How to Best Address Undesirable Child Behaviour - A Book Review.

The blog below is a book review, of:

“Hold On to Your Kids: Why Parents Need to Matter More Than Peers”

by Dr. Gordon Neufeld & Gabor Maté.

As a parent, do you ever feel:

- That you are losing a grip on your children as they grow up?

- That they don’t look up to you the way they used to when they were younger?

- That they don’t seem to listen to you, or do what you ask of them, anymore?

- Or perhaps you even feel like you barely see your children any more - What with their hours at school, their time spent with friends, and then their time spent online?

- And perhaps you’ve also noticed that with all these changes over time, your child has become less ‘nice’ to you when you are together - Maybe they are more snappy, less likely to laugh at your jokes, and more likely to yell at you, or even say “I hate you!” …

If any of this sounds familiar then this excellent book - Hold On to Your Kids - is the one for you. This book describes that when children become peer-oriented - That is when they begin to look to their peers as their primary ‘attachment’ figures, rather than their parents - This is very commonly the cause of the difficulties described above, and many others, related to our child’s behaviour and their emotional wellbeing. By ‘attachment’ the authors mean the innate drive we all have for closeness with others in our lives - Including physical, emotional and psychological closeness.

Held within its nearly 300 pages is a huge number of practical tips and suggestions for addressing these challenges, and returning your child to the cooperative, friendly person you knew in years gone by. Really helpfully, there are also specific examples used by both authors themselves in their own lives, to address these challenges with their own children - It always helps me to get on board with a new idea when the person suggesting says: “I have struggled too, and this is what worked for me”. And the suggestions are detailed, not vague: In several sections there are even examples of exact sentences you can use when you are trying to implement these techniques.

The book makes it clear that it is important, for us and our kids, that we do hold onto them, or bring them back to us. However, the specific tips and strategies it provides are given with the caveat that while it there is no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ way to do this. And this makes sense - Because every child and parent is unique. No one thing works for everyone. Instead, the book suggests that there are general ‘principles’ to apply when we are trying to keep hold of our kids, or bring them back to us, and it encourages us to find our own creative solutions for our family, based on these overarching principles. Again, in my experience, overly prescriptive advice always feels limited in its usefulness in my life, so this was another welcome aspect of this book for me.

Before the book provides these tips and suggestions, it takes you through several sections of theory first. And this is really important. So many of us want to skip the theory and jump straight to the strategies! But as the authors point out: “All the parenting skills in the world, cannot compensate for a lack of attachment relationship” - And the ‘attachment relationship’ theory is what this book is all about.

The authors make it clear, repeatedly - If you do not understand the importance of attachment, and the theory and research behind attachment, then you can throw all the parenting strategies in the world at your child, and the only place you will get to is frustrated and disheartened. For this reason, I actually think that this book is essential reading to accompany all of the other parenting books out there - Apply a good understanding of attachment theory to any aspect of parenting, and you will have much more success. And this book describes attachment theory beautifully, and very simply. And it repeats its core messages about attachment throughout the book, from different angles and using different examples - The creative repetition is such that, by the end of reading this book, I really felt I understood the concept and importance of attachment more than I have from reading any other book.

The central premise of the book is that all children have attachment needs throughout their lives, well into their adulthood, and that when those needs are not fully met within the parent-child relationship, then children instinctively turn instead to their peers to fulfil their attachment void … And due to the nature of attachment in peer relationships, a child’s attachment needs cannot be met by their peers in any way that supports their healthy development … Yet to avoid feeling the pain of an attachment ‘void’, our children will be compelled to invest more and more in their peer relationships, and move further away from their parents, in a heartbreakingly vicious cycle.

But the authors do not blame the parents for this: This book really helpfully spells out the cultural and societal changes in recent generations that have inadvertently set us all on course for this exact dilemma. Work structures, school and child-care structures, etc., have all changed to make peer-orientation more a risk for our children … But the book is definitely also hopeful.

The authors make it clear that these challenges are only likely to be inevitable if we don’t learn about the factors at play. The book therefore argues, and I agree, that if we can become conscious of these factors, and the importance of attachment within our relationships with our children, then we can counter the culture in very important ways, and we can turn the tide for our children. The authors argue that we can both (a) Correct things that gone awry in this way - That it is never too late - And (b) That we can largely prevent the challenges from ever occurring - If we become conscious and deliberate in our parenting from early enough.

The change in your child that is most likely to highlight you to the challenge of peer-oriented attachments is your child’s less than appealing behaviour (e.g. as in some of the examples I opened this review with) - And as such, your primary focus is understandably likely to be: “How do I change this horrible behaviour that my child is engaging in?”. However, the central message of the book is this: That the relationship with your child needs to be your focus - Not their behaviour. Again, so many of us get focussed on the behaviour, and while we have this erroneous but understand focus, the relationship is unwittingly slipping further and further from where it needs to be, to truly address and change the problematic behaviour.

Again and again, throughout the book, the message is clear: Focus on the connection between you and your child first, and only then can effective behaviour change follow from that improved connection - There is no other way.

As a child psychologist who has worked with parents for more than 10 years now, I can vouch for that - The more the focus is on the behaviour, and the more the connection and relationship is unintentionally neglected, then the more stuck things stay, or the worse they get. When that is flipped on its head, and when parents focus on their relationship and connection with the child then, time and again, I am astounded at how quickly positive behaviour change can be achieved.

And this leads onto another key message of the book: The responsibility, to pay attention to the relationship between the parent and the child, is solely the parents. So in that respect, like any parenting self-help book worth its salt, this book is less about how to change your child, and much more how to make changes yourself as a parent, so that your child may begin to follow you in a more constructive direction.

Under the umbrella of attachment and connection, there are also some other core concepts covered throughout the book. For example, it describes thoroughly that while we are all built to seek attachment and connection with others, we are also at our most vulnerable to being hurt within these attachment relationships. And so we, and our children, are all primed to hide or change parts of ourselves, and to lose sight out of our own values, and to bend to the will and preferences of others - All to fit in, and avoid rejection. And this identity-contortion is sadly extremely damaging to our emotional wellbeing and mental health.

The primary emotion that motivates us contorting ourselves in this way is ‘shame’, and this book talks often about how shame and attachment are related, which I found really insightful. And this really dovetailed nicely with the reading and training I’ve done regarding the shame-resilience work of Brené Brown, which I use often in my work, and so it also fit very nicely with the work I often do with parents in my psychology practice. Understanding how shame operates, and how it impacts on our relationships, definitely equips us so much better to connect with our children, and then make positive changes to their behaviour.

There is so much more covered in this brilliant book - I highly recommend it for all parents - Both those who want to improve a deteriorating situation regarding their children, and those who wish to prevent things deteriorating in the future.

Finally, if you do read this book (or if you have read it already), and find you like the ideas in it, but struggle to put the advice into practice in relation to your own family, please know that you are not alone! Books ALWAYS make it seem so much simpler on paper, and with the example families talked about in the book, than it is in real life, with our own real-life families. But please also know that there are services out there, like mine, which can offer you an excellent opportunity to explore these concepts and strategies in a way that is dedicated to, and entirely focussed on, YOUR family.

If I can help you put any of these ideas from this book, or any others, into practice into your own life, then please don’t hesitate to contact me:

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