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|Foot on the Gas, Foot on the Brake - Page 2|
Even the psychopharmacology revolution may have increased the numbers of RYAs. Many children and adolescents have undoubtedly been helped by psychotropic medications; nevertheless, young adults who've taken meds since early childhood and been told that they need these meds to function can lose faith in their inner abilities and capacity for drug-free independence. Such side effects are not only psychological: recent neurobiological research suggests that the regular use of psychostimulants may impair the functioning of the nucleus accumbens, the part of the brain associated with the motivation to act. When a rat's nucleus accumbens is damaged, it'll experience hunger, but won't take the steps necessary for getting food. The drugs that many young adults have been taking for attention deficit disorders may actually be suppressing their neurobiological capacity for adult independence.
And then there's the economy! The current recession, however long it lasts, will require many parents to underwrite their young adult's autonomy.
All these realities make the process of separation and differentiation harder for both generations. So how, as family therapists, are we to position ourselves to be of assistance when confronted with RYAs?
Getting Beyond the Blame Game
When family development runs aground, resentment and hopelessness set in, and the process of assigning blame begins. The parents may blame their RYAs for "not taking responsibility," for "not being motivated," for being "oafish," "lazy," and "selfish." RYAs may return the favor, faulting their parents for being "too controlling" or "unable to let go," for appearing "stingy," "unsupportive," or "unloving."
Paradoxically, previous consultations with clinicians and educators have often been unhelpful, but may have planted the seeds of mutually assigned culpability. The individual therapist the RYA saw in high school, for example, may have supported him in his beliefs that his parents' rules and consequences were intrusive and draconian, absolving him of responsibility for the behavior eliciting those rules and consequences in the first place. Meanwhile, the RYA's frustrated teachers might have insisted to the same parents that they "get more involved" and "start imposing consequences" on their son or daughter for poor grades and lousy attitudes.
In these cases, the clinician's first job is to convince parents and young adults that nobody is to blame, but everybody must take responsibility. I try to help the family initially focus on what I call "developmental grief," the mourning that's a necessary part of leaving one stage of life behind so as to move on and embrace the next. To move toward adult self-reliance, RYAs need to bid farewell to childish traits and discover the advantages of growing up. I frequently tell struggling young adults that they won't be able to leave until they've come to terms with all that they're leaving behind.
To help their RYA move forward, parents must come to terms not only with their decreasing relevance as caretakers, but with the reality of impending mortality, which begins rolling unstoppably toward them. As they wander through the twilight of their child's late adolescence, it becomes time, in Philip Roth's words, "to worry about oblivion."
From my perspective, families generally fall into one of three "categories": Active Grievers, who acknowledge and talk about the change and loss embedded in this transition, allowing their grief to liberate them; Reluctant Grievers, aware of the impending loss and change, but hesitant to address it directly; and Avoidant Grievers, who fight off the realities of grief and thus impair their capacity to evolve.
Most families with RYAs will fall squarely in the avoidant-grieving or the reluctant-grieving groups, and our job as clinicians is to nudge them in the direction of active grieving. With this goal in mind, I'll make sure that I'm subtly or explicitly peppering our therapeutic conversation with questions like the following.