Sandplay for Life

The Big Years – "Provisional Adulthood"

Catherine Hartshorn, Ph.D., was a Counseling Psychologist on the staff of the Counseling Center at UC Berkeley for ten years. She worked with a young adult population as they separated from family, explored their choices and defined their life goals. She has 35 years experience in private practice and a deep understanding of individual and family dynamics.


The Big Years is intended to be an educational workshop that allows a person to take a snapshot of his/her life in the context of life-span development, and in relationship to others, including one’s own parent.


C.G. Jung (1920’s) was the first psychologist to talk about different psychological tasks at different phases of life. He distinguished only between early and late life with mid-life as the dividing point. Erik Erikson (1950’s) was the next to talk about specific stages of life. He identified eight stages of development and outlined specific psychological tasks that needed to be completed successfully in order to thrive in subsequent stages. Daniel Levinson was the first to develop empirical data, writing Stages of A Man’s Life in the 1970’s. Gail Sheehy based her popular book, Passages, largely on Levinson’s data.


Daniel Levinson coined the term “provisional adulthood.” It refers to late teens to late ‘twenties when people experiment with different jobs, ideas, and partners. It takes some of the sting out of the common idea, “Choosing my major is irrevocable and I have to know what I want to do with the rest of my life!” The terror of not-knowing is ameliorated a bit, reassuring a young adult that it is impossible to know one’s self by age 18 or 21. However, by the late ‘twenties, it is important to have chosen and set sail on a particular course, so that, in the ‘thirties, one can develop the skills and competencies required to be successful in the life one has chosen.


The parent has to come to a self-reckoning, too, defining him or her/self with an identity separate from being a parent. The parent is facing the mid-life awakening: the sobering reality that our ideals have not all been met, the train has left the station, and all that is possible now are mid-course corrections. We are not unencumbered; there is no free do-over. In addition to the internal task, the parent also has a relational task: to learn to let go, let the child be flawed and make his/her own mistakes (understanding that not every choice necessarily reflects on the parent). The parent must recognize the child as his/her own agent. The degree of enmeshment and the degree of the parent’s prior self-development will help define the difficulty or ease of this separation.


C.G. Jung: “The most damaging thing to children is the unlived lives of their parents."

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