In the first part of this series, I discussed how today’s children are increasingly influenced more by their peers than their parents.
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.
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, in Part 2, we will look at the devastating effects these peer-centered relationships can have, and how parents can reclaim their role as the main 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 relationship 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.
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.
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.
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.
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 is 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 is too good to refuse.
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 are 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 have really wanted from your own parents in such a situation.
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.
Express your love with estate planning
Estate planning is one of your chief responsibilities as a parent, but it is 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 are 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®, I can help guide and support you in having these intimate discussions in an age-and-stage appropriate way with your children. My clients consistently share that after undergoing our estate planning process, they feel a deeper sense of connection with their children.
While estate planning is not 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 me today to learn more.