Today’s young adults face social, educational, economic and technological challenges unprecedented in the history of human development. It is no surprise that the majority struggle mightily to separate and become independent from the family of origin. Recent research shows that 93% of parents who can provide economic assistance to their offspring ages 22-32 are doing so. When mood, learning, attention/concentration, substance or relationship (including to self) difficulties intrude on this process, many young adults are being described as “failing to launch,” or “stuck.” They tend to see themselves similarly.
Here’s a common scenario in some of the families FRI works with: the father is head of a department at a major university hospital and mother leads fundraising for a national charity while she is also president of a local real estate association. Older daughter, 26, graduated from Ivy League school and works full-time in New York City for a top eight accounting firm. Youngest brother, 18, is heading on a full scholarship to Stanford or Cal to play soccer. Middle son, 23, has bounced around among community colleges after a disastrous freshman year away at a four-year school. He finds marijuana helpful and necessary to manage every day life (though acknowledges some adverse effects), and has had some struggles, when younger, with social anxiety, depression, or attention/concentration including childhood and teen courses of Ritalin and Adderall. Parents come to FRI for help to “get this middle son on track and doing something more productive than hanging out with loser friends and smoking pot,” as father explains.
In working with such a family system we would first examine the family relationships and put into words the “family deal” as it exists today: who supports whom in what ways? How do members spend their time? What’s the nature of connection? Disconnection? How do members affect and impact one another? What’s the story the family believes about itself and how is the middle son’s plight explained and approached? Such an examination typically guides us toward understanding some of the underlying forces that can reinforce, or perpetuate, the distress in the parents and the “stuckness” of the middle son. This is no one’s fault and we are absolutely not interested in blame. It is probably true the troubled son hears no voice more critical of himself than the one he carries in his mind.
Helping the parents become more curious about their son’s inner world is often a very helpful and eye-opening part of the early process. At the same time, it is difficult to be curious when one is feeling burdened, blamed, manipulated, used, deceived, over-worked, or powerless – likely feelings these parents are experiencing. At this point in the work we consider the parents’ emotional state and explore solutions for those. Most parents imagine the solution lies in their son “getting better,” in turn, the parents would be free of their pain, worry, and the pressure to fix. Paradoxically, what works much more effectively is for the parents to take up their own self-care (and launch a personal recovery effort) independent of the son’s actions. It’s counter-intuitive but relentlessly true that as the parents shift their attention toward their own needs the son becomes much more likely to take up the project of his own life and his own recovery. As the parents shift their energy toward their emotional, financial, sexual, recreational, spiritual, and physical health, they find that serenity and quality of life need no longer be conditional on the behavior or mental health of anyone else (including this son). This does not require kicking him out of the house, changing the locks, altering the will, or any other practice of so-called “tough love.” This is a shift in psychological perspective, resource distribution, attitude, and behavior. And, as this shift is taken up, even in small ways, the system will edge toward wellness and health. Many parents worry such a shift in focus would be selfish or neglectful of their troubled child. Know this: when a young adult is asked: “how would you be affected if your mother spent more time doing Pilates and is planning a trip around the world with your father?” The young adult, no matter how dependent, says something like: “man, she really should,” or, “I’ve been telling them to do that for years.”
In this way, the treatment for Stress-Induced Impaired Coping™ SIIC begins. Exploring and telling the truth – the emotional truth of each member’s experience of life in the family – forms the basis to make decisions about what can be possible and how expectations can be set and met. This frequently includes inquiring about life in the families of origin of the parents, too. We explore how authority manifests, love is expressed, communication flows, resources are distributed, crises are managed, praise and approval are shown, privacy gets maintained, and how the family relates to its community and to its past. Part and parcel of this process includes identifying action steps for each member to take. Once embarked upon such a process, any and all can say: “I’m not going back.”