Launching adolescents into autonomy and early adulthood is not an easy task for parents, and it often is difficult for the child as well. The process may represent the end of several years of dissension and stress, especially if the adolescent years were stormy. This article describes the process of supporting youth as they seek to gain independence from parents and family.
The internal or external drama that surrounds the “leaving-home” process may surprise adolescents and parents. On the other hand, sometimes they are not surprised at all because the commotion fits right into the family atmosphere. Leaving home may be a relatively uneventful experience, part of undramatic, natural progression. Detaching from parents is, after all, an important step in becoming an adult (Fasick, 1984). A smooth process may reflect that “a strong individual identity and a positive parent-child relationship facilitate success in the transition to adulthood” (Sherrod, 1996, p. 118)
As a counselor of adolescents and young adults, I have certainly seen individuals who appear to take the process in stride, but I have seen extreme situations too. I have also seen parents in midlife struggle with “launching issues” related to their children. Sometimes clients in their 30s and 40s are still struggling with their own “leaving home,” trying to differentiate themselves from their families of origin. When is someone “differentiated”? Why is differentiation important? Bowen (1978), a family theorist, focused extensively on the idea of differentiation of self, as contrasted with “fusion” with others. Differentiated persons have relative autonomy within meaningful relationships.
Emotionality and reactivity, which are often associated with intense emotional connection to family, can interfere with rational thinking (Walsh & McGraw, 1996). Individuals with high levels of fusion are dominated by the emotions of those around them. They “are likely to be at the mercy of automatic or involuntary emotional reactions and tend to become dysfunctional even under low levels of stress” (Goldenberg & Goldenberg, 1996, p. 170). In fact, Bowen (1976, as cited in Goldenberg & Goldenberg, 1996) also proposed that, as individuals marry partners with similar levels of differentiation, they may produce, generation after generation, “individuals with progressively poorer differentiation, those people ... increasingly vulnerable to anxiety and fusion” (p. 178). Poorly functioning parents, according to Bowenian theory, may “seek ways to reduce tension and preserve equilibrium, sometimes at the expense of particularly vulnerable, fusion-prone offspring” (p. 186).
The concept of differentiation is pertinent to a discussion of leaving home, particularly in regard to emotional autonomy. A person may leave easily in terms of physical removal, but the emotional leave-taking may indeed be a long and difficult process, filled with differentiation-related tension. In fact, the process may never be completed.
A Developmental Template
I try to keep a developmental template in mind when I work with clients who are struggling with the differentiation process. I describe it to them as “becoming separate while still connected.” It is also important for families to maintain a broad view of development in order to avoid becoming lost in the perplexing skirmishes that can arise as adolescents wrestle with, for example, identity issues. Teens may “try on” various identities, may change social groups, may reject the family church affiliation, may become involved with behaviors despised or feared by their parents, may change their vocabulary, may push the limits – all in the name of discovering who they are, separate from the family, as a unique individual. For some, that scrambling for identity may last well into adulthood. For others, extreme rebellion may flash hot for only a year or two and then be done, with progress in self-definition a result.
During the early years of life, children in well-functioning situations can look to parents as authorities, teachers, and role models. Usually teens eventually gain enough sense of separateness to challenge some parental values and behaviors. Although this phase of development may create stress, it nevertheless is a natural and expected process, just as apprenticeships move young workers toward competence and autonomy. If parents can keep a developmental perspective, they might be better able to navigate that period with their adolescents, accepting the challenges and encouraging autonomy but still setting appropriate limits. Parents might say, only half in jest, “I’m doing you a favor by giving you something to fight against” when a teenage child indignantly complains. “You don’t want to live here at home forever.”
Challenging Versus Not Challenging
When I was a graduate student, a marriage-and-family therapy professor once observed that high-functioning families – those with high levels of education, financial stability, stable marriages, adequate and flexible leadership, and healthy connection – are more likely to seek counseling because of difficulty with normal developmental transitions than are low-functioning families, whose problems probably reflect problems with family leadership, communication, and boundaries. I have sometimes seen evidence that supports this view, although what contributes to problems in either case is still unclear to me. Leaving home and developing autonomy is a normal developmental transition between late adolescence and young adulthood. So are finding career direction and moving toward a stable and intimate partner relationship. I have wondered if – in families where those tasks and experiences are prepared for in practical terms, are dealt with through a judicious use of humor, and are accepted as “the rule” – the transitions are perhaps more smooth than when they are abstractions, undiscussed and fraught with silent anxiety. In either case, a good parent-teen relationship undoubtedly would ease the actual leave-taking.
