Arrested Development: When Adult Children Depend on Their Parents

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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.

·      Confidential individual and family counseling.

This article was written as a guest post by KC Davis, LPC-Intern. Contact KC at 972-900-9001.

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4 Ways that Listening Helps Relationship Communication

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Listening is the foundation of all good relationship communication.

Many couples I work with often list “communication” as one of their struggles- listening is not as easy as we may think sometimes! Poor listening can lead to partners feeling unloved or unimportant. Good listening can lead partners to feel more connected and can minimize conflict that results from poor listening.

We all know what it feels like to be in a heated discussion and sense our partner isn’t listening. When you ask if they are listening they say, “Yes! I’ve been listening to everything you’ve been saying…” Only then they quickly jump back with arguments to what you have just shared. It’s frustrating to say the least and when this frustration begins to brew so does the conflict.

How is listening different from hearing?

            Listening is a choice. Hearing is not. I can hear my husband vent to me all day long but not truly listen to what he is saying or pick up on what he needs. The whole time he is venting I could easily be thinking of many ways to disprove his points. If I am hearing to disprove and win the argument I am not listening. I am focused more on my own thoughts and feelings versus his. Listening means you focus on your partner’s thoughts and feelings. You will get a chance to respond but wait until you have a good understanding of how he or she feels and why.

How does listening work in intimate relationships?

            Effective listening takes practice, and I think we sometimes have to sort of train ourselves to shift away from simply hearing to actively listening. To help you shift into becoming a better listener here are three steps to try out to make listening more effective:

1. Listen for what's being said:

It’s often easy for people to switch into lawyer mode to try to find numerous ways to disprove what the other person is saying- to interrogate.

It may seem more natural to do this than to focus on just hearing and taking in what the other person is actually saying. Think of how your listening may change if you took more of an interviewing approach versus an interrogative one. Switch your mindset from the lawyer mentality to the curious listener. It will help put potential defensiveness and interruptions aside.

Your curiosity will keep the focus on your partner and how he or she is feeling and why. You can ask yourself why is he/she upset? What specifically happened to cause him/her to begin to share what is on his/her mind with you? What is it that he or she needs from me? While these may be questions you're internally working to find the answers to, it also doesn’t hurt to ask these same questions if you feel your partner isn’t clear. It's important to uncover all of these answers before trying to jump to solving whatever problem at hand- you may be solving for the wrong problem if you jump too soon.

2. Listen for what's not being said:

Sometimes it takes more energy to clearly communicate your needs to your partner versus just venting and exploding with emotion. It's likely there are times when the affected person shares just the surface level frustrations but may leave the depth of their concerns out.

Be curious about what they may be trying to say but unable. Body language will be helpful here. Is she crying? What do the tears mean?)Is he looking away? Does she feel safe? Does he feel ashamed? Is she fidgety? What may be causing him to feel nervous or anxious? Asking questions about what is not being said can help the other person sense your concern and attention on getting to the depth of the emotion she is experiencing. Notice again that all of your attention is on your partner.

3. Listen to what the other person is feeling.

Sometimes, your partner will tell you specifically how they're feeling, and other times they may not. When I work with couples, there are often challenges with people being able to focus inward and to express “I am feeling (insert emotion here).”

Intense emotions can cause people to be flooded with emotion, which may lead to pointing fingers and defensiveness. Notice that the pointing fingers and defensiveness may mean your partner needs more validation. Although it's still up to them to tell you what they need, you can help them by actively listening well.

When people make it a point to bring something up for discussion they're doing so with the need for some type of validation. Listening for what he is feeling will help you be able to validate his emotional experience. Someone once told me “validation is not agreeing” and this is huge when it comes to listening. If my partner is angry with me for being irritable and I say, “you’re mad because you feel like I’ve been irritable all day” this does not mean I agree that I was irritable. It means I am validating that he is mad and that I have heard and validated his concern. Once those concerns are validated, the emotional flooding can subside and make room for problem solving together.

