The stories continue to flood in. Very similar stories though the details and characters are very different. Young adults who have struggled with depression, anxiety, trauma, attachment, or other personality or mental health disorders for years who are trying to find a way to demonstrate their capability and earn their independence. Parents who have been with these young adults often through adolescent treatment in residential treatment centers, DBT (Dialectical Behavioral Therapy) groups, or other outpatient therapy constantly looking for a way to help their now young adult daughters to successfully move on in their life. The young adults and parents each doing their best to make something happen, but often being stuck in the same patterns that have been occurring for years, but now with even higher stakes. Where before there may have been leniency because a person was underage, now major mistakes related to mental health have much higher consequences.
What is happening that these young adults and parents are unable to get through this difficult transition? Is there a flaw somewhere? If so where?
I was recently meeting with a group of young adults in residential treatment. I asked them how much therapy they had prior to being in their current facility. There were six clients in the room. The average age was 19. They had a combined total of 67 years worth of therapy!
I asked them what they learned about themselves in that time. The answers were discouraging; “nothing good”, “I’m broken”.
An average of just over 10 years of therapy per client (much of it very intense) and still the message is “nothing good”. It is no wonder that families will often feel hopeless as they tell their story of trying to achieve independence with their young adult daughter. It made me wonder where the problem is and what will be different to help these young adults achieve what they have been hoping to accomplish for many years.
First we can look at the basic facts. Young adults are not actually achieving the expectations or milestones that people think they are:
- • Only 25% of young adults age 18-25 are attending college.
- • About 36% of them are still living at home with their parents and they are unemployed or underemployed at a very high rate.
- • Culturally things have shifted over the past decades and only 25% of 18 – 31 year-olds are getting married.
So if a person were to think that the average young adult is meeting set milestones such as college, moving out of their parents home, getting a job and getting married they would be mistaken.
Then you look at the other factors that are influencing these young adults that we have been talking about. They are facing those pressures of meeting these expectations and on top of that struggling with mental health. Most of the parents would say that they aren’t even looking for those expectations, but would simply like them to work and find a way to be safe and somewhat independent.
The all too familiar story often heavy with hopelessness has potential to become a great story where the end result is success. Getting to that point is not easy but success is possible. It is possible for find successful treatment for young adults! Here are four R’s to a successful story.
Families need to recognize that in the best of circumstances transitioning from adolescent to adulthood is going to be difficult. The cultural trends are leading more to an extended adolescence and so through the process it will feel like swimming upstream. Families can also recognize what family patterns or beliefs have kept them stuck or have prevented success. For example, parents may believe (though they may never have said it out loud) that their young adult is incapable of success. This belief will lead to behaviors that will send that message to their daughter. Families can also recognize what beliefs or patterns have made them successful in the past. In short, take a look at your family from another perspective. Analyze your beliefs and behaviors. See if they are congruent with what you say you want to accomplish.
In moments of frustration it is so easy to forget the most important part of the relationship. Relating. When emotions run high people tend to move away from relationships and move more into a position of control. When parents and young adults begin battling over control both end up losing. When this occurs take a step towards relating with the person you love and let go of the urge to control. Be creative and find new ways to relate and to keep the conversation moving towards solutions.
It is important that a young adult drive the direction of their independence. Parents can become consultants. There may be great hopes for the future, but now it is time to hand over the reins and relinquish old expectations. Perhaps all of the hopes you have had as a parent will come true, but maybe not. Young adults need to relinquish the old patterns of trying so hard to prove they are capable of being independent that they isolate themselves to the point of setting up a scenario where they will fail. Being independent doesn’t mean you don’t have the support of those around you. Accepting emotional support and using your parents as a consultant is important.
Each time you try and it seems like you are failing, take a look and see what has improved or what is not going well and needs to change. If you slip, pick yourself back up. Start over by recognizing your part in the pattern and reestablish the relationship.
It is possible for families to heal. It is possible for young adults who have felt hopeless and broken to find purpose and meaning in their lives. There are many skilled professionals that are willing and able to help families through this difficult transition. Ultimately, the familiar story of hopelessness and being stuck can turn into another familiar story of success.
Kevin Randall, LMFT
Clinical Director, Fulshear