Dr. Gabor Maté on Why Parents Matter More Than Ever

Physician and author Gabor Maté joins Janet to discuss the importance of developing secure attachments with our kids and why it’s crucial for us to continue nurturing these bonds into their adulthood. How do we remain our children’s most trusted influences while also encouraging their natural drive toward individuation? Can we maintain our role as a primary attachment figure when our child is cared for by others? How do we help kids to develop healthy relationships with peers? What’s the best way to handle exposure to digital media? Gabor addresses these questions among many others and offers suggestions for maintaining positive attachments throughout our kids’ lives.

Transcript of “Dr. Gabor Maté on Why Parents Matter More Than Ever”

Hi, this is Janet Lansbury. Welcome to Unruffled.

For most of you out there, I’m guessing that my guest today needs no introduction. Dr. Gabor Maté is a family physician, renowned speaker, with a special interest in childhood development, trauma, and addiction. He’s authored five books, including the classic he co-authored with early childhood icon psychologist Dr. Gordon Neufeld. The book is Hold On to Your Kids: Why Parents Need to Matter More Than Peers. And Doctors Neufeld and Maté are reissuing it with a brand new chapter called In the Wake of the Pandemic: Peer Orientation and the Youth Mental Health Crisis. I’m seriously looking forward to discussing the invaluable messages in this book, and more, with Dr. Gabor Maté.

Hi, and welcome to you, Dr. Maté. I’m an enormous fan of yours and it’s really an honor to be able to spend this time with you. Thank you very much for being here.

Dr. Gabor Maté: Thanks for having me. I’m sorry that due to technical issues, the main author of the book Hold On to Your Kids, Dr. Gordon Neufeld, can’t be with us. But since I wrote the book with him and have worked with him for decades, I think I can channel his wisdom here, as best I can. But listeners should keep in mind that it’s his work mostly that we’re talking about here.

Janet Lansbury: I believe in you as a channel for his work, and you have amazing work you’ve done on your own as well. And this book, well now you’re reissuing it because you’ve added a new chapter all about the effects of the pandemic. Which I found surprising, your take on it, because it’s very different from the take that we’re hearing from many about it. So I really hope that you’ll speak to that today. But this whole book, it’s really a unique perspective, and remains a unique perspective, even though it was first written back in, what was it, 2008, something like that?

Dr. Gabor Maté: I think even before then. I think it’s probably 2005 or 2004, something like that.

Janet Lansbury: You’ve also added some chapters about the digital explosion that’s happened and how that affects this issue. I’m going to let you speak about the issues that this book covers and brings to light for people. It was something that I hadn’t considered before reading this. I’ve known the importance of having a relationship-centered approach to parenting, that that’s what it’s all about. That attachment is everything, that it’s key to the way that children learn, the way that they live and become who we want them to be or who they’re supposed to be. And that attachment nest needs to be present. But what your book with Dr. Neufeld talks about is that, actually, this is even more important than we thought because there’s competition. There’s this powerful draw of peer orientation. Can you talk a little about that?

Dr. Gabor Maté: First of all, we have to consider human evolution. And from the evolutionary perspective, mammals, hominids and hominins, humanoid creatures lived in small-band groups, where the children were around the adults all the time, 24/7, from birth to adulthood. And even with our own species, we’ve been on the earth for about 150,000 years, that’s the way we lived until the blink of an eye ago. So for 95% of our existence as human species, children lived around their parents all the time.

It’s like a duckling. A duckling is born, hatches from the egg, looks at the mother duck and imprints on the mother duck, and then follows the mother duck. Not because the mother duck asserts authority or threatens them or anything, just that nature causes us to be attached to our caregivers and to follow their guidance. And that’s the way it’s been for a long time.

Now, in more recent times, kids spend most of their time away from their parents from a very early age on. In the United States, 25% of women have to go back to work within two weeks of giving birth, which basically means that children are deprived of the natural presence of their nature-intended caregivers.

The duckling, if it hatches with the mother duck absent, will still imprint on anything that moves. And that could be a dog or horse or mechanical moving toy, but none of which are designed by nature to bring that duckling up to adulthood.

Our children, spending most of their time away from us, imprint on who they spend most of their time with. Their brain is programmed to imprint and to attach, but nothing in nature tells the brain who to attach to. That’s the job of the culture. So when you have a culture in which kids spend most of their time away from the nurturing adults, they imprint on whoever’s around, they can’t help it. They’re not doing it, their brains are doing it.

That means our kids are now imprinting and attaching to, and therefore getting their orientation from, immature peers. Attachment is like a magnet. It’s got two poles. One pole attracts, but the other pole repels. So when you’re attracted here, you’re pushing away from there. So when kids get attracted to and orienting by and attached to their peer group, they start pushing away from the adult. And now we think they have a problem, there’s something wrong with them, and we ratchet up the authoritarian parenting, all the punishments, the timeouts, all this stuff, which further drives them away from us.

