Family therapists meet all kinds of families, not only families with small children or with teenagers. For example, parents who approach us because they are concerned about a young adult daughter or son represent another kind of family that we encounter. These adult daughters or sons may be already in college or at work, yet they give their parents reasons for serious concern. Young adults from middle class backgrounds often oscillate between months of independent living at college and summer months of being integrated back into their family’s day-to-day life at home. Others who grew up in economically disadvantaged or oppressed communities often struggle with recent (un)employment and return home when they encounter difficulties.
Looking from a different perspective, we also meet families from very diverse backgrounds socio-economically and culturally, with straight or gay parents, families that are racially defined as Blacks, Latinos, Whites, Asian-Indians, families with a recent immigration history or families belonging for generations to privileged groups in our society.
Let’s look at one of the families who seek help because the parents worry about their son. At his parents’ request, Tim had agreed to participate in a family meeting, but wanted to speak with me first without his family members present. Not an undue request for a 19 year old who spent his first summer at home after successfully finishing his freshman year at college.
Tim (not his real name) impressed me from the beginning as a bright young man who appears in his manner of talking, his gestures, and minimum eye contact to be socially awkward and isolated. It soon became obvious that his request of meeting me first without the other family members stemmed from the high value he put on self-determination and the ability to make his own decisions. Independence from the influence of parents, teachers, college administrators, or even friends seemed to have priority for him over being involved with other people, even with those for whom he obviously cared.
During the second part of the meeting with his family (that included his parents and his younger brother and sister) another side of Tim’s individuality manifested itself. He liked to engage in intellectual discussions. He valued well-formulated arguments about topics that were rather disengaged from his personal life.
Tim’s parents painted quite a different picture of their oldest son. Both were full time professionals who also liked well-formulated discussions and arguments. Without doubt they had educated their children in the art of presenting their thoughts in an ordered way and giving reasons for their opinions. Yet, they worried about their son’s minimal engagement with the rest of the family, his lack of close friends, and his missing emotional connection with many topics of his studies. Even though he passed his first year in college, he did not do much work on topics that did not interest him. His overriding engagement and outstanding grades in all computer related topics carried him through the year.
The parents’ concern focused on Tim’s long hours at night in front of a computer that he had built himself. He played multi-player on-line videogames and had already reached a high level of proficiency. Reading science fiction novels was his other “passion” if this word is appropriate for someone who is mainly engaged in intellectual pursuits. During the semester he had buddies at college who were equally engulfed in computer games and during the summer he got together occasionally with some friends from high school. But he did not seem to have any close friends, let alone a girlfriend or boyfriend. Partly due to his white middleclass background he seemed to feel entitled to spend his summer playing video games rather than working to earn some extra cash before returning to college. I sensed, as the parents did, an underlying sadness in Tim that he did not explicitly verbalize.
During individual sessions that were interspersed with the family meetings he mentioned occasional disengaged sex at college with women he hardly knew (“hooking up”) and watching porn between video games at night. Underneath his unemotional and intellectual veneer he let me know that he did feel lonely and sad and unable to strike up emotionally meaningful relationships. Yet, that did not mean he wanted to change his attitude about life or about his reluctance to socialize with others in a more emotionally close way. At times, there was something disturbing and frightening in the way he spoke about himself and his (chosen?) lack of relatedness to anybody. Did he really not miss being intimately connected to other people?
Broadening our perspectives
The gradual building of a relationship between Tim and me and my increasing understanding of Tim’s situation went hand in hand. This process was the beginning of a fundamental turn in Tim’s inner experience. I began to grasp Tim’s unfamiliarity with emotional intensity. He lacked the practice and proficiency in close relationships that would have made it possible for him to create a better balance of self-determination, intellectual rigor and relational/emotional depth in relation to others.
As valuable as the relationship between client and therapist may prove to be, therapists and parents often overlook that a client's complex web of family relationships can be an even more powerful resource for a young adult like Tim. In fact, from very early on children, teens and young adults learn through their family relationships how to reconcile cognitive strength, relational/emotional intimacy, and the freedom to age appropriately choose their own life. In part because the maturational process of the human brain is not fully completed until around age 25, many young adults continue to need the experience of vital family relationships beyond their teenage years to grow into fully mature adults.
In the history of psychotherapy it took a long time for mental health professionals to appreciate the necessary balance between focusing on individuals, looking methodically at the web of intimate relationships in which these individuals are involved and assess correctly the influence of the larger societal context in which young people and their families grow up.
More recent even is the gradual appreciation by professionals of the incredibly rich diversity of forms and relational patterns represented in families and recognizable by anyone who cares to look and listen.
