80356940We all have the need to be unique, because if we were not unique, we would struggle with understanding our purpose in the world. At birth and the first few months of life we are completely dependent on our caregivers. Our self is fused with our caregiver. In the first months of the newborn’s life everyone fuses over him/her, spends time ensuring all his/her needs are being met, cuddles, hugs, kisses are showered upon the baby. A baby believes he/she is the center of the universe.  When the toddler years begin, the child recognizes he isn’t the center of the universe and there are others sharing this world with him. This recognition, of others being in this world, awakens a conundrum for the child. When the toddler recognizes he is not the center of the universe he begins to develop the need for an identity. If he is not the only one in the world he must ensure that he is recognized and noticed. Additionally, he must show his parents he is independent from them and has agency over his life. The toddler solves this concern by what we fondly call “the terrible two’s.”

The terrible two’s defines the toddler stage of when children say “no” to practically everything and the term “b’myself” is heard over and over. This is the beginning of self-differentiation. The toddler is announcing his/her independence by defying the parents’ requests. Parents placate their anxieties by saying that this stage will end shortly. In fact, the terrible two’s mindset is a lifetime process and it peaks during the toddler years, adolescent years, and the mid-life crises years. The features of these stages; saying no, defying rules, buying a flashy car, are all in the category of the need to self differentiate.

In order to achieve our own self-identity we self differentiate and we self individuate. Self-individuation is about finding our independence and self-differentiation is cultivating our own uniqueness that is different than our parents.  Our inborn desire to be unique and to have a separate identity from our parents propels our need to self-differentiate. Edith Jacobson, defined identity as “being autonomous, separate, and independent from our parents and others”. Through our years of development we adapt the traits of our parents as our own. Yet at the same time, we have a desire for our own identity. Because of our need to have our own identity we find ways to self-differentiate from our parents, particularly, the same gender parent.

From the adolescent years and on, self-differentiation occurs externally and internally. External differentiation is overt and most often the person is clearly aware of what they are doing. For example, an adolescents mother was a stay at home mom she becomes a career woman; or an adolescent boy chooses a different attire than his father. Internal self-differentiation is related to emotionality and personality traits. There is an internal rejection of the parents’ personality trait. Often, the person is unaware of the battle ensuing within. The young adults mom may be very friendly; she rejects the friendliness, and becomes more reserved. The adolescents’ father may be rigid; he rejects the rigidity, and becomes flexible and easy going. The common phrase “I will never be like my father/mother” is the hallmark of self-differentiation. Yet, we are never successful at completely disavowing the traits of our parents. Therefore, self-differentiation is a lifetime process.

What can a parent do to support their children’s need for self-differentiation? Back to the terrible two’s. Parenting advice related to the terrible two’s are along the lines of “do not get into a power struggle.” Head this advice from the toddler years and on. When we get into a power struggle with our child (or anyone else) the need to defend their identity becomes fierce. First, honor the behaviors. Recognize that your young adult is focused on becoming their individual unique person. Second, validate the behavior for them. For example, your newly married daughter refuses to call you because she says she is too busy. Spend time validating what a busy woman she has become and how her life is hectic with her new job and husband. When you highlight to her that you recognize the world that she is in, the need to defend her “busyness” will slowly fall away. If you do not validate her experience, she will continue to find ways to notify you that she has her own personality. Third, recognize and acknowledge the differences between you and your child. Children are always hearing how they are just like their father or just like their mother. Now is the time to highlight how they are different. Compliment your young adult son on a skill or trait he has that his father may not have. By highlighting the differences, you are giving your child the opportunity to notice how they have developed into their own personality. Again, this will eliminate the need to fiercely defend their unique identity.

Self-differentiation is an internal balancing act. We need to learn to accept both the traits we like and the traits we dislike in ourselves. We should embrace this challenge in ourselves and in our children. Because, having the capacity to create our own identity is what separates us from mere biological and instinctual beings.

Sara Schapiro-Halberstam, MHC-LP, CASAC is a psychotherapist in New York City where she provides individual therapy, couples counseling, and sex therapy. To contact Sara you can email her at [email protected]