The Myth of Maturity – Terri Apter

26 May 2009
Introduction – Life on One’s Own
Apter’s main innovation is her insistence that the idea of people in their late teens being mature is a myth – is entirely wrong, in fact – and that a new term is needed for those who are beyond adolescence but are not yet fully adult: thresholders. She spends time on each of the following in the parent/child relationship, which start in early childhood and need to be carried on throughout the ‘thresholder‘ years (as she summarises near the end of the chapter): attachment; holding; focus and validation; idealisation; embeddedness.

I’m hoping the next ten chapters will clarify what she means.

Chapter 1 – First Solo Flight
About leaving home – and how parents’ assumptions about how ready kids are to leave, and how determined they are to sever all connections, are usually wrong. They still need to feel a connection – embeddedness – and confirmation that parents still want to hear about what‘s really going on. But parents and kids are often trapped in the myth that they ‘should’ stand on their own feet, that to do less is immature or a kind of failure.

Peggy feels awful, feels she has to pretend things are going well at college. She binge eats and is often bulimic. The eating is a substitute for parental love; the vomiting is punishment for self-indulgence and ‘proof’ that she isn’t failing. Carlos, the family success, feels too much pressure and feels his parents don’t actually validate his success. He sometimes drinks, misses the sports practices that brought him the scholarship, pretends to be happy when phoning. The parents think he’s not bothered about what they think. JoAnnabel goes half-way round the world then can’t get up in the morning – she didn’t realise how important her parents’ routines were.

Both sides have to be more open – and parents need to realise that ‘empty nest’ syndrome is as much about the kids’ sense of loss as the parents’. The important thing for parents is not to assume everything is ok , or to pre-empt with phrases like ‘Bet it’s great, isn’t it?’ Listen. Expect anxieties. Validate, praise, look for what is successful as much as when they were little and everything they did seemed wonderful. Etc.

Chapter 2 – Forming Identities
Thresholders get the idea that the move away from home – or into a job, or whatever – is a kind of doorway into the adult identity they will have for the rest of their lives. Hah. When this turns out to be an illusion it can often lead to embarrassment, a regression to adolescent self-doubt and self-consciousness etc. They, and their parents, are often surprised – and, inevitably, disappointed – by this. Result: potential conflicts, with the young adult feeling unsupported or misunderstood.

Alec: he thought the self-consciousness about being fat (etc.) was in the past. Wrong.
Ellen, sure of herself and of her destiny to fly away from her (adoptive) parents’ lives, is thrown into depression when everyone around her at college seems to know more, achieve better marks with less work, etc. etc. It isn’t true, of course, it’s the result of her endless focus on her own failures and weak spots.

A general point is made: young adults believe the myth sufficiently to be confident enough to try new identities out, and are often thrown disproportionately by setbacks that might seem petty to their parents. They can cover up self-doubt with ‘a surge of arrogance’ – a real tell-tale sign, that one – or a need to tell stories that build up the presented persona. Or they can focus incessantly on the successes of others. What’s a parent to do? Not deny the kids’ views, or belittle either their achievements or fears. Take them seriously – but be aware of what’s going on and be prepared to talk. (In fact here, as in every chapter, Apter is free with the advice – both to parents and to the thresholders she also hopes will read this book. Fair enough.)

27 May
Chapter 3 – Making Choices
Or, inevitably, not making choices. This one’s about getting stuck in indecision: Marsha, at college, constantly changing her mind about which courses to choose; and Tim, finished at college, paralysed by the choices of career (or whatever), the fear of choosing badly, and the fear of failing to get the interview…. Apter talks about ‘Potentialitis’, that rabbit in the headlights feeling of needing to be decisive and being unable to. And, of course, everybody else seems to be getting on with it.

Parents: same again, particularly recognising the need to understand and not condemn or become exasperated. Comparisons with how it was for the parent (‘I never…’) are unhelpful, often leading to arguments. The main strategy for parents is to talk: about choices, about different time-scales (for instance steering away from the fantasy scenarios of future success), and reminding the kid about what has already been achieved. The ‘thresholder’ needs strategies as well, to do with making choices manageable. And if they get stuck, they need to find a way out: a list of what the real (as opposed to unreal, or too long-term) options are, then possibly a to-do list, a diary of applications made etc. – things to demonstrate to themselves principally, but also to others, that they are actually getting something done.

