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Emptying The Nest
Launching Your Young Adult Toward Success And Self-Reliance
By Brad E. Sachs
Palgrave MacmillanCopyright © 2010 Brad E. Sachs
All rights reserved.
THE RITES AND WRONGS OF PASSAGE
DEVELOPMENTAL TASKS FOR YOUNG ADULTS
The transition into young adulthood is ultimately an "inside job." One of the challenges for parents of young adults is understanding what is going on inside of their children, what they are privately building in the secret workshop of their soul.
We know that personal liberation at this stage of life requires a new assertion of self, an original and inventive taking stock and staking out of the individual's needs and objectives in contrast to what others (parents, peers, and previous mentors and role models) have expected, or still expect, of them. In order to achieve independence, they need to define and make good on their obligation to themselves, which requires that they acknowledge their strengths, weaknesses, conflicts, and struggles.
Sometimes young adults' efforts toward this end are evident to us, and we are gratified when we witness their growth. Other times the issues that they are grappling with are mostly invisible—to us, and, just as often, to them—and if we recognize the struggles at all we underestimate their difficulty, or don't realize how hard our child is working to tackle them.
In this chapter, we will examine some of the subtler developmental tasks that young adults must attend to so that their launch results in true psychological liberation and the ability to stand on their own feet.
To eventually leave the nest, young adults must first come to terms with and mourn for the end of their childhood and adolescence, the stages of life when they were able to count on other people—usually their parents—to be responsible for them and to nurture them. The grieving process entails considerable feelings of loss, longing, and heartbreak, yet unless it is completed, growth is always stymied.
Grieving is difficult but necessary work, and, when done wholeheartedly, it can be liberating work. Only when we grieve are we able to come to terms with what we have lost, to let go of it and prepare for the next important developmental phase. When we don't grieve, we remain stuck, halfway in the cocoon and halfway out. Overcoming grief propels us forth toward an enlarged sense of self. That is one of the reasons why I am not surprised when parents complain to me about their children "giving them grief ": young adults often project their grief onto others, particularly those whom they are closest to, because what they are going through can be so hard for them to bear.
Grief does not exist to return us comfortably to our previous status quo, but rather toward an expanded sense of oneself. I find it helpful to visualize the psychological tomb as the psychological womb: when we properly bury what needs to be left behind, heartbreaking as that burial may be, we can then allow new parts of our self to be conceived, to gestate, and to eventually be born. Without such grieving, our present and future will forever be haunted by the restless ghosts of the past. (By the way, it is healthier to acknowledge and accept the grief than to pretend it's not there. This is not a time to be "macho.")
Because we don't speak the language of grief to our children and tend to exclusively train our parenting attention on their achievements, accomplishments, and acquisitions, we don't provide them with the opportunity to sort through the pain of loss in a way that enables them to grow. And when young adults don't grieve, it is not just that they miss out on growth—they also leave themselves open to what I refer to as anguish, a state of hopelessness which can express itself in many forms, such as depression, rage, underachievement, addictions, relational instability, psychosomatic distress, and self-destructive behavior. Many of the young adult patients I treat display these symptoms, but, to my way of thinking, these are indications of unresolved grief rather than of emotional disturbance.
The young adult's capacity to say good-bye to her childhood—and to the belief that she will always be taken care of by others—becomes the psychological foundation for her ability to welcome and cultivate the responsibilities and privileges of adulthood.
COMPOSING A DECLARATION OF INTERDEPENDENCE
Young adults have to learn to nimbly navigate between being an "I" and a "we," becoming self-assured enough that they can trust their instincts, but still be able to turn to trusted family members and other adults for support and perspective when necessary. They also need to be depended upon by others, to manifest or "act out" their altruistic nature. Adulthood requires establishing a balance between when we care and when we are cared for. Psychologists refer to this as healthy "interdependence," which straddles independence and dependence and synthesizes the best of both.
Interdependence might mean that a young adult can still count on her parents for workable doses of emotional sustenance without feeling like she has completely compromised her pride and self-reliance. But interdependence also might mean that her parents can begin to turn to her for help or support without engulfing or derailing her.
Twenty-three-year-old Katie needed some extra money for a down payment on a condo she had found, but she was hesitant to ask her parents for financial assistance. "Once I ask them, it's like I'm admitting that I can't manage things on my own, and I'm back to feeling like a little girl again." Her fear of losing her independence ignored the many steps toward self-reliance she had already taken, including living on her own for two years after college without having to ask her parents for any significant financial subsidies.
