This chapter describes the second step of our Launchpad to Adulthood campaign, in which we go about forming a preliminary understanding of what makes the young person “tick.” The title of the chapter puts the emphasis on strengths because, as we will see, these are much more important than liabilities in building a successful plan. This chapter is aimed at everyone involved, parents, young person, professionals, and other participants.
As we saw in Chapter 1, strengths and dreams are important elements in the carrot that will ultimately energize the young person’s motivational systems. Recall that the SEEKING system is the part of the mind that latches onto a goal and provides pleasurable feedback as the goal is pursued. As long as hope remains alive that the goal is achievable, this wellpring of energy remains in place to counteract anticipated discomforts associated with “adulting.”
After reviewing the narrative of how the young person and his or her family came to seeking help the next most important question is about accomplishments. What is our protagonist proud of? What accomplishments are there? He built his own computer? She got special praise for her creative writing? Were there achievements in sports, extracurricular activites, social life? Any evidence of effectiveness is of importance in this inquiry. Even if success is part of a counterculture or in some way runs against adult norms, it still may be evidence of positive skills or talents. Those successes will be the raw material for building hope.
Not infrequently, the young person will downplay positive results. One young person won academic honors in middle school and broke down crying. He said to his mother, “I don’t want to grow up.” For him, recognition implied that he would lose any sense of cofort as he would then be expected to keep adding new, and even greater successes to top what he had already achieved. The burden of this expectation from others and from himself was more than he could handle.
Quite likely, the young person will have developed a philosophy that trying hard is a waste of effort and can’t lead to anything good. So it is wise not to expect too much postiive feleing in acknowledging accomplishments and successes. Nonetheless, they should be explored and brought out into the open.
On the other hand, adult children often have more respect for the opinions of their elders than they may admit. The fact that parents and other authority figures acknowledge the young person’s accomplishments can be assumed to have a positive effect. Objective recognition by others tends to make qualities and events feel more “real.” Doubts and ambivalence are swayed in a positive direction.
However, this is not a time for expressions of enthusiasm about possible future directions or visions of great success. Those are more threatening than attractive at this point. Simple acknowledgment of positive abilities is already challenging to a young person whose attitude about an adult future is ambivlent.
Everyone has strengths. These, too should be brought out, explored, and acknowledged. Strengths may be obscured by frustration on the part of parents. Strengths may be camouflaged by less than mainstream activities in which they are exhibited. For parents who have been lied to, the ability to present a convincing argument may nonetheless be a strength.
Another important aspect of looking for strengths is that each person’s profile of strengths and weaknesses helps to locate areas in life where success is more likely. A young woman was struggling to get through law school and hating the experience. Later she enrolled in social work school and began to thrive. She simply didn’t have the mind or inclination to work within the legal system, while her more humanistic style was much better suited to her new career choice.
In Chapter 1, there was brief mention of how pride, shame, and guilt play a role in controlling choices and behavior and how these emotions are the product of judgments made in relation to values that are internalized in the course of life.
In fact, those standards include vlaues, attitudes, ideals and prohibitions. Together, these deeply ingrained standards form an important part of our individual idenity. To some extent they reflect the values of one’s culture. They also tend to be based on standards accepted within a family.
In addition, standards can be internalized in reaction to life circumstances, people, and events. For example a common example of an internalized attitude is the low self-esteem that is often the legacy of childhood trauma or abuse. In those cases, the child who is maltreated internalizes an a negative attitude towards the self. The saddest consequence is that in adulthood, people who have been victims of abuse may feel shame when they are treated as valuable. This is because in treating themselves positively as they should, they have violated an internal standard, which is the trigger for shame. This is clearly wrong and unhealthy, but reversing such an attitude represents a significant challenge in treatment.
More common in the group of young people having trouble launching are values that rationalize or justify not engaging with life. One young man had seen his father anxious, working hard, and coming home late. The young man determined that he didn’t want to life like his father, and that he would much prefer to function at a lower level and have a comfortable life.
Thus, a major component of an overall evaluation of the young person’s characteristics is an examination of values, attitudes, ideals and prohibitions. In speaking to the young person, what are the values that he or she holds tightly to? What are sources of pride or shame? What would the young person fight for? In the short term, these cannot be expected to change a lot, and as a result, they will remain part of the profile that determines what directions are likely to succeed and which are not.
