Digital Use: A Deep Dive into Attachment
A few weeks ago, I sat with two dozen parents to learn how to "Keep Up With My Teen's Social Media Use." The tension in the school cafeteria was real. This issue is ubiquitous and even scary -- sometimes it seems nothing less than our kids' safety is at stake.
With their second slide, the two presenters challenged us to identify common apps teenagers use -- I recognized only about eight and was in good company. Upshot? The facilitators told us it'd be nigh impossible to test and approve everything our kid is doing but we should remain informed (here's a tutorial I found) and involved.
Wanting to help us develop a reasonable approach lest we get brushed aside as hysterical Luddites, they stressed ways technology CAN be helpful in the classroom. They shared how teens experiment with apps to showcase different interests and aspects of their personalities. (Our son Jake (17) has three Instagram accounts, one devoted to his photography.) They characterized gaming as often a social endeavor with other redeeming qualities rather than a categorical BIG WASTE OF TIME.
We were encouraged to "talk, don't stalk" (but follow, "friend" and connect with them on their favorite platforms), to share that day's newfound knowledge, and to signal we are open to their world.
That universe, however, raises concerns:
- Screen addiction
- Lack of family time
- Blue light affecting sleep
- Grades suffering
- Digital footprints
The discussion that morning stayed on the level of behavior -- time limits, where laptops should be used, the practicability of safety filters, sharing passwords etc. Merely examining behaviors, however, leads us to become punishment-oriented; indeed, there was talk of taking away devices when family rules are violated. (Similarly, this article advocates imposing an "electronics fast.")
In contrast, Dr. Thomas Gordon, the founder of Parent Effectiveness Training, encourages looking to underlying needs so we are solution-focused -- How can I help my child meet those needs? A huge bonus is that, often, we get the behavioral change we were hoping for.
In this post, I won't do the usual walk through Who Owns the Problem? To be sure, the Behavior Window applies and using Helping and Conflict Resolution skills can work. (For a taste, here's an entry on Active Listening and Consulting to help a bullied child and one on using Method III Problem-Solving and other Values Collision skills on gaming).
All the P.E.T. skills stress that our child's needs matter. Unless we send this message regularly, any discussion around the dangers of and limits on digital life is almost guaranteed to sound like we are talking AT them, rather than WITH them. Using P.E.T. builds mutual respect and open dialogue.
Yet, with this issue, even parents dedicated to using P.E.T. can remain frustrated after trying to Active Listen, to resolve conflicts collaboratively or to share concerns around, say, sexting. With the strong hold screens have on them (everyone!), kids may not be able or willing to change their behavior. Family time is cut back as children continue to game, wait for people to "like" their selfies and check phones right up to bedtime and directly upon waking. Moodiness, lack of sleep, weakened school performance and little interest in prior hobbies are some real worries. (For more, read the section below Does My Child Have a Problem?)
Diving deep into the need underlying kids' digital use can illuminate an issue that seems intractible. This phenomenon is so new that adults and children alike may not realize, much less be able to verbalize, what's going on.
In a book recently updated with two chapters on kids & Internet connectivity -- Hold On To Your Kids: Why Parents Need to Matter More than Peers -- Gordon Neufeld and Gabor Maté assert that electronic devices are largely used to fulfill unmet attachment needs. Though parents (or substitute adult figures) are meant to meet this developmental imperative, our job has been made difficult by social and cultural trends.
Kids are not consciously pivoting their orientation from us to their peers. We often approach the issue as though they are, worried about the beliefs or ideals they seem to have chosen. In fact, though, their instant messaging, Snapchatting and gaming is more about needs, than values:
“Children do not internalize values - make them their own - until adolescence. Thus the changes in a peer-oriented child's behavior do not mean that his values have changed, only that the direction of his attachment instinct has altered course. Parental values such as studying, working toward a goal, the pursuit of excellence, respect for society, the realization of potential, the development of talent, the pursuit of passion, the appreciation of culture are often replaced with peer values that are much more immediate and short term. Appearance, entertainment, peer loyalty, spending time together, fitting into the subculture, and getting along with each other will be prized above education and the realization of personal potential. Parents often find themselves arguing about values, not realizing that for their peer-oriented children values are nothing more than the standards that they, the children, must meet in order to gain the acceptance of the peer group." (page 72)
Neufeld and Maté provide specific advice while acknowledging that it’s up to parents to devise their own ways to meet the need for attachment. "Attachment is not a behavior to be learned but a connection to be sought." (page 55)
I’ll share their counsel, couching it in terms of P.E.T. skills wherever possible.
