In my last post, I touched on the subject of how a mother in recovery can cope with the conflict and rage her 21-year-old young adult daughter expressed during a family holiday get-together. In this post, I am exploring the difficulty parents of emerging adults have coping with their separation. I must admit that I am a parent of an emerging adult, a 25-year-old son, so as you read this post, you will see I use the term “we” quite often, we meaning parents like me. Laurence Steinberg, a psychologist at Temple University, is one of the country’s foremost authorities on the transitions of young adults. Based on a longitudinal study he conducted of more than 200 families, he found forty percent of his parent sample suffered a decline in their mental health once their first child entered adolescence and young adulthood. Parents reported feelings of rejection and low self-worth; a decline in their sex lives; and increases in physical symptoms of distress. It may be tempting to dismiss these findings as by-products of a midlife crisis rather than the presence of young adults in the house. But Steinberg’s results don’t seem to suggest it. Steinberg’s research was better able to predict what the parent was going through psychologically, by looking at the age of his or her child, rather than by knowing the parent’s age.
Young adults who are attempting to launch are especially rough on parents who don’t have an outside interest, whether it’s a job they love or a hobby to absorb their attention. Parents who have been planning that perfect wedding or expect their child will be a doctor or a Nobel laureate, since the kid’s bar (bat) mitzvah, need to stop that. It is time to separate what they ‘make up in their heads’ with the reality of the situation. I may over emphasize this a tad, but for every parent there is this overarching desire for their kids to fulfil the American Dream: to do better than their parents. Today, post the Great Recession, this may be a bit difficult to achieve for most 20 to 30 something’s. It also raises the bar for these launching young adults who already have too many goals to realize during this decade. These goals include: separating from their family, leaving the childhood home, attending college, finding a job, moving into a new home, excelling in that job and finding a mate.
There are more responsibilities laid at the feet of a 20-30 year old in this decade of emerging adulthood than in any other decade preceding or following this age. A person might expect that sitting, chilling out and playing a video game can take some pressure off of the emerging adult, wouldn’t you think? Knowledge that wasn’t around twenty years ago, when most parents were rocking out to The Police or Nirvana, attests that the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that governs so much of our higher executive function—including the ability to reason and control our impulses—is still undergoing structural changes up until the age of 25. Complicating matters more, dopamine, the hormone that signals pleasure, is very active in young adults, which is why they assign a greater value to the reward they get from taking risks than older adults do. Of course, in the face of observing such risk taking, our first parental response is to step in, control and make things right.
As their parents, we see these risky choices based on youth and stupidity rather the researched-based facts of being part of a developmental process. It’s precarious being someone’s prefrontal cortex by proxy. Yet modern culture tells us that that’s one of the primary responsibilities of being a parent. In addition to decisions by proxy, we carry unresolved problems from our past with us into our current situations. At times of disagreement or unexpected crises, conflict and dysregulation arise. Wikipedia describes manifestations of emotional dysregulation as angry outbursts such as yelling, destroying or throwing objects, aggression towards others, and use of all capital letters in text messages (I added that last entry). Regarding the mother and daughter issue referred to in the my last blog, I went to my “go to guy”, Bowen Family Systems psychiatrist, Ronald Cohen and he offered these questions:
(1) What can you do to help resolve the conflict, reduce stress and anxiety, improve communication, and promote active problem solving and healing?
(2) How do you maintain both your autonomy and the connections with the emotionally important person in your life?
(3) Which behaviors will help make things better no matter what the emerging adult does?
(4) How do you deal with differences without losing connection?
The end-goal is differentiation of self, the capacity for the individual to function autonomously by making their own choices, while remaining emotionally connected to family. For the for my client, the recovering mother and for the emerging adult, her daughter, this is a goal they both can agree on. This goal will allow the daughter to engage the process of partially freeing herself from the emotional entrapment of her mother. Differentiation can release the mother from her care giver role and all of her past roles as a parent of a young child that are no longer required. In doing so, the young adult daughter may recognize that running away from her mother won’t achieve liberty, but in fact by running away, she will become as emotionally dependent as the emerging adult who never leaves home. More will follow with next week’s post.