Skip to comments.Peer-Attachment Disorder: A Real Or Imagined Problem?
Posted on 02/01/2004 8:23:31 AM PST by shrinkermd
What is it with so many children today? Sullen and surly, they ignore their elders and live to be with their peers. Two Vancouver specialists have a theory, but grownups won't like it, ALANNA MITCHELL reports. They believe the parental bond is being broken, with harrowing results
The two boys are wearing identical outfits -- baggy, chemically faded jeans, oversized winter coats and immaculate white runners, laces untied and tongues jutting up over the cuffs of their pants.
The two girls have a more revealing uniform: ultra-skinny jeans and puffy coats that skim the waist, one in brilliant white with a belt at the bottom and the other in tan.
They've claimed a sweet vantage point in the mall, right at the entrance to the Famous Players theatre. It's a game of "see and be seen," of scanning the packs of passers-by, checking out the swagger and identifying the various tribes here in the natural element of the mysterious, modern teen.
Few adults appear. When they do, they're in pairs, determined to make their movies on time. They glance almost furtively at the four teens monopolizing the corner of the entrance and at the throngs of other teens descending on the mall on a bustling Friday evening.
From a distance, the kids seem fresh and full of potential. They can't be anything like the ones who have spawned the parent-freaking headlines of the past few years: suicide, gangs, early sex, pregnancy, alienation, Littleton, Taber, Reena Virk and other random acts of violence from coast to coast.
Or can they? Let's try talking to them.
White coat bolts straight away, without making eye contact, and flees in horror to the embrace of the rest of her pack several metres away. Tan jacket stands her ground with the boys, a hostile look on her face. So what is it with teens today, they're asked.
Delivered by one of the boys, the brush-off is immediate and absolute. "We're kind of busy," he says, with a hard look on his face. Then he turns his back.
When Gordon Neufeld hears this story a few days later, he laughs. An experienced clinical psychologist in Vancouver, he recognizes the symptoms all too well. This is a sign of what he calls "peer-orientation" or "peer-attachment disorder," which he contends is a modern blight responsible for today's dangerous teen landscape and getting worse all the time.
According to Dr. Neufeld, teens who are peer-oriented dress alike and reject contact with adults. Their obsession with their friends and acquaintances supplants any real interest in adults to the point that they are emotionally detached even from their parents.
In fact, they despise grownups and often shun them. They have no stake in pleasing them any more because their emotional compass has switched from their parents to their friends. They're almost impossible to nurture or teach. And they certainly feel no obligation to explain themselves to an adult in a shopping mall.
"I'm convinced that peer-attachment disorder is the greatest disorder of our times," Dr. Neufeld says, adding that the problems of 90 to 95 per cent of the patients he sees are rooted in a skewed attachment.
In effect, he says, children are bringing up other children, and that's a recipe for dystopia straight out of Lord of the Flies. It's the death of parenthood.
This is the hypothesis that Dr. Neufeld and co-author Gabor Maté, a family physician and therapist in Vancouver, outline in their new book, Hold On To Your Kids: Why Parents Matter, published today in Canada and to appear next year in the United States.
Already the topic of controversy in the medical community, Hold On is a product of a billion-dollar industry devoted to counselling troubled parents striving to figure out what, if anything, is really wrong with their kids. One school of thought holds that it was ever thus -- causing parental angst is almost a childhood rite of passage.
But the thesis of these two specialists is anything but reassuring. They contend that the current generation of parents has pretty much lost its authority over children, either through negligence or indulgence, leaving them in an emotional void. To fill that void, kids bond with people their own age and wind up "peer-oriented."
This theory has its roots deep in the brain's biological survival instincts. Infants attach themselves to the grownups who take care of them and the grownups, in turn, attach to the children. As a result, babies will "make strange" with other adults. They want their parent and no one else.
But as the child grows older, reaching the age of 8 or 9, some parents withdraw their attachment, thinking they are acting for the best, and push children to be independent. Faced with an unbearable and unnatural attachment vacuum, the authors argue, such lost children will cling instead to whomever else is around. The brain, programmed to attach, goes for what's there, even if it's someone unsuitable.
This process has gained increasing momentum ever since the Second World War, as families have become more mobile and been allowed to break up more easily, and mothers have gone back to work and technology has advanced. Children have become attached to their peers and then been given little incentive to beak that bond. In effect, they've begun to make strange with their own parents.
