No. 566, April 30, 2007

Parents or peers – who matters the most?

The psychological climate in Swedish schools has hardened in later years, as in many western countries. Do our youth lack contact with parents, teachers and other adults? Swedish teachers say parents feel insecure in their parental role.

Canadian psychologist Gordon Neufeld and physician Gabor Maté discuss the issue in their book Hold On to Your Kids – why parents need to matter more than peers. Neufeld is internationally acclaimed with 30 years of clinical experience working with children and parents. He draws knowledge from psychology as well as from neuroscience and anthropology.

Neufeld argues that in many parts of the world peers have, in an unfortunate way, replaced parents as the source of emotional support. Too little contact with parents and responsible adults in combination with a highly seductive youth culture have made peers the "family" rather than the parents.

This is no less true in Sweden. Young people today are in constant contact through modern technology, friends are important, parties without adults are preferred and on the Internet they have worlds unavailable to parents. But is this a problem? Isn’t it good that our youth live in a socially rich context?

In the lives of today’s youth, friendships are inherently insecure, individuality is a threat and conformism is the rule in behavior and style, says Neufeld. As long as young people are primarily attached to their parents this is hardly a problem. Young people can easily heal the pains and disappointments from interacting with their peers by having their emotional support coming from their parents.

But when the primary emotional support comes from peers, then this becomes a problem. Through the attachment workings of the brain, parents and teachers are then often emotionally rejected, shows Neufeld. Young people become emotionally dependent on their peers at an age when they lack the maturity for such a responsibility. This emotionally insecure situation makes adolescence difficult and creates anxiety, aggression, bullying, learning difficulties and many other problems we see today.

Peer-oriented youth can often be re-attached to their parents, even if it takes some work. This in turn makes contact easier for other adults in the child’s life. Relationship is more important than behavior in everything we do with young people. We cannot afford to act in a way which weakens relationship, says Neufeld. Adult-attached youth do much better in both social and learning situations.

The conclusion from this highly interesting book is that teachers, mature adults and especially parents are far more important for today’s youth than we are often led to believe, and that the importance of peers seems somewhat overrated.

Creative regards! Jonas Himmelstrand

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