28 May
Chapter 4 – Emotional Education
About love and friendship. Gulp. Vera has a series of unsatisfactory sexual relationships. Apter writes about how young people know about sex, but sex education focuses on being safe and not giving into one’s own lusts too easily. It doesn’t educate about how to have a satisfactory sexual relationship in which one’s own true emotional needs are met. Vera gives into expectations, norms imposed by the culture or her particular group…. Ric falls apart when his girlfriend knocks their long-standing teenage relationship on the head. Deborah makes a new friend – but is so dependent there isn’t any equality in it, doing things for the friend’s benefit, not her own. Anna goes for the lecturer.

Obviously, none of these is satisfactory. You can see how it happens: young adults seeking approval, a substitute family or substitute parent, someone to replace what they feel they have given up. Apter’s tips involve the young person asking what the new relationship is for, and whether it actually offers what he/she seeks. Another thing: she goes on about how easy it is to belittle oneself in the push to make friends or buy into the consensus view of what is the accepted norm of behaviour, sexual or otherwise.

Chapter 5 – The Pressure of Great Expectations
The chapter title says it all, really. Apter gives an extra twist to something she dealt with at length in Chapter 1: what to do when a highly successful or highly motivated high school kid (did I mention this is an American book?) reaches college and discovers he/she isn’t as special as everyone thought? Christa was ubersuccessful at school: straight As, captain of sports teams, etc. etc. Here’s the problem: she’d never had to come to terms with failure, or with not coming up to everybody’s expectations – which, obviously, have become her own expectations as well. At college she drops out because she has no strategies for dealing with a (relative) lack of success. She believes she’s worthless when she gets Bs and Cs. Apter’s suggestions include the parent not always talking to the adolescent as though they are about to be the next superstar/ Einstein/ president, and that when good results keep coming in at school, well, not talking about them as though it’s only to be expected. And never show disappointment or surprise when things don’t go so well beyond school. A successful kid at school is often full of doubts – which parents ought to make it their business to know about.

Rusha… thinks she wants to be a doctor, has thought so all her life – until she starts finding it incredibly hard at college. She dreads telling her mother who, she thinks, will be devastated. But she does tell her mother, and she’s fine about it. Rusha wants to do something different, and Mom says ok. That’s the way to do it.

29 May
Chapter 6 – Foothold in the Adult World…
…or in the adult workplace, really. Pete is a drifter, in a series of dead-end jobs and living at home after dropping out. Carri is mortified when she finds she can’t seem to manage the au pair job she expected to be straightforward. In both cases, the adults – Pete’s father, Carri’s mother and employer – expect an all-round level of maturity. But maturity doesn’t arrive smoothly in all its aspects. Pete had a very understanding 60s-style dad who didn’t pressurise him. If he did well, great. If he didn’t, that was ok too. Until… Pete reached the age at which his dad had taken on responsibilities and married. Comparisons inevitably get made, often to do with time-markers. Apter says, forget these: a 22-year-old has not messed it up just because they seem younger than their parent at that age, or have failed to find a way into the ‘right’ job, or seem to spend hours at a time doing nothing. Apter believes adults spend too much time being ‘busy’ anyway.

As for Carri, well, she simply can’t cope with the amount of new stuff coming at her in a different country. She tries to live a little, going out late and even having a go at snorting coke: she’s only young, and needing to find things out about herself. So she messes up, forgets to do things, ends up crashing the boss’s car. Oh dear, and she seemed so capable before…. She’s still capable, and needs to be assured of that. The job was too much at that moment in her development, that’s all.

30 May
Fast-track to Maturity
Emma is a high-flier in her job, has her own flat (etc.) so Mum can tick that particular box and get on with her own life. As if. In fact Emma is full of doubt, is burning the candle at both ends (late nights and recreational drugs as a substitute for relaxation, caffeine in the daytime to get over the inevitable feelings of tiredness) and needs her parents as much as she ever did. But she can’t ask, thinks her mother would be disappointed that things aren’t going as well as she thought… and feels utterly cut off. What she needs to do is find a form of words to speak to her mother, find a way of letting her boss know that she can’t absolutely always say yes… and the mother needs to ask, without assuming that she doesn’t really need to, how her daughter is getting on, what she does to relax, etc. Everybody thinks a 23-year-old can be sorted out for life, but it’s never like that, not ever. You listening?

