In our MAPP training, the instructor often repeated the refrain "Parent the need, not the behavior."
I find myself chanting that over and over on the treadmill sometimes.
It's alot harder than it sounds, like most things to do with parenting an older kid out of foster care. I mean, it's one thing to parent the need rather than the behavior when your three-year-old is having a freakout. It's another to sort out a 16 year-old boy.
Nevertheless, I find it a useful, somewhat meditative thought. When I'm overwhelmed by the behavior (skipping classes, for example, is this week's hot topic), I switch my focus to the need for awhile. It gets me out of policing mode and puts me back in touch with the love and the fundamental bond. It doesn't necessarily make me more effective, but it reminds me why I'm doing this and alleviates the feelings of futility that sneak up on me occasionally when the behavior feels out of my control.
I've learned never to ask him "Why are you doing this?" It sounds desperate and ignorant. (Gentler versions like "Tell me how you felt when you decided not to go to class?" are okay, but rarely result in a meaningful response because he doesn't have that self-awareness yet.) Anyway, one can pretty well guess why he's doing most things.
You only have to look at his life to figure that the realm of unmet needs is so huge you can kind of aim in a general direction and be pretty sure you're gonna hit something significant. I'd say his list of needs goes something like:
- the need to know you have a place to sleep and food to eat every day and nobody is going to come take that from you today
- the need to have one adult you can call for help when you are in trouble
- the need to be safe at home, to not be violated or hurt
- the need to be recognized for who you really are
- the need to make sense of your life and your story at your own pace
- the need to be allowed time and space to change as you're able
- the need to feel you have some control over your life
So when I get tired I aim for at least one of those needs.
He's twice had foster parents who called in the notorious "7 day notice" (a demand that must be met for the county to relocate him within a week) for infractions similar to what happened this week. In those earlier situations, he came home one afternoon, a social worker was there, all his belongings were in garbage bags (no time or money for suitcases) and he was driven to another county and dropped off at a new home in a place where he knew nobody.
Now, let me say that I understand what drove those foster parents to do that. They felt they could not parent him effectively anymore, that his behavior was disrupting their lives and their available attention for the other kids in their homes. But I also understand that T. felt that they "threw him away." It reinforced his belief that he's bad, that people grow tired of him and want to get rid of him, that he matters to nobody and nobody understands him.
When managing his behavior is wearing me out, I find it relaxing to remember that there are PLENTY of other adults on hand to help with the behavioral aspect - including his social worker, our new therapy program, certain teachers and his school counselor. But when it comes to addressing his deep underlying needs, it's mostly just us. We are the only people who can be there in that way right now.
Some days I'm afraid I won't live up to the promise - he'll do something that I just won't be able to handle. But as my mom says, what parent of a teenager hasn't felt that way?