There is a way of looking at human development as a process of becoming attached and then working the rest of our lives to undo that attachment. We are supposed to be safe and then to separate and become individuals.
Many toddlers go through a stage at about age 18 months when they become very clingy – the image of a small infant clutching his mother’s leg while she attempts to cook dinner comes to mind. At the same time, this little “appendage” is fiercely applying the newly discovered power of “NO”. Saying “no” is one of the ways of asserting ourselves and declaring our independence.
A term used for this stage is Rapprochement – a term from the French expressing the idea of reconciliation from an estrangement. The idea is that as toddlers develop the motor skills to physically separate themselves from “home base” they are driven to reach out – explore the unknown and this exhilarating sense of independence. At the same time that they are naturally driven to discover the world ‘out there’, the idea of being alone scares them profoundly – so much so that they cling more tightly to their sources of security.
This complex and profound conflict is alive within most of us –the need to get help from others and the need to “do it my byself” as my grandson says. All of the stages of human development can be looked at as ever more complex versions of this basic conflict. Adolescence is arguably the most intense and complex of all these stages and it often sets the stage for our capacity to engage in authentic relationships for all of adulthood. Adolescence well-traversed is a road well-traveled and an achievement of the highest order.
It is also often strewn with missteps, embarrassments, anger, frustration, shame, what seems like unbearable intensity and off-again on-again relationships especially between the principals – the teenager and the parents.
In retrospect, for a number of the key years that Kathleen and I parented we had an amazing dynamic that worked really well for us. In the merged family we each brought two children to, our daughter was 17 and the three boys–then 13, 11, and 10–were at the center of major conflicts. Life often felt like the ‘whack-a-mole’ game. One of the boys would act out and we’d channel all our energy to that crisis and when it cooled down another of the boys took his turn testing our sanity.
The dynamic that I give much credit to for our survival as a family that now plays really (Really!) well together was a follows. As a girl Corinna had a slightly different sensibility than the boys and, as it turns out, a way with words. She became the intermediary – nay the interpreter. She would come to us and explain what the boys were up to.
When we tried to engage directly with the boys, it almost inevitably became a power struggle – us trying to assert our need to define the secure home base, them trying to assert their need for a say in how their world was being run. Corinna was a champ at giving us each a much better view of what was important and real for the other. She helped us create a space where the effort to understand came to trump the power play.
As the parents we still had the responsibility for defining certain limits – especially regarding personal safety and how money got spent but I think the really essential parental responsibilities were much less often an issue as we developed a way to address conflict where everyone felt heard and the scenario was problem solving rather than “I’m the boss, you’re the kid”.
After Corinna left for college there were some major stumbles and I don’t want to paint the untrue picture of a family in non-stop harmony when there were real periods of discord. At the same time I think we all learned a valuable lesson about the role of mediator/interpreter when there is discord.
Growing up is hard to do. We not only have to integrate the secure base into our need to be individuals, we need to make space between us for the back and forth that is the path to understanding and intimacy – connected and independent.