Last week, I discussed how a lack of intimacy in the parent-child relationship has led kids to bond more intensely with their peers. Here, I’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.
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.”
The missing element
Outside of the obvious reasons why peers make terrible parenting substitutes, the crucial element missing from peer relationships is unconditional love.
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.
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.”
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.
Reclaim your influence
“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.
“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 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.
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