The following article appeared in the May, 2004, issue of Woodbury Reports and on their website, StrugglingTeens.com.
By Robert F. Fischer, M.D, and Anne LaRiviere
Robert F. Fischer, M.D, is a psychiatrist who has treated children, adolescents, and parents for 30 years. He is the executive director of the Optimum Performance Institute in Woodland Hills, California, a transitional facility for 17-25-year-olds. This is a summary of a speech he gave at the November IECA meeting in Scottsdale, Arizona. Anne LaRiviere was the administrator of an accredited Residential Treatment Center in Los Angeles and was a reporter for The Los Angeles Times. She is the CEO of the Optimum Performance Institute.
Those parents who experience the greatest success in managing the inevitable anxiety that occurs when their adolescent transitions into young adulthood are the same parents who have the wonderful quality called resilience. Consider the father who called his son’s therapist while waiting for the boy at the airport. The son had graduated from a therapeutic program a year earlier and went to college. But the college experience didn’t work out, and now he was on his way back home. Not surprisingly, the father was peeved. “I don’t get it. He should be ‘fixed’ by now,” he said over the cell phone. “We’ve been through so much. We’ve paid so much. When is he ever going to do the right thing?”
The Right Thing
Months later, these parents began asking themselves another question: Is there really “a right thing to do, a perfect solution for him?” Is it possible happiness really does exist in the freedom found in accepting the ambiguity of life—that the solution is not to find “the right way,” but the most adaptable and suitable way based on the circumstances and reality of the present moment?
Power of Resilience
After the son returned home, he got a job in an auto mechanics shop and enrolled in an extension program for car repair. Then he announced to his parents that he was gay. “No, this is not what I hoped for him,” the father said in another call to the therapist. “For generations, our family has gone to (an Ivy League) school. But I love him. And what I really want is for him to be independent, happy and safe. I must be patient.” The father was resilient enough to affirm his commitment to persevere, work at the relationship and allow his love for his son to grow within the actual experience of life, not life as he thought it ought to be. This is not an easy thing to do. It’s not easy to realize how the challenges of becoming a young adult today may need to be blended into the dreams their parents have for them.
Challenges Faced by Young Adults Ages 17-25
In order to meet their developmental demands, they must find a source of nurturing and love. This means that when they lose the immediate support of family and old peer groups, they must deal with the isolation and loneliness arising from that separation, while learning how to accept a new family of friends who may live in a reality different from the one they previously experienced.
They must begin to internalize how to commit to longer-term goals—goals that will help them develop a sense of who they are and give meaning to their lives.
To begin building self-esteem, they must learn how to balance work and play in an environment where fun is found without using drugs or alcohol.
The Role of Consultants
It is a skillful therapist and/or consultant who helps families develop the resilience they need to persevere as their adolescent enters today’s world, and the many educational systems that fail to support the needs of many young adults. The following illustrates some ways to help families become more resilient:
Try to recognize the family’s “style of thinking” in relation to anxiety management; we need to examine the following questions. Are they perfectionists who see everything as black-or-white? Or, are they less rigid and more open? Those parents who think in just black-or-white, are prevented from being resilient, open or exploring all of the possibilities available to their adolescent. Of course, those parents whose thinking style is perfectionistic often believe everything is either “all right” or “all wrong,” which serves to bring the parental anxiety levels down to zero because there are no choices to make, and no dilemma. So there’s no anxiety. However, parents become less patient, tolerant and understanding when they are unwilling to compromise.
Do they communicate directly with each other? Do parents ask indirect questions like, “I’m concerned about who you’re hanging out with,” rather than directly asking, “Are you doing drugs? What do you want to do with your life?” Does the young adult say, “I know I’m the cause of problems at home, and I’ll do better,” or are they able to verbalize the real question of, “Why are we so unhappy in this family?”
Is the family facing reality? Are they facing their differences as real people and recognizing their conflicts, or, are they afraid the family structure will collapse if they look too closely at these realities? Are parents capable of examining the myths they constructed when they created unrealistic fantasies about the transformation process?
Four Myths & One Secret About Transformation
Myth of Separation: Parents and children may understand they are separating, but the concept of absolute independence, this black-or-white fantasy of separation, creates anxiety within the home because it is an illusion. A parent and child will always be connected. It’s better to think in terms of “dynamic transformation.”
Myth of Unconditional Love: A parent’s belief that if they don’t love their child unconditionally and vice versa, something is wrong. In life, the reality is that we all need to accept conditions and express our love within these limitations. By relinquishing our need to always have Unconditional Love, we actually create circumstances allowing us to be at peace with what is happening to our family in the real world.
Myth of Control: There is an inverse relationship between control and a love based on tolerance, patience and acceptance. The more we need to control, the more we experience anger when our wishes aren’t met, and the more our relationships become confrontational.
Myth of the Fast and Easy Answer: Be wary of any therapist who has a one-sided approach, i.e. “never use medication,” or “meds are the answer,” or “therapy is just psycho-babble.” No single approach is applicable to every individual. A professional who offers the greatest spectrum of approaches will also provide the best chance of assuring an optimal outcome.
The Secret of Intimacy: Intimacy is what we all seek to ensure and sustain happiness—to be close without concern about who is in control, or who is more powerful, or who is the smartest—having no expectations, only a feeling of peace. This helps us gain a sense of faith that things will be OK.
It is important to remember that creating the perfect relationship is not the objective in a family; the objective is to build a relationship based on nurturing and a possibility of love. By creating an atmosphere of faith in our young adult, we maximize the possibility of achieving the best outcome based on the understanding that we all have tremendous potential and we are all incomplete.