And so what we’ve got here in our society, to make a long story short, is a culturally built-in, normalized, absolutely abnormal situation, where kids are getting most of their influence from their immature peers rather than the nurturing adults. And this results in behavior problems, learning difficulties, a lot of what we call pathologies (which are not pathologies at all, they’re manifestations of abnormalities in the environment), difficulties parenting, frustration on the part of parents, all kinds of other consequences which you can talk about. But in a nutshell, it has to do with the loss of primary attachments to the nourishing adults and the replacement—gradually, but insidiously—by the peer group.

Janet Lansbury: When does this begin? When children are three years old, four years old?

Dr. Gabor Maté: For those kids whose mothers have to go back to work at two weeks, that’s when it starts. Because then where do they go to? They go to poorly-funded, very often, and poorly-staffed daycare centers where there’s not enough adults to really connect with each child. Furthermore, we have this idea in this society that somehow we have to socialize kids. They spent the whole week in daycare and then, at let’s say age three or four, we arrange playdates for them on the weekend where they can be with each other even more.

And so I’m just telling you that so many of the problems that parents are having with their kids, there’s nothing because something’s wrong with the kids or particularly something wrong with the parents either. But because in this culture, the loss of parental attachment has been normalized and even encouraged. And there’s this invisible competition that we’re actually taught to court and to encourage.

Janet Lansbury: So what does healthy socialization look like? I mean, when you say that we’re supposed to socialize, I never consider it that way. I consider that children are naturally socialized. It’s not something that we have to try to make happen for them.

Dr. Gabor Maté: That’s the whole point. Your assumption is quite right. Socialization does happen naturally. But we can over-encourage it, because we forget or we don’t know that child development goes through phases. It’s like a pyramid. And the base and the broadest grounding for that pyramid is attachment to the nurturing adults. And that has to be maintained. These are not phases that we go through, this is a pyramid that we build. And attachment is the basis of it.

The second basis of it is not socialization. The second tier in the pyramid is actually individuation, which means the child develops a deep, entrusting sense of themselves. Now for that, attachment has to be secure. When children develop a sense of themselves, they can then respect the individuality of others and hold on to themselves without having to fit in, without having to mold themselves to the expectations of the group. But if they don’t have a strong sense of themselves, individuation, then they’ll try and fit in with the group rather than being themselves. Then we can see where that leads to. You know what the extreme of that is: gang behavior.

Then the third tier, as Gordon points out, is socialization. So socialization is like the peak of the pyramid. In a healthy sense, it’s based on strong attachments, proper individuation, and then socialization happens spontaneously. We don’t have to make it happen. But we do have to respect the pyramid. And so when we try and push kids into socialization too early, before they’ve individuated, then we’re actually asking for them to just meld in with the peer group.

Janet Lansbury: When parents have asked me, How do I do this? I need to socialize my child. And I point out—because my mentor, who happens to be Hungarian, Magda Gerber, I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of her, but she used to say, you’re socializing your child with everything you do in your relationship. That’s how they’re learning social behaviors, through you. You don’t have to put them in a group setting. Group socialization is a whole different thing. They’re learning this through your relationship.

Dr. Gabor Maté: As a matter of fact, this is counterintuitive perhaps, and we’re not here advocating homeschooling, that’s not something everybody just can do, for all kinds of reasons. But if you look at the research, kids who are homeschooled, they socialize better later on. Why? Because they have a stronger, more independent sense of themselves. And now they can respect individuality of others and hold on to their own.

Janet Lansbury: If parents are in the position where they do need to have their child be in childcare, then ideally we want them to be able to attach—hopefully not as their primary attachment, hopefully that still remains the parent, right? That’s what we want. But they need to form a secondary attachment with those adults caring for them, so that they have somebody that’s an adult to be attached to instead of prioritizing the other children to be attached to.

Dr. Gabor Maté: Yeah, we’re not saying kids shouldn’t be in daycare. That would not be realistic. A lot of parents, for economic and other reasons, simply have to send their kids to daycare. The question is to recognize what we’ve lost and how to supplant it, okay? So if the kid goes to daycare, the first point is: what the child’s brain cannot handle is competing primary attachments. The child can handle many attachments, but not competing primary attachments. By the way, that’s true of the human brain in general. It’s very difficult even for adults, for example, to be in love with two people at the same time. Eventually the brain goes this way or that way, but it can’t hold on to both.

Now, the child’s brain, being very immature, is absolutely incapable of handling competing primary attachments. So when the child goes to daycare, the parent needs to encourage the child’s attachment to the daycare provider because that doesn’t compete with the parent, but the peer attachment does. So we have to have healthy adult attachments if the child is not going to be with the parent. It’s like Gordon says: in the morning, the parent hands the attachment baton to the teacher or the daycare worker, and in the evening, we take it back. That’s the first point. When kids go to daycare, parents should hang out in that daycare for a few weeks and make sure that their child sees them, the parent, forming relationships with the daycare provider. So that the child then sees, Oh, okay, I can be attached to both of these people. That’s the first thing.

