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|Foot on the Gas, Foot on the Brake|
Helping Families Move Past Their Developmental Stalemates
By Brad Sachs
Stuart's 19-year-old son returns home on probation from his first year in college, having failed one course in the fall and two in the spring. He admits to having missed classes because of his addiction to online poker, and is talking about changing his major from biology or premed to music, even though he gave up the clarinet in 10th grade and hasn't studied an instrument since.
Carlos and Nicole's 21-year-old daughter, having graduated from college, now spends her days listlessly lying around the house, watching TV, texting her former roommates, and slowly but steadily gaining weight. She's chosen not to pursue employment or graduate school in her major (communications), but doesn't display interest in new paths, insisting that she just needs "some time to get my head together." However, it's been more than six months of this, with no observable progress.
DeShawn and Sandra's 23-year-old son, almost two years out of the Marines and now waiting tables at a local restaurant, informs his parents that his 19-year-old girlfriend is pregnant, and that while the two of them aren't going to marry, they'll be moving in together and won't consider an abortion or an adoption placement for the baby. They enthusiastically lay out an unnervingly sketchy plan for supporting themselves and their new family while she finishes community college—a plan that appears to hinge greatly on DeShawn and Sandra's regular availability for daycare, baby-sitting, and frequent financial subsidies.
I remember, back during the summer of my postdoctoral internship, spending hours transfixed as I read Jay Haley's Leaving Home, a book about the complex developmental intricacies associated with successfully launching young adults toward self-sufficiency. Though much has changed over the years, Haley's book taught me how much terror, anguish, dread, and grief is entailed in the process of leave-taking, not just in the rigid and dysfunctional families he described, but in any family. The differentiation process has universal elements, which families of every generation have faced and will continue to face.
Even so, the current generation of families is confronted with what appears to be a substantial upsurge in RYAs (reluctant young adults), who can't seem to make the transition from home-centered adolescent to independent adult. That even Hollywood has latched on to this theme—in the movie Failure to Launch, the television series Arrested Development, and Will Farrell's entire career—suggests that the current generation may be facing challenges that make it harder for young adults to leave the nest.
What accounts for these developmental stalemates? For one thing, present-day mothers and fathers have been so deeply involved in their children's lives—creating an "optimal" prenatal environment, playing "Baby Einstein" tapes, volunteering in classrooms and for coaching teams, attempting to provide just the right mix of tutors, coaches, mentors, art teachers, music teachers, pediatricians, and therapists—that it can be more difficult to break free of the family's gravitational field than in previous eras. Then, too, the proliferation of cell phones, wireless laptops, and assorted PDAs enables parents and young adults to keep in touch more or less constantly, at negligible cost. In fact, mothers and fathers can install global-positioning systems on their child's car or cell phone, enabling them to track their kid's movements 24 hours a day, or utilize cybermonitoring to gain access to all their children's instant messages and e-mails, or visit school-sponsored websites that provide up-to-date information on tests, class participation, and homework assignments, completed or not. This perpetual electronic umbilical cord can prolong dependency, particularly when the young adult already feels insecure or unready to strike off on his or her own.
Also, a swelling generation of students is struggling with learning challenges, attentional deficits, and other psychoeducational problems. Currently, one in nine identified learning-disabled students graduates from high school and matriculates at a four-year college—up from one in 100 only 20 years ago. By 2003, almost 75 percent went on to some form of postsecondary education—up from 33 percent in 1987. Used to having their parents continually advocating for them in school, as well as getting the help of various tutors, coaches, and other supportive professionals, these RYAs are often unprepared to function independently outside their old cocoons.