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|Bungee Families - Page 3|
Letting Go of Old Paradigms, Not Young Adults
The star witness for the new paradigm of connection between parents and adult children is a growing and robust research literature emphasizing the overwhelming benefits of secure attachment throughout a child's development, and particularly during the transition to full adulthood. Studies clearly conclude that the best-functioning young adults are the most confidently connected to their parents. For example, Elizabeth Hair and her colleagues, carefully analyzing longitudinal data taken by the Child Trends Data Bank from information on more than 4,000 adolescents born between 1980 and 1984, determined that the best predictor of positive academic and social outcomes at age 20 was "consistent, high-quality relationships" with parents. A similar, six-year study in the Netherlands, looking at emerging adults through their early twenties, found that attachments to parents didn't diminish over that period; moreover, the association between attachment to parents and psychological well-being remained strong and positive. So spread the word: adolescent rebellion isn't essential for shaping adult identity; extreme conflict and rupture in relationships with parents is painful and dangerous; geographic separation isn't required for psychological sovereignty.
Contrary to the get-'em-out rules of the old family paradigm, independence and intimacy aren't opposing dynamics; in fact, authentic autonomy stems from sustained healthy connections with primary caretakers—and nothing else works as well. But boomers have soaked so long in romantic U.S. cultural stories of "Go west!" separation and self-sufficiency that we're still in a pickle about what we're supposed to do. And so, despite our decision to hold our children and adolescents close, and all the good reasons not to stop doing so, the stigma and discomfort about having emerging adults at home persists, even as their numbers continue to swell. Lingering doubts bubble below the surface: maybe our parents were right?
Meet the Bungees
Categorizing families during a time of unprecedented developmental, familial, social, and cultural change has got to be a work in progress. Still, I've known and worked with numerous bungee families in recent years—families that seem to fall into seven general groups: On-Trackers, Late Bloomers, Dreamers, Regroupers, Nurturers, High-Riskers, and Long-Haulers.
On-Trackers. Everyone has stories now about emerging adults who stay at home or move back to save money, have more stability, and gain a little more life-traction. It's really the new normal. They may show up in therapy like Tori, who's 25, in graduate school in psychology, and in therapy to see what it's like "on the other side." She'd moved out on her own for a couple of years, but the pressures of working full time and going to school made her physically unwell, so she returned home and got into treatment with me. She's mildly anxious about this "regression," but she helps her mother around the house, and they enjoy each other's company. Tori's mother told her to report to me that she was "tickled pink to have her own resident therapist." Tori doesn't want to live in her old room forever, but the arrangement makes sense for now, and she's glad she has her mother's support.
Trevor, now 20, also seems to be on track, though his mother needed confirmation and asked me to meet with him "just to be sure this is okay." Ever agreeable, he wandered into my office a bit dazed, and told me how happy he was. After three appointments with him, one of these including his mom, I became convinced he really meant it. He loves living at home, and his parents have room for him. He works with his father and uncle, learning to be a stone mason, fishes with childhood friends, many of whom also live with their parents or nearby, races snowmobiles, and saves his money carefully, since he doesn't need much more to stay contented. His mother imagines he'll leave when he meets the right girl, but she'd also be delighted to have a "daughter" around, too, if he decides to stay.
Therapy for On-Trackers like Tori and Trevor focuses on supporting family members to continue just what they've been doing, and reassuring them that they don't have to feel ashamed about it. On-Track emerging adults—or their parents—in treatment may have other concerns, of course, but we do well not to create problems where none exist.
Late Bloomers. Over the years, I've seen emerging adults who need more runway time than their chronological age might suggest. Late Bloomers may just be developing adolescent levels of confidence, skill, motivation, and maturity. They feel pressure to leave home, work, and get on with their lives, and they may accordingly be fearful about disappointing their parents. They'll get to full adulthood eventually, but they're vulnerable if sent out on their own too soon, and they need extended familiar structure and support to thrive.
Nick, age 21, is an emerging adult I've seen monthly for a couple of years now. He's better at managing his Asperger's and some attention problems, but the symptoms can still get in his way. He tried going to college in another state, but came home a few months later, full of anxiety and barely sleeping. Now he's taking a few classes at a time at a community college and has held a couple of part-time jobs. His mother is occasionally frustrated by how much time he spends fooling around on the computer, but I'm helping her remain calm. Our goal isn't just to get him out of the house, but to help him feel loved, become more engaged in his life, and more skilled over time. And we're seeing some traction, thanks, in part, to a "hippie chick" he's fallen hard for. I knew we'd turned a corner a few months ago when he started demanding I help him answer the imponderable question, "What do women want?" He's gotten his driver's license, and a journalism professor has encouraged him to consider taking more writing classes. Nick is applying to a four-year college near enough that he can live at home if he needs to, and he's talking about becoming a journalist.