Excerpt from a book I have submitted for publication; The Launch Code: Helping Parents Love and Let Go of Adult Children
My background as a young adult struggling to launch and then pursuing a Ph.D. degree in counseling psychology at the University of Wisconsin culminated in writing a dissertation demonstrating how healthy separation from parents requires both the experience of love from parents and support for autonomy. Most literature on helping teenagers and young adults become more independent and self-sufficient focuses on parents backing off and permitting more freedom. The focus is helping young adults move out of home, get a job, go to school, be self-supporting, etc. My hypothesis is quite different – love is equally as crucial as letting go. To provide proof of this, I decided to test it. As my subjects, I chose two groups of older adolescents on the verge of separating from their parents.
The first was a group of adolescents enrolled in a drug treatment program through the juvenile justice system; essentially, they were abusing drugs and exhibiting delinquent behavior. The second comparison group was a group of adolescents with no drug abuse or delinquency problems. I wanted to measure the two groups’ perceptions of the extent to which their parents showed love and supported autonomy. My biggest challenge was finding an instrument to measure this healthy state of separation or differentiation. Fortunately, I found a professor in psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Dr. Lorna Benjamin, who had developed an instrument to measure these two parental qualities.6 Dr. Benjamin’s instrument enabled me to measure love and support for autonomy by parents separately and together.
When parents’ support for autonomy was measured separately from showing love, I found that the delinquent group scored higher. When the two measures were combined- parental allowance for autonomy and showing love the non-delinquent group’s scores were significantly higher than the delinquent group. The non-delinquent group saw their parents as significantly higher on behaviors that reflected love and support for autonomy, such as encouraging a separate identity, listening, confirming their fundamental goodness, displaying congeniality, soothing, calming, and affirming competence.
Careful research often proves the obvious. In this case, my study demonstrates that the best approach to launching a young adult necessitates a parent’s love. Specifically, at the beginning of the launching stage, parents of healthy or “normal” adolescents combine love and letting go. In the case of the delinquent group, perceptions of parents giving considerable autonomy, but a lower proportion of parental love correlated with family conflict, drug abuse, and delinquency. Such behaviors don’t bode well for a successful transition into adulthood. I share my research to demonstrate that simply granting more freedom is not enough. Love is essential to building a successful launch pad.