What to Do About Differentiation
|Maria in Sound of Music|
Differentiation-individuation, is considered to be a developmental milestone, key to mental health.
At first, we're symbiotic, at one with our nurturers, especially that one who gazes down at us at the breast. Then we slowly grow psychologically apart.
Young children are enamored, in love with their parents (if we are nice), and they like how things are done in their families of origin (again, assuming we're nice). The family way-- habits, beliefs, traditions-- serve as a compass, a map to a child who is essentially looking for order in a chaotic world. The world, to children, is sheer chaos.
Exposed over time to different ideas, to different people, it is expected that children will change, individuate, become the people they should be, the thing closest to who they have to be, to the person that nobody else really knows. The child will become Me, myself. He, himself. She, herself.
Not that others aren't on our minds. But nobody else knows or understands our personal conflicts, or needs, as well, certainly not beyond adolescence, that stage of life that sets us up for identity. Parents think they know their children, but think, usually, is as far as it goes. We might be right, too, but we can't dictate, can't enforce our reality, how we feel someone else should live, on anyone else, not even our children. Not when they are of age to make decisions themselves.
We might be hurt about differentness, we might feel rejected. It is the risk we take when we take on the job of parent, even the job of friend. As parents, no matter how empathic we may be, our children still have their own feelings, thoughts, and self-awareness, to the degree that one can be self-aware. That self-awareness is comprised of many aspects of self, all that enters into personhood.
Personhood, much different than childhood, even adulthood, which are stages of life. The stages never end, whereas personhood sort of coalesces, congeals, even as it changes along the way.
Those of us with all kinds of dogma in our heads, with many shoulds, go bonkers at this, that our kids might not walk the walk, whatever that might be. It is where lines are drawn in the sand, where the shoulds become the battleground. You should be this, you should be that. Messages aren't only from family. Shoulds come from everywhere.
I'm at the pool, election day. At the end of a lap I stretch at the wall, stop to catch my breath. A woman in the next lane sees me and waves. I know who she is, but we've never talked. She's all excited. "We're voting today! Obama, right?!"
I must look puzzled.
"It was you. We talked yesterday. About voting Obama, right?" That expectant look.
We never spoke outside of today. Actually, this is our first conversation.
"People mistake me for a lot of people. Sorry. Not me." And it's off the wall, literally, for another lap.
Disappointed looks abound with wrong answers, when we're not who we are supposed to be. Not that I ever tell anyone who I'm voting for; nobody's business, right?
But psychologically speaking, the reason that you can't talk politics or religion and still keep the conversation at the party civil (ah hem, these are coming, holiday parties, just smile) is that if you disagree with people, they get upset, feel threatened. If I'm not just like you in my thinking, then one of two things might happen:
(a) I might push you to rethink your own beliefs, always a pain for both of us,
(b) We can't merge, enjoy our sameness. One of the things that makes us close is having things in common. So it follows that if we have things different, we won't be close. Not that it should be that way, just saying, just is.
So what do we do about differentiation?
Certainly if it is simply a matter of socializing at that party, we smile and celebrate it.
When it is a teenager who is drinking to oblivion, his parents might want to take him to rehab. But a family therapy is probably what is needed, especially if they are tea-teetotalers. They need to understand why the need for over-kill, the need to drink to excess. The family needs to explore this. There is often a secret tucked in here somewhere.
Often the problem is that when it is stressful to differentiate even just a little, then differentiation goes viral, gets extreme. If a kid can't drink at all, and he really wants to drink, then it is likely that when he does, he will overdo it. And if a kid comes from a family that doesn't drink, it is likely that the family has chosen that path, tea-totaling, in order to differentiate from a family that drank too much, their own alcoholic families.
Something like ninety percent of children of alcoholics will either become alcoholics (won't differentiate from alcoholic parents) or won't drink at all (will differentiate to an extreme).
Wise-man once say: Moderation in all things.
So what do we do when the course is unclear, doesn't look healthy? What do we do when the course of a child clearly isn't copacetic to the family ways, is clearly different, perhaps even verboten?
Well, fighting it won't usually work. The human being trying to become himself, once set free, is likely to stay the course, continue to become himself, no thanks or commentary necessary, thank you very much.
Accepting this from a child, even a friend, might not be possible. We can't always fake how we feel about people, and we are our behavior. We can't always join, open our arms, accept, and we don't have to. Just because someone makes a choice, everyone doesn't have to come along for the ride. They lose out on the ride, is the thing, and the child, the friend, will lose people he adores, never meant to harm, just being himself.
But it isn't our job, as therapists, to insist that people accept the unacceptable, no matter what that might be. It won't make them happy, accepting the unacceptable. Acceptance has to be one's own, it is a form of individuation, a process. It isn't possible, when you can't, to simply follow the lyrics of a sixties song,
Come on, people now, smile on your brother, everybody get together, try to love one another right now.
A typical scenario, much worse than what we're talking about, happens when an adult with a mild developmental disorder, perhaps high functioning on the autism spectrum, makes a partner choice that is seemingly wrong. This person who is independent yet not particularly worldly, is an easy mark, apt to be conned. Others easily take advantage of a seeming lack of sophistication. One can be swept off to marriage, one that isn't acceptable to the family, perhaps even swept off to another country.
If the parents don't accept the union they may lose touch with their child forever, although the calls for money are likely to break up the monotony.
The therapeutic approach to a disaster in the making, even to lesser disasters:
You can't accept the relationship, that is understood . But maybe at one point you might want to accept, might want to see your kid. Stay open to that. And in the meantime, burn no bridges.This burning no bridges idea, in general, is a good one.
And make no assumptions, not ever, about the way people will vote.