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"Give Me Some Space!" Autonomy that Promotes Connection

A lot can be learned about family connectivity by studying wild animals.

Some of the more interesting observations made by leading animal scientists over the past several decades reveal that:

  • The male and female “alphas” who lead wolf packs are actually parents, who rely on both autocratic and democratic strategies to teach collaboration;

  • As elephant matriarchs age, they become less gregarious and more conservative, yet they lead their large family groups with indisputable authority. When the matriarch dies, the rest of the herd mourns;

  • While bottlenose dolphins depend on family pods for hunting and feeding efficiency, each develops a “whistle” that is unique to that individual;

  • Dominant chimpanzees either behave or get booted. Influential female and male chimpanzees will dethrone dominant male leaders who hoard food or fail to promote the best interests of the troop.

Like wolves, elephants, dolphins and chimpanzees, humans are pack animals.

We live in multigenerational families, and depend on family relationships for survival. Family reunions, family nodal events like birthdays, weddings, and funerals, and “family plots” in cemeteries give evidence of the value we place on kinship.

Losing family relationships – through choice, chance or tragedy – usually produces emotional pain, and can be considered a life disadvantage.

Mounting evidence suggests that family cutoff – the intense emotional distance that can occur between siblings, parents and children, and other clan members – contributes to chronic anxiety, leaving family members vulnerable to a host of physical, emotional and social problems.

It’s not just that staying in touch with family members brings comfort and a sense of belonging. Knowing our family “has our back” anchors our health and well-being.

Most of us intuitively get the importance of family connectivity in animals and humans. And we understand the dangers of being isolated from our kin.

But there’s one lesson that animals can’t teach us, a challenge unique to humans: how family togetherness can become too much to handle. The same family closeness that helps us survive can cause problems when the togetherness becomes too intense.

Put simply, not enough connection is one problem. Too much of it is another.

Those who report parenting challenges often reduce the problems to lack of togetherness: “We don’t have enough time together,” or “We need to communicate more.”

It’s rare for parents to consider the flip side, namely, the possibility that their children need more emotional space, not more emotional togetherness.

When you’ve raised a child from birth to young adulthood, it’s difficult to pull back, let go and permit a budding adult to figure out who they are and what they want.

In our current Western culture, where families are smaller and busier than ever before, worrying, directing, telling, reminding and controlling have become all too standard.

The problem of over-permissiveness cannot be solved by gripping and clinging to offspring, particularly our young adult and adult children. Keeping tabs too closely can rachet up anxiety in both the parents and the children.

How can we tell if we’re caring too much?

Do any of the following sound familiar?

  • Treating our children as extensions of ourselves, finishing their sentences and expecting them to “follow in our footsteps;”

  • Reminding and rescuing them instead of permitting them to learn from routine mistakes and adversity;

  • Pushing for togetherness when they are trying to appropriately separate;

  • Nervously dispensing unsolicited advice;

  • Making them the center of our existence, or as a mother recently told me, “My kids are my everything.”

In evaluating our marriage and parenting, the trick is to view healthy separateness as an ingredient in healthy connection, not its opposite.

That integration can be better achieved when parents develop interests and valued relationships beyond their children - with aunts, uncles, cousins and friends.

We can learn the importance of family connectivity from many others species. What we have to teach ourselves is how to get out of the way so that our kids can become independent thinkers and confident decision-makers.


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