Angry Birds—the conflict between a young adult and her mother in recovery


Melissa Killeen

Most people have been exposed to the difficulty young adults encounter when trying to separate from their parents, as enacted in the 2006 American romantic comedy film, Failure to Launch, starring Matthew McConaughey. The film highlights a young man’s struggle to detach himself from his parents coupled with the desire to remain a child, and the anger that results from the failure or success of doing either. The anger, however, is not just the property of the young adult; it is also owned by the parent(s) who want the same things for their child; to separate successfully while also wanting them to remain the elementary school child, fully dependent and unconditionally loving them. Things can get complicated.

Psychologist Jeffrey Arnett suggests that there is a new age classification, labeled emerging adults, which bridges the gap between adolescence and adulthood. According to Arnett’s theory, people in their 20’s go through a time of development that’s distinct from other stages of adulthood. Ronald Cohen, a Bowen Family Systems trained psychiatrist from Great Neck, NY, cites that “becoming an adult, leaving home and staying connected is the first stage in Carter and McGoldrick’s formulation of The Expanded Family Life Cycle. This Family Life Cycle transition can be described as beginning with the adolescent’s ‘identity crisis’. It continues through the transition to college and into young adulthood. Some young adults end up never leaving home. Others end up cutting off and becoming estranged and distant from their family. Both of these responses are sub-optimal solutions to the struggles of the launching phase.”

A emerging adult’s tasks in this transitional launching phase are primarily focused on the development of autonomy and healthy interdependence. Interdependence is defined as the mutual dependence between people, places and things, such as how a bee needs to pollenate flowers or when an emerging adult needs to borrow Mom’s car and will agree to take it for an oil change. The goal is to develop differentiation, for the emerging adult to become emotionally and financially accountable to one’s self, while at the same time maintaining connections with their family, without taking on their ‘stuff’.

Case in point, is the situation of my client, a 45-year-old alcoholic in recovery and her  21 year old daughter. The ‘stuff’ is this client’s addiction, the years of enmeshment and the trauma to which her daughter was exposed. My client and her not so perfect sobriety time, which includes two DUIs, an attempted suicide and three stints in a residential treatment center since 2011, is attempting to make amends. The daughter, who is attending college, living with a boyfriend on the other side of the country, is attempting to launch. On the surface, this relationship is like kerosene and water.

Ronald Cohen states “The way to develop differentiation is not to cut off, but to see other family members for who they are and stay connected with them despite their shortcomings.” Sometimes, it is so difficult to stay connected that the emerging adult just wants to run away and not fight this particular battle.

These two were supposed to have some family time together in Philadelphia over the Fourth of July holiday. Let’s just say this, the fireworks were not only in the air over Philadelphia this holiday weekend, but also in this suburban home with explosive interactions including threats, four letter words, the use of all capital letters in texts, and the triangulation of other family members. It was my role to shed some light on the right way to develop differentiation, which is not to cut off all relations to the family, but to see other family members for who they are and stay connected with them, despite their shortcomings.

Many times these shortcomings have caused this young woman significant trauma. How do you cope with a young adult that is very angry that their mother (or father) was a hopeless drunk during their upbringing or has a mental health diagnosis? What happens when recovery changes that parent? Maybe the emerging adult wants the ‘good old times’ to return. How does the young adult grapple with their perceived image of a perfect mother or a placid family life that rivals a TV sit-com? Add to that the difficult reality they are experiencing in their own life, perhaps they are considering a relationship with a partner or developing their own perceived image of themselves as a successful person. Where does the enmeshment stop and autonomy begin? How does this recovering parent deal with the anger and frustration that plays out during these episodes or the grief over the loss of their child if there should be a period of separation? How can any parent predict a ‘successful launch’ ? Can a child perceive what ‘recovery’ is for a parent?

Sounds like there will be some very interesting reading in the next few weeks. Stay tuned!

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