Arrested Development: When Adult Children Depend on Their Parents

Gratisography/CC0

Gratisography/CC0

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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3 Things You Can do Right Now to Encourage Your Child's Resilience

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Nguyen Nguyen/CC0

Resilience is when we maintain healthy development despite our adversity. A quick google search of the definition brings up phrases like “elasticity,” “recover quickly from difficulties,” “return to previous form.” Perhaps those definitions are true to some degree, but when it comes to children and adolescents many adapt to their environment to sustain themselves, often engaging in unhealthy behaviors that allow them to survive in less than optimal conditions. One thing is for sure though, children never return to their previous form; they grow, evolve, learn and condition themselves to navigate life’s emotional difficulties.

The behavioral tools and coping skills they pick up along the way are a combination of healthy and unhealthy, effective and maladaptive, isolating and engaging, the list goes on. Our children are learning these behaviors from the vast expanse of their environments; peers, parents, siblings, social media, tv, video games, the person in the restaurant at the next table over.

True resiliency in children means they are able to weather the emotional ups and downs of life and continue to developmentally thrive. Resilient children do not always choose healthy ways of managing their emotions or anxieties, but they ARE managing them. As parents, caretakers and adults with vested interest in the emotional safety and well being of children we can all do three things right now to support and foster resiliency and emotional stability for children.

How to Build a Child's Resilience

1. Put your phone down.

Kids need to know that they are the priority over a work email or Facebook. They are taking their emotional cues from you, when you choose the phone over an interaction with them you miss an opportunity to remind them they are the most important thing in the room. Technology isn't going away, BUT YOUR KIDS EVENTUALLY WILL.

They will learn from everyone else in the world that cell phones and computers are important, your role as a parent is to ensure that your support will be given when they bring worries, concerns and questions from outside into the home. Stability supports resiliency.  BE the stable relationship in your child’s life that allows them to navigate their emotional landscape.

2. Provide consistency.

Consistency creates routine and predictability. Whether it’s the nighttime routine before bed, or the guaranteed Saturday afternoon with dad playing basketball, consistency creates a space for children to depend on. It is far easy for a child to handle the stress of a tough week at school when she knows on Thursday she will get some one on one time with her mom to talk about it. Consistency allows children and adolescents to “turn into the family” when they are having a hard time or needing support, as opposed to looking to outside influences to mitigate their stress and anxiety. Eat with your kids. Research shows it supports healthy eating patterns.

3. Talk to kids about how they feel.

Feeling is natural. No matter what, your kids will feel. But knowing how to put those feelings into words is a learned skill. Most children and adolescents walk, talk and act far more mature than their actual age. We need to remind ourselves that they are master imitators. Most children are not cognitively developed enough to fully understand and process their emotions. While it might seem that they understand what they are saying, they likely need help matching the correct words with their emotions. Anger is the easiest and most often expressed emotion in teens, it’s the most socially acceptable and accessible.

Anger is primal. It is about survival.  Anger goes hand in hand with many other emotions, and when given the language, space and opportunity to explore the other emotions can be very empowering. A safe environment for exploring emotions fosters self awareness, intrinsic validation and resiliency.

To schedule an appointment with Caroline Harris, LMFT-Associate, call 512-915-3063.

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Four Reasons Why it's Awesome to Date a Single Mom.

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Pixabay/CC0

I talk to a lot of single moms who feel self conscious, who feel like they're met with judgmental looks or condescending comments from others who don't understand what we go through.  I'm a single mom myself and am all too familiar with the shame that can be imposed on us. 

I have heard pretty much ALL of the single mommy assumptions and stereotypes like, "she must be selfish, careless, full of drama, carrying a lot of baggage, promiscuous, or downright irresponsible." This long list of assumptions doesn’t exactly leave a woman feeling confident, sexy or sometimes even worthy of a good partner. So lets focus on the bright side of being a single mom and how it can translate into being one highly desirable catch!

Why Dating a Single Mom is a Great Thing

1. Single moms are independent.

You're most likely driving kids to dance and soccer, bathing the baby, helping with homework or prepping lunches for the week. You certainly don’t have time for intimacy games, jealousy or clinginess.  You're in your element and truly fulfilled taking care of your family and that display of focus and competency is highly attractive.

2. Single moms love fiercely.

Sleep deprivation, stomach bugs, constant messes, outrageous temper tantrums, loss of personal time … raising kids is the BEST way to learn how to love unconditionally. You know how to exude affection when life is crazy tough and how to give without expecting it to benefit you in return. Your endless patience and ability to pour yourself into others are undeniably sought-after traits. 

3. Single moms are ambitious.

You are probably juggling a career, motherhood, cooking dinner, and keeping your checking account in the green. You are the master at prioritizing what is most important and setting goals for success. You are a woman with a plan. Determination and hard work are no strangers to you and those traits are abundantly refreshing in committed relationships.

4. Single moms are good in bed.

You have witnessed your body go through some next to impossible challenges while carrying and delivering those babies.  You grew and birthed a walking, talking human being which means you most likely no longer obsess over minor imperfections in your appearance. You have a deep respect for what your figure is capable of and feel comfortable in your own skin. The biggest predictors of amazing sex are confidence and openness. Don’t be afraid to use your strong sense of body confidence to bring your sex life to new heights.

The idea that most potential partners want to run the other way when they see a single mom simply isn’t true. A great deal of women and men see the attributes of single moms as irresistible. Potential partners who do not see these qualities as sexy are most likely not at the same life stage as you and that’s okay. Having kiddos provides you with you with a built in filter that quickly sorts through all the toads to find your charming mate.

P.S.  Who wouldn’t want to date a girl with a pantry stocked full of all of the childhood favorites?!

To schedule an appointment with Lindley Domingue, LMFT-Associate, call 512-953-7085.

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