The second thing is, we have to understand how children attach. And the more immature we are, the more primitive—and I don’t mean that in a negative sense—but the more basic our attachment styles are. So the first way that children attach is physically. To the senses, by seeing, hearing, touching, smelling the attachment figure. Smell, by the way, is huge. It’s one of the first things that develops. Babies can distinguish the smell of their own mother’s breast pad from that of other mothers within a few weeks of birth. So the senses are very important to children.

And other forms of attachment, such as being loyal or being important, holding somebody else in your heart, those develop later. You might have friends that you might not see for two years, but you still love them, you can hold on to them. Children can’t do that. Young children, they have to see you, hear you, touch you. Now, what does that mean? If they haven’t seen you the whole day, that attachment relationship has been attenuated. You have to regain it. So when your kid comes home from daycare at whatever age, hang out with them. Not for the purpose of telling them what to do or watching television together or anything, but just for the purpose of reestablishing the attachment relationship.

So in the first place, kids go to daycare: form attachment relationships with the nurturing adults. And most daycare workers need to be trained or understand the importance of attachment. They’re not just physical caregivers providing food and supervision. They need to be attachment figures, number one. Number two, at the end of the day, you have to reconnect, reattach with your kids. Especially the younger kids, but any kids, at any age. So we can deal with the daycare, not by going back to some ideal time when kids are with their parents the whole day, that’s no longer available to most of us. But we can understand attachment and then we’ll follow the guidelines of attachment to make sure that the kids being away from us the whole day doesn’t undermine our relationship with them.

Janet Lansbury: Yes, I love these points that you and Dr. Neufeld made in the book about the four ways to nurture attachment. The first one is when they’re infants, when children are very little, you call it “being in their face.” It’s having that face-to-face. And then that becomes “collecting.” I really like that word to describe it. I mean, I’ve seen all these memes and things saying, children want us to light up when they come into the room. Well, there is something to that. When we’re returning to each other, we want to drop everything. It’s so important that we’re not texting in the car or whatever. We’re present, we’re there. I collect you. You’re somebody big to me. You’re important.

Dr. Gabor Maté: You would do that with a lover, wouldn’t you? You do that automatically. We do it automatically with babies, too. I mean, even strangers. I’ve been on many airplanes where there might be a little baby there in somebody’s arms and the baby cries a little bit. Everybody goes, Aww. We just all naturally attune with the baby. That’s just natural. Babies evoke that attunement/connection instinct in us. The problem is that with the separation from our kids, that instinct inside ourselves is actually softened, weakened. So we actually get alienated from our own parenting instinct.

When some parenting “expert” comes along and tells you to practice timeout against a two-year-old, basically they’re saying to you, Use the attachment relationship to punish the child. The child’s biggest need is that you should be delighted and welcoming and unconditionally accepting. And when you use a timeout technique, you say to the child, I know what your biggest fear is: the loss of that relationship. And I’m going to deprive you of the relationship for a certain period of time. Now, to a two-year-old, five minutes is forever. And so that, not only does the culture normalize alienation of children from parents, it even teaches parents to use the child’s biggest need—for your delight in them and acceptance of them, an unconditional connection with them—against the child, to try and control the child. Which creates tremendous insecurity in children. It makes them conform to your desires perhaps, but what does it do to the child’s development?

We have to collect them, which means gather them in under our wing again. And Gordon says, collect them before you direct them.

Janet Lansbury: It does become less organic as children get older and we think, Oh, they’re fine, or They don’t care, or we’re busy or whatever. And how important that still is with a teenager, with a child at any age. I have three adult children, I still stand up—whatever I’m doing—if they walk in the door. It’s like a huge thing to me, run and hug and so excited. I naturally feel that way. But I think we can get caught up in our work and our lives and forget, especially when children maybe are already gone into more of that peer orientation space and then they don’t seem like they care. But they do, right? They really do.

And what can we look for, then, with our younger children? What are some of the warning signs that, Uh-oh, there could be something going on here? I mean, when you talk about the behaviors that children have when they do have that peer orientation, the behaviors that they have toward the parents, what do those look like with young children?

Dr. Gabor Maté: First of all, let me just say that even teenagers need this. Not just even, but especially. Because it’s such a difficult time. They need orientation. And in traditional cultures that orientation was provided by adults and elders.

One of my sons and I are writing a new book together. I mean, we’re just beginning to write it, so I’m not advertising anything here. But it’s going to be called Hello Again: A Fresh Start for Parents and Adult Children. It’s based on a workshop that we do. And all the adults that we speak to, adults in their thirties, forties who still want contact with their parents. They may not want the contact that they have, which is often very troubled, but they want genuine contacts. Never-mind infants, even adults are still looking for that.

So what are the signs when kids are getting alienated from us? Well, first of all, they want to be with each other all the time rather than with us, number one. Number two, with the technology that we’ve very unwisely put into their immature hands, they’re connecting with each other all the time. They will not be soothed by us when they’re upset. They will be more oppositional and resistant to our expectations.

Janet Lansbury: And that part could show up with a child as young as three or four. There’s part of that that naturally happens anyway, but then it can become more of a warning sign if a child is consistently having “behavior issues.” But it’s always a relationship issue when children are having concerning behaviors, it’s usually a relationship issue between us.

