Bowen Family Systems

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Birds learn to fly after they step away from the nest; otherwise, they will die.  Most of us intuitively know a similar growing-up progression is required for human beings, but a lot can get in the way of raising a child to become an adult, and conversely, being an adult.A significant portion of my caseload as a counselor is working with parents, teens, and adults in addressing the problem of individuation in relationship.  It’s a big deal!  Commonly, parents come in very disturbed at the choices of their teen.  Teens present frustration that they can’t be themselves.  Adults struggle with how to be in relationship without being a doormat, being too demanding, or somewhere in-between. 

Let’s do a quick survey of what’s supposed to happen.  Children start out with 100% dependency upon their mother.  Ideally, a child needs to move to 100% self-responsibility.  Of course, this excludes circumstances of intensive disability and so forth.  Somewhere between that delicate balance of connection and individuality is where we spend much time struggling in our relationships.  It takes work and intentionality to make individuation happen- on both sides (parents and children).  In fact, if you don’t have a good paradigm for it, there will be problems. 

In counseling, an important term is differentiation.  Developmentally, it is one of the hardest tasks for parents and children alike- transitioning a dependent human being to independence.  Differentiation means being connected in relationship and also maintaining a unique self and identity.  The opposite extremes are enmeshment and disengagementEnmeshment doesn’t allow or respect separation- you must do, say, and think what the other person does, or you are wrong. Disengagement draws such separate lines that intimacy can’t happen- closeness with someone who is distant is impossible.  Differentiation, on the other hand, allows for closeness and understands what uniquely belongs to the individual (thoughts, feelings, etc.).  A differentiated individual feels the pain and joy of another person making their own decisions relative to their development, all the while accepting responsibility for self.

Example: a child’s future goals.  Parents that believe their child’s best is college and then a stable, conventional job in accounting don’t have bad goals.  They may even know that this would be a great fit for their child.  But if their child-blooming-into-an-adult doesn’t want this, and maybe adamantly opposes it, navigating these waters is arduous for both sides. 

Every situation is unique, and different factors require varying levels of application, which is why counseling can be such a help.  However, a necessary start is to identify what is healthy.  You can ask yourself, “Where do my responsibilities begin/end, and how about for the other person?”  One of the hardest rules to live by is: You cannot change other people.  This is just as true for me as for anyone.  I can only provide feedback, resources, tools, support, and boundaries.  What the other person does is up to them.  If we try to force or coddle, we allow and create emotional injuries.

What we can always do is be responsible for ourselves, learn how to be in relationships, find effective ways to interact and influence others, and grow up.  I’m still working on that one….



Yours truly,
Justin K. Hughes

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