feelings is also palpable in peer-attached kids as they no longer have mature people with whom it is safe to share their heart contents. Peers often exploit and deride the expression of vulnerable feelings rather than support them.
One of the most troubling aspects of peer attachment is the developmental arrest it causes. You cannot grow if your attachment needs are unmet and peers are a poor substitute for a healthy adult attachment. Kids need to feel at home with at least one adult that can provide and protect for them, this is their ultimate relational refuge. A peer cannot offer this same sense of home nor a provision of care that can truly satiate. Children who are peer attached may grow physically but there will be a loss to individuation and becoming their own person. Peer attached kids can grow into peer attached adults where cloning and fusion are present rather than a mature, separate self who stands apart and charts one’s own future.
How can we reclaim a peer attached child or youth?
It can feel daunting to reclaim a child or youth who prefers to be with their peers over their adults. The sense of rejection and not wanting to be with a parent can be challenging but one must persist if we are to make them ours again. It starts with believing you are what your child needs and in setting strong intentions to hold onto them, despite all the behavioural and learning problems that may be present. It will be hard to convey to a child that you are their answer when you cannot find this confidence and place inside of yourself.
1. Collect them and rebuild your relationship – The expression of delight, enjoyment and warmth goes a long way in trying to hold onto and reclaim a child. Find times when you can spend at least 15 minutes a day with each child alone, called Special Time. Kids needs lots of eye contact to feel seen, so put away your own mobile device. When you greet your kids, give them a smile and a nod. Connect with them around areas you have in common and spend time together devoid of outside competition such as screens, peers, and siblings. As you interact with them give them your undivided attention and listen with care and concern. Collecting a child is not about lecturing but listening, conveying an invitation for relationship, as well as a desire to be close. They may not readily take you up on your relational offer but persistence is key. Signs that you are making headway may be slow in coming but they can appear in a variety of ways such as wanting to spend time with you, asking questions, or following your directions.
2. Invite dependence and provide generously for them – We need children to depend on adults for caretaking but this can only be achieved when there is a generous provision of care being offered. This requires actively reading their needs and taking care of them rather than consulting them on what they want. We need to move to take care of them in ways that only we can, e.g., outings, trips, or teaching new hobbies. We need to consistently present ourselves as being able to offer a more nourishing and fulfilling relationship than they will ever find in a peer. Often peer-attached kids lack the motivation to try new things but with a parent’s help they can start to engage in activities that fit with their interests and curiosities, e.g., swimming, riding a bike, rock climbing. The parent must lead and pull the child into following them into these activities, as they cannot get there under their own direction.
3. Matchmake them to adults and embed them in an attachment hierarchy – When children become peer attached we need to help them find the adults that will take care of them. We can actively help them build a relationship with their teacher or care provider, noting areas of similarity and pointing out ways they care for them. When children are focused on same age peers we can draw their time and attention towards other adults, older cousins, family friends, to their aunties, uncles and grandparents. At the same time, we can invite the child to play a role in the life of a younger child serving to draw out their natural care taking instincts. When children experience attachments as being hierarchical in nature, it can serve to pull them out of orbit around same age peer relationships.
4. Don’t court the competition – Peer attached kids seek and gravitate to other children to spend time with. Part of getting into their relational space once again involves mitigating competing forces. Removing all peer contact will only serve to exacerbate a child’s desire to be close to them; therefore, preventing peer contact is not the answer. We must find ways to prevent competition such as limiting play-dates and giving them adult time instead. They may desire sleepovers and technological devices so as to keep in touch with their peers but parents must set limits and restrictions on these fronts in order to make headway and preserve their relationship. Peer attached kids will protest such moves and be frustrated with the limits. Letting them know you understand their frustration instead of trying to battle with them helps to hold onto them and prevent further distancing between you. When they are around their peers you can also move in to try and collect them as well, knowing that if you have their peers following you, your child will be close behind.
The problem of peer attachment could be alleviated if we focus on helping them to attach to adults in their life, rather then encouraging them to “find a friend.” We could then return to leading our children with natural authority and influence. The problem is we are so blinded today by a socialization agenda, I.e. kids need to be socialized, don’t they? that puts peers in competition with adult relationships. Developmental science has clearly demonstrated the danger of competing attachments yet we continue forward. Once you are able to see peer attachment for what it is, then one can better find a way through to reclaim or prevent losing a child.
One day a mother told me she was very concerned about her daughter who had came home distraught from school. Her daughter was reluctant at first to share anything but the mother persisted. Facing an overwhelming amount of distress her daughter told her that she was sad and heartbroken. She said her friend was leaving her out again, acting mean, and didn’t want to be her friend anymore. As she recounted her bad day to her mother she asked her in desperation, “When will I ever find a friend that can be with me to the end?” The mother was taken aback and at a loss for words as she tried to make sense of this desperate need inside her daughter. Parents, remember to teach your kids that friends are temporary, but family is forever. It isn’t a friend that is meant to be with a child to the end but an adult. Peers will let go of them but as parents, we are willing to hang onto until the very end.
A child can only rest in relationships where they feel an unwavering strength in the connection, where their tears are invited, and a burdened heart can be soothed. It is not for our children to search for this person among their peers but for an adult to claim them so that they search no farther. Friends will come and go but we are ultimately the answer to the hunger to be known and cared for. We need to hold onto our kids because we are their best bet. When we hold onto them they can let go of us. They will be free to grow into the people that only healthy attachment can give birth to.
For more information please go to the Neufeld Institute – www.neufeldinstitute.org or see Gordon Neufeld and Gabor Mate’s book – Hold Onto Your Kids: Why Parents need to Matter More than Peers.
This article first appeared in Nurture: Australia’s Natural Parenting Magazine in January 2015. Reprinted with permission