Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Parent the Need, Not the Behavior

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?


advocatemom said...

I just love what you are saying here. I love it so much! T. is a lucky boy because you get that it is commitment that is most important. One day, I promise you, he will do something you cannot handle. But, you will stick with him anyway. You will get through it together. It will work out. Because if we commit to our kids, God provides the rest. Somehow, things just work out. I know this for sure. I know it from experience.

Thanks for sharing your stories. I love to read them. I love knowing that you are out there in the world doing this hard work too. It helps me a lot. Someday, I will tell the story of what s going on in my family right now. Until then, believe me when I say it is commitment that is most important and you don't have to know how to handle every behavior.

Take good care my friend.

GB's Mom said...

This is my first visit to your blog. I look forward to reading more about your family. I do understand that commitment is the beginning and end with our kids.

Lulu McCabe said...

Thanks, Advocate Mom! That's so kind. It does help to know a few other people out there crazy enough to try. :)

And thanks GB's mom, I was psyched to find your blog tonight!

TTBoot said...

I too try my best to parent the need instead of the behavior, though there are times when the kids make that tough. I also agree with advocatemom that commitment is all important. It was not until FS#1 went to college and I no longer had any contractual committment to him that he told me he loved me. Because I was willingly to treat him as my son, provide for him, go to parents weekend, send carepackages all without getting compensation from the state, that is when he truly believed I was committed to him.

I also found it helps to ask them what do they need. Like as in "T, what do we need to do to keep you from cutting class?". We often assume that we know best and forget that they just might have an opinion too. Though don't be surprised if T looks at you like you are speaking a foreign language if you ask him what he needs. I got that the first time from FS#2. In the system they get used to being told, asking them about their needs is a novel experience. FS#2 is much better telling me what he needs now (ok so he sometimes gets wants and needs mixed up, but its progress).

marythemom said...

"gets me out of policing mode and puts me back in touch with the love and the fundamental bond"
I went to a Katharine Leslie seminar this week and this is exactly what she told me I need to do! Good job! As always I'm impressed at how well you're handling such a tough job.

Mary in TX

Lulu McCabe said...

Hi Mary! Thanks - I'm only good sometimes. Don't let me fool you! By the way, loved your recent post about Where the Wild Things Are. T. loves to go see kid movies - on our weekly movie nights, we've been to Alice in Wonderland, Princess and the Frog, all that. But when I suggested we see Where the Wild Things Are he had the strangest reaction. He shut down totally and just steadfastly refused, saying he hates the story, doesn't want to see the movie, and thinks it's "depressing." Now I know why!!!

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