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Heffner column: The march from dependence to independence

Dr. Elaine Heffner
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Daily Comet

During these homebound days of shelter-in-place we’ve heard, read and experienced quite a lot about what that’s like for parents suddenly sequestered full time with children. Parents have been confronted not only with the physical care of children but also have had to fill in as teachers and social replacements. There actually may be less social distance than we might like.

But what is it like for children shut in with parents? A major area of development that one might guess would be affected is that of the ongoing struggle between dependence and independence. The march from dependence to independence, which always seems to involve two steps forward and one step back, may seem in fallback mode. Why does that happen?

Even as an adult, there are benefits - even pleasures - to be derived from dependence. For children, who are just emerging from the state of having all their needs met, and for whom the conflict between dependence and independence is an ongoing challenge, it is easy to sink back to an earlier time.

The conflict around dependence and independence continues in some form throughout life. For children, it emerges as part of developing new skills, both physical and cognitive. It is a real high to discover you can climb up and reach the cookies or figure out how to do a new puzzle.

Along with the new skills comes a push for autonomy. They think they should decide for themselves if it is bedtime or whether to have a cookie before lunch. Developing language provides the word “no!” which children often use even when they really mean yes. It seems as though everything is about asserting independence.

The conflict comes because in reality children are still dependent on their parents. Pushing them away creates some anxiety about the possible loss of the caregiving that is still needed. Not being expected to do some of the things that are less pleasant about growing up is appealing. We all enjoy being cared for at times. For children, other stressors such as the present pandemic can bring with them anxiety and the need for old comforts.

But what is this like for teenagers who are at a stage of major assertions of independence, now cooped up at home and having to deal with parents? Checking in with a teenage informant provided some interesting feedback. This young person thought that, in general, it was hard to be home and deal with your parents. She was surprised that she has not been more “fed up” with her parents.

Her explanation is that it is easier to deal with them now than when she is also at school because she is less stressed out now. Others regress and it’s like, “Oh I’m back in this house.” One friend has an older sister living back at home now and the resentment is hard for both of them. Parents try to set a schedule because they don’t know what else to do and want to keep them on a schedule.

She observed that some people find it hard to be alone by themselves and rely on social interaction for comfort and validation from other people. She has now come to see that some of that social interaction is just a way of doing something and has come to recognize and appreciate what a meaningful interaction is. She has concluded that one has to be able to “be by myself, with yourself.”

It may be that social distancing requires an ability to be with yourself, by yourself, as well as tolerating too much togetherness.

Elaine Heffner, LCSW, Ed.D., has written for Parents Magazine, Fox.com, Redbook, Disney online and PBS Parents, as well as other publications. She has appeared on PBS, ABC, Fox TV and other networks. Dr. Heffner is the author of “Goodenoughmothering: The Best of the Blog,” as well as “Mothering: The Emotional Experience of Motherhood after Freud and Feminism.” She is a psychotherapist and parent educator in private practice, as well as a senior lecturer of education in psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medical College. Dr. Heffner was a co-founder and served as director of the Nursery School Treatment Center at Payne Whitney Clinic, New York Hospital. And she blogs at goodenoughmothering.com.