Friday, October 29, 2010

Raising Alpha

I'm taken with Cesar Milan and Dog Whisperer right now. I watch it at the gym. Something about the formulaic drama of a dog, usually raised without proper discipline and order, trying to fit in to some family or other, and humans who do all the wrong things for mostly loving reasons I find...gripping. The dogs who pull at my heart strings are the alphas who don't have a pack to lead, or whose humans have let them run amok.

I often find myself musing on the fact that T. is an alpha. I don't mean that he is any way like a dog, or anything less than a fully human young man. But in the dynamics of the fear, aggression, anxiety and uncertainty of confused alphas that play out on Dog Whisperer I find a certain...poetic resonance.

Tim is out of town right now. When he leaves overnight, T. gets temporarily confused. I think he wonders whether, with Tim away, my power might be diminished. He also feels more vulnerable. Tim is a steady rock. I have a tendency to serve meals late and to "innovate" with household routines. That, coupled with the fact that I'm female, and nine inches shorter than T., leads to extra alpha behavior. He startles at unexpected noise. He checks the locks on the doors before bed several times. He hovers near me instead of relaxing at home. He thinks he's in charge. He's trying to help. I find myself being extra authoritative.

I think alphas are oft misinterpreted. In his assertiveness, physical strength and controlling behavior, T. doesn't intend aggression. He never hurts anyone--never even comes close. In his world, he's helping. If nobody is in charge, well then somebody better be, and he figures "It may as well be me." He is leaderly. He once told me in a quite guileless way "I have to test my teachers; I see if they are in charge of the class, and if they aren't, I take charge!" He said it in a very sunny way as if he were saying he picks up trash on the playground. I realized that on some level he really intends it as a service. LOL. (I don't have to tell you that his teachers aren't so grateful.)

When he is relatively secure, his alpha qualities have many lovely manifestations. He cares for young children at the hospital, and he loves his uniform and his responsibilities. Every night at our house, he makes a thorough investigation of every room before bed, turning off lights and tidying things up. In a former foster home with six children, he woke early every day so he could rouse the other kids and get them showered and off to school in an orderly way. (When the foster mom refused to drive them all to school one rainy day, he also led a "sit in" in the living room until she called the police.)

When he's not so secure, he has some more annoying alpha behaviors. He'll stand in front of you when you're trying to pass from one room to the next, effectively blocking your route and forcing you to interact with him. He issues demands, orders and prohibitions. He plays rough. He's just kind of bossy. Yesterday he texted me at work "Buy me some Cheez Its." Um, no.

I love my alpha child. I was an alpha child myself. I ran for student council class leader every year. I edited the newspaper. I dominated in sports. I was taller than everybody else. It's just how I was. I think it takes an alpha to parent an alpha. Without an alpha parent, an alpha child can reach for power that isn't appropriate. Alpha children need to be challenged with complex tasks and given constructive ways to demonstrate their strength under the guidance of alpha adults, but they also need to be kids, unburdened with responsibility for everyone else.

I think living with two alphas is a little hard on Tim because he isn't naturally an alpha parent. Tim is a negotiator; he is a classic beta. He isn't insecure or uncertain; he's just mellow. He is happy to be next in line, after the leader. When T. asserts his alpha-ness, part of Tim thinks "Okay, you're in charge." Then another part of him thinks "Wait, I'm the parent--I must be in charge!" and still another part of him thinks "Lulu is in charge, and she's gonna be mad at me for letting T. take charge!" He looks befuddled by the competing voices in his head. He is so important though - he is teaching T. to be respectful in the way he uses his power and showing him that there are multiple models of masculinity.

I think being a good alpha parent is about calm, confident, decisive discipline--but it is mostly about providing: protection, safety, predictability, food, money, shelter, advocacy and affection. T. doesn't need to do anything to get those things; it is our responsibility, being in charge of the household, to provide them. When he no longer needs them (at least not daily), he'll be ready to be in charge of his own pack, even if its a pack of one. Until then, it's our job. He can "help" - but he doesn't need to take over.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Taken Away

A year into T.'s placement, we still have regular visits from social workers - an adoption worker, a caseworker, and occasional miscellaneous inspectors.

Right now, we have an upcoming visit from a social worker we haven't met before. Hers is a one-time visit to assess his ongoing eligibility for the therapy services.

We try to keep such things low-key for him. So last night I said, "There's a social worker coming tomorrow. She wants to ask you if we're going to therapy, and she might ask you how you're doing in school. She's not one of your caseworkers - she's one of the social workers who comes to check us out as parents and keep up on whether we're doing a good job and following through on their recommendations."

