When Peers Matter More than Parents

I often hear parents voice concerns as to whether their child is making friends and fitting in with their peer group. It often gives rise to fervent activity to expose their child to a lot of kids, have playdates, and to help their find their BFF (best friend forever). What is rarely addressed is that there is a great risk in pushing children to oversocialize, especially in the early years. Perhaps this push is fuelled by a belief that children learn social skills from being around other kids the same age. The thought that other immature children will help a young child act more mature is faulty at best.

The push for peer contact also reveals a lack of appreciation for the critical role adult’s play in growing children up. In fact, it is alarming how we routinely fail to recognize how adult attachments best serve a child’s developmental needs rather than peer based ones. It is not a problem that a child has friends, the issue is when the attachment to a peer supersedes the need for adult connection. When children are peer attached rather than adult oriented there are a host of learning and behavioural problems that appear. Peer orientation is widespread in classrooms and homes in developed countries yet we consistently fail to see it for what it is.

When my daughter was in kindergarten she was shy, reserved, unsure of her new surroundings and the people in it. I was not concerned as it made sense to me that she would be more cautious and concerned in an environment she was new to. With good intentions the teacher suggested my daughter needed to have more play-dates in order to fit in. She believed it would help my daughter be more confortable raising her hand and asking questions in class. While I also longed for my daughter to feel more comfortable, I did not believe the answer to this could be achieved by placing her need for contact, closeness, and security into the hands of her peers. Her teacher had to be the answer on the attachment front if she was going to settle in and learn. It wasn’t that I didn’t want my daughter to make friends and play, but I wanted this to unfold when she felt safe, taken care of, and could rely on someone mature for guidance and direction. If there were one play-date I would have wholeheartedly welcomed it would have been with the kindergarten teacher.

Why are so many of our children preferring peer relationships over adult ones?

Today it seems routine that the first thing we offer children when they enter daycare, preschool or elementary school, is a peer to hang onto. What our children really need is an adult to hang onto so that their need for contact and closeness can come from a mature source. Children are poor substitutes given their capacity to wound each other with rejection, shaming words, and alarming behaviour. When we push peers over adults we court children seeing their friends as the ones to meet their needs rather than adults. This can result in a loss of parental authority and teachability as children look to each other to get their bearings. The phenomena of peer attachment is not new and has been escalating over the last 50 years. This has been well documented by Gordon Neufeld and Gabor Mate in their book, Hold Onto Your Kids.

Peer attachment is also created when our children experience too much separation from their caregivers and are left to meet their attachment needs with those who are typically available – their peers. Today children experience unprecedented levels of separation from their parents due to economic pressures, smaller families, increasing geographical mobility, lack of extended family, and high divorce rates. Given our children are facing separation on this magnitude, it is no surprise they are turning to each other to meet their attachment needs. Children of the same age are more similar to each other allowing them to connect easily.

The only way to keep kids close to adults is through active care taking. We need to be in their face in a friendly way if we are going to keep them orbiting around us. They do not need to find a friend to hang onto but be pointed in the direction of the adults who will hold onto them. Their adults are their best bet in learning how to interact with others and moving towards a more mature form.

What does peer attachment look like in a child?

When children become peer attached, there are numerous signs they prefer to be with their friends over their adults. They will take on the same mannerisms, talking, walking, wanting to dress like, and copy their peers. They can be very cognizant and worried about how they fit in and wounded by signs that a friend does not care about them nor want them around. Their desire to go to school stems more from a need to be with their peers rather than learning. In the classroom they may act in ways to impress their friends but the behaviour is unlikely to please their teacher, e.g., talking to friends, trying to be funny, get a laugh or impress. There is a loss of teachability usually noted by their teachers such as the child talks too much and is overly concerned with being with their friends rather than attending to what the teacher says. There can be delays and problems in learning because of the child’s attention problems as well. In short, when peers become the answer to contact and closeness, there is a loss in parental influence in the home and teachability in the classroom.

When parents and teachers lose their capacity to lead and influence, a child is more likely to be easily led astray by peers. In adolescent years this is highly problematic given possible exposure to drugs, alcohol, sexual experimentation as well as a host of other risky situations. Peer oriented kids no longer orbit around parental values, failing to take guidance and direction when given. In fact, they can become quite resistant towards their adults, acting in ways that defy, counter, oppose, and loathe interaction with them. They don’t respond the same way, failing to listen and heed cautions and directions. It makes for a difficult time in taking care of them. The loss in vulnerable feelings is also palpable in peer-attached kids as they no longer have mature people with whom it is safe to share their heart contents. Peers often exploit and deride the expression of vulnerable feelings rather than support them.

One of the most troubling aspects of peer attachment is the developmental arrest it causes. You cannot grow if your attachment needs are unmet and peers are a poor substitute for a healthy adult attachment. Kids need to feel at home with at least one adult that can provide and protect for them, this is their ultimate relational refuge. A peer cannot offer this same sense of home nor a provision of care that can truly satiate. Children who are peer attached may grow physically but there will be a loss to individuation and becoming their own person. Peer attached kids can grow into peer attached adults where cloning and fusion are present rather than a mature, separate self who stands apart and charts one’s own future.