Are “good parents” hard to fight against and differentiate from? What if their values and behaviors are reasonable and appropriately nurturing? What if they are good role models for effective living – and accepted as models for the future by their children? I recall a conversation with a gifted high school senior whose comments are thought-provoking: “I’ve done everything I was supposed to – got good grades, developed my talents. I’m close to my parents. But I’m realizing I don’t know what I want for myself from here on.” She had an eating disorder at the time, but she eventually was successful in undertaking a gradual leave-taking.
If not challenging parents makes differentiation difficult, are young people who want a life far different from that of their family at an advantage in having something clear to be angry about and rebel against? I recently completed a study about successful adults who were once adolescent underachievers. One of the participants described his difficult childhood in this way: “I wouldn’t change a thing. That is what pushed me away so that I could be on my own and not stuck in their dysfunction.” Of course, generalizations are unwise in this regard. Common wisdom in family therapy supports the idea that emotionally mature and healthily differentiated parents generally contribute to healthy differentiation in their children. Furthermore, “a healthy relationship with the parent in adolescence allows the young person to ... establish autonomy, even to move some geographical distance from the parent” (Sherrod, 1996, p. 114).
In either case, adolescents may be hostile and volatile at home, even though in the more optimal situations the teen may not know from where the vague and intense sense of “dis-ease” is coming. Even after leaving home, that teen may continue to be distressed because of unresolved developmental tasks and emotional entanglement. In developed societies, dependency is often prolonged, especially when extended education is involved. This reality delays “leaving home” due to finances. In the dominant U.S. culture, and perhaps in other cultures as well, increasing discomfort and tension while living at home after adolescence is common, as evidenced in some of the media accounts of young adults who “return to the nest” for financial reasons.
At-Risk and Gifted Adolescents
I worked with talented and gifted high school students for 5 years. I often wondered about the differentiation process as I worked with depressed adolescents from middle and upper-middle class homes who displayed no outward rebellion but had no clear vision of the future, great anxiety, paralysis of spirit, and little “separateness.” Some of these young people became part of a study I conducted, during which I periodically checked on 16 at-risk and gifted young adults for 4 years after high school graduation. These individuals were at risk because of depression, family stress, or significant underachievement. I learned that most of them felt great distress over family issues and had much conflict with their parents, but mostly they “held it inside.” They struggled in significant ways, often feeling “stuck.” In most cases, their high-functioning parents were very upset by their children's lack of “progress,” including for some youth lackluster academic records.
Resolving conflict with parents was the first task to be accomplished for most of the study participants, with several of them indicating that their parents were “letting go” and others testifying to their own conscious changes in behavior and understanding. Whenever there was a convergence of “task accomplishments,” such as resolving conflict, finding direction, achieving autonomy, and establishing intimacy, resolving conflict was one of the converging accomplishments. Even with a convergence of just two tasks, ability to concentrate on academics often improved and emotional well-being was enhanced. Based on that study, it would appear that accomplishing various developmental tasks helps young adults to differentiate – to “leave home” and become autonomous.
Those of us in counselor education expect that our counselors-in-training will eventually move beyond asking us for “rules” and relying on us as experts, to challenging our authority. It is sometimes uncomfortable when their attitudes communicate that “You don’t have all the answers!” However, my colleagues and I know we must securely accept those challenges as part of normal development toward autonomy. By the end of these trainees' clinical experiences, we often find ourselves in a more collegial relationship with the trainees – adult to adult, just like parents and adult children in an ideal developmental world. We do not want them with us forever, however; we want them to grow into their professional roles and leave our program – secure, competent, and well differentiated.
We also want our clients to grow away from us. We teach our students to focus on clients' strengths instead of their deficiencies. After all, individuals will have to rely on these personal strengths as they move toward more effective living. We want clients to be able to use their own good sense to make decisions and address difficulties. We do not want to foster dependence on us. We therefore often reinterpret behaviors and remind clients of past successes in similar situations, no matter how insignificant they seem to the client at first. Even ineffective and dangerous behaviors may be seen as bold attempts to meet needs. However, negative, pessimistic, and demeaning messages from others about those behaviors miss the strengths and can help to keep a person “stuck.” Using new language can help clients think differently, allowing them to channel energies into more productive and effective behaviors.
