The other day, we were out to eat and T. (who can be extremely controlling about food) announced that he didn't like the choices at the Mexican restaurant and he wanted a burger instead. I said, "Great, I'll give you $10 and you can go across the street to the diner and get yourself a burger."
"I'm only 10!" he yelped. "I can't cross the street by myself!"
In earlier days, I would have been completely confounded. I might even have teased him. Now I know, although he's just hit his 16th birthday, if T. says he's ten, today he's ten.
He didn't pick that number at random. He was ten when he was taken away for the final time from the relatives who were caring for him. He was ten when some of the worst things that happened to him in his life had just taken place. He was ten when he realized he'd be in foster care for the rest of his childhood.
He probably didn't even think when he said it. The unconscious - especially when we're playing - has a way of telling the truth.
I suppose one could be spooked by a 16 year-old who occasionally thinks he's ten. I take it as an indication of where his needs are coming from. When we were fulfilling our county-mandated parenting classes before T. came to live with us, I recall the teacher saying "Parent them where they are, not where you think they should be."
There was an interesting model in the class. It showed the cycle of need and satisfaction that attends to early infancy. The teacher explained that an infant lives in a constant cycle of need and gratification, and that the average infant goes through ten thousand cycles of need and satisfaction before developing a secure attachment to its adult caretaker.
T. was born premature and drug-addicted, and he went through eleven foster homes as an infant before a cousin took him in. It's hard to imagine he got his ten thousand cycles of gratification.
I think about that when he's annoying me now. He calls out for snacks when he could easily get them himself. He asks to be picked up from school when he could easily take the bus. He wants us to be close at hand when he goes out with friends.
The other day he announced hopefully "You can clean my room." In different circumstances, it might have been annoying or just lazy. It felt different. When T. was little - around five years old - he did the ironing for a household full of adults, and if he didn't do it well, he was brutally punished. He told me that if he didn't clean the whole house properly, he had to stand in the corner facing the wall, and often the adults would get drunk and go out and he'd eventually fall asleep standing up and awaken when he hit the floor. When I met him, he lived in a home where there was little affection but lots of chores. One of his most familiar words was "mandatory", as in "Is it mandatory?" I laughed the first time he asked me that - I think I had suggested we see a movie.
So I clean his room. I love doing it. It's a way of taking care. No one has ever cleaned his room for him. I also wash his clothes. When he started doing weekend visits, I told him he could drop his dirty clothes in the hamper anytime and we'd wash them. He didn't acknowledge. After a few consecutive weekends, I found one pair of socks gingerly resting in the hamper. I washed them and left them for him the next weekend when he returned. That weekend, I got a pair of socks plus an undershirt. A few weeks later, his favorite washcloth. I knew we were on track when he started leaving his undershorts behind to be laundered between visits. By the time we all agreed to adopt each other, it was raining dirty clothes - he brought clothes from his weekday foster home and piled them in the laundry basket, deliberately leaving more and more clean clothes behind in what would be his room. It's such a simple thing, but it's a give-and-take rhythm of being cared for that was most unfamiliar to him.
I don't want to let him control the household. But there's an aspect of his behavior that I think is driven by unfulfilled early childhood needs. If he needs to be ten, or two, today, then I'll parent him like a ten or a two-year-old. He saved those parts for someone to satisfy, and by some miracle of personality, he is still largely receptive to having those unfulfilled needs parented.