4. Multi-task

Here's the hardest part. When we listen, part of what we have to do is manage how we feel so we can put our agendas aside. It may sound weird, but we often forget that we feel upset by what our partners say to us. The key to listening well is to be aware of how you feel, even if those feelings are negative. Then, hold off speaking up about those emotions and keep listening like a curious witness to your partner. Do two things at once: listen and self-regulate.

            Listening isn't always as easy as we would like it to be and that’s because emotion is involved. It clouds our headspace. Recognizing this cloudiness in your own mind during conflict can help you focus back on your partner and what’s being said, what isn’t, and his or her emotions in need of caring for. Listening more can open up more room for connection and less room for conflict.

To schedule an appointment with Mandi Roarke, LMFT-Associate, call 512-537-0995.

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When Anxiety Becomes too Much.

Image by Ryan on  Flickr

Image by Ryan on Flickr

I don’t know anybody who hasn't faced anxiety.

Odds are you have suffered from anxiety, someone in your family has anxiety, and your friends struggle with it as well.  The truth is we all feel anxious during the day and at different times in our lives.  Sometimes it is manageable, sometimes we need help.

On any given day, most of us travel through a wide range of feelings associated with four primary feelings: anxiety, sadness, anger and happiness.  Anxiety tends to rear its head when you are going through major changes, such as moving or changing jobs, or when experiencing ongoing challenges, such as financial worries or family conflict.  Sometimes you are not aware why anxiety has arrived, but there it is.

You may notice anxiety when it comes and be able to move through it.  However, for many, anxiety is not a passing state.  It can be frequent, unrelenting, and take a toll on your life.  It can rob you of your ability to spend time with your family, perform at work, and generally engage in your life.  And everyone says the same thing.  Anxiety—It’s exhausting!  Agreed.

People often ask if they need professional help for their anxiety. There is no official marker for anxiety, no blood test we can take that tells us if our anxiety has become too much.  Odds are if you are asking the question, anxiety has taken its toll, and you could benefit from seeking help.

What does anxiety feel like?

Anxiety, in its most simple form, is a sense of fear that puts your mind and your body on alert.  Biologically, anxiety is a heightened sense of awareness so that we can identify potential threats and take care of them. This fight or flight response can ideally be engaged and disengaged as needed to deal with threats.

So, what’s the problem?  When anxiety is part of your everyday life your body simply does not turn off your fight or flight response.  Living in a constant state of anxiety can cause dire physical and emotional effects.  Long story short, anxiety is systemic: it’s in your brain and your body.

Many people who have anxiety will at some point face depression.  Both anxiety and depression are thought to stem from the fight or flight response.  This may help explain why so often people feel symptoms of both.  It’s also why the same tools that help with anxiety also help with depression.

How do I know if I have anxiety?

The National Institute for Mental Health (NIMH) reports that over 40 million people in the United State over the age of 18 suffer from diagnosed anxiety.  Bear in mind this is data for those who have been diagnosed.  What does this mean?  Millions of people suffering from anxiety go undiagnosed, which means they are not getting the support they so need.  It’s time to address anxiety—to move past shame and into the light where help is waiting.

If you have any of the following symptoms fairly regularly, you may want to consider that anxiety is on the scene:

·      Excessive worry

·      Sleep problems

·      Muscle pain  

·      Indigestion

·      Self-consciousness

·      Self-doubt

Understanding anxiety and the toll it is taking is the first step to getting help.  Rest assured: anxiety is real and you are not alone.

What helps anxiety?

Good news. You have lots of options.  There are things you can do for yourself to help with anxiety.

1. You can overcome fear, but you have to develop skills to manage anxiety.  The best thing about developing these skill is that once you identify some things that help you, you can pull them out of your tool box whenever anxiety resurfaces. Skill building happens through tools and resources. Very few people know how to deal with anxiety naturally. It's something we all experience and most of us need help along the way. So reach out to resources that can educate you or help you talk through what it's like.

