In today’s society, the once-unbreakable bond between parent and child is being increasingly eroded. This disconnect is wreaking havoc on children’s psychological development, while making parents feel powerless to get through to their kids. In more than 20 years of work and research, world-renowned family physician and child-development expert Gabor Maté discovered that a mix of social, economic, and cultural changes following WWII are a leading factor in this detachment. These changes have made it difficult for parents to provide the level of attention and intimacy needed for their relationship with their kids to remain strong.
And to fill this void, children are increasingly turning to their peer group for role models and mentors—often with disastrous results.
“They [children] are not manageable, teachable, or maturing because they no longer take their cues from us,” says Maté. “Instead, children are being brought up by other immature children who cannot possibly guide them to maturity.”
Last week, we discussed how a lack of intimacy in the parent-child relationship has led kids to bond more intensely with their peers. Here, we’ll look at the devastating effects these peer-centered relationships can have, and how parents can reclaim their role as the chief-orienting influence in their children’s lives.
The crisis of the young For evidence of just how unhealthy it can be when a child’s relationship with his or her peers matters more than the one they have with their parents, Maté points to the dramatic rise in violence, suicide, and mass shootings among today’s youth.
“The crisis of the young has manifested ominously in the growing problem of bullying in the schools and, at its very extreme, in the murder of children by children,” says Maté. “Such tragedies are only the most visible eruptions of a widespread malaise, an aggressive streak rife in today’s youth culture.”
Maté found that in the vast majority of childhood suicides, the key trigger was how the children were treated by their peers, not their parents. When kids consider acceptance from their peers as their primary source of fulfillment, rejection and bullying can be utterly Earth-shattering.
“The more peers matter,” says Maté, “the more children are devastated by the insensitive relating of their peers, by failing to fit in, by perceived rejection or ostracization.”
While youth bullying and violence are certainly nothing new, Maté believes the expanding influence of the Internet and social media makes today’s kids far more vulnerable.
“Technology and social media, which are very much geared and marketed toward strengthening the peer culture, give kids an additional power to do each other significant emotional harm,” says Maté.
The missing element
Outside of the obvious reasons why peers make terrible parenting substitutes, the crucial element missing from peer relationships is unconditional love. “Absolutely missing in peer relationship 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,” says Maté.
Unconditional love is the most potent force in the parent-child bond, laying the foundation for the relationship’s strength, intimacy, and influence. Without unconditional love, the parenting relationship becomes no different than any other. Just about anyone is capable of caring for another person as long as they fulfill their expectations. But outside of marriage, the family—chiefly, the parents—is typically the only source for this critically important factor.
Maté notes that some of today’s common disciplinary techniques can unintentionally signal to the child that parental love is only available if certain conditions are met. As an example, Maté explains how putting a child who’s throwing a tantrum into timeout can make it feel like the parent’s attention and love are merely conditional. “Timeout withdraws your relationship from the child,” says Maté. “They learn they’re only acceptable to you if they please you. The relationship is seen as unstable and unreliable because it’s showing them you’re not available for them when they’re most upset.”
While this example is quite literal, Maté says that any behavior or action by the parent that threatens to undermine the unconditional nature of the parent-child relationship can be harmful. Without the underlying trust that their parents will be there for them no matter what, a children’s primary source of safety and trust becomes a source of insecurity.
When kids are in a state of insecurity, it’s easy for them to become defensive and enter into fight or flight mode. This makes them extremely difficult to communicate with, much less develop the level of intimacy needed for a close parental bond to form.
Reclaim your influence
To prevent children from seeking attachment from outside sources, Maté says parents must make their kids an offer that’s too good to refuse.
“Our challenge as parents is to provide an invitation that’s too desirable to turn down, a loving acceptance that no peer can provide,” says Maté.
Rather than resorting to special parenting techniques, Maté stresses that the best thing parents can do to become closer with their kids is to simply take pleasure in being with them. “A real relationship with kids doesn’t depend on words; it depends on the capacity to be with them,” says Maté. “Welcome their presence with your body language and energy. Express delight in the child’s very being.”
And your most challenging job as a parent is to do this even when they are pushing your every button, as all kids inevitably do. No matter how your children are behaving, consider a way to show them that they’re loved and accepted unconditionally. This may go against everything you learned from your parents, but consider doing it anyway. And if you find this particularly difficult, take Mate’s advice and think back about what you would’ve really wanted from your own parents in such a situation.
“The ultimate gift is to make a child feel invited to exist in your presence exactly as he or she is at the moment,” says Maté. “Children must know they’re wanted, special, valued, appreciated, and enjoyed. For children to fully receive this invitation, it needs to be genuine and unconditional.” When children get this level of acceptance, they naturally desire to become closer with whomever is offering it. Rather than fearing or being threatened by their parents, children want to be with them. They want to follow them. Once this unconditional relationship is established and/or restored, Maté says that parents will be able to parent intuitively. “If we know how to be with our children and who to be for them, we need much less advice on what to do,” says Maté. “Practical parenting approaches emerge spontaneously from our own experience. We don’t have to resort to techniques or manuals—we act from understanding and empathy.”
Express your love with estate planning Estate planning is one of your chief responsibilities as a parent, but it’s also one of the greatest expressions of your unconditional love. You can use estate planning to show your children that you love them unconditionally, that you’re here for them no matter what, and you can even begin to involve them in the process right now to varying degrees depending on their age. Indeed, the planning process itself can be an opportunity to enhance your connection with your kids. Communicating clearly about what you want to happen in the event of your incapacity or death (and talking with your children about what they want) can foster a deeper bond and sense of intimacy than just about anything else you can do.
Though such conversations can feel awkward, as your Personal Family Lawyer,® we can help guide and support you in having these intimate discussions in an age-and-stage appropriate way with your children. Indeed, our clients consistently share that after undergoing our estate planning process, they feel a deeper sense of connection with their children.
While estate planning isn’t likely to completely fix your relationship with your kids, it can be an important first step in regaining that all-important sense of intimacy and trust Maté describes. Contact us today to learn more.