Dr. Gabor Maté: Yeah. In our society, more and more kids are being diagnosed with this, that, and the other. And many kids are being medicated to control their behaviors, which is a vast social experiment in the manipulation of the child’s biology and the indication is that it’s not particularly good for the child’s brain development. In fact, on the contrary, in many cases. What we’re actually looking at is we identify pathologies in a child, but actually there’s no pathology in a child. What there is is a response in the child to the environment, and particularly to the loss of attachment.

So there’s a so-called diagnosis called oppositional defiant disorder. I say “so-called” because not only does it not exist in reality, not even in theory can it exist. Now, it describes something. So in that sense, it refers to something real. But to say that ODD, that a child has it, is to imply that the child has some kind of a disorder. But let’s just look at it for a minute. Oppositionality by definition is relational. Can you oppose somebody if you’re not in relationship with them? When I talk about this, I say to my listeners, if you don’t understand what I’m saying, lock yourself in a room by yourself, make sure you’re alone, lock the door, and oppose somebody. And if you manage to do it, please put it on YouTube because we want to see what it looks like. So oppositionality by definition implies a relationship. In which case, why are we diagnosing the child rather than looking at the relationship, number one.

Number two, I mentioned individuation, the necessity for us to become individual beings in our own right. That’s nature’s agenda. Why? Because the parents are going to die. And nature’s agenda is that by the time the parents pass, the child has become their own adult person, individuated, knowing themselves. That’s just nature’s agenda for any species.

At age one-and-a-half, the child starts saying no. What do we call that? We call that the terrible twos. Why do we call it the terrible twos? Because we don’t understand there’s nothing terrible about it. What’s actually going on is the child is developing their own will, and in order to develop their own will, as Gordon points out, they have to put up a little fence against the overwhelming and overbearing will of the parent. And that’s that no that they start saying. If you don’t know how to say no, your yeses don’t mean anything at all. So there’s nothing inherently oppositional about it, it’s just that—Gordon calls it counterwill. Counterwill is just countering the will of another so that you can develop your own.

Now, we can manage that easy enough if the attachment relationship is strong. But if we mistake it for a problem, then what we do is when a child expresses their counterwill, their nature-built drive for independence, we push on them even harder. It’s in the nature of counterwill that the more you push on it, the stronger it becomes.

So who are these kids with the so-called oppositional defiant disorders? Number one, they’re kids who have lost the primary healthy attachment with adults. Now, if you’ve lost a relationship with somebody, you’re not going to heed them. You’re not going to listen to them or allow yourself to be guided by them, because orientation follows attachment. We follow, orient by, those people that we trust and are connected to. If, because of all the multiple pressures in our society, which is not the fault of individual parents, children’s relationships to parents have been attenuated, weakened, then their oppositionality increases naturally, number one. Number two, the more we push on it, the more confirmed and out-of-hand it becomes.

So who are these ODD kids? Kids who have lost their relationship with the parents and who’ve been pushed on too much. And then we say they’ve got some kind of pathology. No, they don’t. What we have to do is to go back to basics and rebuild that relationship with them. Trust me, that oppositionality will melt like snow on a warm day. We’ve seen this over and over again. But unfortunately the tendency in our society is to pathologize children’s behavior, rather than to see its sources and its remedies in the attachment relationship.

Janet Lansbury: Yes, that makes a lot of sense.

And then the second point that you make about maintaining that attachment is giving children something to hold on to. In the beginning, that’s a body part, that’s very physical, but it soon becomes emotional as well. And just that feeling of, There’s this person that sees me, knows me so well, is always in my corner, and somebody loves me. And I can go out in the world and deal with some of the challenges, knowing that I have this person to go back to, that sees me better than anyone else.

Dr. Gabor Maté: Even in adult relationships, on separation, don’t we give one another little objects, little mementos? Those are something to hold on to. Children need that. So if the kid goes to daycare, give them a picture of yourself. Give them some cherished, not expensive obviously, but some cherished shared object that they can hold on to. So that’s what we’re talking about, is let them take a piece of you to the daycare or to the school.

Janet Lansbury: And then inviting them. The third one is inviting them to depend on us.

Dr. Gabor Maté: Yeah. Again, in this society there’s this belief that we have to push kids towards independence, but we don’t. I mean, a mother bear doesn’t have to push the cubs towards independence. At a certain point, it just happens. And the more secure the child is, the more independent they can become. If you look at these attachment experiments with little babies or little toddlers and so on, those kids that are more securely attached are the ones more likely to be able to play independently and then to come back to the mom or the parent when necessary. As Gordon says, to promote independence, invite dependence.

Janet Lansbury: Right.

Dr. Gabor Maté: That drive for independence is inherent in the child. At a certain point, the child developing in a healthy way will say, “I’m going to do it myself.” So you’re going to tie their shoelaces: “I’m going to do it myself.” That drive for mastery is inherent in a human being. It has to be. So we don’t have to promote it, we just have to provide the security so that it can unfold naturally.

