Being a good parent is hard, and it’s harder now than it has ever been before. Some may say it’s always been a challenge to be a good parent, and that children have not changed much over the years. It’s true children have not changed, but the circumstances of parenting are different, including the increasing role of technology and the breakdown of the family. But there is one other, important culprit—and parents may be inviting that culprit right into their home.
In their tour-de-force parenting book “Hold On to Your Kids: Why Parents Need to Matter More Than Peers,” Gordon Neufeld and Gabor Maté excoriate the role of peer culture in the lives of today’s youth and how it affects our ability to parent our children.
Parents often encourage these relationships, seeing them as a healthy sign that their children can make friends. However, once children value their friends more than their family, they will adopt the culture of the peers, and you may be left wondering whatever happened to your sweet little boy or girl. This is not a natural developmental phase of childhood; it is a rejection of the values of the family, and the acceptance of the values of the peer culture.
One of the main sources of a parent’s authority is the primary emotional bond that a child feels toward the people he is closest to. The child is emotionally dependent on the parent for comfort and closeness. When this bond is intact a child will look to a parent for guidance, direction, values, and education. This is the context that makes parenting possible.
Peer Values Over the Family’s Values
Peer orientation occurs when a child’s emotional bond with their peers supersedes his bond with his parents. It is not a developmental phase—it can happen at any age as children develop friendships. Once a child’s primary attachment is oriented toward his peers, he will consider them more important than his family on an emotional level.
Once a child’s primary attachment is with his peers, it will replace his primary attachment to his parents. People are generally primed to attach to one group, or one tribe, at a time; they see others as outside of that group. Attaching to his peers means that their values become his values, and any attempt to impose your values will be met with rejection. What his peers want to do is more important to him than what you want him to do.
Have you ever seen the emotional response of a child when you try to take away their phone, when it serves as the primary means of communication with their friends? If you try to set limits, you will be treated as an enemy that is stopping him from connecting with his primary emotional attachment and interfering with the goals of his group.
These peers do not value your child’s well-being as much as you do. Your child may be exposed to bullying and other forms of excessive cruelty, alcohol and drug use, premature sexual activity, and other harmful influences. Yet, despite being harmed, your child may still feverishly seek out contact with their bullies because of how intensely the human mind values the importance of this primary emotional attachment.
The same thing can be seen in an abusive family setting. I used to work in the foster care system. No matter how bad a child’s home life was, I never saw a child who would rather leave their family and go to a safe home. If your child attaches to his peers, he is essentially leaving you for an abusive home.
What You Can Do
The best way to avoid peer orientation, like most other things, is to prevent it from happening in the first place. This requires a lot of effort and attention focused on forming a deep, personal bond with your child.
Neufeld and Matte describe six progressive levels of attachment that people need to feel close and connected to each other: physical proximity, sameness or having things in common, feeling a sense of belonging and loyalty, feeling important to someone, positive or warm emotions, and finally, feeling truly known and understood.
If you and your child have this strong bond, it will be very difficult for their peers to compete because they aren’t able to offer the same level of closeness. Peer orientation thrives in the void left by shaky attachment.
When disciplining and setting limits for children, create rules and set up external consequences that you communicate ahead of time. One frequent mistake I see parents make is to punish children by expressing irritation, annoyance, and anger at the child instead of implementing consequences. This may teach children a lesson, but also communicates to them that you don’t like them, which undermines the attachment relationship you are trying to establish.
Learn who your children are spending time with. When they want to invite friends over, the primary activity should be focused on the friend visiting with the family, not just going off alone with your child. Get to know your children’s friends and form a relationship with them too. Carefully notice when they seem to become too preoccupied with friends to the detriment of the family. If they do, intervene to stop it.
Also get to know the parents of your children’s friends. Find out their values, and make sure they will support your efforts to maintain your values in their presence.
If your child is already going down the road to peer orientation, read the book “Hold On to Your Kids,” referenced above. It will go into detail about peer orientation and what can be done about it.
If your child is far down the road of peer orientation and beginning to use drugs or alcohol, becoming involved in criminal activity or if they are experiencing severe bullying, take it very seriously. Drastic measures might need to be taken, such as moving schools, homeschooling, cutting off technology and contact, or moving away.
Michael Courter is a therapist and counselor who believes in the power of personal growth, repairing relationships, and following your dreams. He can be reached at mc@CourterCounsel.com