What can helpers do with a value system that stands in the way of achievement? What could be done to help the young man who didn’t believe in a life of achievement? Recognition of this value and acknowledgment that it is the property of the young person is vital to preserving a helping relationship. Humans hold tightly to their standards and feel personally threatened by others who don’t agree. An early attempt to undermine such a value will only backfire. Values can only be changed when the holder is convinced that change is positive and necessary. Therefore, helpers may hope that the young person will eventually question his or her own values. In the short term, this is not a battle to pick. Too often, the person who argues against a strongly held value will be ejected from the team.
Positive values are important internal supports for engagement with life. Whether it is wealth or virtue, or anything else, whatever promises a reward of pride for achievement will give a boost to progress. Any direction in recovery will need to be aligned with the individual’s positive values. As much as possible, supporters should acknowledge the values that are dear to our young person. Rather than arguing, it is better to consider them as potential strengths tht can enhance the young person’s resolve to move in positive directions.
Likes and dislikes
Likes and dislikes are important but they are not the same as values. They are more like facts. We don’t “believe in” our likes and dislikes. We don’t hold them possessively or argue with others about their virtues. We simply have them. Furthermore, likes and dislikes are more subject to change. A new experience might convince us that an activity we previously avoided is actually pleasant. Knowing an individual does include understanding their likes and dislikes. Unless these are an impediment to progress, then plans should take them into account. On the other hand, questioning likes and dislikes is more a matter of fact than belief. It may be acceptable for those in authority to argue that a rejected experience may actually be to the young person’s benefit.
Dreams are goals and wishes projected into the future and which we hold as highly important. Around age five, children gain the ability to see life as an arc extending into the distant future. It is around this age that children become interested in fairy tales that start with “Once upon a time” and end with “Happily ever after.” Their fascination with the future gives a new way of solving problems. Children can now use future dreams and the hope of achieveing them as an antidote to the things that trouble them in the present.
Often life plans are laid at this age. Hopefully, such plans stay on the surface wehre they can be modified over time. Otherwise, we would have far too many firemen and princesses. But we should never underestimate the power of personal dreams. They are similar to likes and dislikes, but carry a much greater energy. Not all people have dreams that can be accessed (hidden dreams are anothr subject). Sometimes dreams are more negative. Like the young man’s wish not to work as hard as his father, a dream may be shaped by something the person wishes to avoid. In general, positive dreams are more available to harness for engagement with life.
How can we find out about dreams? “Is there something you have always wanted? Something that might be especially important to reach someday? Is there someone you would like to emulate? What would you do if you won the lottery? Since dreams have motive power, and tug towards engagement with life, our young person may involuntarily have suppressed awareness of a dream. For this reason, it might be good to ask about dreams that were once held. “Did you ever have a dream or ambition that was important to you?”
Any wish or plan with the power of a dream is important to note and take into account. In some form, perhaps with motifications, dreams should be incorporated into planning for the future.
A final source of postive motivation is the power of people in our young person’s life. Anyone who has influence can be a positive or negative factor in laying plans. Not only is the identify of influential people important, but their characteristics. “What do you admire?” “What do you like about that person?” If there is a way to bring positive people into the support tema, then it is a good idea to do so, as long as they will not enable or undermine.
The principle on which this book is based is that the deepest and most fundamental cause of failure to launch is fear and reluctance to encounter discomfort. We can think of what stands in the way of adulthood as two layers, a more superficial layer of “reasons” or “excuses,” and a deeper layer of resistance to facing discomfort. This doesn’t mean that negative factors such as anxiety for no apparent reson or the belief that there are “no jobs out there” isn’t important. These proximal causes or barriers are real and meaningful, and must be dealt with. What the layered model does predict is that when the proximal cause is dealt with to the greatest extent possible, then some other reason for avoiding adulthood will appear. It is this experience, repeated many times, that provides the evidence of a deeper layer.
What follows is a discussion of characteristics that create proximal barriers to adulthood. Understanding these is part of getting to know the young person. They are likely to need attention in working with the young person, but, in the end, they will not turn out to be sufficient to explain failure to launch. In some cases, they can be ignored or brushed aside. In others they might need to be disproven or argued against. Yet others may prove so important that they must be addressed directly.
Do you remember in the first chapter I mentioned that 90% of the information processing in our mind goes on outside of consciousness? I’m not sure of the origin of the phrase, but a book by Thubten Chodron is entitled, Don’t Always Believe What You Think. This is a very important principle. The reason is that our mind not only has its own ideas about what is good for the species, but it is capable of forming thoughts to steer us in the directions it considers best. And those are not always directions that lead towards adulthood. Recognizing these as thoughts not to be believed is an important part of reversing the fear of adulthood.
