“Oh, the comfort – the inexpressible comfort of feeling safe with a person – having neither to weigh thoughts nor measure words, but pouring them all right out, just as they are, chaff and grain together; certain that a faithful hand will take and sift them, keep what is worth keeping, and then, with the breath of kindness, blow the rest away.”Dinah Maria Mulock Craik, A Life for a LIfe
Can you think of someone in your childhood who made you feel connected, offered closeness that soothes, made you feel that you matter and are loved? Was there someone who understood you, was genuinely interested in you, and made you feel known and accepted just as you are? Maybe you are one of the lucky ones who had or still has such a person. It is also quite probable that you have not yet met such a person, or maybe this person came in later stages of your life. Let us, just for a moment, tap into the feeling of such closeness and unconditional acceptance. This is a place where we can rest, explore and play. This is, as Gordon Neufeld says, a place where true development unfolds.
What happens when Gabor Maté (Slovenian readers already know him as the author of the book When the Body Says No) seeks counsel for raising his children with clinical and developmental psychologist Gordon Neufeld? It is the beginning of a friendship with a speck of rivalry. Rivalry on who is to offer the knowledge to broader audiences: the student or the teacher. Luckily, rivalry grew into cooperation that resulted in a unique book on parenting. A book that offers a deeper dive into parenting, raising children, and development. A book that touches us at the core.
A few years ago, when I first held this book in my hands, it seemed as if a new landscape was opening before my eyes. What seemed to be an impassable or blurry landscape, became clear and full of possible paths to try. Still a bit wary, I started trying out various ideas from the book in my family and in my work with other parents and teachers. The insights gained in these endeavours were more than encouraging and made me revise my understanding of myself, my role as a mum, psychologist and prospective psychotherapist. I was given the long sought-for map.
What makes the book unique are the new perspectives in the arena of parenting usually not addressed elsewhere. The authors are making a case about how we are unknowingly losing our children long before they are mature enough to be let out of our care. They understand the challenges modern parents face and how depleted their parental power is. At the same time, they refrain from offering advice and “how to” recipes. Instead, they provide insight into our children’s needs and an invitation to prioritize our relationship with children over acquiring various techniques and methods of disciplining and raising them.
Therefore, if you expected to find a manual with precise prescriptions, you might end up being disappointed. However, if you are willing to take a few risks and look under the surface, you might walk away with more clarity about what is truly needed of you. You will come to realize that your power to parent is just as strong as is your relationship with your children. You will understand what the needs of your children are in the given situation and will find the genuine answer within yourself.
Yet, can you afford to trust in the importance of relationships over the imperative to raise a child in a desired manner? In the book, the authors state: “A child will usually know what is expected and is either unable or unwilling to deliver. The inability to deliver is usually a maturity problem; the unwillingness to deliver is usually an attachment problem.” Parents who aim to provide such a safe space for their children to truly mature at their own pace, are faced with a difficult task. They need to build a deeply connected relationship, in which they are the holders of their children’s hearts. This, in turn, will require allowing for the parents’ own vulnerability to exist. At the same time, parents cannot ignore and have to, to some degree, abide by the requirements of current social reality and culture that are not favourable for development and do not best serve our children.
The authors propose that our parents and grandparents might have not possessed the knowledge, understanding or material conditions to parent, but they were still embedded in culture that served as a vehicle for raising children. Today, we have more information at our fingertips, but the fast pace of living and demands for ever bigger productivity have depleted our social support systems. Therefore, it is important for us to start understanding and naming these previously unconscious phenomena that were embedded in culture to support development and maturation. We need to understand the costs of these phenomena being amiss. We need to consciously address attachment, the need as basic as our need for food; and counterwill, which is often sabotaging our attempts to influence the youth; and peer orientation, which is undermining our power to parent. Being aware of these phenomena can help us act proactively and seek alternatives, such building a village of attachment through building a community where children and their peers will all be connected to a wider web of caring adults.
