One of the hardest things we grapple with is T.'s internalized belief that he's a bad person.
It's been apparent since some of our earliest conversations with him. In the beginning, he had an odd habit of opening up during happy times and merilly recounting "bad" things he'd done as a young child - school fights, stealing some candy from a store - on a "just thought you should know" basis.
It gradually became clear that he was a) testing us by seeing how we'd respond, b) letting us in on a history of misbehavior that weighs on his conscience, and c) sharing the logic he uses to make sense of what's happened to him. Like lots of traumatized kids, he believes - and has for a long time - that the abuse that was directed at him happened because he was "bad". And then, like lots of abused kids, it became cyclical, because the abuse made him feel shame and caused him to act out in ways that reinforced his belief that he's bad.
As we've bonded more deeply, I've tried suggesting that behavior is not identity, that I love him and know he's not "bad", and that young kids often indicate through their behavior things they can't explain in words. Such a suggestion often results in both a denial that he has or has ever had any feelings, coupled with further information about things that happened to him as a kid. It's a strange sort of "No, but here's another thing I should tell you that proves your point..." response.
We recently had such a conversation. He made an unwise choice at school one day. We were talking through what happened. He told me I shouldn't be surprised by his behavior because he's "always been bad." I said something like "You know, I've heard you say that a few times - that you were a bad kid. I don't think you are or ever have been a bad kid. I think you've used your behavior to send a message sometimes, and now that you're older, it's a good time for us to talk about what triggers that kind of behavior so you can make smart choices."
This time, his face contorted. He said "Sometimes people don't have a choice about how to behave." I asked him for an example. He said, "I didn't have a choice about whether to take care of my younger brother when we went to foster. I had to do it." There was real rage on his face. That happened when he was about six, and that's about the age his stories of being "bad" begin.
He told me that he thinks he's "rotten". He stopped making eye contact and curled up in fetal position in his chair. He asked me not to say nice things about him anymore. This is a painful place for him - he feels he failed to protect his little brother from some harrowing mistreatment they both endured, and at the same time, he resents his brother, who suffered from serious behavioral issues that overwhelmed T. when he was just a little kid trying to keep things under control.
He stayed quiet for a long minute. Then he snapped up, looked me in the eye, and said "Everything happens for a reason! If I hadn't been in foster care, I never would have met you guys!" He didn't smile when he said it, and he wasn't flattering me - he said it with a fierce fire. He was diverting me and changing the subject, trying to wave me off from a sensitive topic. But he was also telling himself a story that matters to him - one where fate works for him.
We came back to the topic at hand. I asked him what he would do if he were the parent and his kid were cutting class, as he's been doing. He thought for a minute, then said, "I'd observe, to see if it's a pattern. If it continued, I'd take away the things he loves most: his cell phone and the computer." I said, "Interesting, that sounds very wise. Now, how would you know for sure if it were a pattern? Would you check on him at school?" He said, "I'd ask him directly. He usually tells the truth. He told you about it in the first place." I said, "That's true. He is very honest and that's one of the things I like so much about him."
These role-reversal conversations tend to work really well with T. because of the pseudo-parental role he played as a young kid - he slips easily into that frame of mind and can parent himself quite effectively. They also crack me up.
The intensity of the moment passed and we chatted a bit longer. We invited him to let us know if there's anything we can do better as parents, to help take the spotlight off him as we wound down. He loves this question and I often use it to help him end an intense conversation. "Yes," he said in a thoughtful way - at times, he can be quite professorial. "You went too far with my consequences today," he said. "My behavior isn't that bad. We should try to compromise." We did. Then he rose from the table. "Well, that was a very mature conversation," he said, "I'm glad we had this talk." He danced around for a bit, tickled and poked us, then put himself to bed.
Before I became his parent, I thought we'd have a lot more control over how and when we parented. I thought you kind of organized your talking points, sat the kid down and delivered them. I laught at myself now. I didn't know there are all these little doors opening and closing all the time, and you kind of have to lob your parenting wisdom at them and hope to hit the mark. Two parts love - BAM! A quick shot of discipline - POW! Uh oh - incoming negative peer influence. DUCK! Pop back up, articulate reasonable limits. Hope for compliance. Dodge hormonal theatrics. That sort of thing.
It's hard, but it's fun.