As described in Chapter 1, in relation to addictions and fear of adulting, our own mind is capable of sending into our consciousness ideas designed to discourage us and lead us away from engagement with life. These ideas don’t carry a flag to say where they come from. To the contrary, they are designed to seem plausible and even beneficial. “There are no jobs out there for people with my education, so why should I waste my time applying?”
How can we tell where ideas come from? If they lead away from engagement with life, then they are most likely the product of fear. Unfortunately, one of the last things our young person will consider is the possibility that their thinking is governed by fear.
To make things more difficult, the more intelligent the young person, the harder it will be to show the illogic of these thoughts. This is one handicap that makes recovery harder for intelligent people.
Making an “end run” around the argument is, in many cases, the best or only way to deal with these thoughts. This is done by ignoring them and focusing on developing incentives to engage with life anyway. For example, a young person eager for money to support a social life may go ahead and apply for a job in spite of being quite convinced that none exist.
Self-defeating Patterns and the Lion Cub
The most obvious pattern is simply avoiding engagement with life. There are an infinite number of ways to do this and to justify it, but let’s consider a novel way to think of these patterns. To my knowledge this has not been researched, but there must be a signal that tells male lion cubs it is time to go off on their own. One could speculate that in some way, they detect that they have receved enough nurturing, support, and training from their mother.
Perhaps humans have a similar system to detect when they have had enough good parenting to be ready to launch. True or not, the mind’s information processing might have concluded that the young person has not yet received the necessary support and training to go forth into the world. Perhaps the young person is waiting and, without realizing it, hoping to motivate the adults to provide something that was missing or insufficient.
In some cases, this mechanism is more clear than in others. It does happen that, in spite of parents best efforts, there has been some inadequacy. One mother had not received very good support from her very self-involved mother. In raising her own children, she gave a great deal, but constantly felt that she might not have given enough time and attention to them. The result was that two children developed patterns of creating crises that required rescue from their mother. Even into adulthood, these patterns persisted. One daughter had multiple children with unreliable men who would not support her or the children. The result was a chroinic, built-in demand that the mother should sacrifice her own life to help her overwhelmed daughter. Whateve the mother gave, the daughter always had reasons why it was not enough. This pattern was entirely outside of the daughter’s consciousness, and vehemently denied if any such suggestion was made.
One of the reasons I have defined adulthood as 100% ownership of one’s own life is this pattern, in which the young person seems to avoid effective problem-solving to launch his or her own life. Due to inaccessibility to consciousness, it is impossible to be certain, but it appears that ineffective problem solving is often a non-verbal way of signaling the need for more or different support from parents.
When such a dynamic is operating, it becomes more clear why positive experiences of engagement with life don’t simply lead to recovery. When fear is the only barrier to adulthood, then exeperiences where the fear turns out to be unfounded should lead to more experiments with adulthood and soon, full engagement with adult life. When positive experiences do not have this effect, then the explanatio of waiting for more parenting seems more likely.
Normally, adolescence is a period of important developmental acquisitions. Surprisingly, young people are often able to admit that they are less than fully mature. Once they do so, it is easier to focus in on specific maturational tasks and to enlist their motivation and cooperation. Here are some of the most important:
Impulse control: Gained by practice. This allows young people to develop powerful skills and knowledge.
Ownership of values: Young people move from borrowing parent’s values to having their own, which they fiercely defend.
Knowledge of self: Including personal strengths, weaknesses, characteristics, capacities and limits. This is gained as a result of challenging oneself and finding success or failure in different areas.
Close personal relationships: Requires both knowledge of self and an in-depth interest in and ability to appreciate another person.
Realism about the world: Engagement with life leads to a new level of understanding and accuracy about how the adult world works and how to fit in.
The good news about deficits in maturity is that they can be remedied at any pint in life, simply by engaging in life. We develop by going through scary new experieinces and making decisons. In this way, we are shaped by life. On the other side, avoidance of experience is the mechanism of developmental arrest.
Part of the evaluaton of failure to launch is psychiatric assessment and diagnosis. Unfortunately this is an area of tremendous confusion, even among professionals. The primary problem is that psychiatric diagnosis continues to be dominated by what is called the “medical model.” This way of looking at psychological problems is derived from traditional western medicine in which the patient is seen as “having” a diagnosis, which then becomes the target of treatment. What this model misses is that human experience is fundamentally shaped by the complex interactive systems in which we are embedded. The medical model assumes that the individual is isolated from his or her history and environment, which could not be farther from the truth. To make matters worse, in the US, the healthcare industry is dominated by pharmaceutical corporations which have a huge financial stake in perpetuating the medical model. For them, treatment is simple: Make a diagnosis, introduce the “right” chemical, and voila, the person is cured. Reality is not that simple, but the model provides a reassuring and comfortable fiction that avoids making demands on the patient.
