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  • Jason McCarty

The Lost Generations

The Lost Generations: Function and Addiction in Generations X, Y, and Z.

When I was working in a drug and alcohol treatment center, I noticed a phenomenon occurring.  As the program coordinator, it was my job to talk to a lot of parents and family members of the addicted.  I also did a small amount of family meetings before the client left treatment.  What I started to notice was the amount of parents taking on too much responsibility for their child’s lives.  I noticed parents almost running their child’s life, and many of these “children” were in their 30s!  Many were younger as well, but there seemed to be a letting go that was not happening.

I also ran a support group for loved ones and spent most of my time prying their hands off the controls of the addicted person’s life and addiction.  One person explained that their child really was incapable of living life and making good decisions.  The grown child did not have a learning disability and was not mentally challenged.  As this person described their relationship with their child, I noticed how their own approach to their child was keeping a feedback loop going that looks something like this:

parent does too much and rescues child from struggle > child doesn’t develop persistence and responsibility and capability from this much needed struggle > child looks incapable because they haven’t developed through struggle > parent sees that child as incapable > parent rescues and treats grown child as a child >  child acts like a child, showing great fear and inability to stand on own two feet because they do not trust their ability to handle struggle > child ends up in addiction because they are feeling inadequate and lost, not an author of their lives > parent’s view is reinforced more than ever and is also now afraid child will die from addiction and cannot let go. 

This is not the only cause for this person’s addiction, but it is a major influence in the ability to take full responsibility for one’s life.  I addressed this in an article entitled Freedom and Responsibility (and Addiction).

Erik Erikson was a developmental psychologist and he described development through stages.  Not all developmentalists like the idea of stages but what I think Erikson got right is that there is always some sort of struggle, or what he calls “crisis”, before moving onto the next stage.  It is necessary for growth and identity.  If we rescue children while in the crisis they do not develop a sense of identity as an individual who can live in this world on their own.  They do not develop a self-esteem and self-efficacy that builds capability.  The flip side is they will not develop this either if there is not enough presence and guidance from parent, offering safety.  It is a balance.  Be there, but don’t interfere.  Make them feel safe, but don’t do for them.

I am also seeing this in my private practice.  Grown children living at home, seeming to be immobile; parents calling me about their young adult children; young adults coming to therapy, lost, unsure of how to make their next move.  Some of this is typical and normal for this developmental stage, but some of it is not.  Allowing one’s child to struggle through young adulthood is a part of their development.  I have parents sending their young adults to me who are not struggling with depression or anxiety or a lost sense of self.  They are struggling to struggle.  Parents too quickly think there is something wrong with their child if they are struggling.  I’m not saying that counselling should only be for those with major identifiable problems, but I’m saying that the system within which the young adult coming to see me helps perpetuate their inability to move forward.  It’s not the child/young adult/adult itself.  Most of the time, I talk to parents on the phone and encourage them to let go, that this is their problem, not their child’s.  The child doesn’t want to come to therapy, the child doesn’t see major problems, but the parent does.  This is because the parent thinks their job should be done but fears letting go since they’ve always done so much.

I want to say more about this from a broader perspective.  We don’t often think systemically or from a macro perspective.  I don’t “blame” parents for this.  I help them understand the social context of which they are a part.  Baby boomers have grown up and developed through a time that they could give a lot to their children.  In North America (where this is the biggest problem; mostly in middle to upper class) we are more affluent than ever before.  Parents have more energy, time and resources, to spend thinking about parenting.  Parents are also trying to do a better job than their parents.  Baby boomers and the generations after have tried to be more empathic to their children and value childhood more.  This has produced, by now, an exorbitant amount of books on parenting which have never been seen before.  We are in an age today of hyper-parenting.  We have been told by psychology that parents are to blame for everything, so you better do a great job or else your child will be screwed up (see James Hillman’s The Soul’s Code).  Much of the literature is good and the shift to valuing childhood more couldn’t be more important, but pendulums always swing too far and we need to bring back a sense of balance.

Parents are parenting out of fear.  Parents are afraid of their kids.  Parents want their kids to be “happy.” Kids are running the hierarchy.  Again, this is much more prevalent in middle to upper class families.  A lot of this has also left parents not trusting or utilizing their own instincts.  Parenting has been broken down into so many how-tos that a natural relationship has been lost.  Children need their parents to be at the top of the hierarchy.  I use this term in the way that Gordon Neufeld does.  It is healthy hierarchy, not one of power and abuse.  Children who are controlling their parents with behavior and attitude will struggle with an aspect of anxiety as well.  Children cannot handle that kind of power and it will make them feel unsafe if their parents are not the “stronger” ones.  If I can influence my parent anyway I want as a six year old, what does that mean?  It means now I must navigate the world on my own because I cannot trust my parent to guide me.

This is where children and young adults are beginning to get lost.  It is for both of these reasons: 1. parents doing too much, too involved, picking kids up too quickly after falling  2. parents afraid of their children, not being the strong and guiding forces in their lives.  Parents are also lost.  They’ve forgotten their role as guide, and have become “friends”, wanting their kids to like them.

I want to address something real quick in terms of picking kids up too quickly when they fall (both figuratively and literally).  The pendulum has swung too far.  It is a balance.  It is important to be there when our kids fall, and sometimes we do need to pick them up.  Some parents are not there enough, or allow their children to fall too frequently without help in getting up.  This is not good either and doesn’t help a child or teenager feel safe.  But they also don’t need us to always rush and pick them up immediately after falling every single time.  It doesn’t help them develop.  (for a similar perspective on this whole issue see a somewhat recent article in The Atlantic entitled How to Land Your Kid in Therapy by Lori Gottlieb)

Lastly, I just want to say how hard it is to be a parent.  I certainly don’t have all this figured out and I can guarantee sometimes I do too much for my children.  It is very difficult to see the power of the greater social context we are parenting within.  It is a social problem that needs some real important addressing.  We all need to come together and both bring attention to parenting, as well as let go of doing it perfectly, utilizing more instinct, and trusting the process of human development.

This is a complicated and multi-faceted issue that is hard to address fully in a brief article, but I believe I’ve addressed some of the major aspects I have seen and that stand out.

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