The Process of Individuation in the Family

Launching healthy children
Launching healthy children

Everyone starting to make a family would like their children to be smart, independent, and successful. No one I know starts out wanting their child to be a drug addict, involved in criminal behaviour, or forever be dependent on parents or institutions for survival. The question I would like to pursue in this article is what parents can do to help their children achieve their full potential.
One of the things we need to look at is the ability of parents to not get in the way of the developmental issues of their children. We need to develop a mentality that children are not ours. We bring children into the world to help them become independent from us. This basically means we are not there to save them from the pain and difficulties of life, but to help them. The goal is to be able to say goodbye. The paradox is, if we achieve this goal, the more likely they will want to be around their parents as adults. If they have not achieved individuation, they will be at some level be fearful of being close to us. They will not share problems or life experiences with their parents. Parents feeling this distance will be tempted to spend money on their children to get close, and /or try to save them in some way from life’s difficult experiences. This adds to the difficulty of being close, and their adult children being independent.
There are two basic issues we need to establish as our children develop and mature. One is to understand that at the beginning of life, our children need us there to protect them and establish a foundation for physical security. As children grow they will need less physical involvement and more interpersonal involvement. This process requires parents to make hundreds of decisions about when and how to get involved with their children. It is important to realize that there are no parents who always make the right decisions. Parents also need to know asking forgiveness and changing tactics is available to parents. One of the ways we know if we are on the right track is to ask ourselves the question, who am I doing this (intervention) for? Am I doing it for me, so I can feel better, and therefore taking on the problem? Or am I doing it for the benefit of my child? Sometimes the answer does not come to us, so we may need to talk to a friend we trust to get some objective feedback. We always need to ask the question in helping our children with their problems: who has the problem at this moment in our relationship with this child? This is an important issue, because this question helps to clarify how we are going to intervene and will help your child take responsibility for their life. Remember, we need to be there for them, and to help. Always solving their problems and trying to save them from the pain of life will make them weak and dependent, and stops the process of individuation.
We also need to be able to have intimacy with our children. Starting from infancy, we need to touch, hold, read, play music, and be joyous with them as they succeed in their developmental stages. As they get older, we need to be there for them and communicate and listen when there are no big issues involved. This helps establish a foundation. No relationship can survive very well when we are only there when there is a problem or a crisis. Remember that relationships are a two way street, and we need to ask our children to do things for us, and not always doing for them. Again there needs to be boundaries, and the message to our children is that these boundaries are important. We accomplish this not by telling them but by showing them. The boundaries will change as they grow older. This helps them to take responsibility for their life, and shows them that life will not always go their way. They will have to deal with the limits of relationships and understand the world will not always be there for them when they want it to be. Again this will help them be confident that they can deal with life and interpersonal relationships.
To summarize. We need to have an attitude that we are borrowing our children to help them be independent, and to be able to say goodbye to them when they leave home. Children show us very early they want to be their own person. Their behaviour tells us loud and clear they want to be individuals. The parents role is to help them accomplish this by establishing appropriate boundaries, understanding when we have stopped helping and therefore trying to save them from life, and being with them not just in times of crisis, but when there are no issues involved. We communicate this to them, not by teaching, but by relating to them. We become the models for them and in this way, we teach. Ironically, the more we help them be individuals, and say goodbye to them, the more they will want to be with us. By the time they have left home our relationship with our children will be as equals, with the ability on both sides to be with each other as individuals and nurture each other.

Bernie Dunning, MA. LMFT, is a Board member and retired Marriage and Family Therapist