Parents and Children: Towards a Healthy Relationship, Part II

Why does it happen that people who seem to be intended by nature to have profound, fulfilling, beautiful, supportive, mutually enriching relationships either destroy each other’s agency and identity (the enmeshment model) or destroy the relationship and closeness (the distancing model)?

The entire process of growing up consists of different stages of separation of a child from the parents. The very first such stage is the moment of birth when a child emerges from the mother’s body and becomes a person. The second stage is weaning from the mother’s breast. The third stage is taking a first step. And so on. All of these stages of separation have to happen at the right time in as non-traumatic manner as possible. To give an example, if you try to make the child walk at the age of 4 months, you will end up hurting the child. But if the kid still doesn’t try to walk at four years of age, that’s a huge problem, too.

Among all these stages of separation, there are two key ones.

Stage I happens in early childhood when a child first begins to realize that s/he is an individual, a person who is not part of the mother and the father, a separate human being. If a child is not allowed to complete this stage of separation unproblematically and in a timely manner, s/he and the parents will end up in an enmeshed relationship.

How do problems arise at this stage? When the parents refuse to accept that a child is a separate human being, with thoughts, dreams, ideas, opinions, desires, personal space, and needs of his or her own, the child fails to pass through the stage successfully and remains enmeshed with the parents. Such a child has no idea where his or her identity ends and the parents’ identities begin. The desire to manage every aspect of a child’s life creates big problems at this stage of development.

Now, for the distancing model. People blame its prevalence in North America on how mobile people are geographically and how often they end up living far away from their parents.

This is a very stupid explanation. People who want a relationship will have a relationship even if one of them emigrates to the Moon.

An example: My sister and I have lived in different countries for the past 10 years. This does not prevent us from having the most close, supportive, phenomenal relationship ever.  Distance has in no way prevented us from being a crucial part of each other’s lives. We discuss everything on the phone, holding long conferences every night during which we discuss how to raise her daughter, how to enrich my tenure dossier, how to solve issues with her employees and with my students. Or relationship is very healthy because there is no enmeshment (we have families, careers, friends, and hobbies of our own and respect each other’s personal space) but there is no distancing either.

Distancing is so ubiquitous in North America not because of people moving to another location but because of how the North American English-speaking cultures handle Stage II.

Stage II happens when a child comes of age and integrates him or herself into society as an independent, self-reliant participant who is fully prepared to assume all legal, financial and emotional responsibility for his or her actions. This is a hugely important moment, but the North American culture is as likely to fuck it up as my culture is ready to fuck up Stage I.

The healthy way of passing through that stage is a gradual one. There should be some rites of passage that accompany this important process. Instead, what people experience when they turn 18 is that they are expected to turn from dependent children into independent adults overnight, move away to college (or to a job), and figure life out completely on their own from there on.

Of course, most people do manage to figure their life out because by the age of 18 they have every capacity to do so. However, what they feel towards their parents is subconscious resentment for what they perceive as a betrayal. This feeling is similar to what children feel when parents teach them to swim by throwing them in the water and turning away. As a result, the relationship grows cold.

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11 comments on “Parents and Children: Towards a Healthy Relationship, Part II

  1. Without disagreeing on the general premise, I think the North American thing may not be as widespread as your experience indicates. The academic class is much more mobile and expects much more independence than many other types of Americans. My (lower-middle class generally high school-educated) experience is that close contact and friendship is common among adult families. And by North American, of course you are including plenty of Hispanic families who probably are much closer to the enmeshment side of things.

    On the other hand, if my own parents don’t start returning my calls and acting interested in our visits, I may soon be evidence for your theory!

    (I do recognize that you said there are variations within the culture. I think these may be more significant than suggested)

    • “The academic class is much more mobile and expects much more independence than many other types of Americans.”

      – I don’t think this has anything to do with geographic mobility.

      “And by North American, of course you are including plenty of Hispanic families who probably are much closer to the enmeshment side of things.”

      – I specifically said “English-speaking.”

      “My (lower-middle class generally high school-educated) experience is that close contact and friendship is common among adult families.”

      – I’m sure there are exceptions, although I’ve never seen any.

  2. I don’t know how my family would qualify for #1 or #2. What I can tell you today is that my son, 17 yrs old, doesn’t realize that I am busy as hell today trying to sove a phone company problem. He keeps calling me and I still haven’t figured out what is it that he needs so urgently as to not leaving me finish in dealing with the problem that I have. Anyway, I am just going out of my office for lunch and get side-tracked for few hours if I can.

  3. I have several questions about the topic.

    \\ when they turn 18 is that they are expected to … move away to college (or to a job), and figure life out completely on their own from there on

    Do you see the crux of the problem in not letting teens be more independent before 18? In not helping more after they go to far away college (how?) ? I suppose, the answer is both, but how far exactly should it go at both those stages?

    Also, isn’t there some contradiction in the distancing model and micro-managing American parents you described before that go to profs / jon interviews / etc?

    Above you said “I’m talking specifically about adult children, not teenagers.”, yet only several months may divide between 17 and 18 year old.

    • “Also, isn’t there some contradiction in the distancing model and micro-managing American parents you described before that go to profs / jon interviews / etc?’

      – Yes, you are right. The anti-feminist backlash is bringing the enmeshment model to the US. This is a very clear example of American-style enmeshment.

      “Above you said “I’m talking specifically about adult children, not teenagers.”, yet only several months may divide between 17 and 18 year old.”

      – And a complete change in legal status. We lack any clear rites of initiation in our post-industrial societies and so we have to put a very great stock into these formal divisions.

      “Do you see the crux of the problem in not letting teens be more independent before 18? In not helping more after they go to far away college (how?) ? I suppose, the answer is both, but how far exactly should it go at both those stages?”

      – I think there could a gradual process of making them more independent over the course of a couple of years. And each milestone on that way can be marked as memorable and significant in a variety of ways. We did it with my sister where her separation from me was gradual and not abrupt. Things like her first job, her first serious relationship, her first years of college happened with me being around but not in a controlling intrusive way. Instead, I was a sort of a semi-outside agency that could always be consulted and asked for suggestions. Or not.

  4. In Africa, it was different. One basically leaves home in grade one, although the test for this is nursery school, at the age of three and four. Grade one is when military discipline descends on you. You learn rules like walking in single file, being quiet during class and always standing up when a teacher enters the room. There are heavy punishments for insubordination, even unintentional ones. The kids tend to form a lateral allegiance under such circumstances, where they identify as “one” against the hierarchy. That’s basically how I grew up — with lateral enmeshment and parental distancing.

    • “Grade one is when military discipline descends on you. You learn rules like walking in single file, being quiet during class and always standing up when a teacher enters the room. There are heavy punishments for insubordination, even unintentional ones. ”

      – This is exactly what we had in the USSR but that did not influence the structure of the relationship with the parents (which was very enmeshed). Or were you sent away to boarding school?

    • And. . . you are absolutely right. All of the attachment parenting strategies were tried in my culture and we are now seeing the results. I know very well what awaits people who are trying these things today.

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