Separation and Individuation Developmental Stage of Life in America
There is a universal developmental phase in a person’s life span called Separation and Individuation. It can start as early as age 10 and can continue into the mid-20s.
It’s a difficult time for children and parents because it is a very necessary point in a child’s life when they organically begin to try to figure out who they are as a separate entity from their parents. It’s when they become exposed to all kinds of outside influences that contribute to the formation of their own identity.
It’s when they start to look very closely at their parents and begin to assess: what part of you do I like and want to keep as a part of myself as I move into adulthood, and what parts of you do I actively dislike, reject even, and do not want as a part of myself as I move into adulthood.
Growing Up Can Be a Painful Process For Children
It’s quite a painful process. Painful for both parties. It can be quite painful for the child, as this largely unconscious process finds the child wrestling internally with these conflicting feelings.
On the one hand, their parents have been their entire world. They love and are attached to them in a primal, core way. And yet they are noticing characteristics they disagree with or don’t like.
The stakes for acknowledging these feelings are high (love, acceptance, belonging), and this internal conflict can cause immense anxiety, stress, depression, and grief.
Growing Away Can Be a Painful Process For Parents
It’s also quite painful for the parents because the child starts to pull away, disagree, actively defy, and may even express disdain. And while it can be excruciating to be on the receiving end of this, it is a necessary, and normal developmental process.
Some parents, perhaps rigid, traditional, authoritarian types, perhaps with fragile egos, compromised attachments, or old Family of Origin wounds of their own, will have a very difficult time with this phase. For some, the perceived rejection, judgment, and criticism might trigger these old wounds. They may lash out in damaging ways ranging from physical, and verbal abuse, collapsing into guilt-provoking victims, or withdrawing their love, affection, and support. The fate of the future parent-child relationship often depends on how effectively they can navigate this challenging time.
So. Take this normal, albeit precarious developmental phase of life, and now implement cultural and religious expectations (often from collectivist cultures), set in a country where freedom, individuality, and independence are the fundamental foundation.
First-Generational Challenges Are Real
There’s a REAL challenge for first-generation children in this country. I would say one-third of my practice consists of individuals who are struggling to navigate the often unrealistic expectations and obligations of their families who immigrated here. It comes with immense confusion, inner and outer conflict, anxiety, depression, and occasionally grief from estrangements between children and parents who simply cannot reconcile the cultural differences while assimilating into life in America.
I have “1st gen” young adults in my practice who are entirely estranged from their parents due to egregiously discriminatory views on their sexual identity or orientation.
I have teens and young adults who are deeply depressed, self-harm, and suicidal because they must sacrifice their authentic selves due to pressure to conform to someone else’s ideals.
The risk of being rejected by their families can be unbearable. I have heartbroken young adults, who artificially and robotically end loving, fulfilling romantic relationships due to cultural expectations of whom you can and can’t marry, completely ignoring the primary human emotions that supersede these fabricated, external expectations and mandates.
Parents feel betrayed by their children’s perceived lack of loyalty to family, and cultural/religious beliefs, often losing sight that they came to a country that encourages and supports a variety of individuality, independence, and freedoms.
Too often, various forms of abuse (verbal, psychological, emotional, and physical) exist towards the children to conform. These conformist messages are directed toward children at a stage of life where discovering their unique identity is normal. They are being raised in America, a culture that is literally founded on freedom to choose and values and encourages independent thinkers. Ignoring the confusing nature of these various conflicting influences on a child is a disservice at best, and abusive at worst.
An environment that encourages safe, open, and respectful (albeit difficult) communication around these topics, during this particular stage of life, is imperative.
Such an environment offers the possibility for the family to move forward intact with the added benefit of soothing and repairing other aspects of generational trauma. If this environment isn’t available within the current circumstances, seeking assistance from a culturally informed, Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist could offer a more positive outcome.
The GoodTherapy registry might be helpful to you if you are struggling with understanding your role in your family. There are thousands of therapists available who would love to walk with you on your journey. Find the support you need today.
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