In fact, the extent to which Katie's parents had been lauding her for having been so self-reliant was what convinced her that any state other than absolute self-reliance would disappoint and anger them. I encouraged her to talk with her parents more about how they achieved independence when they were her age, and she was surprised to learn that they had actually relied on her mother's parents quite a bit in their early years of marriage. It was Katie's maternal grandparents who had taken care of her parents' medical bills, purchased a car for them, and provided a "bridge loan" when they bought their first house. This realization helped her to soften the hard distinction she had made between financial independence and dependence and to consider asking them for help. When she finally made her request, she was surprised at how willing her parents were to assist, precisely because they had been so impressed with her efforts to establish financial autonomy over the past couple of years, and because they remembered their own parents' generosity years before.
Katie's taking the risk of asking her parents for assistance also opened the door for some intergenerational reciprocity. When her widowed 85-year-old grandmother broke her hip, she needed someone to be available to her for several weeks until she could regain her mobility. Katie, who worked nights as a nurse's aide, offered to let her grandmother stay with her during the day in her new condo until her parents, who both worked nine-to-five jobs, picked the grandmother up in the evening and brought her back to their house during the initial phase of her recovery.
IDENTIFY WITHOUT BECOMING IDENTICAL
Young adults must learn to trust that they can identify with their parents in positive or negative ways without feeling that they have to beidentical to their parents. The goal is to emulate the qualities of their parents that they value and that will serve as solid guideposts, while feeling free to disentangle themselves from those that won't—in other words, to "take what's best and leave the rest."
Twenty-two-year-old Carmen confessed, "I realize now that I'm very similar to my mom in that we both get worked up over little things. But I also seem to get a grip more quickly than she does. She's completely obsessed with exercise. I like to exercise, too, but I don't think it's the end of the world if I don't get a workout in."
Ben, 20, admitted, "I'd like to have my father's work habits, and in some ways I come close. I'm a harder worker than my brother and sister, I think. But I'm not as hard a worker as he is; he just has an unbelievable amount of energy. The thing is, though, he doesn't know how not to work hard, and that's something that I'm trying to figure out, because even though he's been very successful, he doesn't always seem happy. If your success doesn't lead to happiness, then what exactly is the point of being so successful?"
DEVELOPING A PERSONAL PHILOSOPHY
Alexander Hamilton wrote, "Those who stand for nothing fall for anything." An important aspect of young adulthood is making explicit the self that the person has been sculpting and discovering since childhood. He must construct a psychic engine composed of desire and vision that will be strong enough to carry the freight of his soul forward in the face of life's challenges. As part of this process, he has to learn to:
struggle with the collapse of certain beliefs which may have helped to stabilize and comfort him during the preceding years, but that no longer hold true or have relevance in the crucible of adult life;
come to terms with his limitations, yet continue to find ways to progress forward and prove that he can withstand pressure, disappointment, and unhappiness; and
shift his focus from external validation to internal validation, and expand the definition of self beyond simply "doing" (achieving, accomplishing, acquiring) and into the realm of "being" (loving, creating, contemplating).
As I often remind young adults as well as their parents, the most meaningful objective is not to perform but to transform.
Dominic, 20, had always dreamed of a career in geology, but found the college curriculum to be less compelling than he had hoped. Not only was he earning mediocre grades, but he simply wasn't enjoying his course work. He did find himself very excited, however, by an elective course he took on learning styles, which rekindled one of his earliest professional fantasies, that of becoming a teacher. Over the course of his final two years of college he shifted gears, acquired enough education credits to become a secondary school science teacher, completed his student teaching, and eventually got a job teaching high school science.
"It was difficult to give up the fantasy of going into geology— there's a long history of that in my family: my father and one of my grandfathers are both geologists. But there was something missing there for me. I wasn't connecting well with the other students and the professors. Once I took that education course, though, it was like a lightbulb went off and I knew I belonged. So I guess I had to be willing to get to know myself a bit better and figure out what I really wanted to do."