As a result, parents lose the power to direct their children -- even if, as the Supreme Court of Canada ruled yesterday, they have a right to get physical with the younger ones. If kids don't care what their parents think, why do what they want?
What follows, according to Dr. Neufeld and Dr. Maté, is the death of curiosity, of maturation, of proper development with an aberrant society rising in its place.
Dr. Neufeld, who has pieced together this theory over 20 years of clinical practice and research, likens the situation to what could happen to a mother goose and her goslings. In the past, it didn't really matter if one or two of the youngsters wanted to follow other goslings because, as a group, they still traipsed behind the mother. But today, things are so topsy-turvy that she's now chasing the goslings, begging for a piece of the action.
At least she realizes that something has gone wrong. Today's parents, Dr. Neufeld says, grew up with a similar attraction to their peers, remain that way and so are often blind to what's going on. They think kids should be with other kids and work hard to make sure they are.
A couple approached him for help recently, upset that their 13-year-old son wanted to be with them all the time. "That's what it's come to," he says, sighing. "We see children who are adult-oriented as being aberrant."
Dr. Maté puts it another way: Even when the generations get together, they're not.
Think of the last party you went to -- it's unlikely that kids were invited. Even if they were, chances are they simply had a party of their own, gathering around the television set and ignoring any grownup bold enough to draw near.
Back at the Scarborough Town Centre, evening is becoming night. More adults have shown up, but they are still vastly outnumbered in the promenades, music stores and Old Navy by the tribes of teens.
The kids roam around in tightly defined groups of five or six, warily eyeing each other. They are concentrated most densely at the food court now, the girls sipping on diet pop, boys munching on fries. Almost every one of them brandishes a cellphone, evidence of the technological bubble in which they exist. Many keep checking the phones for coded text messages, some of which, to judge from the hilarity and waving, are from friends a few metres away.
Three girls sit primly at a round table, feasting on McDonald's food and so less likely to bolt if approached. They look identical, right down to the silhouette, the colours, the long hair, the heavy eye liner and thick makeup. One has just put down her cellphone to launch into a tirade about her boyfriend.
Perhaps they would like to offer their views on today's teens?
One responds with a withering look. "It's not a good time right now," she says dismissively. The girl just off the phone doesn't miss a beat, as though grownups are invisible. "That speech I just gave," she tells her friends, gesturing to her cell, "he didn't hear a word. He hung up on me."
To the authors of Hold On, that kids can behave this way illustrates abject failure for parenthood. But to U.S. researcher Judith Rich Harris, parenthood never had a chance -- it's been next to irrelevant all along.
Ms. Harris is the author of The Nurture Assumption: Why Children Turn Out the Way They Do, a 1998 book whose subtitle says it all: Parents Matter Less Than You Think and Peers Matter More.
She contends that adults have no lasting effects on the personality, intelligence or mental health of their children, apart from providing the raw genetic material. In other words, it's game over at birth. All the hugs, music lessons, bedtime reading, homework homilies and walks through the park make no real difference in the long run.
The very best thing parents can do? According to Ms. Harris, it's make sure that your kids look good, because their peers will notice and that's what really matters.
Published around the world, the book was a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize, and the 1995 research paper that first outlined her views won an award from the American Psychological Association. She has eminent defenders in the academic world (as well as many detractors) and her intention was to relieve parents of guilt. If the kids don't turn out, it's not your fault, she told them. It's either because of their genes or their friends.
But to Dr. Neufeld and Dr. Maté, this kind of advice is badly mistaken. Peers may well have lots of influence, but they shouldn't, they say. Instead, children's compass point must be their parents.
And parents, far from giving up, must do everything they can to hold on. They need to establish the hierarchy of the family and of the generations and "embed" children in it. They need to glory in their children's dependence on them, at least until the children are mature enough to go off on their own. Friends are fine. It's just that they can't be the be-all and end-all.
The duo recognize the irony in their theory. It's a U-turn from the prevailing attitudes on how to raise children. Advice from the reigning parental experts assumes children need to be pushed toward independence, urged to do for themselves, coaxed to derive their self-esteem from other kids. To help them do that, parents gobble up advice from self-help books, boning up on the latest tricks of the parenting trade.
A classic example, Dr. Maté notes, is the advice from experts to give a misbehaving child a so-called time out. He says parents do so faithfully for years, thinking it's the right thing even though it runs counter to a child's biological need to attach to the parent.