Attachment & What’s Happening Today
Attachment, the "most preeminent human drive" (page 268), is accomplished when the child feels similar to and loyally supported by someone who deeply knows and accepts her for who she is. Only in an unconditionally loving relationship where a child is invited to be dependent for as long as necessary can she transform into an emotionally mature, self-referencing human being.
Throughout evolution, most young people have treated their parents as a secure base from which to explore the world and, eventually, individuate. For many reasons, including today's scattered family networks, the necessity of daycare and the culture found in schools, ties to adult family members or other "villagers" are weak.
Attachment, it turns out, is transferable and many kids seek to have peers satisfy their unmet need. Moreover, it's an either/or rather than a both/and proposition as children are unable to have competing attachments. When children look to their peer group, we are grievously shut out of the role we were meant to fill.
Why Only Parents Can Meet the Need for Attachment
Peer orientation is an ill-fated attempt to meet attachment needs. Youths are often inconstant friends, immature and unable to sacrifice for the growth of another. While some kids learn to harden themselves emotionally, those who don’t are susceptible to feeling devastated by insensitive relating or by real or perceived rejection.
If peers actually met the need for security and feeling known, kids would be sated, seek solitude and become creative risk-takers following idiosyncratic passions. Instead, most peer-oriented kids are caught in an anxious quest for closeness. Because curiosity and wonder may expose them to shame and ridicule, they choose to safely conform rather than stand out.
"The whole purpose of attachment is to find release, to be able to rest from the urgent need to find attachment. Growth emanates from this place of rest. When rest can't be found, development is arrested. If attachment activity doesn't lead to fulfillment, it cannot forward maturation: the anxiety is too great, the vulnerability too unbearable. For emotional growth children need to stay vulnerable, and to be able to stay vulnerable they need to feel secure." (page 274)
Most Digital Use Serves (Misdirected) Attachment Activity
Across diverse age groups, connection, more than information or entertainment, is the overwhelming goal of screen usage. We feverishly manipulate our screens to monitor our degree of togetherness, likability, approval and similarity to others. Almost half of young adults aged 18-34 check their Facebook accounts mere minutes after rising. (page 279)
Social media platforms serve the skewed attachment addiction of peer-oriented youth as well. The average teen sends over 3000 texts per month and spends more than ten hours a day engaged with technology. (pages 267-268).
Gaming and pornography can also be understood as compensating for frustrated attachment needs. Video games help players feel like they matter and provide a space to act out pent-up aggression, often with immediate rewards and an immersive reality that are addictive. Sex is one aspect of the pursuit of closeness; for peer-oriented kids, pornography can offer a seductive, non-vulnerable type of connection.
Without a secure bond with a trusted, stable adult, kids are more prone to social media addiction. The nature of Internet communication leads to a digital intimacy that falls short of authentic relationship so they keep grasping for more acceptance.
There are several costs. Self-esteem decreases when a person’s self-evaluation depends on the judgments of others (page 249). Studies link high levels of Internet engagement with depression. (page 278) The key factor in most adolescent suicides is bullying and other treatment by peers. (page 11)
How We Can (Belatedly) Meet Attachment Needs
So how do we feed children what they need to prevent or loosen dependence on peer attachments?
P.E.T., in essence, is about relationship-building. The credo starts with You and I are in a relationship which I value and want to keep and ends with [O]urs can be a healthy relationship in which both of us can strive to become what we are capable of being. And we can continue to relate to each other with mutual respect, love and peace. In a close family where children feel assured we are meeting their needs, few of the above problems arise (and with the same severity).
P.E.T. helps kids experience all six aspects of attachment the authors outline:
- Senses -- they benefit from our physical proximity and presence
- Sameness -- they want to be like us as a way of maintaining psychological closeness
- Belonging and Loyalty -- they belong to us and we're on their side
- Significance -- they dearly matter to us
- Feeling -- their deep emotional intimacy with us nourishes even when apart
- Being Known -- they bare themselves and feel truly known and accepted by us
Active Listening, which helps a child know that we understand their total communication, is especially crucial for building a relationship where the child feels safe to be himself.
