I recently read the article on Slate.com “Why Millennials Can’t Grow Up” by Brooke Donatone, a psychotherapist in New York City. She writes about a client of hers, Amy, who is finishing college (I’m assuming graduate school) and is afraid of the future. Amy is scared to go out into the world and is pondering a PhD program to avoid doing so. Donatone writes about Amy’s ongoing depression and overwhelming schedule that the author seems to think is all Amy’s fault because she can’t “manage her time”. Donatone suggests Amy get a job after graduation and the client cries harder. Donatone asks, “So growing up is just really scary for you?” Amy replies, “Yes.” Then the big reveal – Amy is 30 years old. DUN, DUN, DUNNNNNNNNN!!!
Donatone goes on to talk about how millennials are labeled by other authors as narcissistic, opposes this view, and then goes on to label all millennial parents as helicopter parents. First, let’s get one thing straight: clearly, this woman is talking about rich and probably for the most part, white people: she’s a therapist at NYU. She’s referencing a small percentage of a generation. Perhaps the title of the article should be “Why NYU Students Can’t Grow Up”. Because as many of us know, poorer parents, even middle class ones, don’t have time to flutter around their child’s every move these days.
So what is helicopter parenting, you might ask? It’s that “overinvolved” parent who does everything from running the PTA, to practically doing their kid’s homework, to writing their college applications. The problem is that when someone does everything for you, it can lead to a lack of self-efficacy. Which makes sense: if no one trusts you to do anything for yourself, why would you trust yourself to do anything? Donatone cites a couple of articles about recent college grads who take their parents on job interviews. But even the Huffington Post article she mentions shows an understanding that the economy is shit, adding to the fear of “growing up”.
If you read Donatone’s article, you’ll notice that as you scroll down, the heading at the top says “What’s wrong with millennials?” Slate may have written this headline, not Donatone, but as a fellow therapist this makes my blood boil. How dare any therapist say “what’s wrong with you?” to a client? Isn’t that what everyone else is saying? Donatone is judging her clients for being afraid. I guarantee you, that’s exactly one of the things they’re afraid of! She even criticizes clients for being suicidal:
A generation ago, my college peers and I would buy a pint of ice cream and down a shot of peach schnapps (or two) to process a breakup. Now some college students feel suicidal after the breakup of a four-month relationship. Either ice cream no longer has the same magical healing properties, or the ability to address hardships is lacking in many members of this generation.
This goes beyond irritating; statements like this are just down right dangerous. Donatone is a licensed therapist and she’s placing judgment on people who are really struggling and have sought out help. Suicide is no joke and severely depressed clients should not be told to essentially “brush it off.” Also, she’s citing food and alcohol as effective coping mechanisms. Seriously?
A helpful therapist does not judge her clients. As a postmodern, systemic therapist and coach, I feel it is not my job to say “Ok, this is what’s wrong with you and I can fix it.” To me, that’s what’s wrong with medicalized, traditional psychotherapy: you get a diagnosis as if you were going to the doctor, you might get some meds, and you talk about the stuff that’s going on in your head and try to “fix it”. For one thing, no one can fix you, but also, who says you need to be fixed? If I were with Amy and asked the same question, I’d follow it up with “What does it mean to grow up?”, “You are 30 years old and living on your own. Who says you’re not grown up already?”, or “Who else is afraid to grow up?” We start talking about meaning, about language, about societal norms, and how they construct our realities. The final goal is not to cope or survive, but to really live.
Donatone, have you never been afraid? Were you not scared to go to high school, graduate high school, graduate college, start a new job, start a new relationship, move into a new place, new city, or new state? Perhaps Amy is just afraid of change, which is perfectly natural. Maybe Amy is afraid because to her, “growing up” means living like her parents and she doesn’t want to be them. Perhaps if Amy were no longer told she “struggles with depression”, but rather that she feels the ups and downs of life as many people do, she could eventually gather the confidence and inner strength she already has to move forward. She’s gotten this far, hasn’t she?
Now, I don’t know Amy’s family or mental health history. Maybe Donatone is right and Amy is specifically having trouble moving on because she had helicopter parents. I’m sorry, but welcome to the club. Everyone has been fucked up by his/her parents in some way; it’s a fact of life. But can any of us go back and change our childhoods? Nope. Looking at the past helps to validate things in the present, but blaming parents does not help navigate the future.
I’m tired of reading these articles and hearing people talk about how narcissistic, unempathic, spoiled, selfish, and silly millennials are. I’ve even uttered words like “It’s like hipsters are trying to look bad with those dumb clothes.” Then I realized: no they’re not, I’m just getting old. I’m 34 and I looked like an asshole when I was a teenager too (I probably still do). Didn’t we all? So next time you read one of those articles, or make a judgment like I did, just say to yourself in an old person’s voice: “These darn kids today!” Maybe it’ll give you some perspective.
P.S. For another response to Donatone’s article, go to threatquality.com. Their post is right on the money. It looks at the same statement I quoted and addresses the dangers of a therapist judging, labeling, and stigmatizing her clients.