It is one of life’s unfortunate ironies that mom and dad often find themselves struggling with their sense of identity (aka the midlife crisis) at the same time their adolescent children are struggling to build identities of their own. How parents handle such transitions is enormously important to the wellbeing of their kids.
Why does a midlife crisis pose such risk to families? Because by definition, a midlife crisis occurs at a time of higher than usual preoccupation with self. Perhaps dad has lost his job or was passed over for a promotion; mom is feeling a bit over the hill or weary of caring for kids and aging parents alike; or these day in and day out pressures are eroding the marriage. Regardless of the cause, there’s a lot of ‘me’ at the center of that equation.
Unfortunately, this often occurs at the very same time adolescents are similarly becoming me-focused in their bid to forge a pre-adult identity of their own. (In fact, older kids pulling away from mom and dad can add fuel to the midlife crisis.)
But – and this is the important part – gobs of research tell us that our sullen, distant teens still very much need a stable home. Meaning that if there’s an earthquake rattling your world, it may bode ill for the foundation your child is laying for her own life.
So does that mean mom and dad aren’t entitled to do some soul-searching or to reexamine some of their life choices? Not at all. But if you don’t want your kids losing their moorings and drifting into troubled waters, how you conduct your so-called midlife crisis matters.
Teens Need Stability – Even if They Don’t Show It
For those who are curious, the midlife crisis officially became a thing in 1957 when Dr. Elliott Jaques reported large numbers of middle-aged adults taking on a “hypochondriacal concern over health and appearance” along with “compulsive attempts” to recapture fading youth.
And while some researchers dismiss the midlife crisis as little more than a “cultural construct,” the truth is that millions of adults do at some point in their 30s, 40s, or 50s succumb to a kind of midlife malaise.
Your uneasy presence is better for your teenager than your physical absence.
What’s more important, however, is that research is now catching up on the toll these grownup crises have on kids, particularly adolescents. An abrupt job change, extramarital affair, decision to relocate the family, and other seemingly rash – and irrational – behaviors from mom or dad can rock a child’s world just as he’s trying to establish a sense of himself.
The result? The child may start making similarly irrational, emotion-driven decisions which, as we all recall from our own teen years, don’t always end well.
A Mature Midlife Crisis
So what’s an existentially itchy parent to do? Here is some advice from the experts.
Lead by Example – Even while you’re searching for some answers of your own, remember your children – yes, even distant teens – are watching, absorbing, learning. How you conduct your ‘crisis’ (and we use that term loosely) will go a long way toward helping your kids weather midlife (and other) storms of their own.
Remain Connected – Don’t abruptly disappear from the family fold or misinterpret your teen’s own comings and goings as an excuse for you to dramatically alter family routines. Research shows that even one parent in regular proximity (meal times, bedtime, etc.) pays big dividends for an adolescent’s mental health. Even if you’re struggling with your own life, writes Lisa Damour, a psychologist and clinical instructor at Case Western Reserve University, “your uneasy presence is better for your teenager than your physical absence.”
Share and Reassure – Research has shown that parents who try to protect their kids from life’s harsh realities – including, in this case, their midlife struggles – aren’t actually protecting them at all. Instead, use your struggles as an opportunity to show your kids that adults can be searching for answers, second-guessing choices, and so on, and not always have immediate answers for those challenges. This not only will prepare your kids for struggles of their own, but show them how to constructively deal with them. And who knows, your teen may have some good advice for you?
Avoid Hyper-Emotionalism – While there’s nothing wrong with shedding a few tears or expressing frustration in front of a child, parents who are overly emotional risk alienating their kids or teaching them that emotionally-charged behavior is acceptable. This can be especially dangerous with teens, whose brains still lack many of the impulse controls that you do. Research shows that emotionally unpredictable parents can psychologically traumatize kids and leave them unstable themselves.
The midlife crisis can happen to the best of us. But how we behave during such challenges will go a long way in helping out kids tackle their own problems.