A few months ago I attended a talk and workshop, in Toronto, by Canadian author Dr. Gabor Mate who is a family physician from Vancouver, BC, who has worked with the most disenfranchised populations in Vancouver. He has written several best-selling books, including In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts, which is about his experiences with treating addiction and what he has learned, and When the Body Says No, which is about the impact of chronic stress on health and disease. He has also written and speaks about trauma and ADHD which he himself has suffered from.
The talk I attended was about the main problem of childhood development in this day and age which is a lack of healthy attachment to parents, which children need for optimal brain development and overall wellbeing. There are many factors behind the lack of healthy attachment including children being away at school all day and in activities in the evening and only seeing their parents for a few hours in the evening. This does not include the fact that many households now have two working parents who are even busy and distracted when they are at home with their children.
The natural result of this lack of healthy attachment to the parents is that children and adolescents will seek this elsewhere and, because they do not get it from other authority figures such as teachers, they will turn to their peers. The peer group has replaced parents as a source of attachment and nurturing for a large number of our children and adolescents. This is the reason why our children are so addicted to social media because that attachment can continue to be nurtured at home, even when they are not in school in the presence of their peers.
This is the source of many ills amongst our children and youth including so-called Oppositional Defiant Disorder, experimenting with alcohol and drugs, early sexual activity and promiscuity and a lack of respect for parents and authority to name a few. These ills arise because the peer group, who is the source of their attachment, is usually just as immature and lacking in wisdom as the one who looks up to them.
Dr. Gabor Mate went on to mention that the ideal society in which our children were raised was the hunter-gatherer society of our indigenous ancestors in which the children were not only raised by the parents but by all the elders of their tribe, in whose presence they were throughout the day. This kind of ongoing interaction with parents and elders ensured that the children grew up with a healthy and nurturing connection to those who they could look up to and learn from.
However, the most important purpose of a healthy attachment is so that the children know that they are loved and cared for. This is essential for the healthy growth and development of their brains. The absence of this creates undue stress which is why children need to seek their attachments elsewhere.
The problem is that whatever love and acceptance they get elsewhere, their peer group for example, is not unconditional, like that of their parents. This will not create the secure and loving container they need for their healthy psychological and emotional development. So what is the solution to this problem?
Unfortunately, we cannot go back to the days of our indigenous ancestors. However, there is a solution which is simple but not easy to do. Parents need to reconnect to their children by giving them the undivided attention that they deserve and bonding with them for what little time in the day they have.
It could be as simple as discussing the details of their day at school, who their friends are, how they are doing in their extracurricular activities and, most importantly, how they are feeling. Your children may be resistant at first, especially if they are not used to this kind of attention from you but you must be persistent so that a strong connection with them becomes the norm.
This does not replace the strong, healthy attachments that our indigenous ancestors had with their children but it is a start and all new journeys begin with a single step. In my next article I will discuss the various ways that you can reconnect with your children. For now, take time out of every day to talk to your children or any children in your care with undivided attention and give them the love and recognition that they, not only deserve, but so desperately crave.
Nauman Naeem MD