One of the main problems I tackle in my day-to-day practice is the problem of confluence i.e. the lack of boundaries between a child and its parents. Lately, I’ve been coming across 20something-year-olds, who are miserable and desperate to leave their parents, but who are feeling stuck and weighed down by one thing or the other.
It is sometimes difficult, if not unnatural or counterproductive to get the parent involved in their child’s therapy process, if they come to the therapist with this sort of entanglement.
However, I think it is necessary to educate the parents on their potential role in all this.
It’s important to point out that there is no “one cure fits all” when it comes to this, so it’s best to consult a therapist or counselor to determine what would be appropriate for you and your dynamic.
Here are some of the things you could consider when thinking about your struggling transitioner:
- You should work through any feelings of guilt associated with your former parenting. We are all bound to make mistakes, no matter how perfect we try to be. To be able to truly see your struggling transitioner, you first need to acknowledge your past imperfections and let them go. Next, you should take an honest look at what you’re doing with your child in the “here and now” and how you might be contributing to their seemingly never-ending adolescence. Also, do not fall into the “he/she will learn from my mistakes” trap, it never works. Instead, you should “lead by example” and live by the rules you set for them.
- Help untangle the adolescent dynamics by realizing that the role you play in your child’s life is not (or should not) be the same as it was when they were a child or an actual adolescent. You are no longer their supervisor, one who is aware of their every step, who watches over them, and comes in even when they aren’t sought after. Instead, you should assume the role of a “senior partner” or consultant – a person that means well, that is experienced and available for support and advice, when your transitioner chooses to ask for it. Your relationship should be based on dialogue and consultations, and your primary focus should be on how your role is changing (and not how they are struggling and how you can coddle and/or make them do something). Respect their boundaries, but also set some of your own. In a way, treat them as you would treat your niece or nephew. In fact, you could start by just thinking about how your role would change if you did this.
- You shouldn’t be obsessing over ways to “make them realize” it’s important to graduate or get a good job. You should focus on creating circumstances that support motivation and create a sort of necessity. You can establish clear rules and boundaries – for example, let them live under your roof, but deny them any sort of financial support. Look for anything that promotes the need to adjust to a new situation in creative ways, this will hopefully motivate the transitioners to want to make some changes on their own.
- Realize the difference between supporting and enabling – every time you want to swoop in and save your transitioner from trouble, think about your action and about whether it is productive or unproductive, whether it truly helps and supports them move forward, or if it enables them to stay where they are.
All this being said, your relationship with your almost grown-up child is a co-creation, and the purpose of this text is not to blame the parents, but to simply get them to reflect on their own roles in what’s happening, as well as to consider what they might do differently.
For more useful tips and considerations on this topic, I recommend the book “Failure to Launch” by Mark McConville.
If you think that you can benefit from professional support on this issue you can reach out here.
Branka Mlinar is a psychologist and Gestalt therapist offering psychotherapy and counseling to adolescent and adult individuals. She’s mostly worked with problems of anxiety, interpersonal and relationship issues, procrastination, work-related stress, trauma, and grief.
McConville, M. (2013). Adolescence: Psychotherapy and the emergent self. Gestalt Press.
McConville, M. (2021). Failure to Launch: Why Your Twentysomething Hasn’t Grown Up… and what to Do about it. Penguin.