This and other means of thrusting children away, Dr. Neufeld says, are rampant but "developmentally illegitimate." Parents are running around trying to figure out what to do, when they should be re-examining who they are to their children.
Dr. Maté tells the story of what happened when his niece had a baby and took to holding the child on her belly. By the third day, the neonatal nurse had had enough, and told her to stop before she spoiled the baby.
"Try telling a monkey that," Dr. Maté says. "The fundamental thing is, we're trying to awaken people's parental intuition."
At least one expert on the childhood mind calls all this bunk.
Jean Wittenberg is head of infant psychiatry at the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto and president of the Canadian Alliance for Children's Health Care. He also represents a middle ground of sorts, arguing passionately that parents matter, but dismissing the theory expressed in Hold On as far too simplistic and a misapplication of developmental attachment.
"It's like there is one secret or one answer to everything," he says. "Life is too complex to reduce it to one idea. There is no magic bullet."
A psychiatrist trained in attachment theory, Dr. Wittenberg describes it as just one of many key factors, along with such things as discipline, play and intimacy.
As well, he says, the Hold On theory fails to take into account the march of human development over a lifetime. A parent's job is to help a child move from the breast, to toddlerhood, to school, to summer camp, to university, to the job market, learning to cope with friends and acquaintances along the way.
"It is tremendously important for our children to be successful with their peers," Dr. Wittenberg insists. "It's very important for parents to help them. If a child is failing with his or her peers, it's misery."
In his view, a 13-year-old who seems distant from her parents is more apt to be going through a necessary struggle for independence rather than losing her attachment to her parents.
Neither does he see a dystopia looming. Roughly 20 per cent of Canadians have some psychiatric problem, and the other 80 per cent are fine, he says. Children are still growing up, remaining close to their families, having children of their own, caring for their relatives. Parents are still heavily involved with their children, as they should be. Even in the families of his young patients at the hospital, where the relationship is by definition not ideal, Dr. Wittenberg says he sees a great deal of love.
[For your information Dystopia is an imaginary place or state in which the condition of life is extremely bad, as from deprivation, oppression, or terror.]
So what are parents supposed to do in these troubled times? Be there for your children in appropriate measures throughout their lives. Acknowledge that being a parent can be difficult, and try to walk in your child's shoes with what he calls a "sophisticated empathy." Understand what the child is thinking, feeling, doing, before trying to make a diagnosis.
The mall is really getting busy now. Friday is, without question, the busiest night of the week for many teens.
A boy of 5 or 6 walks by, all bundled up. His mother tugs him along at a good clip and he follows obediently. Duelling experts aside, how do you get from him to the self-absorbed tribes all around?
Unlike so many of the younger kids, Melissa Pupo, 18, and Farzana Farook, 17, have a few thoughts to offer. Both are in Grade 12 and, since their companions have wandered off for a few minutes, they politely agree to an interview, a sign, in Dr. Neufeld's analysis, that they are properly parent-oriented.
Fiddling slightly with the metal in her pierced lower lip, Ms. Pupo says she sees signs of trouble already in the Grade 4 kids she helps to teach in her co-op program: They have "attitude." If they don't get what they want, they just get mad. "Kids don't care any more about anything except their friends."
They've got no respect, Ms. Farook adds, her eyes scanning the crowd non-stop. Their parents haven't disciplined them properly; they don't respect their elders.
Ms. Pupo says she has 15 friends who already have kids, although just three of the dads are still in the picture. She knows another eight girls under 18 who are pregnant.
Both young women say they care deeply what their parents think. They confide in them. This is the secret to good family life, they say.
"I talk to my mom about everything. I can tell her everything. She knows everything there is to know," Ms. Pupo says, affection in her eyes.
A few shops away, Lynsey Ross, 16, also has a few thoughts to share, although her two friends have categorically refused to talk and stalked off in their puffy jackets. But she wants to let grownups know what she's thinking, which is: Friends are just friends. Parents are forever.
She knows because her dad died when she was 13 and she went off the rails until last year. She and her mother fought like there was no tomorrow. Finally, her mom broke through, telling Ms. Ross that she was responsible for her own life. Everything changed after that.
Her advice to worried parents? Don't give in too easily. And don't let go. Never let go.
lanna Mitchell is a senior feature writer at The Globe and Mail.
Signs of trouble
Timing: The switch in allegiance from parents to peers can begin as early as 5, according Gordon Neufeld and Gabor Maté, authors of Hold On To Your Kids: Why Parents Matter. The problem often comes to a head at 12 or 13.