Janet Lansbury: Right. And be that person that says, I mean, unless we can’t possibly do it at that moment, and then we say, “Well, I wish I could but I can’t right now.” But that welcomes them. To say, Oh, you want help with your shoes? You know how to do it, but so what? I’m going to help you with your shoes. Of course, I’m always here for you.

And yeah, I mean, the only thing I was thinking when I was reading that that I would maybe add is just that sometimes we have to honor independence when children do show it. Even as an infant, I want to look over here and notice this right now. That we consider honoring that instead of, Come look at me! I’m the only one here! So when a child does choose it—it’s never pushing a child that way, never. But it’s noticing those expressions of independence and honoring them, not stepping on them. Because one thing I really wanted to ask you—

Dr. Gabor Maté: Let me just quickly comment on that.

Janet Lansbury: Okay, yes!

Dr. Gabor Maté: Yes to what you just said. That’s called attunement. Attunement means being aware of and respectful of the internal experience of the other. At a certain point, the infant may have too much of you looking at them. They wish to look away. You let them. You don’t get anxious, Oh, come back, hey! You don’t try to inveigle them back into relationship with you at that moment, because their need at that point is that it’s become too intense for them and they need to just detach for a minute. If you’re attuned with them, and if you’re not anxious, you’ll allow that to happen. If you’re not attuned or if you’re bringing your own needs to bear, your need to connect with the child to dominate, then you’re not going to honor their experience.

So yes, you have to be attuned with the child, which means sometimes you have to let them look away and do their own thing. Usually it won’t last very long, but you need to give them the space to do that. So it begins very early. And very often parents hover too much in that sense. They should be attentive to the child and be there for the child. But hovering means that you’re bringing your own needs.

Janet Lansbury: And fears often, right?

Dr. Gabor Maté: Your own needs and your anxieties, rather than getting your cues from the child’s experience.

Janet Lansbury: I’m sure you’ve been asked this, you and Dr. Neufeld probably both, but how does your advice in this book stand with all of this research that’s come out about the over-parenting and the stifling of children, and how that’s linked to children who are depressed, anxious, have no sense of themselves, no individuation, I guess.

Dr. Gabor Maté: So for sure. It’s like I just said, it’s—

Janet Lansbury: Lack of attunement, right?

Dr. Gabor Maté: It needs to arise from the child’s needs, not from the parents’ anxieties. So a lot of that stuff has to do with the parents’ fears. We’ve got to take them to this class and that class and make sure they get into the right school. And if we don’t push them academically, they’re going to… In other words, it actually comes from the anxieties of the parent. And it also comes from the sense of the parent that they’ve lost a relationship with the child and they need to overcompensate. So as long as the relationship is healthy and well-attached, you can’t over-hover.

Let me tell you about a study that was done quite some years ago now. They looked at mothers and young children, I don’t know, about a hundred or 200 mothers. I quote the study in one of my books, not in this one. And some mothers, very few, were kind of distant and unavailable emotionally for the children as they interacted. Most mothers were good, they interacted, they played with the child. Some mothers were called supermoms. These supermoms cuddled the kid, extra loving, extra connection, and so on. Attuned, but very warm. Thirty years or more later, the kids most emotionally stable or the adults most emotionally stable, were the children of these supermoms. And what the researcher said is, you can’t love children too much. Now, loving them is not the same as hovering all the time and controlling them.

So the research doesn’t have to do with attachment, it has to do with control and intrusion. And yeah, if you control kids and intrude on them, you’re going to get negative results. But that’s got nothing to do with attachment. In fact, it’s a substitute for genuine attachment.

Janet Lansbury: Right. And do you also think it threatens the attachment relationship and could cause this peer orientation? That if a child feels like, they’re too controlling or they’re trying to mold me. I mean, I think sometimes parents feel like they’re supposed to judge their child, they’re supposed to keep on them. That that is what love is. That they’re supposed to mold, they’re supposed to be on them for everything and make it all happen. And there’s no trust in the child’s nature. And so naturally children can grow up to not trust their own nature, because their parent that they look to never trusted theirs.

Dr. Gabor Maté: Returning, I mentioned this book I’m writing, we do these workshops, my son and I, for adults and their parents. This is what we hear so often from parents. I wish I had left them alone. I wish I hadn’t tried to control them so much. They just needed me to be there for them and be there with them, not to try and direct them all the time. And the residues into adulthood are so negative. So we’re not trusting the child, we’re not trusting ourselves, we’re not trusting nature.

See, children who are connected to adults naturally want to learn from adults. We use this word discipline, but what does the word discipline actually mean? We think it means punishment. No, it doesn’t. Who had disciples? Jesus, for example, had disciples. Not because he punished or threatened them, but because he loved them and they loved him. So then naturally they wanted to learn from him.