Part Four of the book -- entitled How to Hold On to Your Kids (or Reclaim Them) -- lays out four components of an "attachment dance." Many of their ideas sound like Prevention and Relationship Skills from the P.E.T. course and I flesh them out with examples.
1. “Get in the Child's Face - or Space - in a Friendly Way”
As kids grow, most parental communication is directive or corrective. We can change that!
One way Neufeld and Maté recommend is to be sure to "collect" our children -- their eyes, their smiles, their nods -- after any separation (a night's sleep, school, time with the iPad, an argument). Try some "first gear" morning One on One Time of cuddling and playing instead of the "high gear" start most of us are used to.
After a falling out with our child, the onus is on us to repair, perhaps with a Declarative I-Message like, “I’m sorry. I'm embarrassed I yelled so forcefully at you. I felt really aggravated and tired yet that’s no excuse. No one deserves to be yelled at and it’s my responsibility to control my outbursts.”
The authors give us ways to stay close even when traveling:
- a picture of ourselves
- a piece of special jewelry or a locket
- notes to read or have read
- something of our own for them to hold on to
- scheduled phone calls
- voice recordings
- something with our scent on it
- gifts to be opened at particular times
- a photo of our "away" office
- a map showing our itinerary
- ask helpers, friends or family to talk about us and help the child imagine what we are doing
As a way of extending our time in their space, we can befriend our children’s friends rather than making it an Us v. Them thing. Wooing with delicious food is not illegal! So at a kid's party, we flit around asking each guest how they would like their burger -- medium? medium-rare? cheese? Neufeld was unabashed in sending this message to his daughter's friends: “[R]elating to Bria meant relating to her family. She was a package deal.” (page 262) Kids who couldn’t abide all this adult contact would be turned off; friends who stuck around wouldn’t be pulling her away from her parents.
We also wisely befriend the parents of those kids! Our children benefit when there is harmony and unity in their social lives.
Finally, we can physically Modify the Environment by refraining from building areas where kids can comfortably isolate themselves and, in contrast, making common areas inviting as all get out. While house-shopping years ago in Connecticut, my husband and wise father of toddlers, remarked, "I don't want our home to be too big. I want our kids to be forced to see us."
2. “Provide Something for the Child to Hold On To”
Attention and interest is that figurative "something" that is the basis for powerful connection. It means generously signaling that we treasure our children for who they are, not what they do. When we delight in our kids, they will want to hold onto the knowledge that they are special to us. Because peer-oriented kids are never secure that they are accepted with all their sharp edges, we have exclusive domain over creating this deepest kind of intimacy.
Consider physical forms of Positive I-Messages. Spontaneous embraces show that we missed them and just had to seek them out. "We show our pleasure in his existence by gestures, smiles, tone of voice, a hug, a playful smile, by the suggestion of a joint activity, or simply by a twinkle in our eyes." (page 185) If a child comes asking for attention, we can surprise her by saying "Oh yes, I'm glad you thought of it. I was thinking I hadn't had the chance to reconnect with you today either!"
Teens may have limited time but could use some attention too. We can check in with a tall, cool drink -- "Hey, here you go. Love you." (mwah!) Or we might create a bitmoji and send our Positive I-Message via Snapchat.
Consider self-disclosure: "I was up last night and it struck me that I only have three more years with you!! I felt really sad. I'm committed to spending quality time when we can." (Declarative I-Message)
Spur of the moment or slotted in advance, connection time will likely be more embraced if they can lead some of the time. If they want to show us Youtube videos that seem inane at best and offensive at worst, we can nonetheless strain to watch with a curious heart, right? This precious peek into their world may be an experiment -- if they are judged or punished, um, they may not be quite so forthcoming the next time. If, say, a vlogger exhibits cruelty to animals, we can use a non-blameful Declarative I-Message ("I dislike what he's doing to that rabbit!!! I can't watch!") or one of the Values Collisions skills.
Regarding family vacations, Neufeld and Maté are aghast at the folly of inviting our children's friends -- instead of jealously guarding this special time, why on earth, they ask, are we courting the competition? Family celebrations, meals, games, activities and rituals preserve ties at home and keep peer attachments in their rightful, secondary position.
