Individuation

In this article I’ll address what individuation from our family of origin is, why it’s important and how it is accomplished in a healthy manner. Individuation is a normal,healthy process that young adults go through to become independent which may be difficult for their parents. Basically, we differentiate ourselves from our family’s ways of viewing the world and define ourselves as being different. Doing this helps us become autonomous. We no longer live a life prescribed by anyone else. We define our values and try to live according to them. We take responsibility for our beliefs, behaviors, choices and relationships. The more responsibility we have the more freedom we also have.

The process of individuation from our parents is most effective when our parents are alive and we are in a relationship with them. The more completely we individuate the more we are our own person. If we are unable to individuate there is a strong possibility we will relate to a significant partner as if he/she were our parent. If a critical parent’s voice becomes part of our inner self-talk it is difficult for us to learn to trust ourselves. Our self-confidence and esteem will be affected by this internalized critical voice.

The ability to individuate from our parents while we are in a relationship with them is critical. Although this can be hard for some parents it is important for them to learn how to let go of their adult child and enjoy the child’s evolution into an independent individual. Parents first experience this when their child is a toddler and going through their first stage of individuation. “No” is a toddler’s primary word and way off asserting their healthy need to be independent. At times parents can say “yes” to the toddler giving the child the satisfaction of the feeling of knowing that they can decide what they want and need. Adult children also need to know that they are capable of making their own decisions and that their parents trust them to do that. Of course they will make mistakes and parents need to trust that their adult children are capable of learning from their mistakes and growing.

It has been proven that parents who are psychologically controlling interfere with the development of individuation.* Parents who exhibit this type of behavior do not respond to their child’s needs and use intrusive/manipulative tactics to pressure the child to meet the parents standards often in an unconscious attempt to keep the child close to them. “The essence of psychological control is its pressuring nature,” pg. 1107. Young adults who have experienced this type of parental control report a strong fear of abandonment. They have little experience handling things on their own and become overly dependent on others. Parents who support their child’s autonomy are able to understand the child’s perspective and allow the child to make his/her own choices and mistakes.

It is also possible and preferable to individuate from our parents in a respectful manner. After all, unless our parents were abusive, they deserve some gratitude and respect for what they did well. No parent is perfect all parents make mistakes. Being able to respectfully confront our parents and tell them how we feel about the mistakes they made allows them the opportunity to make amends. This type of communication in which one person tells another how they feel about the behavior they feel hurt by is important in all adult-adult relationships. Being able to do that with our parents helps us mature. We feel more secure in our ability to relate to another adult effectively.  If parents were abusive we can confront them in family therapy. Just leaving our parents without a confrontation process can hinder our ability to individuate. Most reasonably healthy parents prefer to work with their adult child through the individuation process.  When parent and adult child are able to work with each other through this process they are then able to develop an adult-adult relationship.

It is also important to conduct ourselves in a mature manner as we individuate. We can actually declare ourselves as being a separate individual in a calm, compassionate manner. If our parents have difficulty with this our ability to be calm in response to them will set a healthy tone for the conversation and relationship. It can be helpful if we also express our appreciation for what they did well and our ongoing love for them.

In separating from our parents we recognize that we do not have to move far away from them, what we need most is the ability to detach emotionally from them. If anyone involved has a great deal of emotional reactivity during our attempts to individuate it can be helpful to have a period of time when we are physically separate from them. Later on we can reach out to them again and negotiate new, healthier relationship boundaries.

The purpose for separating is to help us understand ourselves more clearly and accept responsibility for our lives. We learn how to be responsible to soothe ourselves and motivate ourselves to do what we need to do. By doing this we ultimately recognize there is no one else to blame for our problems.

  • Parental psychological control and dysfunctional separation-individuation: a tale of two different dynamics. Kins, Soenens and Byers in Journal of Adolescence 35(2012)

 

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