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The Adult Child

The Adult Child

The Child Project’s eight-week curriculum, The Conscious Parent, tracks the changing requirements of empathetic parenting from a child’s birth through the teenage years and into adulthood. Those sections of the study that deal with parenting children who have become adults use the established term, “adult children”—a term that works well enough, given that one of the accepted definitions of child is “a son or daughter of any age.” The term also may strike the ear as something of an oxymoron, however, in that the word child also means “a youngster.” Both definitions are valid, but the sense of “youngster” seems to move against the other sense, so that, strictly speaking, it seems more thorough to refer to an adult son or adult daughter as just that, rather than as an “adult child.”

Such exactness isn’t necessary as a rule, or even in something as considered as a curriculum study guide—but the phrase in the oxymoronic sense points to a troubling development along the parenting arc, viz., that state of affairs in which the child reached adulthood without having matured emotionally, psychologically, or spiritually. In such cases, the adult, his or her inner development having been arrested, is still a child. This may present as an aversion to responsibility or authority, a stance of perpetual protest or blame-shifting, various degrees of self-absorption, magical thinking, and so on. Carl Jung termed this condition of protracted adolescence the puer aeternus, “the eternal boy”—an archetype depicted in the personae of Peter Pan, the Little Prince, and other fairy tale characters and examined in detail by Marie Louise Von Franz, the famed student of Jung, in her acclaimed lecture (available now in book form), The Problem of the Puer Aeternus. Of course, arrested development is by no means limited to boys, and Jung recognized the condition in female subjects, as well (where it is termed puella aeterna) but if one sets aside the gender issue and delves into the phenomenon, it becomes obvious that the problem is purely developmental, and so one from which neither gender is exempt. Overbearing or overprotective parents, even those who mean well, may unwittingly arrest a young son’s or daughter’s natural emotional and psychological maturation, preempting the establishing of a healthy will constrained by healthy limits and short-circuiting the child’s ability to relate in fair, constructive, and empathetic ways socially. In place of these healthy structures, all manner of idealized, romanticized, or otherwise fantasized constructs may take hold and overgrow the psyche like vines proliferating out of control.

The puer personality is mercurial, tends toward flights of fancy and unrealistic involvements and projects, recoils from making commitments or binding choices of any sort, always believes that greater fulfillments lie off in some indeterminate future. It can achieve irresistibly charming, even charismatic expressions of a free-flowing creativity and childlike vitality, but in the end, it is destructive of self and others. Its development arrested, the psyche may succumb to various personality disorders, such as narcissism or sociopathic behavior. Various assessments of Adolf Hitler’s personality, for example, have pegged him as a puer. On this point, Aldous Huxley, in his novel Island, writes:

A Peter Pan if ever there was one. Hopeless at school. Incapable either of competing or co- operating. Envying all the normally successful boys—and, because he envied, hating them and, to make himself feel better, despising them as inferior beings. Then came the time for puberty. But Adolf was sexually backward. Other boys made advances to girls, and the girls responded. Adolf was too shy, too uncertain of his manhood. And all the time incapable of steady work, at home only in the compensatory Other World of his fancy. There, at the very least, he was Michelangelo. Here, unfortunately, he couldn’t draw. His only gifts were hatred, low cunning, a set of indefatigable vocal cords and a talent for nonstop talking at the top of his voice from the depths of his Peter-Panic paranoia. Thirty or forty million deaths and heaven knows how many billions of dollars—that was the price the world had to pay for little Adolf’s retarded maturation.

We may find this all more than a little interesting, perhaps even fascinating—but the work of the Child Project is ever practical, and so we are called to ask practical questions here: What can a parent do if his or her “adult child” has not grown up? How might we advise an adult child who has become involved with a puer or puella? Not surprisingly, there are no quick solutions. Little can be done to help men and women whose development was arrested until they realize that they need help—usually this takes a personal crisis of some sort, one that shakes loose the imprisoning constructs long enough for them to be willing to stop blaming everything and everyone else—their parents, their partner, the economy, the world—and accept responsibility for their history and their current predicament, whatever it may be. Such a shift is a watershed in the life of the puer. Unless and until that happens, the parent of a puer, of an “adult child” in this unfortunate sense, can do little more than what he or she failed to do during the years of early development, which is step away and leave the puer to learn his lessons, again and again if necessary, remaining constant in the message of love, but not “helping” to the point of enabling malformed beliefs and further irresponsibility. The child who never developed a healthy will, and so never grew up, still may do so, but only if he or she is allowed to experience the consequences of destructive choices and connect the dots. It is a matter of learning, at whatever age, and learning is ultimately a private matter for each of us. The conscious parent, knowing this, will remain close enough to provide reassurances of love and encouragement, but far enough away to keep from interfering. Where one is willing to do nothing, even when doing nothing breaks one’s heart, great things can happen.

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