If bonds with worrisome peers are strengthened at certain times (like after school), we can artfully inject a competing activity. Because children are prone to last-minute planning, we have the advantage when we preemptively reserve a special restaurant or arrange another activity.
Always and everywhere, we can be honing our Active Listening skills to exhibit care when our kids are troubled. Many parents struggle with their capacity to empathize -- researchers say it all starts with self-compassion.
If our child is not talking, it is up to us to create the conditions for that to happen. Maybe we Modify the Environment by being around more -- like a potted plant -- ready for the chance of a 1-1 conversation. We might schedule walking the dog or sharing other tasks, plan regular outings or decide to be their driver. When Maté's teen daughter would come into his home office just as he was settling in, he decided to “welcome” the intrusions. Putting off our Alone Time needs for a few minutes can pay off when the child recalls that Mom/Dad put aside what they were doing to listen.
For kids already emotionally defended against attaching to us, we may have to reach for less vulnerable strategies. We can convey sameness with Declarative I-Messages such as “I’m like you. I like to recharge by myself a little while every day.” or identification with the same sports team or interest.
Imagine what would happen if we said, "Hey, I have a business trip next week and I'll be gone for six days. I know you really love Fortnite - I hear it's kind of changing the world as we know it. Do you have time to give me an intro before I go? I'm gonna try it in the hotel room to unwind."
It's important to demonstrate that we are on our child's side. Recently, Jake was in the running for a school accolade; his father showed, as he sat down to dinner, that he had been thinking about it and was firmly in his corner, “Your school would be stupid not to pick you.” I swear I saw Jake’s heart swell with this show of loyalty.
Creating structures and limits will also help keep our offspring from turning away from us and to their friends. Rules on laptops, smartphones, the Internet, gaming, extracurricular activities and peer interaction will help, though, only to the extent that our “attachment power” can bear it. If the child buys the impact on us and is willing to engage in collaborative problem-solving, we can find solutions that meet everyone's needs. In this vein, each restriction -- especially around mealtime, family time, evening and bedtime -- should be accompanied by warm, fulfilling connection with us.
If our child is already severely peer-oriented, she won't be willing to do a Method III Problem-Solve or to hear us out. In such cases, the authors warn against unilaterally imposing limitations (Gordon would call it using power to resolve a conflict). More on this below in How to Reclaim Kids Already "Lost" to Peers.
3. “Invite Dependence”
Neufeld and Maté shine light on society's misguided fixation with independence:
"We fear that to invite dependence is to invite regression instead of development, that if we give dependence an inch, it will take a mile. What we are really encouraging with this attitude is not true independence, only independence from us. Dependence is transferred to the peer group." (page 187) . . . The key to activating maturation is to take care of the attachment needs of the child. To foster independence, we must first invite dependence; to promote individuation we must provide a sense of belonging and unity; to help the child separate we must assume the responsibility for keeping the child close. We help a child let go by providing more contact and connection than he himself is seeking. When he asks for a hug, we give him a warmer one that he is giving us. We liberate children not by making them work for our love but by letting them rest in it. We help a child face the separation involved in going to sleep or going to school by satisfying his need for closeness. Thus the story of maturation is one of paradox: dependence and attachment foster independence and genuine separation.” (page 116)
This is a prime example of "Knowledge comes before patience," as Kathryn Tonges, my P.E.T. instructor trainer and coach, likes to say. Now we grasp the significance of communicating to our children, You can trust us, count on us, lean on us, be cared for by us, expect our help, need us. This hopefully lowers our Line of Acceptance towards -- that is, makes us more accepting of -- certain behaviors. Instead of insisting that children dress, feed, settle and entertain themselves, we might be able to place their requests in the No Problem area, assured that meeting their need for dependence will lead to self-sufficiency.
Besides, showing up for our kids like this builds goodwill! P.E.T. Instructor Trainer Meike Lemmons related in a recent visit to Hong Kong that, if her son asks her to please fix the Xbox console, she gladly does so since he has no way to drive himself or pay for it. Such a message -- I care about what you care about -- invites mutuality. To wit, she recounted that once, when she called him to the table, he paused as he was wrapping up his game and said, “Right, because family dinners are really important to you.”
