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. 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.
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.
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."
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.
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.
For the RYAs: What will you miss most about living at home when (not if ) you've left? and what will you be most relieved to leave behind? Who in your family will have the most difficult time with your eventual departure? What do you still want your parents to understand about you before you leave home and begin more independent living? What are you doing right now that's reassuring your parents that you're ready for more independent living? What are your parents and family doing right now that is reassuring you that they are ready for you to depart? How would you like you and your parents to remind each other that you still love each other when you're no longer living together?
For the parents of RYAs: What would you have wanted your parents to understand about your leave-taking that you weren't able to express at the time and that they were unable to take in (and still may not have)? How will you want your young adult to address matters when she's left home and finds herself feeling overwhelmed or demoralized? What role will you want to play, should that occur? What are you doing right now that's signifying to your child that you believe in his capacity to make it on his own? What are you doing that's signifying the opposite? What will be the most difficult aspect of your life, once your child leaves home? What are you doing to reassure your child that you and the remaining family members can manage well, or even better, in her absence? What could your child be doing right now that would reassure you that he's becoming ready for more independent living? How will you and your child remind each other that you still love each other when you're no longer living together?
I'll initially try to point out that there's a finite amount of "responsibility for growth" in any one family: the more responsibility the parents assume, the less the RYA will take on, and the less responsibility the parents assume, the more the RYA will take on.
To highlight this point, I'll often ask families to work on a tripartite chart, noting in one column the responsibilities that are the RYA's alone, in a second column those that are the parents' alone, and in a third column the responsibilities that are still being shared between the generations. I'll then ask them to complete the same chart as they would have done a year before, and a third chart, which details how they'd like it to look a year from now.
Usually, a reciprocal cycle becomes evident from this exercise, one in which the parents have been carrying more responsibility than they should, inadvertently discouraging the RYA from becoming more responsible, while the RYA has been eliciting this maladaptive parental overinvolvement with his or her underfunctioning. The parents, for example, might still be paying for the RYA's car expenses and insurance, because he's insisted that he needs a car to get a job; but, once he gets a job, he doesn't squirrel away money for car expenses and insurance, squandering it instead on fast food, cigarettes, text-messaging, and the latest cell phone or PDA gadget. The parents threaten to withdraw their transportation subsidy, while the RYA counterthreatens by noting that, without a car, he'll lose his job and have no income whatsoever, leaving each generation feeling that it's being held hostage by the other. I'll gently point out that there's no observable beginning or end to this cycle. The issue is how each generation can reconfigure it by adjusting up or down its "responsibility quotient."
Going over these charts, I'll usually discover that there isn't a tremendous amount of difference between the chart from a year ago and the chart from today—which enables me to point out the ways in which the family hasn't really been evolving. I can then compare the present chart with the future chart, and we can discuss how we're going to get from here to there, and how different things will be if they're willing to make that journey.
Converting the Nest to a Net
Many of us are well acquainted with parents of young adults who still awaken them and ensure that they get off to work or school, provide them with a generous weekly allowance that replaces or supplements earned income, do their laundry, cover discretionary expenses, or call their employer to explain an absence from work. These well-intentioned efforts invariably contribute to developmental paralysis, creating a tense but perversely reassuring Shangri-La, which can be difficult for both generations to resist. I'll sometimes mention to parents the importance of creating, instead of a nest, a net—a relationship that allows them still to feel like a nurturing parent (providing a safety net against catastrophe as the RYA tries out his or her wings) while taking the hard steps of forcing him or her out of the nest. Asking parents whether their parenting decisions fall in the "net" versus the "nest" categories may help them distinguish between adaptive and maladaptive caregiving.
I'll encourage parents to draw up some kind of bottom line and make it absolutely clear what they will and will not tolerate. When there's extreme resistance to more grown-up behavior, it may be necessary to remind beleaguered parents that they're no longer legally responsible for their RYA once he or she turns 18, and help them prepare to evict the RYA if basic levels of responsibility aren't being met.
In rereading my dog-eared copy of Haley's Leaving Home, I realize that, while the nearly three decades since its publication have been characterized by extraordinary societal crisis, conflict, and growth, there remains a timelessness to every young adult's struggle to establish a sense of individual selfhood separate from the family from which he or she emerged.
This blog is excerpted from "Foot on the Gas, Foot on the Brake," by Brad Sachs. The full version is available in the September/October 2009 issue, Parenting in the Age of Whatever: Paradoxes of the Post-Boomer Family.
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