7 June
Chapter 8 – Shortcuts to Maturity: Thresholder Marriages
How about getting married? That’ll sort us out, won’t it? Well, obviously not, idiot. And when it all goes wrong, Mum and Dad need to be there, particularly if there are grandchildren. The ‘old-fashioned marriage’, in which the boy soon starts to take the girl for granted, is partly the result of a false expectation: marriage based on the need to settle down, face responsibilities – essentially, buy into a readymade package. If it falls apart, so be it. Parents can pick up the pieces and give them a second chance. If the readymade package comes in the form of a child who the thresholder had expected to be a solution to their own maturity/identity issues, either: persuade her she’s wrong before they try it out (hah!) or help her to look after the baby once it arrives, If you’d hoped your own life was just about to go in its own baby-free direction, well, get over it. What else is there to do?

This is all sounding a bit obvious to me, but there you go.

Chapter 9 – Thresholders in a material world: managing money
This turns out to be one of the best chapters. Every scenario is recognisable, from the careful college student who gets into debt as soon as she gets a job to the equally careful bloke who starts to spend too much once he gets a better-paid job, to the girl whose father wants to give her less than he originally promised because she seems to take him for granted…. One thing parents have to remember is that these are different economic times from when they – we – grew up. The well-paid young man spends his money on a hi-fi because he can afford to, and because he’s grown up in a world where he’s been assailed by consumer advertising. But he won’t be able to afford even a starter home for years, if ever, so for him, buying the latest must-have becomes part of establishing status at work in a way it never used to. The shopaholic daughter is doing the equivalent of comfort eating: she buys something to convince herself she’s worth it, because she’s not getting the love she‘s been used to. The father who resents his daughter taking him for granted is shifting the goal-posts: he’d told her to buy what she needs then feels he needs to draw back from ‘spoiling’ her.

Parents shouldn’t think their kids are spoilt or feckless just because they can’t manage money – and there is no mileage in comparing how things were ‘in my day’. These young people need advice, understanding and support – although they don’t need bailing out financially, not ever. And if there’s an agreement between a parent and thresholder over money, it needs to be spelled out and never altered without discussion. Also, money matters often get inextricably bound up with other issues: judgments about lifestyle, laziness, honesty, consideration of others…. Be aware, and make every effort to keep them separate.

Chapter 10 – Suicide and self-harm…
…which aren’t the same thing, but often come from similar pressures. Apter lists seven pressures, starting with loneliness and feelings of worthlessness. Thresholders are often surprised by the way things they had taken for granted – support, concern, interest – seem to disappear after the age of 20-odd. Apter, in that way of hers, gives us a list. Ask; listen; discuss; be practical; refer the problem to a professional.

Greg is the college success who is first mortified by his inability to get a job, then by the unreasonable pressures of the job he does get. He gets fired, and it seems like the latest in a very long line of rejections. He tries to hang himself, seeing this as the most logical way to stop all the pain and to show how sorry he is for letting everyone down. What to do? Obviously, it’s to do with letting the young person know that what seemed impossible isn’t, not really, and that their perceptions of how others see them – especially parents – are not based on reality. Maybe the most important single bit of advice for parents is not to withdraw in a kind of huff: they can actually do as much now as they ever could.

Lydia is a self-harmer. She does it to deflect pain and anxiety – and to feel real in a situation in which she feels nobody actually sees her. The only thing to do, in addition to seeking professional help, is to look for the root causes and attempt to deal with them one by one. Often – for those who attempt suicide as well as for self-harmers – modifying expectations is key to the process. They, and/or their parents, expected certain things. Well, look where that got them. Time to start the long process of re-thinking it.

Chapter 11
Crossing the threshold
Really, this reiterates what Apter has been saying all along. The myth of maturity doesn’t only get in the way when young people start to run into difficulties or make the mistakes that she considers inevitable. The myth is actually to blame for a lot of the problems in the parent/child relationship that occur at this time. It raises false expectations about what young people ‘should’ achieve, how much independence they ‘should’ be capable of, how quickly parents ‘should’ be able to breathe a sigh of relief and let their sons or daughters get on with it. Just because they don’t ask for help – after all, young people buy into the myth of what they should be able to achieve as much as their parents do – it almost certainly does not mean they don’t need it, want it and, in fact, expect it. They are far more mature in many ways than they were as adolescents, but parents should realise they need exactly the same amount of support.

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