Do you have an adult child under 30 who’s pulling away from you?
It could be part of a normal process of development called differentiation.
We all know that children eventually (or rapidly!) grow into adults, but not without going through some developmental stages.
It’s easy to see these stages in kids’ behavior when they’re young. For example, something they used to love is now boring, or vice versa.
But technically, all of us remain adolescents until we’re 25. And even after that, we continue to develop and change throughout our lives.
“Who Am I?”
Differentiation is one of the most important developmental tasks we face in life. As we grow, we form our own identities as adults, distinct from our families of origin.
This process generally doesn’t happen all at once. Most of us will work on it throughout our lives.
If you’ve ever felt inexplicably stressed out, or like a younger version of yourself, while visiting your own parents, you’ve felt the ache of unfinished differentiation business.
At some point their lives, most people leave their parents’ home either physically or psychologically in order to forge their own path in life.
Usually there’s some physical separation from family that occurs naturally, such as when young people go off to college or to travel when they come of age.
It’s psychological and emotional separation, however, that helps with the process of adult identity formation.
Parenting the Differentiating Young Adult
The mature parent-child relationship is different, but by no means less loving, than the early parent-child relationship.
Parents will always be parents. But the nature of the parent role changes from one of total responsibility to one of enjoying the fruits of those early parenting labors.
Parents of adult children take a loving interest in the activities of their now-independent offspring, but they’re no longer responsible for their welfare.
Mature parents can still hold a respected, though no longer necessarily central, position in their children’s lives.
The child’s role changes drastically, too, as she turns into an adult.
She has to navigate the gradual shift from being completely dependent to becoming a free agent, operating by her own internal guidance system.
This shift to adulthood means the child has to figure out who she is as an independent entity, and what her life is going to look like. How will it be the same as her parents’? How might it be different?
Parents give their young adults psychological space (e.g., by not being “in their business”), young adults work to consolidate their own personalities, and the relationship resumes.
Giving Them Space
Sometimes this necessary process of differentiation is hard for adult children because of an extremely close relationship with one or both parents.
The transition from childhood to adulthood can be impeded by parent, child or both sensing a change in the relationship that feels alarming to them. The status quo is comforting in its familiarity.
The young adult is, in some ways, still a child. But in important ways, he’s grown into an individual whose interests or desires are unique to him — no longer just a reflection of his parents’ values.
He needs psychological and emotional room to find out who he is, independently of his family.
The space young people take often ends up being physical, because that’s the easiest way to set boundaries.
It may be harder for him to say to his parents, “I don’t want to see you every week” than it is for him to move to Cincinnati.
That way, there’s no question of whether he’ll be home for dinner on Sunday (he won’t), and he can have some of the freedom he needs during this time of growth.
This can be a confusing and painful time for parents. What happened to the love? Where did the respect go? What did I do wrong?
Trust the Process
If your adult child is in his/her 20s, it’s likely that differentiation is at least partly, if not entirely, to blame for his or her apparent reluctance to stay in touch.
You know the saying, “If you love something, set it free… “?
Remember how the rest of it goes: “If it comes back to you, it’s yours. If it doesn’t, it never was.”
If your child was ever yours, you’ve got a good basis for having her come back when she’s through with the upheaval of this task and more or less on the other side.
So take heart! … And maybe take up a hobby. See your friends. Do the things you never had time to do when they were young.
Inspire your children with your zest for life.
(See the follow-up post, Differentiation, Part 2)
See also Chapter 2 from the Guide for Parents of Estranged Adult Children.
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