We often reframe problems and reinterpret behaviors, and rebellion can be refrained just like anything else – putting a positive “frame” around a negative situation. Examples follow:
"you’re working hard to figure out who you are, what’s important, and where you fit.”
"you’re proactive – not waiting to be acted upon. That’s something very powerful for me to work with. Harnessing that to get what you need will be helpful in the future.” “you’re a complex and very interesting person. I appreciate complexity.”
"you’re making mistakes boldly. you’re learning a lot, I’m sure.”
"you’re making powerful statements with your behavior. People may not be hearing what you want to say now, but I’m confident that you'll figure out how to do that effectively.”
"you’re expressing some pretty complex emotions in what you’re doing.”
"you’re waiting to figure out where to channel your energy in ways that will be good for you.”
"Anger and rebellion are alive. They have energy – which is preferable to depression.”
We can also reframe ineffective parent behaviors. Rigidity could be viewed as protectiveness, overprotectiveness as concern and an understandable need for control, or current anxiety as appropriate and effective. However, we can help parents obtain clarity about their own and their children's present behaviors and help them to behave more effectively. We can let them see that these behaviors did have important functions, as family members tried to meet various needs.
Parents must let their children leave, which, for a variety of reasons, can be difficult for them.
There are general concerns about the child's competence and self-sufficiency in the adult world. In addition, the one who is leaving might be the first child to go, which could remind parents of their own advancing age. The child might also have been a confidante, even a best friend. Especially for single parents, but also in situations with a frequently absent spouse or a troubled marriage, a child might have assumed a peer role, creating an inappropriate family hierarchy (Colapinto, 1991). Such a role can create “launching” difficulties for the child, the parent, or both.
The child could also be the last one to leave, creating “empty-nest” distress. For years, parents may have been distracted and engaged by their children and their children's friends and activities. Whether the marriage was harmonious or distressed, or whether the parenting partnership was effective or ineffective, conversation between the parents may have revolved mostly around the children, school, and the complex business of child-rearing. They may have forgotten how to be a couple – how to spend intimate time together nurturing their relationship. They may be suddenly and painfully aware that filling the gap left by departing children will require effort and new skills. Single parents may feel similarly unsettled. Many couples seek counseling at that point – not necessarily because they are aware that they need to learn those skills but because of marital stress.
Anxiety may also be based on one or both parents' experiences with their own leaving home, which might have involved emotional upheaval, dire predictions, vague and specific fears, and negative events at home. As their child prepares to leave, the parents may translate those memories into anxiety in the present, affecting not only the leave-taker’s self-confidence, but also the family atmosphere. Marital discord may be created or exacerbated – again perhaps replicating what happened in the preceding generation. Not understanding what is happening, the child may decide to stay close to home, if he or she can even actually leave the home. Messages of doubt as high school graduation nears may reflect much older issues than the graduate’s ability to manage adult life.
An adolescent also may not leave because of fear for the family. A teen who has been abused may assume that leaving will make a younger sibling vulnerable. He or she may fear that the parents' marriage will collapse. In fact, a “problem child” might have done a good job of keeping parents together by forcing them to communicate with each other. It is hard for a spouse to leave the marriage in the middle of a crisis involving a troubled child. There may also be fear regarding the mother being physically abused. Or, a parent might be seriously ill or might be seen to be ill-equipped to manage the household, farm, or business without help.
Family members can have fixed roles. Even young children can assume mature roles – "the responsible one,” “the organizer,” “the leader,” “the adult,” or “the problem-solver.” An adolescent who has been in one of these roles may believe that no one else in the family can play that role adequately. In fact, the adults may have been irresponsible, disorganized, child-like, and paralyzed by problems. The family may long have teetered around chaos, and the adolescent may have helped to keep it at bay. It can be frightening to imagine the potential disruption that leaving home might provoke.
Such fears can make leaving difficult. The ability to concentrate on academic work might be affected. Young adults may leave but become stressed and ill; they then have to return home. They may go to a large city to find work, follow a rock group, ride with the Hell’s Angels, or hitchhike across the country, but even these kinds of dramatic life changes might not be enough to quiet fears about family members they left behind. They may live dangerously, dulling anger and ache through substance abuse or surrounding themselves with people and action. Eventually they may return to the home community, falling back into old family roles for better or worse because they feel that they have no choice. Difficult family circumstances may make returning appropriate for very practical reasons.
