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Adulthood and cutting the umbilical cord

1. What is adulthood? 
Adulthood is a period in which we face new tasks requiring great commitment and responsibility.

During this period factors influencing human development also change and self-activity starts to play an increasingly important role apart from biological and environmental factors (family and peer groups later). Many researchers (Havighurst, Erikson, Lewinson) believe that it is crucial for human development. At the end of adolescence (16-23 years of age) a young person is ready to take on new social roles, both in the family and professional life. Eric Erikson claims that adolescence is the last stage of childhood after which an individual faces the task of building an intimate relationship with another person. It can only be successfully tackled by those who have achieved a mature identity.

2. Mature identity

A mature identity is characterised by a developed value system, realistic self-perception, emotional stability and an ability to sustain satisfying social relationships. In addition, a mature person is characterised by the ability of intellectual insight as well as a stable worldview, which makes it possible to form independent opinions and judgements. An important aspect of maturity is also the ability to control urges and satisfy them in a way that does not cause harm to others. 

In this context, you can talk about functioning in the social world in such a way that you do not violate the boundaries of another individual accepting the fact that your freedom ends at the place where the boundaries of another person’s freedom begin.  A mature person is also able to realistically assess and lay out future life goals and plans, broaden his or her understanding of the surrounding reality and expand the resources necessary for self-realisation (Turner, Helms). 

Allport (1961) distinguished seven criteria of adulthood which reveal themselves over the course of growing up. They include the development and expansion of one’s own Self (e.g. through the acquisition and development of autonomous interests), warm relations with others, emotional safety, realistic perception, the possession of qualifications and competences, the knowledge of oneself and a stable and coherent world view. The achievement of emotional safety occurs through the process of separation and individuation. The most important components of it are self-acceptance, acceptance of emotions, resistance to frustration, free self-expression as well as realistic perception, i.e. the ability to evaluate the reality in an objective way (without distortions or alterations) in order to assess one’s own needs and goals in a realistic way.

3. Family separation

The prerequisite for a mature entry into the adult world is separation from your parents. The bond with the parents is already formed in the prenatal period. By coming into the world a new-born child in a very short period of time forms a bond which enables his or her further proper development. Physically, the umbilical cord is cut immediately after birth but emotionally, it is a long-lasting process. This is because a human needs so much time to reach maturity on various levels (emotional, cognitive, social, motor and moral). Obviously, this emotional detachment from parents does not mean that the relationship breaks down; a young adult only has to change the form of interaction, abandon the role of a child and move to the position of an adult son or daughter.

4. Factors hindering separation

Gaining autonomy and emotional independence is a long process and sometimes a painful one. However, we should remember that this is a sine qua non for full self-realisation in later life. 
Difficulty with cutting the umbilical cord may be caused by several factors: 

  • a) fear of the challenges of adulthood - stronger in people with low self-esteem and self-confidence;
  • b) parentification - people caught up in the family system may have a strong feeling of guilt at separation and will not be able to recognise their own needs well;
  • c) family system resistance – children’s independence forces parents to change their marital relationship. It will be a challenge to reconstruct the relationship in the case of people who, focusing on their parental roles, have already neglected their marital roles. A similar situation occurs when parents have not fulfilled their own life plans and dreams. They may then try to use their children as delegates to compensate for their sense of loss.

There are three types of family interactions that hinder the separation process: binding, expelling and delegation. 
Binding - in such systems, the emphasis in defining roles and operating rules is placed on family loyalty and cohesion, even at the expense of the individuation and separation of its members. A young person is trapped within his or her family. 
Expelling - this phenomenon occurs in families where children are neglected and where their basic needs are not met. 
Delegation - this is a form of coping by parents with their own frustrations and failures at the expense of children, who are supposed to compensate parents for their own shortcomings and failures in life. Children have a specific life script written down by their parents and must follow it.

In each of these cases, the process of ‘cutting the umbilical cord’ will be hindered or even blocked.

5. Consequences of an uncut umbilical cord

It seems that the most important consequence of an uncut umbilical cord is the inability to reach full maturity. This fact leads to further consequences, which include depressive symptoms, anxiety or psychosomatic disorders. These symptoms are the result of a conflict between the developmental needs of an individual (the need of independence) and the sense of loyalty to the generational family. In such a situation it is advisable to seek help of a psychotherapist. A person from outside the family system can help one to gain distance and find ways out of the situation experienced as a stalemate.

6. A short test for an uncut umbilical cord 

The statements below reflect relationships between people with uncut umbilical cords and their parents.
In my behaviour towards my parents:

Submissive behaviour:

  • I often give in to my parents regardless of how I feel.
  • I often don’t tell my parents what I really think.
  • I often don’t tell my parents how I really feel.
  • I often act as if everything is fine between us, even if it’s not.
  • When I’m with my parents, I’m often artificial and inauthentic.
  • I act more out of guilt and fear than free choice when it comes to my parents.
  • I try hard to get my parents to change.
  • I try hard to make them see and understand my point of view.
  • I often become a mediator in parental conflicts.
  • To please them, I often give up things that are important to me, even though it is very painful for me.
  • I am still the keeper of family secrets.

Aggressive behaviour:

  • I constantly argue with my parents to prove to them that I am right.
  • I constantly do things that they hate to prove that I am in charge of myself.
  • I often shout at my parents or swear at them to show them that they can’t control me.
  • I often have to restrain myself to avoid resorting to hand-to-hand violence.
  • I have burnt my bridges and crossed my parents out of my life.

Result: If two or more of the statements above describe your relationship with your parents, it means that they are still running your life.

Reference literature

1.    Allport, G. W. (1961). Pattern and Growth in Personality. Holt, Reinhart & Winston.
2.    Erikson E. (1997). The Life Cycle Completed. W W Norton & Co Inc.
3.    Harwas-Napierała B. ed. (2003). Rodzina a rozwój człowieka dorosłego. Wydawnictwo Naukowe UAM: Poznań.
4.    Havighurst, R., J. (1981). Developmental Tasks and Education. New York and London:
5.    Levinson, D. J. (1986). A Conception of Adult Development. American Psychologist, 41(1), 3–13.
6.    Przetacznik-Gierowska M., Tyszkowa M. (1996). Psychologia rozwoju człowieka. PWN: Warszawa.
7.    Turner J., Helms D. (1994). Lifespan Development. Harcourt College Pub.
8.    Wasilewska M. Trudności z opuszczaniem domu rodzinnego jako przyczyna reakcji depresyjnych u młodych ludzi. Państwo i Społeczeństwo V; 2005 nr 3.

About the author

Monika Wasilewska, Ph D – assistant professor at the Institute of Applied Psychology. Her research interests focus on the psychology of the family, transgenerational transmission processes and family messages influencing the functioning of an individual in various social roles. Since 2000 she has had her own private psychological practice working with both individual clients and couples. Her publications include ‘Depresja porodowa’ (1999) and ‘Jak być szczęśliwym dorosłym bez szczęśliwego dzieciństwa’(2021). She has also authored or co-authored 50 academic papers related to her research into parentification processes in the family, family conditioning in undertaking adult tasks and transgenerational transmission.