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Staying Attached While Separating from Parents

I’ve blogged a great deal about the importance of being your own person around your parents in order to resolve your eating problems and reach your full potential. However, separation and individuation aren’t the whole story. The key is to retain attachment to them while also becoming separate, which is no mean feat.

I got to thinking about this dilemma working with a client who wanted to find something positive in her relationship with her very difficult mother. My client was working her tail off to listen to and express her own voice around her mother and was doing a good job of it, but still felt held back. The problem: when adult children begin standing up to and getting out from under the thumb of parents, they often fear drifting away from them emotionally. Such disconnection doesn’t feel much better than enmeshment because we’re programmed not only to disengage from parents but to stay connected to them.

To understand why, consider our human origins. Children have to pull away from parents to procreate and start their own families, but also need parents, grandparents and relatives for safety, security, socialization, and a sense of community. Family gives us all these things. Although it was certainly more necessary in a physical sense in earlier times than it is now, what remains is the fierce need for attachment.

Which brings up the thorny question of how to become your own person while also remaining attached to your parents, especially the kind who don’t want you to think for yourself, manipulate you to conform to their wishes, and forget most of the time that you’re not five-years-old. How indeed! Returning to the client I mentioned, one way is to stay connected through problems, in this case, eating and weight struggles. If your family has them, well, then, you can remain in the fold by having them too or fighting about them. However, such behaviors hardly serve your recovery and keep you stuck.

It’s fine to wish to separate from parents and equally fine to wish to remain attached to them. Terrible as they might have been—or be—to you, they’re still your parents and you badly want to have warm, fuzzy feelings about them. This is normal and natural. So, rather than unconsciously staying attached to them in negative ways, try to find and establish some positive bonds, mutual interests, and shared pleasures. They may be minor and few, but they’ll help you stay connected while you grow emotionally as a separate individual, especially regarding the issues of eating and weight. Reassure your parents that they’re still loved and needed, even as you become your very own self.