Thursday, November 18, 2010


I'm working on a new homeland security advisory system for our little household.

Red: severe behavioral turbulence ahead; batten the hatches
Orange: high likelihood of tantrums, outbursts, insults and defiance
Yellow: elevated antics with no threat of harm
Blue: guarded relaxation; constant supervision not needed
Green: all systems go; no precautionary measures required

I think traumatized kids (and ALL teenagers) probably spend a lot of time in the yellow and orange zones. But as we head toward the holidays, security systems indicate we are in the red zone.

How did storm season announce it's arrival? With not one but two suspensions in a single week, two calls from the dean, one call from the guidance counselor, and three nights of not arriving home as requested for dinner.

Discipline has its limits. I figure self-discipline is a skill and a developmental achievement, not something one can just demand and expect compliance. We have rules and consequences, but this kind of shitstorm (pardon me) of misbehavior defies that kind of logic.

Today when the dean called me at work (she's great, it was a good talk), I said, "Have you noticed that T. has really been acting differently for the past, oh, two weeks?" And she said with a sharp relief, "Yes! Exactly!" He's got his history teacher on the brink of a nervous breakdown, he was hauled into the office by campus security, and in one of his classes he flatly refuses to stay in his seat. The dean and I agreed that I'd take him to work tomorrow instead of sending him in for "campus cleanup in lieu of suspension" and we'd see if a week of Thanksgiving vacation with us calms him down and helps us figure out what in the hell is going on.

Tonight when we all got home, we suggested that he take some time and come to us when he felt ready to talk. A few hours later he came to chat. "I don't usually get suspended," he said. "Something is wrong. I need to work on my behavior." He really does say things like that in a genuine way. At the same time, it sounded a little like parroting the sort of thing he thinks he's supposed to say. "Sounds good," I said. "But sometimes our behavior gets away from us and we just can't control it, even if we try. That can happen when something is bothering us inside and we maybe don't even know it."

"I think it's my brother," he said, right away. "Like, if I don't take him with us for the whole Thanksgiving holiday, then I feel like I'm not doing the right thing and I'm doing bad, but...." he trailed off, ashamed.

Oh shit! Why did I not stay on top of this?! Exactly two weeks ago, his brother called and invited himself for Thanksgiving. But we have plans to go away for a week, and that's a little more time with his brother than T. can really handle. So he dodged and said he'd call him back. I saw the confusion on his face and offered a fix, but when he didn't respond right away, I moved on and didn't try hard enough to go back and help him resolve it.

His brother lives in a group home, and longs to see T., but having grown up together in some severely traumatic situations and then been separated for prolonged periods, they don't have an easy dynamic. T. was very clear that he did not want to be adopted with his brother, long before we met him. He does however feel obliged to stay in touch and we encourage and facilitate that whenever we can. Visits are hard for him.

So when he described his dilemma tonight, it rang true right away. In short, it's the kind of dilemma that can produce a cascade of survivor guilt.

I offered, "I imagine also that your dilemma with your brother isn't just about this Thanksgiving - maybe it reminds you of when you guys were younger, and you felt torn about taking care of him." He gave me a long stare with the giant eyes and then a tiny nod. "Okay," I said. "I want to just give you two quick sentences of parental wisdom, if I may?" Tiny nod again. "I know it was hard and you felt responsible for him. What happened isn't your fault. You were a kid. There are things that happened that you just couldn't have changed. And you're still a kid, and that's okay if you just want to be a regular kid." Tiny nod. Huge eyes. Then he said, "Well, thank you for this talk." That's his usual exit strategy when he's reached his limit of emotional vulnerability. He hung around though.

After a breath, we came back to the issue at hand, and asked if he might let us take care of it for him. We agreed that Tim will call T.'s brother for him and offer a fabulous post-Thanksgiving weekend at our house. T. will be allowed to go out if he needs to. We told him he needn't worry about entertaining his brother, we'll take him to the movies and keep him busy.

He agreed quickly. He milled around a little more, said a nice good night, and went to bed early. The weird thing about T., in terms of security advisories, is that he often goes from the red zone straight to the green zone rather suddenly. We're in a crisis, and then we're fine. I guess that's life with a smart, traumatized older kid who is still learning self-regulation and sorting out some huge dilemmas.

It is a big deal for him to identify what's bothering him. It's an even bigger thing for him to allow us to tend to it for him, instead of trying to power through it all on his own, which has been his modus operandi for most of his young life. What an honor. I really mean that.

No comments:

Site Meter