So that’s one of the ways we attach, I mentioned the attachment physically. The next way to attach is actually by wanting to be the same as. So when children are well-attached to parents, they’ll copy what the parent does. I mean, look at all the teaching that that saves. There’s a lot of things we don’t have to teach our kids, they just learn it by watching us. Kids who are well-attached to parents will naturally want to emulate the parent, to be the same as the parent. Kids who are peer-attached want to be the same as their peers and behave like their peers and talk like their peers and look like their peers and wear the same shoes.

Janet Lansbury: And as you point out, these aren’t unconditionally loving peers. They can’t be, towards that child. And so the child is not getting the kind of attachment that they need.

Dr. Gabor Maté: No, but they’re getting the only one available to them. And the point is, these parents who think we have to guide and judge and control our kids. No, you don’t. You have to provide the warm attachment relationship. And then you set the guidelines, for which you don’t need to use force because the child who’s connected to you will naturally want to follow your guidelines. So you can back off on the coercive aspect.

There are limits. You’re not going to let a kid run across the street in order to find out for themselves how dangerous it is. You will not allow that to happen. If you live in New York, you’re not going to let your kid crawl out into the winter snow naked. I mean, parenting is a hierarchy, but it’s a benign, beneficial hierarchy.

The problem with peer orientation is it actually flattens the hierarchy. So when kids start looking to each other for guidance and validation, they start resisting the parents’ natural authority. As long as we have that natural authority, we don’t have to keep pushing our kids or cajoling them or judging them or controlling them. They will naturally, literally, fall into line. And by the way, this book has been out now for what, almost 30 years? Published in close to 40 languages. We get messages from all over the world that it changed their whole family dynamics and how they relate to their kids. And things are so much easier now and so much warmer now and so much effortless now. The stronger the attachment relationship, the less the effort you have to make.

Janet Lansbury: Because you’re prioritizing what really works. You’re putting your energy into what actually does help children with their behavior and every other thing that you’re trying to do, if you’re thinking about trying to mold them.

Dr. Gabor Maté: The problem is that by now, we’re talking 2024, by now, we’ve had several generations of parents who themselves were brought up peer-oriented. So to them this looks totally natural. They can’t even see the alternative, even though historically it’s an aberration. Evolutionarily, as I said earlier, it’s simply a blink of an eye. Not even that. And even historically, it’s just a few generations old. But it’s become so entrenched and so endemic in our culture that we take it for granted.

My most recent book is called The Myth of Normal. What I’m saying in general in that book, and I mention the peer orientation dynamic as well, is that things have become normalized in this culture that, from the human point of view, are neither healthy nor natural. And so peer orientation has become so normalized that most researchers don’t even realize it’s there. They just think it’s the way it needs to be. It’s unseen. It’s like a hidden epidemic that’s striking almost every family without people recognizing it. And we’re dealing with the effects of it, rather than dealing with the causes of it.

Janet Lansbury: So you’ve added on chapters about the digital age and then now this recent one about the effects of the pandemic with children. Could you talk a little about how parents can navigate the technology and screens and all of that with a very young child? If you have guidelines for that?

Dr. Gabor Maté: First of all, as a physician, I can tell you that the parts of the brain that are excited by the technology are the same parts of the brain excited by addictive drugs. The dopamine circuits, primarily. As a matter of fact, there’s a technology company called Dopamine Lab. The technology companies hire neuroscientists. I’m not making this up. They hire neuroscientists to target children’s brains in the most addictive fashion so they get hooked on the technology. And if you look at the research on brain scans of children who watch a lot of digital media, that interferes with the circuits of thinking and emotional connection and insight and creativity. So this is serious stuff.

Furthermore, I used to work with a highly addicted population here in Vancouver. One of my medical interests has been addiction. You take a child who’s hooked on technology and try and separate them from technology. You know what you’ve got? You’ve got an addict in withdrawal. The same rage, the same disdain, the same oppositionality, the same outrage, and the same obstreperous holding on to that object. This stuff is addictive.

If I was parenting kids today, I wouldn’t let them look at the screen for years. Certainly I would not let them look at a screen on their own for years. I would not give them a cell phone. I would not give them an iPad. If I watched television with them, I’d be choosing what they’re watching. But mostly I’d stay away from it. And I would stay away from texting and emailing in their presence.

Janet Lansbury: I was just going to ask about that, yes.

Dr. Gabor Maté: I don’t know if you’ve seen this, but believe me, I see it all the time. A parent is pushing a kid in a tram, a buggy, and their parent is on a cell phone. What message are we giving the kid when we’re absent in their presence? So it’s not that I would do without my computer or my cell phone, but I would not be letting them interrupt my relationship and interaction with the child.

And so it’s like everything else. There’s age-appropriate behaviors that are okay for one age, but not okay at another. I mean, it’s okay to have a glass of wine every once in a while, but nobody wants to give a glass of wine to a two-week-old. It’s not age-appropriate. Developmentally, it’s harmful. But there’s no rush. Even if they don’t see technology until age 10, which seems like a sacrilege in this society, they’ll learn it overnight. It’s not that they’re missing anything.

