Monday, December 6, 2010

To Be Real

Before we became parents to T., I didn't know it was possible to wake up fully convinced of one point of view, and go to bed fully convinced of the opposite. But that happens fairly often now. Just when we think T. is doing well, he falters. Just when we feel completely bewildered by his behavior, he gets it together. Just when we think we've grown accustomed to his extraordinary qualities, he blows our minds anew.

I am reminded lately of something we learned in our foster/adoptive parenting classes: "Parent the need, not the behavior."

Somehow I forgot that little bit of insight. The behavior can be dang distracting. Last week, we were dealing with broken curfews, marijuana use on school days, faltering (well, actually, failing) grades, angry teachers, and rude, surly, sneaky behavior at home. ("A lot of that is pretty normal for teens," my mom said, nonchalantly.)

The problem with parenting the need rather than the behavior in such situations is seeing the underlying need in the first place. By midweek I had no idea what was going on, and our family life had become a tangle of broken rules and half-dealt consequences. (It's very hard to follow through on consequences when they keep heaping upon each other! Did I take his phone for cussing at me, or for refusing to come home on time? Did he lose his x-box privileges for cutting class, or for refusing to show us his homework assignments? If I take his phone, how will I track him down when he refuses to come home on time?)

I think T. was more disgusted with his behavior than we were. One night midweek, he came to us to talk. He started with with a rambling, introspective description of his time in foster care. He described how in "the system" as he calls it, he felt he "had to be good" because "if you weren't good, you had to go." "I used to do better in school," he said. "But I think that was because I had to, or something bad would happen." We talked about 7-day notices and foster parents who called the social worker when you misbehaved and how hard it can be to trust adults when that's been your experience.

In our parenting classes, they often talked about how kids would "test" any adult who got close to them - pushing boundaries and buttons, perhaps convinced that nobody could truly love them. In our experience, this "testing" is extremely complex. In some sense, we "passed" the test. And yet, that isn't the end. T. isn't just testing us and our loyalty to him; he's testing himself, and the world. The fact that he can count on us raises a host of other questions he never had the luxury to consider. "What happens if I relax?" he seems to be wondering. "What happens if I'm not the good, responsible older brother anymore?" "What happens if I get angry?" "What happens if I refuse to do things I don't want to do?"

It took a full year of living with us (and that was preceded by six months of steady weekend visits) for him to gain enough trust to act out this much. And while he's indulging in bad behavior, he's simultaneously growing deeply attached. He snuggles and tickles, blows raspberries and naps in our bed. I often see him very much like a toddler with tantrums and faulty self-regulation skills, except that he's a toddler who can drive.

Last week, in the midst of a discussion about schoolwork, he said, "You think you know me?"
"Yes," I said. "I do. Ever since the day I met you, you have felt very familiar to me. You make sense to me." He nodded. "I guess you could say that we're similar," he said peacefully.

And therein lies the need, I think. Everyone needs to be precious and to make sense to someone. The utter loneliness of being "good" because otherwise you won't have a home anymore is subsiding in him. In its place, there's confusion, of course. And anger. But there is also authenticity, and the opportunity to love and accept love in return.


beauty obscure said...

In the relationship building/attachment based parenting group I co-facilitate we talk a LOT about 'what age is this' asking parents to see the 2 year old in their 16 year old and then parent what the 2 year old needs. I think it is wonderful that you are recognizing this in your son! You sound like a great Mom!

marythemom said...

Wow Lulu! What great insight! I look forward to your posts because there are so few other parents who have adopted teens (as teens).

Thanks for helping me be a better parent to my teens.

Mary in TX

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