2. Be gentle with yourself.  The less gracious and kind you are with yourself, the worse your anxiety will be.  What would you say to a loved one suffering from anxiety? Kristin Neff's work on self-compassion can be a tool to help you learn how to be gentle with yourself.

3. Get busy.  Have you ever noticed that when you engage in activities that require your focus, anxiety decreases?  Be strategic. This could mean taking a run, playing a game of cards, going to the movies.  Whatever works for you.

4. Talk with a therapist.  Research shows that talking with a therapist can lead to remarkable benefits when facing anxiety.  Some report immediate relief knowing they have reached out for help and started to face their anxiety.  A therapist can help you understand your anxiety and help you troubleshoot it. The best results happen when you combine therapy with medical intervention, if necessary. So don't be afraid to reach out to a psychiatrist, a nurse practitioner or holistic medical specialist of your choice.

5. Learn. Then learn some more.  Austin is full of opportunities to help you manage your anxiety.   For example, NAMI provides information, education, and support groups that can help. 

6. Tell your people.  If you’ve been enduring anxiety quietly, consider telling those closest to you.  Odds are they will be supportive.  Maybe you don’t want them to troubleshoot for you?  Let them know that the best way to support you is by being with you and lending an ear.  Who knows, sharing your story of anxiety may free others to share theirs? You could be their light.

Practice self-care.  Practice managing your anxiety.  It's a journey that never ends and you're not alone in it.

To schedule an appointment with Robyn Strelitz, LMFT, call 512-434-0868.

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What to do When Trauma Impacts the Ones You Love

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Image by Mastercharz on Flickr

Do you love someone who is dealing with the impact of trauma?

If someone in your life is suffering from trauma, you may be wondering what you're supposed to do. If so, you're in good company. Anyone who has ever loved someone who has dealt with trauma has asked the same question.

Trauma is unique because it has this way of not only affecting the people who've been traumatized, but also those they love. We even have language to describe this: secondary trauma - which captures how partners, spouses, family members and friends can take on symptoms of trauma they didn't directly experience.

So if you've never endured trauma, but someone you love is counting on you for support, this post will help you understand a bit about what they're going through and how to help.

What is trauma?

In it's plainest and most basic description, trauma is a deeply distressing and disturbing experience that has lasting consequences.

Some people differentiate two types of trauma: big "T" trauma and little "t" trauma. Big "T" trauma would be what combat veterans and survivors of assault or abuse experience. Little "t" trauma might describe what it's like to be in a marriage with a neglectful partner. It's unfair to try and classify traumatic experiences, because everyone's different. There's good research to show that even fender benders in which the offending vehicle was traveling less than five miles per hour can have lifelong repercussions.

So no one's trauma should be judged based on what you or I think makes is big "T" or little "t". Instead, I like to think of trauma as any experience that fundamentally changes the way we experience life. I know that leaves a lot of room open for interpretation, but it also holds us accountable to understand our loved ones' experiences rather than rely on our own interpretation of what trauma is.

How does trauma impact the brain?

In my office is a file cabinet. It's a sturdy old thing that came out of WWII. It has a distressed wood foot at the bottom that wraps around the cabinet's cast iron to create a neat contrast. In the file cabinet are files that are neatly ordered by my clients' last names. There's also some odds and ends that I've stored in there because I need access to them and don't have anywhere else to put them.

And this is kind of how the brain works. 

When I need to recall something important, my brain fires off thousands of neurons that interact together to recall memory. Scientists don't yet fully understand how this works, but they seem to think that memory is stored in the hippocampus, available for recall when we need it. So if I asked you what you had for lunch yesterday, it's sort of like me trying to retrieve a file from my cabinet, whose job it is to store ordered information until I need it.

