Lately, I have been writing about millenials and their aversion to relationships, intimacy and risk. In this piece, I would like to narrow in on the element of risk and explain why I think so few young adults are mastering what was once thought of as a normal stage of development. While we hear about new start-ups being formed by teenagers and young adults, it seems that this is the exception, not the rule. Risk has many flavors- the risk of leaving one job for another, the risk of moving to a new city to start the next chapter of your life or the risk to ask somebody out on a date.
Margaret Mahler, a developmental theorist in the early 20th century outlined the stages for what she termed “separation-individuation,” which, like Erik Erikson, applied to young children. Leaving out the first stage, which focus on sleep , Mahler’s phases are as follows:
1. Symbiosis- Developing perceptual abilities gradually enable infants to distinguish the inner from the outer world; mother-infant is perceived as a single fused entity
2. Differentiation- Progressive neurological development and increased alterness draw infants’ attention away from self to outer world. Physical and psychological distinction from the mother is gradually appreciated
3. Practicing- The ability to move autonomously (an increase in the child exploring his or her environment)
4. Rapprochement- As children slowly realize their helplessness and dependence, the need for independence alternates with the need for closeness. *Children move away from their mothers and come back for reassurance.
5. Object constancy- Children gradually comprehend and are reassured by the permanence of a mother and other important people, even when not in their presence
(Descriptions of phases taken from Kaplan and Sadock’s Synopsis of Psychiatry)
As I outlined in my last post, Erik Erikson’s stages of development can easily be applied to millenials. The same is true for Mahler’s theory. Let me explain.
I think there is a generational dilemma that has unintentionally led to this generation’s delay in psychological development. Baby-boomer children were often forced to interact with neighbors due to the lack of technology and solve conflicts the old-fashion way: talking (and sometimes fighting). Societal boundaries were more rigid: teachers and parents were united (unlike today when parents frequently yell at teachers for trivial reasons) and parents were parents, not friends. Baby-boomer children more likely grew up in less liberal (socially, not politically) homes than are present today. Punishment was often harsh and rules were meant to be followed, not broken.
As a result, the baby boomers have done a 180 and in many ways have babied this generation. Unfortunately, millenials have been coddled and told they can do no wrong. Our skill set for the 21st century is minimal, but our confidence sure is high. We have been told we can do anything we set our minds to, despite the cultural and economic realities that have given us push-back.
Mahler’s theory is applicable to us, the millenials, because we have not fully separated from our parents (symbiosis). We have not differentiated ourselves and taken the risk of forming our own identities. Mahler’s stage of practicing emphasizes the need to be autonomous and explore our own environments. That includes the harsh reality of failure, disappointment and loss. While these are all uncomfortable feelings, they are part of healthy psychological development. I am not a parent, so I cannot write about the challenges of parenting, but, like other observers, we are all familiar with the helicopter parent who hovers over a child and restricts (whether intentionally or unintentionally) development.
Mahler’s theory also applies to the state of contemporary intimate relationships. If we fail to separate from our parents, we might fail to establish clear boundaries with our significant others. If parents are constantly providing validation and reassurance to their children, rejection from a potential boyfriend or girlfriend will be a hard pill to swallow.
Margaret Mahler’s stages of separation-individuation teach us that risk is crucial to independence and normal development. It enables us to face the sometimes harsh realities of the world and still obtain autonomy and a sense of appropriate risk-taking skills.