Making Sense of Peer Orientation

“When children become preoccupied with their peers and would prefer to be with them rather than with us, it is a sign for us that we must win them back. I tell parents to look for two warning signs of peer orientation. The first is when a child does not seem to be able to hold on to a sense of his parents when interacting with his peers. The second is when a child cannot hold on to himself when interacting with his peers. These signs are indications that the child is in danger of becoming too peer oriented. If possible, reducing the time that children spend with their peers should help. But much more important is increasing our own time of connection and closeness. The older a child is, the less we can place restrictions and the more we must work at cultivating deeper relationships.”

 Dr. Gordon Neufeld

If all is going as Nature intends, adolescence should be a time of emergence; a time when a teenager comes to know herself–her opinions, her emotions, her contradictions, her interests. This is the natural path of adolescence but, in our times, it is not the normal path; for most teens these days the best case scenario is for them to become socialized throughout their teen years so that they can fit in with adult society (and we often fail to meet even this low bar!).

For so many of us parents (I know this was certainly the case for me!) the big picture of adolescence is obscured by all the daily busyness (the food to be cooked, the jobs to be worked, the sports games to be driven to, the bake sales to volunteer for) and we fail to see the ways we are selling our teenagers short. One key idea that shifted my understanding and thus my parenting is the concept of peer orientation. Peer orientation exists when teens are in orbit around each other rather than around either the adults in their lives ( as it should be in early adolescence) or around their own emergent selves (as it should be in later adolescence. Peer orientation is rampant, seen as “normal” and absolutely stunts mature development; as Gordon Neufeld simply puts it “teens can’t grow each other up.”

The good news is that once we are aware of this dynamic, there are lots of things we can do to get back into right relationship with our teens. Some of these are basic everyday caretaking types of things (baking their favorite treat and sitting down at the table to eat it together) and some of these require more orchestration (take them away for the weekend to somewhere that you know well so they have to lean on your direction). Often as parents we mistakenly view the teenage years as our time of “retirement” and we happily take up new hobbies and projects or dive back into our work after the labor-intensive years of early childhood; reclaiming our teens takes time, concerted effort and intention. However when we see a teen who is on the natural path of development rather than the ubiquitous peer-oriented path that we accept as normal the difference is astounding.

We all want the best for our kids and lifting the veil that exists around peer orientation is the first step in making a course correction from the path of “fitting in” to the path of “becoming one’s own self.”

Want to learn more about supporting your pre-teen or teenager in healthy development? Making Sense of Adolescence begins in Portland on 2/14. More information and registration here.

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