Excommunication of parents from children
Apparently, all families enter a period of crisis when children start leaving home, and the consequences are different. Often a marriage goes through a hectic time, but gradually the situation improves when, as the children leave, the parents develop a new relationship of life together. They successfully resolve conflicts and allow children to find their own partners and make their own careers, moving into the role of grandparents. In a family with a single parent, the loss of a child may be perceived as the beginning of old age and loneliness, but this loss must be experienced and new interests must be found. Whether parents can tolerate this period as part of a normal life path depends on the severity of the loss they experienced, but also partly on the intervention of the therapist at a crucial time.
In many cultures, weaning children and parents from each other is accompanied by a ceremony that turns the child into a new adult. These initiation rituals give the child a new status and require that the parents treat them differently from that moment on. There is no such clear border in the American middle class; this culture has no way of proclaiming that the adolescent is now an independent adult. This goal is partly served by school graduation, but graduating from high school often represents only a step on the way to College, where parental support continues. Even marriage – in cases where the parents continue to support the couple – does not define a distinct separation and does not deliver the ceremony that completes the excommunication.
Sometimes there are clashes between parents when the older child leaves the house; in other families, the disorder seems to increase with each child’s departure; and sometimes it happens when the younger one leaves. In many cases, parents who had no difficulty in seeing their children leave one after another suddenly experience difficulties when a certain child reaches this age. Usually in such cases, we are talking about the child, especially important for this marriage. It may happen that it was through him that the parents most often communicated with each other, or that this child caused them special care, so that the General care for him and concern for him connected the parents with each other.
The difficulty that arises in a marriage at this time may be that the parents are found to have nothing to say to each other and have nothing to do with each other. Sometimes spouses start quarreling with each other about something that caused quarrels before the children appeared. Since these issues were never resolved, but simply moved aside after the birth of children, they now arise again. Often this conflict leads to separation or divorce – which may seem tragic after such a long marriage. It is also often the case, in the case of a particularly serious conflict, that one of the spouses threatens to kill or tries to commit suicide.
It seems to be no accident that people most often go mad – become schizophrenic-shortly before their twenties and soon after their twenties, when children are supposed to leave home and leave the family in a state of anxiety. Adolescent schizophrenia and other severe disorders can be seen as extreme ways that families try to cope with the difficulties of this stage of life. If the child and the parents cannot bear to be separated, then the threatened separation can be prevented if some misfortune happens to the child. Having developed a disorder that makes him socially incapacitated, the child remains inside the family system. In this case, parents can still share the concerns and disagreements that this child is the source of, and they do not need to communicate with each other without it. The child can still participate in the triangular struggle with his parents, giving them and himself, as an excuse for all the difficulties, his “mental illness”.
When parents bring a “difficult teen” to the therapist, the therapist can focus on them and subject them to individual treatment, or hospitalize them. If he does, the parents seem more normal and concerned, and the child shows more extreme behavior. Thus, the expert crystallizes the family at this stage of development, noting the child as a “patient” and starting to treat it as such. At the same time, parents do not have to resolve their conflict in order to move to the next stage of marriage, and the child gets rid of the need to strive for closer relationships outside the family. Once this agreement is reached, the situation is stabilized until the child improves. If he becomes more normal and there is a serious threat that he will marry or earn a living, the family immediately returns to the stage when the child should have left the house, and conflict and disagreement resume. The reaction of parents to this new crisis is that they take the child out of the hospital, or hospitalize him again under the guise of a relapse, after which the family is again stabilized. As this process is repeated, the child becomes “chronically ill”. Often, the therapist sees the problem as a clash of the child with the parents and takes the child’s side, presenting him as a victim; this creates even more difficulties for the family. Sometimes it happens that a doctor in a psychiatric hospital advises a young man to leave his family and never see her again. This approach, of course, fails; the child experiences a collapse and continues his career as a chronic patient.
Although we don’t know much about how a child separates from their parents and leaves home, we can assume that both extremes are harmful to them. If he leaves his family and vows never to see them again, his life usually turns out badly. If, in our culture, he stays with his parents and allows them to lead their lives, it also ends badly. He must separate himself from his family and keep in touch with them. This balance is reached by most families, and it is sought by modern therapists.
For a family therapy therapist, the adolescent offered as a patient is not the whole problem: the whole family situation is the problem. Its purpose is not to achieve mutual understanding and community between the child and the family; it should play the role of an initiation ceremony, treating the family in such a way that the child begins to move towards the adult world, and the parents learn to treat him and each other differently. If the therapist releases the child from the family and resolves the conflicts that have arisen around his or her separation, the child will part with his or her symptoms and will be free to develop in his or her own way.
When a young person leaves home and sets up their own family, their parents must go through an important change in their lives – becoming grandparents. Sometimes they are ill-prepared for this step, or not at all prepared for it, if the children have not gone through the proper marriage rituals. They must learn to be a good grandmother and a good grandfather, develop rules for participation in the lives of their children, and be able to live alone with each other in their home. During this period, they often lose their own parents and suffer the accompanying grief.
One aspect of the family that we are learning more about is the natural process that eases difficulties as they arise. An example is the appearance of a grandson. One mother once jokingly said that she gave birth to every next child, so as not to spoil the youngest. Mothers are often overly protective of the younger child, and then find it difficult to separate from him when he seeks a more independent life. If at this point the eldest child has a grandchild, then this new child frees the mother from her own younger child and introduces her to a new stage, turning her into a grandmother. If we imagine the natural process in this way, we can understand how important it is to preserve the relationship between generations. If young people cut themselves off from their parents, they deprive their child of grandparents, and at the same time make it difficult for their parents to get out of the past stage of their life. Each generation depends on each other in complex ways, and we are beginning to understand this as we observe the breakdown of families in our time of rapid change.