As a counselor, I have seen individuals who came from great conflict at home and had parents who had greatly disappointed them, but they remained fiercely loyal to their parents, anguishing over their shortcomings but defending and staying close to them. I learned as a high school teacher not to be surprised at children's forgiveness: These were their parents, after all. In my practice, I have also seen children who were the eldest and the caretakers. They had a difficult time paying attention to their own needs, taking advantage of career opportunities, setting protective boundaries, and leaving home. These survivors continued to play out their family roles, and their families expected them to do so. They wanted change but found it difficult to accomplish. “Really leaving home” took impressive courage and inspired me when it was accomplished.
What if there has been great and prolonged conflict between the teen and one or both parents? Is leave-taking easier? Perhaps the teen has been seen as “the problem.” Perhaps he or she accepts that responsibility and blame. Others in the family wanted that person to leave home. What if the troubled teen has the clearest view of the family’s dysfunction and turmoil? What if the problem behavior is directly related to disappointment and frustration over the home situation and is in fact a long cry of agony? Desperate, the adolescent might anticipate that leaving home will make it better for him- or herself and the family. “I can’t wait to leave” is a common refrain.
The relationship with parents at ages 14 to 16 predicts the success of later separation from parents when children are in their mid-20s. A poor relationship correlates with frequent contact with parents when the children are young adults (O’Connor, Allen, Bell, & Hauser, 1996). In this regard, “emotional cutoff ... how some family members, usually upon reaching adulthood, attempt to break off contact with their families in the mistaken notion that they can insulate themselves from fusion” may not resolve conflict (Goldenberg & Goldenberg, 1996, p. 176). Conflict binds. Even moving hundreds of miles away may not give emotional distance from family.
I once worked at a treatment center with groups of people who were substance abusers and was amazed at how sustained family conflict could be. Many men were still fighting with their fathers at age 30, 40, and 50 and/or were still caught between one parent who was emotionally abusive and the other, who defended the treatment resident. It was as if they had “never left home.” Dad might still be offering a self-fulfilling prophecy during the eighth time in treatment: “You'll just screw it up again.” Many individuals returned to their parents' home after treatment, back to the negativity and pessimism that might have led them to self-medicate in the first place. As Sherrod (1996) noted, “Staying close and being dependent seems to relate to insecure attachment or poor relationships with parents” (p. 114).
Parents' language can have a powerful impact on the self-esteem of a growing child and on the leave-taking process of a late adolescent. Some families even develop cross-generational habits of negativity – demeaning and insensitive “humor,” critical comments, and a lack of compliments. Even in these circumstances, resilient individuals may survive and move on to satisfying lives; however, others – haunted by the old, negative parental and sibling messages – may have difficulty throughout adulthood.
Moving from adolescence into young adulthood can be bumpy, full of anxiety, and stressful. Many family and individual personality factors and circumstances affect the process, and some individuals may struggle for years with issues related to differentiation, whether or not they live close to home. If educators, counselors, parents, and the young people who are moving on can keep development in mind during this complex time, the stresses and strains can at least be understood and normalized. Those who are the launchers can help by letting the child go so he or she can learn from mistakes and find direction and satisfaction. They can also help by being stable, solid, and nurturing so that the child can go with a sense of personal security and without fear. Successful launching does not have to involve distance, just healthy differentiation.
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Colapinto, J. (1991). Structural family therapy. In A. S. Gurman & D. P. Kniskern (Eds.), Handbook of family therapy (Vol. 2, pp. 417-443). New York: Brunner/Mazel.
Fasick, F. A. (1984). Parents, peers, youth culture and autonomy in adolescence. Adolescence, 19, 143-157.
Goldenberg, L, & Goldenberg, H. (1996). Family therapy. An overview (4th ed.). Pacific Grove, CA: Brooks/Cole.
O’Connor, T. G., Allen, J. P., Bell, K. L., & Hauser, S. T. (1996). Adolescent-parent relationships and leaving home in young adulthood. In J. A. Graber & J. S. Dubas (Eds.), Leaving home: Understanding the transition to adulthood (pp. 39-52). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Sherrod, L. R. (1996). Leaving home: The role of individual and familial factors. In J. A. Graber & J. S. Dubas (Eds.), Leaving home: Understanding the transition to adulthood (pp. 111-119). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
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This feature: Peterson, Jean. (1999). When it’s Hard to Leave Home. Reclaiming Children and Youth. 8 (1) pp.14-19