This book is based more on a “rehabilitation model.” This model views the individual as embeded in a complex interactive system where there is always room for improvement in functioning and satisfaction in life. The goal of treatment is to improve the person’s relationship with the environment.
Diagnoses and illnesses may have a negative impact, but they don’t, in themselves, place limits on the person’s experience of life. Pharmacological treatments may have a positive effect on functioning, but do not “cure” the patient. This way of looking at the situation is very compatible with the idea that we can and will do all that is possible to reduce the impact of barriers or proximal causes of disability, but without the expectation that that will be enough to resolve the reluctance to engage in life.
Let’s look at some of the more common psychiatric diagnoses through the lens of the rehabiliation model.
Common Psychiatric Diagnoses
Depression: We all feel blue at times. What sometimes makes depression an illness is that the symptoms may be disconnected from the realities of the person’s life. The official DSM-5 criteria for “major depression” do not take into account any aspect of the person’s actual situation other than grieving for someone who has died. Furthermore, there are times when depressed feelings take over the person’s physiology. They may lose weight, be unable to sleep, and feel much worse in the morning. These biological symptoms, formerly called melancholia, are serious and can be helped with psychiatric medications. But the diagnosis of major depression does not depend on the presence of biological symptoms. Bypassing both the psychological and biological contexts results in a strong bias towards giving antidepressant medication to anyone who is unhappy.
In the case of failure to launch, the young person is dealing with a life out of control and experiencing the extreme shame of seeing peers moving forward in their lives. It would be abnormal for a young person not to be depressed.
Unfortunately, proper credentials do not tell whether a psychiatrist or other mental health practitioner will be able to make the distinction between depression that can be benefitted by treatment and depression that will improve with engagement in life. One approach is to ask the professional before the evanuation how he or she diagnoses psychiatric conditions in a young person whose life is in trouble.
Anxiety, Panic and OCD: Some people are genetically more prone to feel anxious. When anxiety, out of sync with any real danger, becomes a concern in itself, Once again the official DSM-5 criteria go to great pains to distinguish the diagnosis of generalized anxiety from other psychiatric conditions, but makes absolutely no mention of the circumstances of the person’s life. The most important discovery from psychology research is that impariment in functioning and quality of life get much worse when the person tries to eliminate the feeling. In contrast, when patients use mindfulness and other techniques that allow anxiety to exist but emphasize coping with it rather than attempts to eliminate the symptom, they are much more likely to find relief. This goes contrary to the medical model, in which elimination of the symptom is the goal.
In general, a reasonable approach is to emphasize coping with anxiety except when it interferes directly with functioning to the point of causing damage in the person’s life.
ADHD: Many young people, especially those who are having trouble managing their lives, are being diagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder or Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. Once again, the medical model goes immediately towards attempting to eliminate the handicap using drugs. To complicate matters, the drugs used are also performance enhancing drugs that allow any person to stay up all night and focus intently on study materials. Theyu are also addicting. That is not the end of it. The diagnosis is a clinical one, meaning that testing can help, but ultimately it is made on the basis of an interview. Young people are often well informed about the criteria. The best recommendation that can be made here is to interview the clinician and select one who has a nuanced view of the role of medication.
At the same time, it is worth pointing out that people who suffer from difficulty organizing their lives and focusing on boring tasks are often particularly creative and can use their ability to “hyperfocus” under pressure to be quite successful in areas that engage their passion.
Eating Disorders: Anorexia, bulemia, compulsive overeating and binge eating are all symptoms that overlap to a significant extent with difficulty launching. Fortunately, these conditions are so debilitating and dangerous that a strong treatment tradition has developed that recognizes the inadequacy of the medical model. Many specialists combine behavioral and psychological approaches effectively to recognize the emotional context as well as biological aspects of these problems.
Addiction: Use of substances in spite of negative effects distinguishes addiction from casual use. What even the substance abuse tradition has not always fully recognized is that using substances to eliminate discomfort without doing the hard work of growing has the effect of stalling emotional development. Compulsive use during the teen years when development is in full swing frequently causes arrested development. The acquisitions listed above under Maturity, are often lacking especially in those young people who have used marijuana and alcohol extensively durng their teens.
The addiction treatment community is perhaps the most advanced in embracing the rehabilitation model. However, increasingly medications are being recommended as treatmetn for substance abuse. In a statistical sample of addicts, these do reduce consumption, but they do not “cure” addiction. Unfortunately, patients often expect the medications to do more than they actually can, and the result is that recovery skills are delayed or not acquired.