Behaviour: Some signs are subtle, and others brutally obvious. When with other kids, peer-oriented children can seem animated, talkative, even demonstrative but, when a grownup approaches, refuse "even the most elementary rituals of attachment, such as eye contact, greetings and introductions."
They feel they must meld with their peers, which includes looking exactly like them.
If such children come to visit, they will appear uncomfortable, answer in mumbling monosyllables, and try to herd your children away from you. On the phone, they will refuse to identify themselves or to greet you by name.
Rejection: Disengaged children spurn any notion that they resemble their parents. They will go out of their way to take an opposing point of view and embrace different preferences, opinions and judgments. "If these children could, they would walk on the opposite side of the street in a contrary direction," the authors write.
Results: Such children make a parent's life difficult. They are hard to teach, aggressive and disobedient. Not caring what grownups think, they are immune to most forms of punishment.
Parents can find themselves feeling acutely rejected, if not crushed, neglected and even outright angry at being emotionally rebuffed.
What parents can do
Be aware: The most important thing is to understand the theory of attachment and recognize when it has gone wrong, Gordon Neufeld and Gabor Maté say. Most often, it's not that a child is behaving badly, but that the relationship with the parent has been ruptured and replaced with a dependence on peers.
Be wary: For example, the authors don't suggest abandoning daycare although they contend the "seeds of peer-orientation" are sown there. Instead, parents with kids in daycare may want to take extra care to nurture their attachment with them.
Control access: One specific suggestion, Dr. Neufeld says, is to keep your children's peers "out of their face." For example, don't automatically turn to peers as a cure for boredom. Don't encourage a child to gain self-esteem from them. Try to make sure that he or she is exposed to adults and learns to interact with them at social gatherings, rather than being with other kids all the time.
Be bold: If the attachment is lost, don't give up. It can be revived. "In may ways, peer orientation is like a cult, and the challenges of reclaiming children are much the same as if we were facing the seductions of a cult," the authors write. "The real challenge is to win back their hearts and their minds, not just have their bodies under our roof and at our table."
Be assertive: Once you realize what has happened, you can train yourself to put your attachment with your child first and to reinforce it every day. Then it's a question of relying on your natural parenting instincts. "What we're really saying is that you don't need us, you don't need experts. You'll know what to do. Nature will tell you," Dr. Maté says.
Radical surgery: In extreme cases, one suggestion is to separate the child from the peers so that he or she, faced with an intolerable void, reattaches to the parent. But be cautious. "It is important not to reveal one's agenda, as this can easily backfire."
Meet the authors: Gordon Neufeld and Gabor Maté are scheduled to appear Feb. 9 at Alumni Hall as part of the University of Toronto Reading Series. Four days later, Dr. Maté will be in Peterborough, Ont., for an appearance at Showplace Peterborough.
What a crock. Children have always identified with their peers rather than their parents.
In every generation there is a 'costume de jour' that they all wear or aspire to wear.
And they are always surly.
The one difference today is that kids can more often afford to buy the 'costume de jour'.
This is all the result of taking seriously 'social scientists' who have no knowledge of the past and damned little connection to their own childhood.
Yes, one, now grown.
First, let me say, "Welcome Home!" (Early, yes -- but I wanted to be ahead of the pack).
Like you, I tried the "But everybody's got one" line -- it didn't work for me, either.
My son is homeschooled, and doesn't know he isn't hip. He cringes when he sees pierced eyebrows, and runs when I threaten to bleach out his hair and dye it purple.
Is he sullen? Occasionally. Is he rebellious? Yep. Does he hate his parents? Nope -- he knows which side his bread is buttered on.
All kids are obnoxious at some point in their development. The trick is to not play into it. When they sulk, eat ice cream in front of them. When they rebel, ask them if they'd like to get a job and pay rent. But for gosh sakes, Don't validate the snit by thinking the kid requires a therapist. That just proves to the kid that his angst over not having Vice City is justified.
I never went through any sullen/ugly/rebellion phase with my mother and we had a great relationship until the day she died.
They've got no respect, Ms. Farook adds, her eyes scanning the crowd non-stop. Their parents haven't disciplined them properly; they don't respect their elders.
Parents are supposed to teach manners and respect. But those things went out of fashion in the sixties and today's children are now crippled by the lack of the ability to handle themselves like decent people in public.
What really bothers me is that NONE of the disagreeing shrinks in the article even considered that simple and obvious explanation.
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