Differentiation is the process of becoming different.
In psychology, differentiation refers to the process of becoming different than our parents and independent of our family of origin (so far as independence is dictated in each specific culture). This process takes place from birth to young adulthood—often hitting some rocky moments in adolescence.
We’ve all seen or experienced a young girl wanting to do everything her mother does until that same young teenager suddenly decide she hates everything mom likes, only to have that young adult settle in with a distinct identity, one that is allowed to both identity and disagree with mom, unlike the earlier phases which could only do one or the other. This emotional differentiation allows us to become our own people—separate from our parents.
But emotional differentiation isn’t the only thing we need to be happy, healthy adults.
We must also grapple with the increasing freedom and responsibility that come with growing up. It means that, yes, while getting to drive your own car is an exhilarating milestone, so too is the less-enjoyable milestone of paying for your own car insurance. Parents and society alike generally participate in the differentiation process by balancing increasing privileges with increasing obligation and accountability as children grow up.
When this process occurs, the adult child becomes independent from his parents. He or she “launches” and becomes a responsible contributor to society, solving problems on their own, and often forming their own family units.
What happens when adult children don't differentiate?
When this process doesn't occur as it should, adult children depend on their parents physically, financially, or even emotionally. This dependence can take many forms. At times adult children may still live with their parents and be unable to hold down steady employment. They may live by themselves and rely on parents to pay their bills or arrange their affairs (such as doctor’s appointments, etc.).
When adult children become emotionally enmeshed, an adult child may be financially independent but continue to be overly dependent on the intervention or control of a parental figure. Think of a father’s demand that a son behave a certain way or lose his place in the family business, or a mother that demands through guilt trips to be the center of her adult child’s young family.
It's hard to know exactly why children struggle to differentiate, because each story is unique. But it's likely that one of two dynamics is at play:
(1) there is an emotional need in the parent that inadvertently drives them to keep their child dependent; or
(2) there is a disability, illness, or behavioral problem that prevents the child from scaling the normal ladder of titrating freedom and responsibility, leaving parents to perpetually care for them well into adulthood.
When parents have an emotional need for enmeshment, we often see a parent that “needs to be needed” and afraid or ill equipped to face what will be destroyed or left should the adult child stop needing them.
For some parents, they are afraid to be alone; for others, they have developed such a strong identity of being a caregiver, teacher, and manager for their children they have long forgotten how to be anyone else. Therefore, when their adult children no longer need their care or guidance, they feel lost and empty. In extreme cases, a parent may have a disturbing need for power and control that would be lost if their children were independent of them, or a parent may suffer from a mental health issue that demands a constant need for extreme closeness or involvement with their adult children.
What about illness or trauma?
When a child experiences an illness, disability, or behavioral problem that necessitates care, the easiest example would be a mentally or physically disabled child who cannot physically care for themselves. This places the parent in the eternal caregiver role. This is neither right nor wrong, good nor bad. In some cases, these adult children will always need care, and as long as the parent is maintaining their own life and health there is nothing inherently unhealthy about their child’s continued dependence.
Even in the case of a disability, a parent may depend more than they need to. Such is the case I encountered once of a mother who was still caring for her daughter who was on the spectrum. The daughter was relatively high functioning but still at the age of 26 lived at home, did not work, and accompanied her mother everywhere. It seemed to me that she believed her child to be less capable of independent life (or at least some aspects of it) than she truly was.
Finally, when behavioral health challenges stunt a child’s normal ascent into responsible adulthood, the entire family (but especially the parents) can become trapped in a vicious cycle. This cycle is one in which their fear of the now-adult child’s inability to act responsibly prompts them to take care of all of the adult child’s responsibilities for them. This, unfortunately, has the effect of preventing the adult child from the normal balance of freedom and accountability that actually teaches the responsibility he or she lacks. Simply put, we learn to pay our car payment when our car gets repossessed; we learn that bills are serious when our lights are turned off; and we learn to stop being an asshole when we discover that no one wants to be around an asshole.
So what do I do?
If you are a parent struggling with allowing your children to become independent, the best thing you can do is seek out quality counseling for yourself. Identifying what may be driving your participation in the arrested adolescence of your adult child is the first step to ending the cycle—and truly helping your child. If your child suffers from addiction there are a multitude of programs, many of them free, that can help you establish healthy boundaries and learn tools to help your adult child become independent.
Resources for families:
· Free documentary on how families deal with addiction.
· Support groups for families dealing with addiction via Families Anonymous.
This article was written as a guest post by KC Davis, LPC-Intern. Contact KC at 972-900-9001.