The problem is that parents are so busy and so stressed. Parents are desperate for a respite, and one way to get respite is to plunk the kid down in front of a TV set or to give them a cell phone. Now they’re going to be okay for hours, but at what cost? So while I understand the desire for the parents for a break and respite, and therefore using the technology as the babysitter, it comes at a great cost.

Janet Lansbury: I like that you pointed out that even pushing the pram when you’re not maybe facing the child or if the child’s on your back or front or whatever, that they can sense, because they sense everything about us, that you’re doing something else. Even when they can’t see our face. You know, that “still face” experiment always comes to mind when I think of us being on the phone with the baby there and suddenly we’re down a rabbit hole of something else that has nothing to do with them and how strange that is. But even not seeing our face, they sense that I’m not being collected by this person. I’m not in relationship with this person right now, in that moment.

And this is going to sound extreme to a lot of parents I think out there who have a lot of reasons for wanting the phones, but I believe as you do. And I feel thankful that my children are older and I don’t have to deal with it right now because it is very challenging. And I really do hand it to parents that are able to, not get rid of their phones, but have boundaries for themselves. Especially in those times that are togetherness times, the collecting when we’re in the transitions, when we’re greeting each other, saying goodbye to each other, the meal times.

Dr. Gabor Maté: Not to mention what that constant engagement with technology does to the parent. This last summer, I took a two-week break from digital media. I tell you, I was an addict in withdrawal. I turned the cell phone off. But even having turned it off, I picked it up several times a day, and then I thought, What am I doing? It’s not even on.

Janet Lansbury: How many days did it take you to not be checking it anymore?

Dr. Gabor Maté: The impulse never quite went away, but I never did turn it on for two weeks and I got calmer and more present to life as time went on. So what I’m saying is, quite apart from the impact on our kids, our constant cell phone obsession, what does it do to us? We become more scattered and less present, which then has an impact on the child.

Janet Lansbury: Yes. I wonder if you’d like to talk a little about this additional chapter, and then I promise to let you go.

Dr. Gabor Maté: Thank you. So look, COVID, the pandemic was interesting because it imposed an isolation on a lot of people, a lot of families. And I know there’s a lot of controversy in retrospect about those policies, and I’m not going to get into that. I’m going to talk about actually what happened. Two interesting things happened. On the one hand, the incidents of child abuse went up. More children ended up in emergency wards throughout North America with injuries sustained in home violence. Home violence went up. In some families, drinking behavior went up. On the other hand, in some families it was a godsend. And some parents said, My God, I got to be at home to see my kids’ milestones and I got to interact with them. I learned how they played and I played with them.

So what actually happened was that in families where there was multi-generational, unresolved trauma and fewer resources, emotionally speaking, the pressure of isolation took away from some parents their usual lightning rods, their usual ways of dispersing their stress and their anxieties. They couldn’t go to football games or sports events, entertainment events or to the pub. So the unresolved frustrations and stresses and traumas became expressed in the family. And for those people and for those kids, COVID was a disaster. And furthermore, for the peer-oriented kids, it was a huge loss because all of a sudden they lost their attachments with the people that they were naturally—not naturally, but unnaturally oriented towards, and they were at a loss.

Those families where the attachment dynamics were functional, and those parents who were either economically or emotionally or both resourced enough, this is an opportunity to deepen and warm up and build the attachment relationship with the kids.

So some people think that the COVID experience showed the importance of peer relationships, because look how kids suffered in their absence. Actually what it showed was how unnaturally important peer relationships became, so that in their absence, kids suffered. That’s what it actually proved. Rather than countering our thesis, it proved it. But again, because people took that for granted that it’s the way it should be, they didn’t notice that. They thought it was the loss of the peer relationships that created the problem. No, it was the already-absent relationship with the adults that created the problem. In the absence of the peer relationships, the kids just got more unbalanced, which just shows that the peer relationships had been overemphasized in the first place. So that’s how we understand it. And for us, it just meant we have just doubled down on that relationship.

Janet Lansbury: Wow, fascinating. Really eye-opening, and it makes a lot of sense. It really does.

I just want to say for everybody out there that this book, it will help you at every stage. It will help you to form secure attachments. And it will also help you notice when things might be not going the way that we hope and there’s some weaknesses in our attachment. And it also helps at any age to know how to get it back. As you said earlier, there’s nothing our child at any age wants more—or that we want more—but there’s nothing they want more than to reconnect. They just don’t know how. And we have to be the ones to lead that way back. But it will work, because it’s what children want more than anything. Whether it’s the two-year-old that we yelled at that just wants to feel safe with us again, or the adult child that feels estranged and doesn’t want to go through the rest of their life feeling that loss.

Dr. Gabor Maté: The two major responses we get to the book, some people say, Thanks, this saved our family because now I understand things. But the second interesting response we get is, Thank you, this book validated my instincts. So much of the parenting advice people get actually separates them from their instincts. So that when parents say to us, Thank you, your book validated my instincts. And now I can tell my friends who are telling me to use separation and timeout, “You know what? Here are these experts telling me that my instincts are right.” Now, you shouldn’t need experts to tell you that your instincts are right. As a matter of fact, I’d say in any contest between experts and instincts, listen to your instincts and forget the experts.

