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Carl Jung (as cited by Journal Psyche, 2018) introduced the phenomenon of individuation to psychology. It is technically defined as a process of unifying the conscious and unconscious to reach self-actualization (Jung, as cited by Journal Psyche, 2018). In the context of human development, this process is an essential piece of an individual’s formation of identity and the self. Adolescents and young adults have the task of separating from their parents, or caregivers, and establishing their autonomy while also maintaining close relationships. In doing so, they are redefining how they view themselves and their parents by deviating from their traditionally emotionally dependent role (Broderick & Blewitt, 2015). More often than not, this can be a painful process for both adolescents and their caregivers as it requires a distinct psychological separation. Achieving individuation is an important piece of identity development as it promotes agency and autonomy, which aids in one’s ability to successfully function as an adult with an increased well-being (McLean, Breen, & Fournier, 2010).
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While there are a number of factors associated with this development process, it is important to note what exactly happens as one individuates. Individuating behaviors may look like expressing one’s opinion more freely, questioning family norms and practices, breaking up with a romantic partner, establishing more boundaries, and withholding information, to name a few. In essence, it is the increased frequency that adolescents defy their parents’ expectations of them or what their parents believe is appropriate and “right,” (Aquilino, 1997). In addition, the individuating individual must also engage in a form of reflective and introspective practice. This means evaluating and appraising oneself in a frank and critical manner in order to learn about who they are isolated from the influence and opinions of their parents (Bonovitz, 2018).
Though this process seemingly looks as though it is an outward behavioral experience, there are a number of biological factors theorized to play a role in these changes. Research discusses the functions of gender, puberty, and age as mediators in this development process. McLean et al. (2010) utilize a narrative approach in assessing individuation and well-being in adolescent boys. In doing so, participants were asked to give narratives of pivotal points in their lives and explain the meaning of them. McLean et al. (2010) explain this meaning-making process is one avenue through which boys could display their understandings of themselves and others. Some research posits that narrative skill is developed through a relational process (Fivush, Haden, & Reese, 2006, as cited by McLean et al., 2010). This is a key component as it indicates that how an individual is engaged with dictates their narrative skill and ability to reflect and find meaning. In Western cultures, parents tend to elaborate more with daughters when talking about emotional experiences than their sons (Fivush, 1998, as cited by McLean et al., 2010). Girls’ narratives were more comprehensive and employed language that addressed more cognition and emotion, thereby insinuating that they have more opportunity to engage in meaning-making practices and increase individuation (McLean et al., 2010). It seems that boys’ and girls’ path to identity development and individuation may differ as a result of a nurturing process (McLean et al., 2010).
Other biological factors involved are an individual’s physical changes as well. According to Aquilino (1997), parents must constantly revise their expectations of their children as they develop physically, socially, and cognitively. Puberty brings rapid physical and emotional changes, which initiates changes in the way parents and adolescents interact and communicate (Aquilino, 1997). The hormones released during puberty bring about feelings of uncertainty and self-consciousness and alter the way an individual thinks and expresses themselves. While there are a number of physical changes undergone, this biological stage introduces the need to figure out an identity. Furthermore, Bonovitz (2018) presents age and time as a facet through which to grasp an individual’s construction of the self. Children do not perceive time as a limited resource, whereas young adults begin to conceptualize their lives and future in thinking about what time they have left to live (Bonovitz, 2018). Young adults notice their bodies showing signs of aging and become aware of their own mortality. Bonovitz (2018) explains that these changes evoke an individual’s need to take responsibility for themselves and therefore, commit parricide, which is the psychic “killing off” of one’s parent to completely individuate.
As indicated by the biological factors influencing the individuation process, it is clear that there are social variables involved as well as it is mediated by the parental or caregiver relationships. Furthermore, it is a multi-directional process where the young adult effects the parent, the parent effects the young adult, their interactions effect the family system, and the rules of the family system effect the subsystems. There is no shortage of empirical work that exhibits the depth to which the family system effects child development. For instance, marital quality and parental conflict play a part in children’s’ long-term well-being (Lewis & Looney, 1984, as cited by Bell & Bell, 2009), parents’ ability to discuss their emotions influences their children’s ability to grasp and regulate their own (Gottman, Katz, & Hooven, 1997, as cited by Bell & Bell, 2009), and parents who triangulate, focus on the adolescent’s problem instead of their marital conflict, or engage in a cross-generational coalition with their adolescent against the other parent hinders the child’s ego development (Bell, Bell, & Nakata 2001, as cited by Bell & Bell, 2009). All of this is to say that family matters.
Parmiani, Iafrate, and Giuliani (2012) examined the individuation process of young adults in separated, i.e. divorced, and nonseparated, i.e. intact, families. Walper (1998, as cited by Parmiani et al., 2012) explained that within the process of individuation, children may deny their attachment needs in order to feel autonomous and they be fearful of their parents’ withdrawing love. Parmiani et al. (2012) found that children of divorced parents scored higher in attachment needs denial while children of intact families scored higher in fearing love withdrawal from parents. The former could be explained as a method of survival whereby the child simply becomes more emotionally avoidant because of divorce (Parmiani et al., 2012). Furthermore, loyalty conflict and feelings of unfairness predicted individuation issues with children of separated parents (Parmiani et al., 2012). Feelings of unfairness and being male were related to difficulties with individuation for children of both divorced and intact families while feelings of unfairness and being female were related to fears of parental love withdrawal for children of intact families (Parmiani et al., 2012). Boundaries, coalitions, gender, and divorce can all be instrumental in an adolescent’s individuation process, which can have long term effects on an individual’s life experience.
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Young adulthood means big life transitions like leaving home and going to college or deciding on a career. Bell and Bell (2009) did a longitudinal study where they found a strong relationship between family individuation and midlife autonomy for men. Kracke (1997, as cited by Downing & Nauta, 2010) discovered a positive correlation between career exploration and individuation. Johnson, Gans, Kerr, and LaValle (2010) found that a cohesive family structure can facilitate better adjustment in college. While individuating from caregivers is not considered desirable by all cultures, adolescents who participate in higher education and go to college are forced to commence an individuation process.
And it seems that gender is also a sociocultural factor within this process in the college environment as well. In Western culture, boys are socialized to be autonomous while girls are socialized to be relationship oriented and dependent (Geuzaine, Debry, & Liesens, 2000). Aslan and Gelbal (2016) did a longitudinal study on adolescents during their four years of higher education. The studied dimensions related to individuation included separation anxiety, nurturance seeking, and healthy separation. First year students experienced the most separation anxiety and nurturance seeking and the least healthy separation while fourth year students experienced the least separation anxiety and nurturance seeking (Aslan & Gelbal, 2016). Furthermore, female students experienced more separation anxiety and nurturance seeking every year in comparison to their male counterparts (Aslan & Gelbal, 2016). These behavior patterns are congruent with previous research that females are more attached to their caregiver relationship and may experience more anxiety at the time of individuation due to social reinforcement.
The development process of individuation from parents and caregivers is complex. It is influenced and mediated by biological, social, and cultural factors. Moreover, the way it is conceptualized can differ based on theoretical orientation and the way it is valued can be moderated by culture as well. Regardless of how individuation is understood, there is no argument that this internal and external developmental process is experienced by all adolescents and is a fundamental and necessary component of understanding and constructing the self as a separate entity.
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