Friday, March 5, 2010

Age is Just a Number

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.


Anonymous said...

Remindds me of one of my favorite quotes from Dr. Daniel A. Hughes--"The adults must constantly strive to have empathy for the child and to never forget that given his history, he is doing the best he can."

TTBoot said...

OMG you could be describing FS#2! I'm glad to hear that he is feeling comfortable enough with you to display his many developmental ages. Also congratulations on celebrating T's 16th birthday as a family.

Mama Drama Times Two said...

Well said. It is almost like our kids get "frozen" at their age of trauma and we have to parent them from "there" - even when it seems strange and it doesn't match their chronology. We had to buy a new recliner in Sept to accomodate holding Bobby when he crawled onto our laps for a cuddle. He's 11 and almost 100 pounds...He came to us at age 8, but in many ways - he is still 3.

Anonymous said...

I love this post! How great for him that you're willing to meet him where he is. (And how cool for you that you don't JUST get to parent a teen!)

Gab said...

Your generosity and compassion are inspiring. Thanks for giving me another way of looking at it!

Essie the Accidental Mommy said...

Dang girl, where have you been hiding?

I love that, about the 10,000 needs, and it really sounds quite accurate. I think of my bio kid who probably had 9,900 met immediately. Then I think of my adopted kid who probably had.... maybe 500 met in a reasonable period of time, before she began to have a panic/survival response as to whether anyone would ever come.

That laundry story is amazing.

Foster Ima said...

Great post, great parenting. It makes me nervous, though, that my four year old (with me for three months) is so insistent on helping with laundry and cleaning up messes that she has made. Yesterday we did laundry, and she wouldn't let me carry her laundry bag to the laundry room, then insisted on helping me with the soap and the money. It was cute, and I love her willingness to help, but at the same time, I don't know where she is coming from with her laundry--did she have similar must-help-must-do-good-job requirements from her mom? When she spills something on purpose, I make her clean it up (and try to help, usually, but she won't let me!) but if it's an accident, I will usually do it myself. But when she makes a mess doing homework (pre-k cut and paste), she insists on cleaning it up herself. It makes me a bit nervous. (However, she is a much tidier person than I am, so I'm also not complaining!)

Liz said...

Every time I read one of your posts, I am struck by how similar my experience of adopting a toddler is to your experience of adopting a teen...this post really helped me put a few things in perspective, thank you so much for it!

M and M said...

Thank you, again. What a perfect way to finish an evening. Your mother love for T, and the way you reflect him through your eyes is really quite beatiful.

Melissa, Multi-Tasking Mama said...

Good for you! He needs a mama that can go with the flow and is blessed to have you.

Heather said...

Your posts have taught me more than my MAPP training. Every few minutes I ask my husband if I can share "just one more post" and he stops, listens, and then halfheartedly starts what he was doing before, knowing he is soon going to hear "just one more." I so value this! (Though my husband would like to play an uninterrupted video game at some point...)

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