Janet Lansbury: Because your instincts know how to attach, that’s a primal thing that we all have. Your instincts know how to attach to your child. Your reasonable advice doesn’t necessarily.

Dr. Gabor Maté: That’s right. But again, instincts have to be evoked by the environment. So anyway, the two responses we get are Thank you, now we see it differently. But the other response we get is Thank you, this validated my instincts.

Janet Lansbury: Yeah, I mean this book is so informative and it’s alarming, though. And I could see where you might also get people saying, Oh, come on, that’s hogwash. It’s good to be with peers and it’s the best thing that could happen. But as you two point out, it’s when you come to that peer relationship from a place of you’re still holding on to your parent as a primary attachment, that that’s when it is healthy and works well.

Dr. Gabor Maté: We’re not saying kids shouldn’t play with each other. Children always have, since creation. But what was the context? The context of kids playing with each other was under the watchful eyes of caring adults. I remember growing up in Budapest, Hungary, in the 1950s. We played out in the street with other kids, but there were always parents on the balconies looking at us. And every neighborhood home was a home to all the kids so that we would go to each others’ homes and other mothers would give us lunch or look after us and so on. So that there was a community, a community of caring adults. So it’s not that children shouldn’t play with each other, it’s that that should not be the primary relationship, number one.

And number two, it needs to be in the context of adults being present. So if you’re going to have playdates on the weekend, for God’s sake, be there in the same room with the kids. Don’t have the adults chatting away here and the kids on their own. And adults should always be present with them. So maintain that primary relationship with the adults. Yes, kids should play with each other. No, that should not be the primary relationship.

Janet Lansbury: Because it’s about influence, right? Who’s influencing your child the most? We want that to be us.

Dr. Gabor Maté: That’s right.

Janet Lansbury: It’s such a hopeful book. And that last chapter was just such a beautiful ending, really hopeful and will leave parents feeling not afraid, but that this is normal. I mean, it isn’t normal like you said, but it is the new unfortunate normal and that there’s a lot that they can do to counteract some of the draws and influences. That that really is in our power and that children want it to be and need it to be.

Dr. Gabor Maté: That’s right.

Janet Lansbury: Thank you so much for sharing with us and for this book. Your work is really profound in so many ways.

Dr. Gabor Maté: Thanks for having me.

Janet Lansbury: It’s an honor. Thank you so much. Take care, and we’ll hopefully engage again at some point in the future.

Dr. Gabor Maté: Take care.

***

Thank you so much for listening and for all your kind support. We can do this.

4 Comments

Please share your comments and questions. I read them all and respond to as many as time will allow.

  1. Avneet Kaur Dhanoa says:

    Two of my favorites in one sitting – thank you both for the work that you do, for helping parents become better versions of themselves and in turn, show up in much healthier ways for their children.

  2. Really did not vibe with this episode, Gabor I usually like but in this context, speaking of the practicalities of parenting, he and Janet come across as super judgmental and extreme in their take. With Gabor romanticising Budapest laneways where parents were “always watching from balconies” seemed a bit crass and unlikely. Studies show many parents (especially listeners of this podcast) spend much more time with their kids than ever before and yet I came away from listening to this feeling burned out and exhausted by the expectations of their proposals. Perhaps it’s better for them to maintain the frame of modern life and the lack of economic support for parents to enable a village, rather than individually prescribe parenting tools that expect parents to not use daycare, not use technology and generally berate themselves for not being switched on 100% of the day, Surely they understand that for many of us our village is daycare and the carers are often more qualified and nurturing than your typical 1950s mother half-assed peering down from a laneway balcony. Gabor has great ideas but he sounds like a pseudoscience anti feminist in this podcast. Is he merely promoting women not having jobs?Also you’ve both said yourselves you never had to deal with technology with raising kids so there is an immediate lack of understanding and personal experience there as to how parents do and don’t engage. The worst part for me was the intimation that even looking at your phone while pushing a buggy was damaging your kid. Nonsense and judgmental ridiculousness. For sure there are parents not paying attention to their kids, but those are not your listeners. Some of us get 30mins in a day to engage with the outside world and that may be when your kid is happily looking out to the world beyond while you send an email or play a podcast.

    I think if Janet wasn’t fangirling so hard she might’ve pushed back on some of this dribble but it definitely wreaked of “go back to the kitchen” days of Bill and Martha Sears who founded attachment parenting.

    1. Thank you for sharing your thoughts! They are deep and well spoken. Everyone has their visions as to what great parenting looks like. What matters is what works best for each person!

      I personally think that the ideas they presented, in this podcast, were on the money. The ideal environment for us to live and grow in doesn’t change just because politics and economics does. I understand a lot of parents feel shame and judged for not being more available to their kids and use technology. Feeling ashamed doesn’t make technology any better for us or lack not enough time spent. They are presenting well studied/researched thoughts. You can agree or not and it doesn’t make them wrong.

  3. What an absolutely sensational episode. I really enjoyed it (and your next one) and plan to read more.

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