At Princeton Family Institute we have learned that a “kaleidoscopic” view is required to perceive a family’s uniqueness. With an attitude of humility we aim to be curious about a family’s unique characteristics according to racial experience and ethnic culture, social class, gender identities and expressions, religious commitments and practices, sexual orientation, legacies from the intergenerational history of the family, as well as family health, abilities and strengths. These realities – each in their own uniqueness - determine profoundly the diversity, richness, and strengths of a given family’s patterns and relational characteristics.
My colleagues and I have created a “Kaleidoscope of Perspectives” to help with the recognition of diverse family forms and relational patterns and to discern the specific realizations of cognitive strength, individual self-determination and deep relational engagement that are prevalent in a particular family. Growing up within a unique web of familiar relational patterns we all learn to work out for ourselves how to balance self-determination and relational strength.
In order to realize how different from Tim’s family the challenges would have been if he had grown up in – let’s say - a Latino, African-American, or Asian family I have below added “The Kaleidoscope of Contextual Intersecting Perspectives”. You can look at your own family or others you know using the different lenses that will make it easier for you to discover common and dissimilar features of families you know. Or you may hear your friends’ narratives about their families and the Kaleidoscope will make it easier to listen in a focused way and to discover how their narratives diverge from your own.
As you contemplate the dilemma or challenges of a young adult member of your family, you may want to "turn" the Kaleidoscope. Then you can wonder how her or his particular balance (or imbalance) between individual self-determination and relational engagement may be connected to some or all the different aspects of your family, as they appear when you look at your family with each of the Kaleidoscope’s perspectives.
Tim and his family’s relational pattern
Let’s now return to Tim’s and his family’s story. As I mentioned, Tim’s family is middle-class, both parents are professionals who were well educated and successful in their fields. The family originated in Northern Europe, i.e. they enjoyed the privileges of a white Protestant family residing already for generations in the US. They could afford college and graduate school for their children.
When I first met them I was struck by their loyalty to and respect for each other, by their ability to work out conflicts in a very reasonable manner, and by the relatively low emotional temperature of their family. You could not imagine parents or kids getting into a screaming fight! At the same time, I missed the expression of warmth and affection in the relationships. The relational patterns in the family seemed orderly and clearly structured, but at the same time also low-keyed and emphasizing individuality.
My sense was that Tim had received an excellent education in how to be reasonable and successful in terms of intellectual learning and interacting with others, but not as much in how to be affectionate and emotionally close while at the same time able to be himself. So he preferred to remain encapsulated in himself and “relate” to others by way of video games.
At this point, I encourage you again to look into your own family with a “kaleidoscopic” set of perspectives, to allow your curiosity to be unbound, and to wonder in what kind of family you grew up.
Family change leads to individual change
As I was exploring Tim’s family’s present relational dynamics and intergenerational background I began to comprehend Tim’s predicament. He was not accustomed to go beyond the familiar emotional equilibrium and to deal with passionate conflicts in relational proximity or to express strong emotional highs and lows within the family or with close friends.
So what happened in therapy? Together with all the family members or sometimes just with the parents or with Tim alone we explored opportunities how they all, including the parents, could express more affection and warmth to each other. This was quite a task for them. The parents revived their tradition from the time before they had children to go out on dates and experience the joy of being a couple by planning and then experiencing some activities they both relished.
As a family they decided to have dinner + card- or board games together (no “screen time” allowed!) and reported back how much fun they had. Gradually, the mood in the family shifted, people were less distant and could express anger and joy with each other without the fear that the relationships would be disrupted. Tim and his younger siblings volunteered to take responsibility to prepare dinner for the family and everybody had much fun and laughter when the cooking went wrong.
Everybody in the family also learned to initiate conversations about uncomfortable topics between family members and to address conflicts within the family. The parents brought up their strong concerns about Tim staying up until the early morning hours or being reluctant to take a summer job. Issues in the family relationships could be resolved. Once everybody realized that this process was actually bringing out the inherent strengths of the family and connected them emotionally at a deeper level, they continued on their own in a creative manner.
Slowly, Tim began to miss similar experiences with people his own age outside the family. What he had learned and internalized during his recent family times, he could practice now also with some of his peers and friends from high school time. He could enjoy relational times, experience the depth of friendships, allow conflicts to arise and get resolved, agree and disagree on matters important to him. He could savor those times and be himself, make his own decisions, follow his own star, be responsible and accountable to himself and map out his own path.
At Princeton Family Institute we are convinced that in almost all situations when a young adult is coming to us for consultation the strength and relational resilience of the family can be brought in as a crucial support. Very often the process of change starts at the heart of the family. As professionals we had to be willing to look and listen for the unique features of each particular family. We also learned that we would be sensitive enough to identify these patterns only when we looked with a “kaleidoscopic” eye and listened with a finely tuned ear that can pick up specific narratives and detailed nuances in the families’ tales that reveal the unique meaning of what they are presenting to us.