A family is the collective context wherein children are reared. When a couple do not have children their coupledom is termed a marriage or a partnership, not a family. When children reach adult age – eighteen years – they need to ‘fly the nest’ and become their own person, independent and responsible for their own lives. Flying the nest is primarily an emotional leave-taking of the family, not a purely physical one. Nowadays, because of economic circumstances, many young adults remain on in the home of their parents, but it is the nature of that residing that requires examination. Eighteen year olds and upwards do not need to be parented; when they allow that they stay in a co-dependent place with their parents and, often with brothers and sisters as well. The young adult may complain that it would upset his parents were he to assert his independence and the right to take responsibility for his own life. The reality is that unless he separates he may remain enmeshed with his parents for the rest of his life or may eventually leave the house in a rebellious storm of protest and blame his parents for his unhappy state, sometimes never to return.
Becoming adult is a process that needs to be started from the earliest days of children’s lives. It is the responsibility of parents to provide the age-related opportunities for infants, children and teenagers to take responsibility for what they feel, think, say and do. However, in order to do that in their relationship with their son or daughter, they need to establish a relationship of ‘separateness being the basis for togetherness.’ Parents too need to model for children having a life of their own and manifest taking responsibility for their own feelings, needs, ambitions, aspirations and actions. However, when parents are enmeshed with children, then the mature development of children becomes seriously interrupted. Of course, parents want their children to become independent young adults but they can only bring about in their children what they have established in themselves. To paraphrase the words of Mahatma Gandhi, they need to be the change they want to see.
Parents need all the support they can get to evaluate the nature of their relationship with themselves and with their children. A parent who lives her life through her children is, sadly, not living her own life. This parent is in an unconsciously defended inner place where she finds her visibility by being the ‘carer’ and not by her unique and individual presence. It is difficult for her young adult offspring to separate out from her, because either consciously or unconsciously they feel that she will fall apart if they attempt to become their own person. The reality is that they are doing their mother no favours by colluding with her over-involvement in their lives because they now do not provide the opportunities either for themselves or for their mother to become adult, each to stand on their own two capable feet and live their own life. It reminds me of the eighteen year old son who said to his mother: ‘Mother, get a life’; that statement was the kindest thing he could say to her.
There is also the situation where a parent dominates their children’s lives and wants them to do them proud by academic, sports and other achievements. These children also are frightened into conforming to the beliefs, values and ways of living of their parents and have been given no permission to live their own lives. They creatively learn to please their dominating parents and they dare not rock the boat or upset the applecart – that would be a dangerous exercise. When they reach young adulthood the same threats remain and the absence of support for emotional leave-taking makes the task of emancipation very difficult. This situation is graphically illustrated in the recent film The Fighter, a true story of a boxer with a terrifying mother and extreme family enmeshment. In these circumstances, support outside the family is required for mature leave-taking to occur. Whether parents remain over-involved or over-controlling, it is they rather than their young adult offspring who require the help to become independent. However, the young people themselves cannot afford to wait for such a maturity to emerge; on the contrary, they need to set about that inner journey themselves and find champions for their quest outside the family.
There are many adults I know who are in their thirties, forties, fifties and sixties who remain enmeshed with members of their family of origin. These liaisons are not happy ones. It is only when relationships between parents and adult offspring become of an adult-adult nature and cease to be of a parent-child nature that contact of an unconditionally loving and empowering nature emerges. Leave-taking on the part of young adults and letting-go on the part of parents is, paradoxically, what leads to a fulfilling and pleasurable life-long relationship between parents and adult offspring and, indeed, between brothers and sisters. Home is not where parents live; home is the solid ground of confidence and independence within.
Dr. Tony Humphreys practices as a clinical psychologist, is an author, national and international speaker. His book Leaving the Nest is relevant to today’s article.