Neufeld and Maté also say to invite our kids to depend on us when it comes to skills and hobbies. Why should we always outsource to centers or camps? I know one father who tutored his son in Latin, and a mother who taught her daughter to sew. This special type of One on One Time nurtures the relationship and, in the transmission of a skill, results in "sameness" that is another aspect of strong attachment.
4. “Act as the Child's Compass Point”
Though we instinctively play an orienting role for babies, toddlers and preschoolers, we often relinquish our role as guide for older kids. When we offer ourselves as a compass point, we hook a child's attachment instincts to turn to us.
So with confidence and without waiting for a child’s confused look (a cue which may never come from a proud peer-oriented child), we can offer guidance in terms of:
- Time and Space -- e.g., "This is what we're doing today," "This is where I'll be," "What's special about today is ____."
- People and Happenings -- e.g., "I'd like to introduce you to ____," "This is who to ask if you need help," "Only three more days until ____."
- Meanings and Circumstances -- e.g., "Let me show you how this works."
- Identity and Significance -- e.g., "I admire ____ about you," (Positive I-Message) "I see people respond in ____ way when you're around," (Positive I-Message), "You seem to be really making progress and enjoying ____."
How to Reclaim Kids Already "Lost" to Peers
The above four steps of the “attachment dance” (get in their space, give them something to hold on to, invite dependence, be their compass) may not be enough if our child is already intensely peer-oriented.
Winding our way back to being the object of his emotional dependence can be excruciating. It borders on sainthood to look past presenting behavior that is often antagonistic. "[W]hen a child is resisting contact with us instead of wanting to please, the instincts are to repel and to irritate . . . It doesn't feel good or right or proper to seek favor in the eyes of those one is seeking distance from." (page 72) The kid's demeanor will scream "I don't need you" but this, the authors insist, is just a facade.
Beaten down, some parents adopt the erroneous view that the child is vicious and manipulative. “The problem with seeing our children as having power is that we miss how much they truly need us. Even if a child is trying to control us, he is doing so out of a need and a dependence on us to make things work. If he was truly powerful, he would have no need to get us to do his bidding." (page 82)
It's easy to feel overwhelmed by hurt and hopelessness! Parental withdrawal, however, is experienced as rejection and proof that our love is conditional. This comes with calamitous results: “For the child, parental retreat almost always precipitates a downward spiral into peer attachments and dysfunction. . . If we parents allow ourselves to become alienated, we will burn the only bridge by which the child can return.” (page 199)
Neufeld and Maté stress our critical role: “[T]here are always things we can do . . . Even the most alienated and hostile of teenagers needs a nurturing parent. . . The more defiant and ‘impossible to be around’ children are, the greater their need to be reclaimed.” (pages 191-192)
So we fight! We work through our pain in a P.E.T. class or with a friend or therapist and we battle for our child. She will take notice, even if she doesn't show it for a while.
The first step is to grieve. That's right, the authors recommend that we take time to come to terms with the limits of our power and the monumental task of mending our broken relationship without doing further damage.
"[A]ttempts to control, prohibit, or deprive access will all fail in the absence of what we have called "relationship power." [In P.E.T., we would term this "influence."] Better to bite our tongue, accept our sadness, and recognize and acknowledge the futility of coercive approaches that would only further embitter the parent-child relationship. That is hard to do when our own frustration and worry would drive us to intervene more forcefully -- and when so many so-called authorities call for authoritarianism." (pages 294-295)
This is Modifying Self of the highest, hardest order, and we do it to strengthen our resolve to stay in the game.
One strategy is to create an attachment break between our child and his peers and to jump in to fill that void. (This is one reason why grounding does not work; we don’t normally offer our presence as a substitute.) Consider a weekend (or even longer) trip where the child has one parent only and no other relationship to escape into.
Neufeld did just this to rekindle his relationship with his teen daughter. He Modified the Environment by planning wilderness activities that did not involve screens, thus buying himself time to repair and rebuild. Because he chose a site he was familiar with, for each moment of their One on One Time, he was "the compass point in every sense.” (pages 194-195)
Here’s how another individual helped engineer her niece's reclamation:
I watched as my 14-year old niece became peer attached and clung to her phone as the lifeline that preserved her connection to friends. We took her on a camping trip as an extended family in order to reclaim a foothold back in her life. In realizing the campground didn’t have any cell coverage she told her mother it was going to be a boring trip because she couldn’t talk to any of her friends. Despite being surrounded by her village of aunts, uncles, cousins, and grandparents, she longed to be elsewhere.