But for those who've experienced trauma, the brain doesn't quite work like a filing cabinet. Instead, it's more like an artist's studio. When you walk inside, you see paintings everywhere, disordered and colorful, overloaded with sensory information. Trying to find a single painting or image inside a studio is difficult. In fact, much like a painting in a studio, a single traumatic memory doesn't make sense until it's brought out of the studio and examined on its own. So when you try to talk to your friend feels triggered by something that reminds her of her trauma, it's her brain flooding her with a stress response to keep that traumatic memory disorganized, so that she doesn't have to relive it. Her symptoms serve a purpose.

Unfortunately, the brain may be working against recovery as Dr. Bessel Van Der Kolk acknowledges in his groundbreaking trauma book, The Body Keeps The Score. Although the brain may be working to keep trauma hidden so that the traumatized person doesn't have to relive the experience, the body still seems to experience trauma symptoms.

This is why people who have been through trauma sometimes have intense and volatile reactions to an environmental trigger (like relationship conflict or a hard day at work) without knowing why. Sometimes, the body remembers trauma before the brain does.

What does trauma feel like?

I once had a client tell me that trauma made her feel like she was walking around with a bomb that no one could see strapped to her back. And at any point, the bomb could explode all over herself and others without any apparent reason. The brain has very interesting ways of protecting us from trauma when we experience it. People will often describe not being able to remember what they felt or the sequence of events that led up the to the traumatic experience. I remember a moment when I played football in middle school and one of my friends snapped his arm in half. He got up and ran off the field, telling coach he was okay and could go back in.

Sometimes, the worst part about trauma is recovery.

Often, the symptoms you would expect people to feel during trauma show up in recovery even though a traumatized person can't remember those symptoms during the actual traumatic moments. The most important thing to know about how trauma impacts your loved one is that it's constantly with him and he can't predict when trauma symptoms will show up. Because of this, much of the recovery process is symptom management.

That means that in counseling, we help people become more and more tolerant of trauma triggers so that they can move forward with allowing their brain to place the trauma memory back in the file cabinet, ordered and meaningful.

You can help your loved one by not reacting to their seemingly out-of-context intense emotional reactions. Simply your willingness to remain calm in the midst of their chaos can be healing.

How does trauma impact relationships?

Most of us have no idea how to help someone who has been traumatized by an experience we've never been through. This is not a shortcoming. It's completely normal. In fact, it's such a normal part of the human experience that we have an entire industry called therapy dedicated to task of "being there" for people who've experienced varying levels of trauma.

So because we're not naturally equipped with the necessary tools to help the ones we love who have experienced trauma, we sometimes pull away from those relationships because we feel powerless to do anything useful. So this creates a feeling of isolation for us and our loved ones. What makes this even more difficult is that depending on the kind of trauma our partner or family member has experienced, their symptoms can make them difficult to empathize with. The real cruelty of trauma is that it sometimes causes quick explosions of anger or long periods of isolation.

So this is why education and empathy are like gold to people who have experienced trauma. Friends and loved ones who are willing to take the time and have the patience necessary to hold space for anger and loneliness are the greatest assets for healing and recovery.

Trauma isn't always something you can see.

Unless trauma has caused physical changes, it isn't like cancer or other illnesses that manifest symptoms you can see or touch. So people don't always know that what their friends are going through because they don't know what to look for. This may even lead to skepticism or misplaced judgment.

A friend of mine is one of the most courageous people I know. She was rear ended and endured a concussion that has had a significant impact on her emotions and relationships. She describes herself as being quicker to anger and, now, situations that weren't difficult in the past feel stressful. You'd never know it by looking at her, and even her close friends only may notice an abrupt mood change. Even if her friends noticed she'd been in a car accident, they may not be able to connect that mood change with her concussion. This has left her feeling lonely at times because no one can see what she's going through.

In order for her behavior to make sense, she has to disclose her trauma.

