ANGRY BIRDS-the conflict between a young adult and her mother in recovery Part Two


In the last blog I touched on the subjects of how a recovering mother can cope with the rage her 21 year old daughter expressed during a family vacation. In this blog, 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 blog, you will see I use the term “we”, meaning parents like me, quite often.

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 sample suffered a decline in their mental health once their first child entered adolescence and young adulthood. Respondents reported feelings of rejection and low self-worth; a decline in their sex lives; 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 an adult was going through psychologically, by looking at the age of his or her child, than by knowing the adult’s age.

Young adults that 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 that have been planning that perfect wedding or expect their child will be a doctor or Nobel laureate, and have planned these outcomes since the kid’s bar (bat) mitzvah need to separate what they make up in their head with the reality of the situation. I may over emphasize this a tad bit, 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 20-30 something’s. It also raises the bar for these launching young adults that have many goals to accomplish during this decade, which includes: separating from their family and childhood home, attending college, finding a job, 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 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 means why they assign a greater value to the reward they get from taking risks than older adults do.  Of course, the first parental response is to step in and control. As their parents, we see these risky choices based on youth and stupidity rather the researched based facts of the 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 to include angry outbursts or behavior outbursts such as destroying or throwing objects, aggression towards self or others, and use of all capitals in text messages (I added that last entry). Yes, I admit there were several displays of emotional deregulation this Fourth of July weekend.

So I went to my “go to guy”, Bowen Family Systems psychiatrist, Ronald Cohen and he offered this advice:

(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 emotionally important people in your client’s life?

(3) Which behaviors will help make things better no matter what anyone else does?

(4) How do you deal with differences without losing connection?

Following these steps, the end-goal is differentiation of self, for the recovering mother and for the daughter. Allowing the daughter to engage the process of partially freeing herself from the emotional entrapment of her mother and for both of them, the resolution of this universal triangle of child-mother-father. This de-triangulating can release the mother from her primary parental role and all of her past interlocking parental role models. It can also allow the young adult daughter to recognize that running away from her mother won’t achieve de-triangulation, but in fact by running away, she will become as emotionally dependent as the one who never leaves home.

More will follow with next week’s blog.

Read ANGRY BIRDS-the conflict between a young adult and her mother in recovery