On the third day of the camping trip I came across her and her mother in conversation. My niece was sobbing and my sister said my niece felt lost and confused. As I comforted my niece I asked her if she knew the number one rule when she felt this way and she said no. I told her that she needed to hold on to someone who wasn’t lost and confused about who she was. I asked her, “Are your friends lost and confused?” to which she replied yes. I asked, “Is your boyfriend lost and confused?” to which she replied yes again. I then asked her, “When you look around here today, who is not lost or confused about you?” She looked at me and said, “you” and it was then that I felt I had re-entered her life once more. I asked her who else and she looked at her mother and said, “My mom.” And with that I left them to have a conversation.
Later on my sister told me they talked at length and my niece cried for some time. After telling her mother about all the things that were not working in her life she looked at her, surprised, and said, “Mom, I never thought you would understand what I was going through or that you had gone through some of this too.” Separated from her phone and her peers, we, the adults in her life were once again able to reclaim a foothold in her heart.
-- Excerpt from a 2016 United Nations address for the Global Day for Parents
Other kids who are misdirected in their attachments may protest louder, terrified at leaving their attachment figures behind. Here's what one boy wrote after his parents tried to set limits on a friendship:
Now, please just think for a minute about the situation here. Say Jason wants to do something with someone, he would normally call me. But he won't even bother now because you won't let me. So instead he becomes more acquainted with other people, which normally would be okay but now he won't be friends with me. That makes me pretty fucking mad!!!!!!!! It makes me so mad I want to hurt someone and I mean really fuck them up . . . I'll swear to god your little boy you love so much will be no more. I'll fucking kill myself if I have to! Perhaps I'll slit my rists [sic] . . . ONCE I HAVE NO FRIENDS, I HAVE NO LIFE. (pages 132-133)
We are called upon to use our new insights and hold firm. Our actions may cause distress but, the authors state unequivocally, they will prevent greater problems and dysfunction in the future.
We must matter more than our children's friends. We must.
Let's rely on P.E.T. and the wisdom of Neufeld and Maté, look past alarming and off-putting behavior and focus on meeting our kids' need for attachment TO US. Safe from the risks of the digital era, they can then grow into full personhood and offer their unique gifts to the world.
Does My Child Have a Problem?
Dr. Joanie Farley Gillispie, author of Cyber Rules: What You Really Need To Know About The Internet, says to make a common sense evaluation as if the Internet wasn't involved and to use markers that are specific. If the Internet is a problem, she submits, this will manifest as a problem in their daily life.
- Is my child getting enough sleep?
- Is she doing well enough at school? Are her grades starting to slip?
- Are his friendships smooth?
- Is she engaged physically in the world? Does she exercise, spend time out of doors?
Other questions to ask from Media Smarts include:
- Is gaming or Internet use replacing other activities?
- Is it negatively affecting other relationships?
- Does he have mood swings when he can't play?
- Is she neglecting hygiene or personal space?
- Is he unable to stop even when he admit it's a problem?
The ultra peer-oriented may take risks in order to stay connected. For instance, I learned at that morning session that Snapchat's location finder doesn't faze many young users. The signs of addiction we were told to watch out for were:
- Is he unable to delay gratification?
- Is there a numbed pleasure response, e.g. not enjoying family meals?
- Is there hyper-reactivity to the stimulus, "ridiculous" amounts of excitement?
- If you take the device away, does she cry?
We were told that one or two, or even three, might be ok -- the point was to start noticing and discussing.
Thanks for reading! This entry took a LONG time -- there were so many angles I could have taken. In the end, I chose what was most impactful for me -- the fact that attachment is central to understanding social media addiction.
Please give your feedback, point out any of my blindspots and share other resources you have come across. We are all in this together.
Credits: Boy using phone (http://neatoday.org/2015/02/23/school-cell-phone-bans-end-educators-weigh-pros-cons/); Self-compassion quote (https://www.emilyberrycounseling.com/single-post/2016/03/30/The-Power-of-SelfCompassion); Kids in front of MacDonalds (https://hothardware.com/news/cool-kids-turning-away-from-facebook-too-many-parents