Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Parenting a Teen in Need, and What it's Taught Me About Myself

If you've read this blog for more than about three posts, you know that Mr. B and I adopted a beautiful, feisty teenager a couple years back.  Daisy Mae had been in and out of several homes and had lived through some not so great experiences in the lives before she came to us. Those stories aren't mine to share here; suffice it to say, however, that our life experiences during the first fourteen years she'd walked this Earth were vastly different.

Things didn't get much better after she arrived; five months after she moved in, the day after Thanksgiving, she watched in horror as the new sister she had just started to bond with died on a crowded skating rink, her mother vainly performing CPR. I remember looking over my shoulder at her and seeing her face change from shock to alarm to emotionless vacancy, tears pooling on the ice at her feet.  I remember getting in the car to follow the ambulance to the hospital, and turning to her.  "This isn't going to have a happy ending, Baby."

She stared ahead, "It never does."

That's where we started.

If there is a silver lining in losing the Bug when we did, it is this:  We had to learn to parent all over again, from scratch.  If that sounds like a sort of crappy silver lining, I suppose that's because it totally sucked while we were going through it. Looking back, however, it was a set of life experiences together that helped make us a strong family, and in a weird way, I'm grateful for it.

I'm thinking about this today, because Mr. and I are working with another family who have also taken on a teen.  This child has an equally difficult and heartbreaking past, and this family is utterly unprepared to deal with the challenges posed by the situation.  They don't have the benefit of having suffered a family-shattering tragedy that forces them to completely re-assess their value system and what's truly important.  (yes, I've just called losing Kes a benefit twice on the same page; bear with me).  The outcome of this is that their household has become an active war zone and the child is now occupying an extra bedroom at my house.

In the process of trying to help them through this crisis, and maybe come back together as a family, Mr. and I are having to deconstruct all the important and painful lessons we have learned in the last four years and try to communicate them as teaching moments. So I figure, if I have to untangle all this, I might as well write it down somewhere.

So here goes, over some period of days and weeks to come:

Part I: Stitch was right

"Ohana means family.  Family means nobody gets left behind.  Or Forgotten.

My family is small, and broken.  But it is...good."

Stitch, Lilo and Stitch, 2002. Walt Disney Company

Photo credit here: 

When I stop to think about it, my greatest fear is abandonment. When I was little, there was always that nagging fear that some day I was going to do something really terrible and my parents would stop loving me (they never did, by the way, even when I tried to "tool" my father's leather chair). I bet most of us have the same fear at some level. It never goes away, really. We want to be loved, cherished, needed. We want to belong. It is because we have this fear of abandonment that many of us try to break down relationships.  We are afraid of being cast out and so we try to make our greatest fears happen on our own terms. We pick fights with our spouses. We sabotage our jobs. We disengage from our teens. And when the rejection comes, we can say "I told you so!" and add another layer to our emotional scars.

Teens, especially those who have been left behind before, need to know that you will love them in spite of themselves. Troubled teens are so hurt from their past rejections, and so afraid of the next rejection that they will try to make you reject them.  They will lie, cheat, steal, strike out, scream, break things, just so you will throw them out and they can get it over with. Because in their minds they know it's coming. It's up to us as parents to break that fear cycle. In fact, it's just at the time that you MOST want to throw their ungrateful, lazy, disrespectful, smelly carcasses out the door that you have to re-affirm to them that you will keep them NO MATTER WHAT. Man, it's hard. It's hard to love someone who is trying really hard to be unlovable.

That tension, that knowledge that the next argument is out there, can be unnerving.  So much so that we sometimes set these relationships with our teens up to fail. We become arbitrary about rules.  We escalate arguments. We threaten them with the very thing they fear.  "If you don't like the rules here, you're welcome to get out there in the world and see how you do on your own!"

I became a happier parent the day I learned to say, "Do your worst. I refuse to throw you out. I refuse to reject you. I refuse to hit back. I refuse to fight you. Scream. Yell. Slam doors. Break dishes. Call me a "bitch" under your breath every day. I will love you NO MATTER WHAT."

That message diffuses tension. It disarms fear. And over time (not very much, either), it removes the barrier to their opening up to grow and love you back. In refusing to reject, we help avoid being rejected. And here's the best part. It costs nothing. You risk not a thing by offering unconditional love. And what you gain is a stronger family, more love back, and a lot fewer headaches.

In other words, a lot more Ohana.

Next:  Part 2 -- I know you are, but what am I?

1 comment:

bhd said...

Having a lovely cry here. Partly because I wish my Mom had been remotely like you, and partly because I've witnessed your fearless, balls-out, open, naked, fierce parenting. The honesty in your household leaves me breathless.

Withdrawal of affection as a disciplinary tool skewed the entire trajectory of my life, and I come from a very stable household.

I. Love. You.