How a Parent's Darkness Can Light the Child's Way
Sharing your young adult struggles is valuable to your struggling young adult.
Posted Nov 20, 2017
Parents frequently complain to me about the difficulties their young adult is experiencing when it comes to leaving home, but they do so without always giving careful consideration to their own experience leaving home years before. Often, the texture and contours of that leave-taking have dissolved into the mists of memory, and are not easily, and/or willingly, recalled. Yet it can be of immeasurable value when parents make the time to revisit the crossing of an important threshold in their own lives—especially a threshold that their child is currently struggling to cross him/herself. Doing so invariably illuminates that struggle and reveals a panorama of sturdy and hitherto hidden bridges that the young adult may suddenly find themself able to travel over the waters of uncertainty towards the shores of self-sufficiency.
A common obstacle to reminiscing in this way is that, for most of us, our own leave-taking was fraught with a certain amount of pain, adversity, and complexity. It is impossible to migrate from adolescence to autonomy without encountering a series of baffling storms, internally and externally. But the story that we tell ourselves about our departure, or better, the story that we learned and chose to tell ourselves and our children about our departure, may be bathed in a roseate light, softened and romanticized with many of the hard, dark edges sanded down.
Sanitizing our narrative is natural and may make us feel better, keeping the ghosts from our past buried and blessedly out of view. However, it may not be the best thing for our children, who are prone to feeling like they suffer in comparison with the parents who appear to now safely and serenely (and apparently effortlessly) inhabit the province of competence and self-sufficiency. Children—even young adult children—are always likely to do some idealizing of their parents, no matter how flawed their parents may be, and quite regularly feel puny and insignificant next to Dad’s or Mom’s real or imagined immensity.
Of course, the goal of reviewing the past with more care and attention is not just to empathize with our struggling young adult. Doing so also reminds us of what we struggled successfully against, and legitimizes us when it comes to promoting our child’s development, making us seem both more real and more trusted. If you are going into battle (and the path towards separation and autonomy is, indeed, a battle), which of the following fellow soldiers would you want to beside you: someone who has never fought and never been hurt, or someone who has fought, been wounded, but ultimately survived and moved on?
In our efforts to protect our children from stories that we fear might frighten or overwhelm them, and/or to protect ourselves from once again feeling frightened and overwhelmed, we might inadvertently deprive them of the opportunity to feel empowered and emboldened, and deprive ourselves of the opportunity to feel further empowered and emboldened, as well.
Evelyn, a 53-year-old patient of mine, had been beset by a piercing, persistent clinical depression during her late adolescent years, a condition that severely hobbled her progress, leading to several hospitalizations and requiring almost eight years of in-and-out college matriculation before she was finally, and courageously, able to emerge with a degree in Studio Art. She came to me with concerns about her 20-year-old daughter, Paisley, who was now ineffectually stumbling through an uneven college career, as well.
As a result of some fortuitous combination of maturity, skilled treatment, and luck, Evelyn had been able to locate and maintain a fairly steady and reasonably healthy emotional state since that tremendously difficult period beginning in her late teens and lasting throughout most of her twenties. She graduated, developed a solid career as a graphic artist, married then quickly divorced without children in her late 20’s, then married again in her early thirties, a relationship that continued, and that quickly produced Paisley.
Remarkably, though, she had never shared with Paisley any stories about her turbulent early adult years. “I never wanted her to have to worry about being depressed,” she tearfully confessed to me during one session. “I have been terrified that she’ll suffer the same way, but I’m afraid that if she knows that I was depressed, she’ll definitely become depressed, even if she’s not really depressed. I don’t want to create a depression for her.”
I discussed with Evelyn the potential advantages of sharing more of her story with Paisley, asking her to consider the possibility that additional knowledge about her mother’s resilience would not only increase her admiration for her mother but simultaneously enable her to find that resilience within herself: “Now that she is becoming her own woman, she deserves to know more about the strengths, as well as the vulnerabilities, of the woman who gave birth to her and raised her. That will make it more likely that she can summon her own strengths in the face of her current vulnerabilities and find a way to transcend them.”
Evelyn eventually agreed to speak with Paisley and reported back to me that it was a revelatory encounter for both of them. “She thanked me for telling her my story and told me how much she admired me. It was probably the first time I’ve ever heard her use that word. And as I told the story, I also realized how far I had come, something that I probably haven’t really acknowledged. It left us feeling much closer to one another.”
My comment was that not only were Paisley and Evelyn closer to each other, but that, perhaps, more importantly, Paisley now may have more faith in Paisley—hearing more about her mother soldiered through a difficult time may have inspired her to do the same, and raised her belief in the likelihood that she, like her mother, would figure out a way to persevere.
I am of course not suggesting that young adult children need—or want—to know every detail of their parents’ pilgrimage towards independence. We are all entitled to our privacy, and there will always be memories that we choose to keep to ourselves, often with good reason.
But it’s also important not to edit or censor our lives to such an extent that we lose the opportunity to be a realistic model for our children—and realistic means acknowledging that we, too, faltered on the way to adulthood, that our development was not as simple and complete as sliding a bolt into a lock. We can never run from our past, but we can run further, and help our children to run forward, as well, when we take the time to understand it.
Here are some questions for you to consider (and to consider discussing with your young adult) that might help to jimmy the locks of your memory and trigger a richer, more productive recall of the ways in which you pulled anchor and set sail:
1) What were the biggest challenges associated with leaving home, and how did you manage those challenges?
2) Which struggles did you keep private, and which did you share with others or seek support for?
3) What was the most embarrassing or shameful thing that you did in an effort to extricate yourself from your family?
4) What do you most regret having said or done to your own parents as you attempted to exit the force-field of the family?
5) What do you wish your parents had said or done that, in retrospect, might have made your passageway easier, more manageable?
6) In what ways do your son/daughter’s current struggles to differentiate him/herself mimic or echo your own struggles from that time of life?
7) In what ways is your son/daughter’s transition to adulthood different from your own, either easier and/or harder?
8) What was the most helpful thing that was said to you, or done for you, when you were fighting for separation and freedom?
9) When you were a young adult, what was your primary goal for adulthood, and what were the biggest obstacles that you remember having to confront and surmount?
10) Can you identify a turning point in your journey towards adulthood, and, if so, what was it and what triggered it?
Reflecting on these questions will help you to gently but helpfully voyage back in time and reconnect with your past in ways that will enable you to not only better empathize with your young adult but also support and spur her growth in meaningful but yet undiscovered ways.