I don't know if you've ever been sick, but the last thing I want to do when I'm not well is tell everyone how my body is handling the symptoms of illness. It's embarrassing. I'd much rather just stay at home and wait for the symptoms to pass. But trauma doesn't always work that way. Sometimes, trauma symptoms can be resolved in a short amount of time. But sometimes, it takes a lifetime.

So how do I help?

If you love someone who has been traumatized, the best thing you can do is be patient. Gently and carefully remind them that you're there. Don't problem solve. Just be. We have a phrase in psychotherapy called "holding space." I don't usually like therapy jargon, but this phrase I like. It captures what we need from someone when we don't want them to solve our problems, but we do need them to listen.

Some other tips for holding space for the ones you love when they've been traumatized:

  1. Take small decisions off their plate. Strangely, choosing where to eat can turn into a nightmare. Take the initiative for some of the small life stuff and take over.
  2. Don't depend on your traumatized loved one to know what they need. Sometimes, holding space means sitting quietly with your hands open while they cry.
  3. Gently remind them you're there. Send a text message or leave a letter reminding her that you're just a phone call away.
  4. Be patient. Trauma recovery is a long road, and your loved one needs people who will walk through all the ways their symptoms will emerge.

If trauma has impacted your family members, friends or partners, be there for them in their time. It's hard to make sense of the internal studio of the mind long enough to know what to talk about or ask for.

And holding space for someone suffering is a sacred task.

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How Does Mental Illness Start?

Image by Kristin Schmit on Flickr

Image by Kristin Schmit on Flickr

Is mental illness just in our head?

Researchers have been trying to answer this question for hundreds of years. We never even considered that the brain could be unhealthy just like every other major organ in our body until, in the early 1800s, we stopped blaming people's strange behavior on ghouls and goblins.

Once we realized that mental illness was a common experience, psychiatry found a good explanation for where it came from: the brain. It wasn't working like we wanted it to. This was the popular belief about mental illness (and still is) until relationship experts and family therapists started to challenge the idea that mental illness came only from the mind.

What about our relationships?

Is mental illness because of how we were raised?

Sociologists and relationship researchers noticed patterns of behaviors in people's families and social environments that caused people's unwanted behaviors. Conditions like poverty or abuse make mental illness more likely. Lack of quality friendships creates loneliness and isolation, which are symptoms of depression.

So, many health experts started to include social and family environments as causes of mental illness. But that still leaves us with an unclear picture of the origins of mental illness.

Where does mental illness actually come from?

Like most things, experts believe the answer is somewhere in the middle. We could be at risk for certain mental illnesses because of our genetics. Alcoholism, for example, unquestionably runs in families. But researchers don't know if this is because of learned behaviors or because of a genetic risk for alcoholism. Either way, prevention is super important because, if you have a genetic risk to abuse alcohol, there's nothing you can do about it anymore than you can change your eye color.

Except of course, to be careful with alcohol.

So no matter where mental illness begins, we should be thinking about mental health and wellness. When doctors ask us to get screened early for health risks like breast cancer or heart disease, it's not because knowing that risk will change our DNA, it's because knowing ourselves will help us create a path to better self-care and prevention.

So if you really want to know where your risk for mental illness begins, you can get genetic testing done, or maybe do a family tree. But what it really comes down to is this:

Are you taking care of yourself?

Mental illness is just like any other health challenge. You can prevent some of the major symptoms by moving your body the way it was intended, by hanging out with your friends and family (even when you don't feel like it), and by staying in the produce section of your local grocery store.

But, you can't prevent all symptoms of mental illness. That's why things like counseling and group therapy exist. Besides, mental illness is just a term we use to describe having less than our optimal mental health. 

So there's no reason to be embarrassed, ashamed or silent about mental health. We've all felt unwell. Taking action to prevent illness or intervening when you need more help is the key to all health.

Why should your mental health be any different?

-Posted by Dr. Mathis Kennington, LMFT-S

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