Becoming an Adult: Leaving Home and Staying Connected

Becoming an Adult: Leaving Home and Staying Connected

Becoming an Adult: Leaving Home and Staying Connected is the first stage in Carter & McGoldrick’s formulation of The Expanded Family Life Cycle. This Family Life Cycle transition can be described as beginning with the adolescent’s “identity crisis” and continuing with the transition to college and young adulthood. Some young adults end up never leaving home. Others end up cutting off and becoming estranged and distant from their family. Both of these responses are sub-optimal solutions to the struggles of the launching phase.

A young adult’s tasks in this launching phase transition are primarily focused on the development of autonomy and healthy interdependence. The goals of this process of differentiation include:

  • Development of financial self-sufficiency
  • “Learning how to work”, finding something you are passionate about that others are willing to pay you for doing
  • Becoming responsible for one’s own emotional well-being
  • Staying meaningfully connected to one’s family of origin in the transition from adolescent child to co-equal adult
  • Developing intimate peer relationships

Family members often fail one another in important and painful ways during this life cycle stage, yet they remain family forever and must find their way forward together. The goal for the young adult is to become emotionally and financially accountable to one’s self while at the same time maintaining connections with their family of origin without taking on their “stuff.” The way to develop differentiation is not to cut off, but to see other family members for who they are and stay connected with them despite their shortcomings.

Ronald B Cohen discusses the transition of adolescence to adulthood and how to stay conencted to your family.Many will dismiss the value of this work and say “Why Bother?” It’s just so much easier to cut the toxic people out of your life and never talk to them again. The truth is you can’t divorce your family of origin. They are always there and whether you are enmeshed in terms of never being able to leave home or cut off emotionally and/or physically, your behavior is responsive and reactive rather than pro-active and functional. Either way you are still completely enmeshed and tied up in not being your own person.

Others will say “Why bother? They (i.e. the family of origin members) are never going to change.” The truth is they either will or they won’t, but that’s up to them, and doesn’t matter in your quest for differentiation. This process allows you to change the relationships in your family and change your role in it, regardless of what anybody else does. To a significant extent, you are completely in control and end up in a better place whether or not anybody else in the family signs on. Ideally, one can stay meaningfully connected to significant others yet remain autonomous in one’s own emotional functioning.


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Ronald B Cohen, MD, PC Ronald B. Cohen, MD
Bowen Family Systems Coach
1 Barstow Road, Suite P-10
Great Neck, NY 11021
(516) 466-7530
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  1. Deborah Brautman on November 23, 2012 at 5:20 pm said:

    Thank you so much for writing on this topic. 50% of my practice is dedicated to working with teens from a developmental perspective. I wrote a blog for parents and younger teens (my first and only blog). I now have about five clients between the ages of 18 and 24 who are trying to make the transition about which you wrote. I want to try to write a blog on this topic. Can you suggest any other primary references?
    I would like to follow your blogs

    • Ronald B Cohen, MD on November 26, 2012 at 12:25 am said:

      I’d start with The Expanded Family Life Cycle: Individual, Family, and Social Perspectives (4th Edition), though my references are from the 3rd edition. Transformation of the Family System during Adolescence (Chapter 16), The Launching Phase of the Life Cycle: Midlife (Chapter 17) and bits and pieces of others. Some classics are The Courage to Raise Good Men for boys and Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls for girls. Are you looking for references for the adolescents, their parents or yourself as therapist?



  2. Ronald B Cohen, MD on November 27, 2012 at 6:17 pm said:

    The May/June 2010 edition of the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy’s Family Therapy Magazine is titled “Launching Young Adults in the 21st Century”. The article Brave Launching: A Therapist’s Thoughts on Helping Today’s Family has an extensive bibliography. Feel free to call with questions. Best of luck.



    • Laura Pratto on January 14, 2014 at 7:35 pm said:

      Dr. Cohen,

      I tried to search for your article, Brave Launching: A Therapist’s Thoughts on Helping Today’s Family, in the CAMFT EBSCO Host library to no avail.

      Are you able to email me a copy?

      Laura Pratto

  3. Katelynn on October 29, 2014 at 4:53 pm said:

    Hi there, I am a 20-year-old young woman and the oldest of 5 kids. I was just graduated from cosmetology school and am trying to start my career. My parents are having a hard time letting go and letting me do things in my own way. If I don’t do exactly as told it feels like they cripple me. I am not making much right now and so I swap them, I do their hair for my phone. But if I do something they don’t agree with they will take my phone and even ground me. They took my phone just last week actually. I’ve tried everything I can think of to make them understand how it makes me feel. They don’t trust me, don’t treat me as an adult, it’s awful. For the last two years I’ve been working and going to school. I don’t know what to do other than to move out, but I’d like to leave on good terms. Any suggestions?

    • Ronald B Cohen, MD on October 29, 2014 at 9:13 pm said:

      Hi Katelynn,

      Thank you for sharing your difficulties in this crucial life cycle transition. Unfortunately you currently are at a significant power disadvantage. It is difficult, if not impossible, to develop emotional self-differentiation when one is still financially dependent. Some have called this a prolonged “economic adolescence”.

      In their delineation of the six stages of the family life cycle, Betty Carter and Monica McGoldrick begin with a focus on the individual young adult. This Family Life Cycle transition, Becoming an Adult: Leaving Home and Staying Connected, begins with the adolescent’s struggle for identity and independence, and continues with the development of autonomy, healthy emotional interdependence, and self-differentiation during young adulthood. Developmental tasks include differentiation of self in relationship to the family one grew up in, development of intimate peer relationships, and establishment of financial responsibility and independence. Ideally one can stay meaningfully connected to significant others yet remain autonomous in one’s own emotional functioning.

      A young adult’s tasks in this launching phase transition are primarily focused on the development of autonomy and healthy emotional interdependence. The parents’ tasks begin with facilitating the transition from the parent-child relationship to a more co-equal adult-to-adult relationship. In addition, parents must attend to other midlife developmental tasks including becoming a couple again and resolving issues with their parents, caring giving and adapting to their death.

      I would suggest starting in the same place as always, work on self-differentiation in your family of origin, a process for making change in your family relationships even without the participation of other family members. Work on self-differentiation in one’s family of origin is always available, is uniquely efficient and effective regardless of the situation, and cannot be sabotaged by anyone else. Try to learn as much as you can about your parents’ launching difficulties, perhaps from aunts, uncles and grandparents if not directly from them. Consult with your siblings. Tap your professional and educational networks to find a well-trained Bowen Family Systems Coach who can guide you through the process. Please fell free to reach out directly if I can be of further assistance. Best of luck on this unfolding adventure of a lifetime.


      — Ron

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