How can we reclaim a peer attached child or youth?

It can feel daunting to reclaim a child or youth who prefers to be with their peers over their adults. The sense of rejection and not wanting to be with a parent can be challenging but one must persist if we are to make them ours again. It starts with believing you are what your child needs and in setting strong intentions to hold onto them, despite all the behavioural and learning problems that may be present. It will be hard to convey to a child that you are their answer when you cannot find this confidence and place inside of yourself.

1. Collect them and rebuild your relationship – The expression of delight, enjoyment and warmth goes a long way in trying to hold onto and reclaim a child. Find times when you can easily get into their face, (e.g., a car ride, night time) and try to collect their eyes, a smile and a nod. Connect with them around areas you have in common and spend time together devoid of outside competition such as screens, peers, and siblings. As you interact with them give them your undivided attention and listen with care and concern. Collecting a child is not about lecturing but listening, conveying an invitation for relationship, as well as a desire to be close. They may not readily take you up on your
relational offer but persistence is key. Signs that you are making headway may be slow in coming but they can appear in a variety of ways such as wanting to spend time with you, asking questions, or following your directions.

2. Invite dependence and provide generously for them – We need children to depend on adults for caretaking but this can only be achieved when there is a generous provision of care being offered. This requires actively reading their needs and taking care of them rather than consulting them on what they want. We need to move to take care of them in ways that only we can, e.g., outings, trips, or teaching new hobbies. We need to consistently present ourselves as being able to offer a more nourishing and fulfilling relationship than they will ever find in a peer. Often peer-attached kids lack the motivation to try new things but with a parent’s help they can start to engage in activities that fit with their interests and curiosities, e.g., swimming, riding a bike, rock climbing. The parent must lead and pull the child into following them into these activities, as they cannot get there under their own direction.

3. Matchmake them to adults and embed them in an attachment hierarchy – When children become peer attached we need to help them find the adults that will take care of them. We can actively help them build a relationship with their teacher or care provider, noting areas of similarity and pointing out ways they care for them. When children are focused on same age peers we can draw their time and attention towards other adults, older cousins, family friends, to their aunties, uncles and grandparents. At the same time, we can invite the child to play a role in the life of a younger child serving to draw out their natural care taking instincts. When children experience attachments as being hierarchical in nature, it can serve to pull them out of orbit around same age peer relationships.

4. Don’t court the competition – Peer attached kids seek and gravitate to other children to spend time with. Part of getting into their relational space once again involves mitigating competing forces. Removing all peer contact will only serve to exacerbate a child’s desire to be close to them; therefore, preventing peer contact is not the answer. We must find ways to prevent competition such as limiting play-dates and giving them adult time instead. They may desire sleepovers and technological devices so as to keep in touch with their peers but parents must set limits and restrictions on these fronts in order to make headway and preserve their relationship. Peer attached kids will protest such moves and be frustrated with the limits. Letting them know you understand their frustration instead of trying to battle with them helps to hold onto them and prevent further distancing between you. When they are around their peers you can also move in to try and collect them as well, knowing that if you have their peers following you, your child will be close behind.

The problem of peer attachment could be alleviated if we spent half the amount of time we currently do helping our children find a friend and focus instead on helping them to attach to adults in their life. We could then return to leading our children with natural authority and influence. The problem is we are so blinded today by a socialization agenda that puts peers in competition with adult relationships. Developmental science has clearly demonstrated the danger of competing attachments yet we continue forward. Once you are able to see peer attachment for what it is, then one can better find a way through to reclaim or prevent losing a child.Holding hands

One day a mother told me she was very concerned about her daughter who had came home distraught from school. Her daughter was reluctant at first to share anything but the mother persisted. Facing an overwhelming amount of distress her daughter told her that she was sad and heartbroken. She said her friend was leaving her out again, acting mean, and didn’t want to be her friend anymore. As she recounted her bad day to her mother she asked her in desperation, “When will I ever find a friend that can be with me to the end?” The mother was taken aback and at a loss for words as she tried to make sense of this desperate need inside her daughter. It isn’t a friend that is meant to be with a child to the end but an adult. Peers will let go of you but a parent should be the one to hang onto you until the very end.

A child can only rest in relationships where they feel an unwavering strength in the connection, where their tears are invited, and a burdened heart can be soothed. It is not for our children to search for this person among their peers but for an adult to claim them so that they search no farther. Friends will come and go but we are ultimately the answer to the hunger to be known and cared for. We need to hold onto our kids because we are their best bet. When we hold onto them they can let go of us. They will be free to grow into the people that only healthy attachment can give birth to.

For more information please go to the Neufeld Institute – www.neufeldinstitute.org or see Gordon Neufeld and Gabor Mate’s book – Hold Onto Your Kids: Why Parents need to Matter More than Peers.

Copyright Deborah MacNamara, PhD

Dr. Deborah MacNamara is a counsellor in private practice, on faculty at the Neufeld Institute, and the author of Rest, Play, Grow: Making Sense of Preschoolers (or anyone who acts like one). She works with parents, educators, child-care and mental health professionals in making sense of kids based on developmental science. See www.macnamara.wpengine.com or www.neufeldinstitute.org for more information.