OVERCOMING THE FEAR OF LEAVING HOME
During the launching phase, parents like to imagine their children at the prow of the USS Adulthood, confidently surveying the calm seas ahead, but even the most confident young adults feel some trepidation about separation. When these fears get the best of them, they often try to manage them in unproductive ways, such as by:
not leaving, or not displaying any evidence of concretely preparing to leave. ("I'll get a job when I need to, but right now I just don't need a whole lot of money, I'm fine the way things are, I can skateboard everywhere and bum cigarettes off my friends.")
acting like they've already left when they may not have fully done so yet. ("Your stupid rules don't apply to me anymore. I'm outta here as soon as I turn 18 and have enough money, so in the meantime, I don't have to follow any curfews, treat you with respect, or do any chores.")
forcing themselves to leave on questionable or dangerous terms, often guaranteeing their return. ("I'm going to ditch senior year of high school and hitchhike up to Canada with my friend Maurice—I've heard there are lots of good jobs there. I'm sure we'll meet up with some people we can crash with.")
The elemental fear of leaving home needs to be acknowledged and come to terms with, however frustrating its outward manifestations.
Seventeen-year-old Philip was being recruited by numerous colleges because of his wrestling prowess. By the beginning of his junior year, coaches were contacting him to invite him for campus visits and workouts with their teams. But he started off his senior year by getting a DUI on the way home from a party, and things quickly went into a tailspin from there. By November, he was academically ineligible to wrestle and frequently binge-drinking, at which point his parents contacted me.
In my conversations with Philip, it became clear that he was much more anxious about going away to college than he had been acknowledging to anyone. While he was flattered by the college recruiters, he had little academic self-confidence, and his few experiences away from home (assorted weeklong wrestling camps over the past few summers) had been suffused with homesickness that he had worked hard to suppress. "I'm afraid I'm going to get to college and blow it. Everyone has all of these expectations for me and what I'm supposed to be able to accomplish, and I just know that I'm going to wind up disappointing everyone."
So while his parents (and prospective coaches) were becoming increasingly excited about his college prospects, Philip was growing more and more frightened about the vertiginous cliff that he was feeling shoved toward. Self-sabotage seemed to be the only way to both manage and convey his fears of leaving the nest.
However, as he began the difficult process of disclosing his fears, first (and most importantly) to himself, then to his parents, and eventually to the recruiting coaches, his behavior righted itself and he was able to finish his senior year on decent terms and without any further calamities. His family arranged for him to spend a "thirteenth year" at a boarding school, which gave him some extra time to mature, and the following year he decided to attend college, where he became a successful student while also participating on the wrestling team.
CREATING A TEMPORARILY TOXIC HOME ENVIRONMENT
Many young adults feel the need to "spoil the nest" so that it becomes a little easier for them spread their wings and fly away from it, and easier for the family members whom they need to fly away from. There is always a part of us that needs to degrade the people whom we are leaving behind, no matter how important they have been to us. (In fact, often the intensity of the need to degrade is directly correlated with the intensity of their importance.)
One of the surest ways to do this is to create enough conflict and tension that a leave-taking feels more like a relief than a loss for both parent and child. While it is easy to simply be annoyed and irritable, it is essential to look beneath the surface and try to determine what hidden meanings the provocation might conceal.
In the spring of her senior year of high school, 18-year-old Fumi suddenly began leaving the house without informing her mother, Rita. Naturally this upset Rita, who continued to insist that "out of respect" Fumi should let her know when she was going out, where she was going, and when she was due back. "I'm generally going to say yes," Rita told me, "but she still needs to let me know what's going on. What if I have to get in touch with her for some sort of emergency?"
Fumi, however, refused to comply, insisting that she was "not a little girl" anymore and was old enough to come and go as she pleased. Rita reminded Fumi that she was still living under her roof and threatened to take away her use of the car if this pattern persisted. Fumi replied that that didn't matter, that she would still leave without asking and would simply arrange to be picked up by a friend. Argument after argument ensued over a period of weeks in a struggle of wills.
If Fumi was simply looking for more space, she would simply have continued going out with her friends after notifying her mother, especially since Rita had made it clear to her that she'd generally give permission for her daughter's plans. The fact that Fumi had suddenly begun (in Rita's view) "disrespecting" her mother suggested that the daughter was trying to create some sort of friction that had a message.
Excerpted from Emptying The Nest by Brad E. Sachs. Copyright © 2010 Brad E. Sachs. Excerpted by permission of Palgrave Macmillan.
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