This book differs from other books on parenting in one more way. This is not a book that will teach you how to help your child gain more friends. On the contrary, the authors propose that we took a wrong turn in prioritizing peer relationships from an early age on. Instead, they suggest that quality peer relationships are an outcome of maturation, therefore calling on us to orchestrate our children’s peer interactions until mature enough to connect with peers in a way that is true to their nature. When we unsuspectingly and unknowingly push our children into the arms of their peers, they will form connections out of the attachment voids that resulted from their lack of connection with us. They will seek closeness, belonging and acceptance from their peers. But, due to their own immaturity, peers cannot provide this unconditionally. Only by complying with unwritten rules can one fit in a peer group. This constant calibration of self to assure acceptance keeps children constantly working for attachment, and away from rest in the adult relationships that would provide room for development and maturation. Mary Ainsworth, a close colleague of John Bowlby, often referred to as the father of attachment theory, sensed this dynamic of peer orientation, but was not yet able to name it. The authors of Hold On To Your Kids not only name it, but also show how devastating it can be.
After decades of prioritizing peer relations, the authors challenge us to rethink our adult roles in the lives of youth and to occupy the position that we are entitled to. Recent research shows unequivocally that having at least one committed and close relationship with important adults is the number one predictor of resilience in children and adolescents. It is not hard to understand that such a relationship provides feelings of safety, support, responsiveness, and protection, and as such, serves as a shield for the child. These relationships serve as a buffer from the effects of stress or trauma. Neufeld and Maté are giving us a map on how to cultivate such a relationship with a child at any point of life, be it from birth or later on, when our child seems to be drifting away from us.
Let me now share a few words about the Slovenian translation. The translation is coming to us seventeen years after the first publication of the book. Seemingly, this is the case in many other countries. It seems we are only now starting to acknowledge the scope of peer orientation. Can it be that the increasing numbers of mental and physical health issues in youth are forcing us to reconsider our ways of raising children? There are some new concepts that this book is introducing into our environment that we did not have words for before. We are in luck that the translator, Petra Česen, is also a student at the Neufeld Institute and was able to use her thorough knowledge of this topic to support her work. Following the example of the making of the original book, a discussion group made up of the translator, a psychologist named Dr. Maja Šorli and myself, formed to address the challenges of translation. We called it “The Late Evening Group”, dedicated to deciphering the questions of language and the group members’ personal journeys prompted by the book.
As a result, you are now holding in your hands the translation of a book that is full of love, respect and care for youngsters and the adults in their lives. However, it might not be an easy read. It seems impossible to read about attachment and growing up without being touched from the inside. Memories from your own growing up might pop out, or you might start feeling you were not providing what was needed for your children in the past. You might, at times, feel that you don’t have what is needed, especially if it was not provided for you during your childhood. I hope you will endure the discomfort, to realize by the end of the book that you do have a power to parent and that there is always something that can be done.
So let me leave you where I started. In the book Neufeld and Maté say: “Everyone has the potential to be the parent their child needs.” Every one of us can become a person who can offer connection, closeness that soothes, and makes someone feel significant and loved. Everyone can become someone who understands, is interested in, and makes the other person feel known and accepted just as they are. This might not be all that is called for from us adults, but it gives our children a good foundation for healthy development and it will surely bring more joy, playfulness and mutual trust in our relationships with them. When we offer this to our children in abundance, we will start seeing it in their relationships with others and, even more importantly, in their relationships to themselves. My wish for you and for your children is to accept the challenge.
Writtten by Dr. Urška Žugelj
The Neufeld Institute would like to thank the author of this introduction to the Slovenian translation of Hold On To Your Kids, Dr. Urška Žugelj, and the translator, Petra Česen, for their roles in bringing the book to the Slovenian readers.
Click HERE for more details about Hold On To Your Kids, including a full of list of other translations.