Thursday, June 3, 2010

No-Strings-Attached Parenting

Recently, I wrote about "no strings attached" parenting: trying to remind myself that I have no claim on T.'s feelings, and need to parent him steadily no matter what he gives back. I'm still knocking this train of thought around, holding it up to the light to see what's up with it.

Here's my new thought: maybe parenting with no emotional strings attached is particularly important with severely abused kids, because so often abusers have sought to control their thoughts and emotions earlier in life. Maybe they need safe space to learn how to have their own feelings - and to learn that feelings won't kill you.

When I listen to T.'s stories, it sounds to me like the adults who mistreated him had emotional objectives. They craved whatever state they felt they could achieve by using him to their ends. Maybe they wanted to feel powerful, or relieve stress and self-hatred by raging at a child. Maybe they lacked emotional self-control, and that was amplified by substance abuse. In any case, it sounds as if there was no distance between internal objectives and external rules - "rules" were made up on the spot in order to justify abuse. Listening to his descriptions of what happened in his early childhood, I feel utterly suffocatingly claustrophobic.

Moreover, I think he was so overwhelmed as a young kid - with hurt, shame, shock and loneliness as he cycled in and out of relative and foster homes - that simply HAVING feelings feels potentially life-threatening to him, as if he might fall into a bottomless well of unhappiness.

So I think in this musing about no-strings parenting, I'm trying to check myself, to be sure that I'm not pressuring him to give me something back for my own self-satisfaction. I want to leave open space for him to think and feel...whatever, when he's ready. I want to ask him to observe certain guidelines regarding what he DOES, but assert no restrictions or expectations of what he should FEEL.

This came up recently in family therapy because in one of his temperamental moments, T. told us that he wasn't sure he could abide by our rules and he thought maybe he should return to foster care. We were very calm and said, "No problem. You're welcome to talk to your social worker about that." I knew at the time that it was a test, and also an authentic expression of pent-up emotion: the alienation and anxiety that are a natural result of the adoption process. I wanted him to have room to air that and understand that the world wouldn't end.

Later in therapy, we went over it together. The counselor likened our relationship with T. to the early stages of marriage, and I think that's apt. On the one hand, "getting adopted" is supposed to be cause for joyous celebration, and T. avidly pursued adoption as a way out of what he saw as the depressing realities of long term foster care. On the other hand, it's a HUGE adjustment, acclimating to new parents and new expectations at the age of 15 or 16. So who wouldn't have a mix of strong feelings?

When T. was a young child, he learned that it was never okay to be mad, or to speak rudely, or to have a bratty meltdown. The abusive parent's moods ruled over everything, and subsumed everything, and the child catered to the adult. Foster care, unfortunately, reinforced the lesson that he must keep his feelings under wraps; he and his brother were both turned out of one home after years for being argumentative and disrespectful. So it's no wonder that today, he regularly denies having feelings. He was not allowed to develop a habit of expressing his feelings and learning how to do so within reasonable limits. Healing means giving ample space for him to be mad, rude, selfish and bratty. He may not hurt himself or someone else, but beyond that, most other things are okay and his internal state is his right. I want open communication, reasonable compliance, and general kindness - but I don't need him to feel a certain way.

It's so interesting to watch him learn this lesson. He looks deeply into my eyes when he's got strong feelings, and I often have the sense that he's trying to figure out if I'm making him feel the way he does, or if I'm feeling the same way he's feeling. I look back and try to help him understand by my expression that I'm not controlling his feelings, and by the same token, he isn't controlling mine. He's having his own feelings. And I'm not going to stop him. We aren't puppets ruled by a common master. It's the beauty of being human.


Anonymous said...

I feel like, in your situation, if my kid had said to me that maybe they should go back into foster care I wouldve said, "NO WAY!" very loudly. As a therapist I spend so much time trying to keep my feelings out of it, I dont even express happiness and excitement for fear that the client will not have the space to feel their own feelings. But I'm starting to feel like thats not the way to do it, as a therapist. And that I wont do it that way as a foster parent, either. What do you think? Do you think there mightve been any room for saying, "R U f-ing kidding, U R not going anywhere, U R my kid!"

Onyx Phynix said...

I really, really liked this post thanks.

Lulu McCabe said...

MrsBasement: You ask such an interesting question and I think every parent has to do what feels right in the moment. I'm sure that this same conversation could have gone the way you imagine and good would come of that too. In our case, though, I think to say "No way! You're mine!" might have escalated things, contributing to his claustrophobia. I also think there was a bit of a threat in his statement - he meant "if you don't let me do what I want, I'll leave." And I felt we couldn't be emotionally manipulated that way - particularly since we're dealing with substance abuse. In the situation, I felt the most loving thing was to let him release that anger and to react with calm love. Soothing and calming are a common strategy at our house, since his PTSD means he easily goes to an escalated state of anxiety. Also, saying "You're welcome to talk to your social worker about that" was a way to set the comment aside. To react "No way!" would make it seem like returning to foster care is a real possibility I need to guard against. Whereas saying "You're welcome to feel that way and even to explore it as an option, but now let's get back to working this out" validated his feelings and kept us in the present. But again, I think you have to do what feels right to you.

Anonymous said...

I always enjoy your your blog. Its always very informative. Alot of what you have written has even helped me with my own biological child. I look forward to the day that I can start my own blog about foster parenting. Your blog as well as many others I am following have openend up a whole new world I didn't know existed. I mean, I always knew I wanted to adopt or foster children, I just had a whole different idea of what it was like. Nothing at all like this. It still hasn't changed my mind about fostering "special" needs children, but I think I will come in with more realistic expectations.

E Miranda Hernandez said...

Lulu, I've been reading your blog for the past week, and this post prompted me to delurk myself. I've liked everything you've written so far, but your emphasis on allowing T to truly be his own person, bad moods and all, really resonates with me. Thank you for sharing your story with us.

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