Individuation is an extremely important concept, yet so many parents and teenagers are oblivious to it. I place blame on our culture and its lack of emotional intelligence, but blame doesn't solve the problem. The issue is this: When families are unaware of the individuation process, they go through a lot of unnecessary conflict. Parents are frustrated that their child won’t listen and teenagers pushing away from parents, fighting to do things “their” way, even if it’s not the “right” way.
Individuation is a psychological stage that we all go through. Individuation starts when we are young and continues on through adolescence and young adulthood. It is a process by which we learn who we are, who we are not, and how to listen to our inner compass. It is important to take special note that this is a normal occurrence.
The individuation process starts even as young as toddlers. Small children learn the word “no” and this becomes the first step toward understanding what we can control. When we are born, we are unaware of what we are, of who we are, and of what we can control. Young children don't see a difference between themselves and their mother or their caretakers. They see the world as all being a part of the child's self, the child's control, or the child's “ME”.
As children age, they start to push back at boundaries outside of themselves. When they meet resistance they learn that this is not a part of themselves and they move on and test another limit. They are testing boundaries to draw a clear outline of the world. They are separating what is not them, from what IS them.. They are answering the questions “Who am I?”, and “What can I control?”.
Unfortunately, for parents and children alike, this phase of testing boundaries can be full of conflict. Learning boundaries means testing limits and making choices – often bad choices. It's not enough to teach your children to learn about their inner compass; they must also learn to trust it and to read its direction accurately. This means making bad decisions in order to learn what they do “not” want. It's not always as simple as just taking mom and dad's word for it – in the individuation process we need to learn these boundaries on our own.
Some parents respond to a child's individuation by not allowing them to make any decisions on their own. By directing the child's choices, we are able to keep them free from harm while teaching them how to make good decisions.
This is a great idea; but it just doesn't work. At some point, the child will reach the age where it will become more important for them to make their own decision than it is for them to make the right decision. This seems confusing, but during the individuation phase it is psychologically more important at certain stages to be an individual than it is to be right. We see this in teenagers who act out in the form of rebellion.
While controlling your teenager's decisions seems like a logical and safe approach, not allowing them the opportunity to learn how to make choices and to learn to read their inner voice has great consequences. This can result in years of dependency, anxiety, or low self-esteem for the maturing adolescent. This is often the underlying reason why clients enter my office. Riddled with conflict between teenager and parent, they seek help desperate for a solution.
So, what do I tell parents who are in conflict with individuating teens?
Stop being a parent and start being a guide.
Yes, I understand this sounds like scary advice. Let me reframe it a bit by suggesting that you stop being a parent the way you have always been a parent. Try to be more of a guide, and less of a tell-them-what-to-do style parent. Try to talk to them and to treat them like an equal, within reason of course.
Help them understand all of the choices that lay ahead of them – the consequences, the benefits, etc. But leave your influence out of it. Let your child make the decision. Let them reap the rewards, and let them clean up any mess. After all, part of being an adult and being an individual means learning how to clean up after yourself, and if they experience a success it will do wonders for their self-esteem.
You cannot stop individuation from happening, you can only set it back. Eventually, they will individuate even if it's at great cost. My suggestion is to allow them the opportunity to make mistakes and to learn to trust their inner voice while their choices are not as dangerous. If we can't stop the bad choices from happening, at least we can minimize the damage.
If we have to allow our children to individuate, let them have the chance to do so before the choices are majorly life changing. Learning how to listen to their inner voice with decisions that are as enormous as drug use, relationships, and education makes for a dangerous road. Let them take bumps while their choices are not as influential. This means letting them have flexibility and some choice with friends, bed times, chore times, homework times, hobbies, etc. Start with a little bit of responsibility and individuality and start working towards full individuation.
Start by letting your child make their own decisions at a young age and they will learn to make good decisions when they are older. Remember, you are the guide now – give them insight into pro's and con's and be there to listen should they need someone to talk to. Just make sure you don't make their choices for them; or conflict awaits.
The choices that make you happy are not the same choices that will make your son or daughter happy. Try to remember this during your struggles. Be patient and try to understand that what makes your child happy does not have to be what the family thinks should make them happy. This isn't how it works. Remember, this is a normal phase. Your teen isn't intentionally trying to be difficult. With patience and freedom, they will eventually find their way.
Written by Brad Messenger, LMSW.