We were at a Korean spa (this is LA, after all) lolling around in the family area having a snack at the time. He rolled over on his back, put his hands over his eyes, and said in a monotone "They're the ones who come to take you away."

Uh oh! "I don't think so," said Tim. "She's just coming to check up on how things are going. There's some paperwork they have to do."

"Yeah," said T without uncovering his eyes. "I know the system. Those kinds of social workers are the ones who can take you away."

I said clumsily, "It sounds like what you're saying is that you've met this kind of social worker before, the kind who come to check up on the parents. You've been through that before, right?"

"Yeah," he said. He curled into fetal position and closed his eyes and wrapped his arms around his head. He's 6' 4" and very much a regular sixteen year-old man-boy, but at that moment he was a much younger and more vulnerable kid.

He didn't really need for us to explain at that point that he isn't going anywhere. He wasn't really expressing anxiety that he'd be removed from our home - he was just remembering. He was removed from his relatives twice - around six, and again around nine. He told me that he cried when he was taken away from them, and he has never cried since. He worries about why he's unable to cry. He says nothing ever really carries the same weight as being taken from your family, so he has trouble finding the use in crying over anything these days.

I try to remember this when I'm low on patience or feeling intolerant of his anger and his need for control. Just the mere mention of an unexpected social worker visit was enough to make him nearly catatonic. That kind of fear doesn't subside quickly and in some ways it will be with him always, even as he grows into a strong, articulate, determined young man.

Thursday, October 14, 2010


This was our third parent/teacher night since T. moved in last year and we're getting the hang of it. Back when we were novice parents - having never parented before T. moved in last year at the age of 15 - we made some naive assumptions. We went to our first parent/teacher night expecting that the child we know and love at home is the same one his teachers get to see every day.

Silly us.

This year we're smarter. It no longer shocks us that T. is either an A student or a D student with no happy medium. It no longer mystifies us that the kid who is generally very orderly and organized at home is scattered and forgetful at school, arriving to class without his books, without the homework he did the night before. We weren't caught off guard this year to learn that, although he's serious and thoughtful and introverted at home, he's the clown and the life of the party in class.

T. is the kind of child who makes teachers eyes widen when you introduce yourself. At parent/teacher night, they tend to speak to the other parents in a quiet whisper, looking through their grade books and sharing marks and little tips on how the student can improve. When we introduce ourselves, they push their chair back, shove the grade book aside, and--more often than not--launch into a lengthy reflection on his "colorful" personality. Sometimes they are visibly discombobulated, their eyes searching ours for a clue as to how to control him. A few have been plain old rattled by him, unable to hold back a flood of frustration.

A very distinct profile emerges of the teacher to whom he responds best. They are always women, young, soft-spoken, firm, confident and adept. In these classes, he requires an occasional quiet correction but generally excels, earning As. Algebra and Biology have gone this way. Other classes--chemistry, PE, geometry--have not. His marks have little to do with the subject area, the time we spend helping him with his homework, or the intellectual rigor required by the discipline. They have everything to do with the dynamics of the classroom and the confidence of the teacher.

His clowning in class isn't a simple grasping for attention; its a symptom of anxiety. When I go to parent/teacher night, I see what T's day is like. The public address system is blaring. The school looks rather like a prison - bars on the windows, guards at the doors. The classrooms are crowded. In one of his classes today, another kid jokingly called him a crack baby. T. replied that in fact he had been born crack-addicted. That's what school is like for him. Very little of his day has to do with learning. He experiences school as an exercise in social control, humiliation, chaotic authority, and general pandemonium.

There are some bright points. His African American Studies teacher this semester is one of them. He takes the enlightened approach that his job as a teacher is not to set traps or catch the students with tricky quizzes and homework assignments. He wants to engage them and make them love learning and love life, and love learning about the world. It totally works. Class discussion spills over to our dinner table that evening - T. is so engaged, he wants to keep the conversation going and tell us what he's learned and share the opinions he's learned to articulate in the class. But there are so few teachers like him.

It's hard to parent a child like T. sometimes, because his intellectual capabilities and general wisdom are so at odds with his emotional maturity. He is both five and forty-five at the same time. We want to be sure we hold him to the highest standards of which he is capable. At the same time, we want to create an atmosphere at home where he can relax and get what he needs, and that means keeping stress to a minimum.

It's also hard to explain how tangled his history makes basic issues of behavior. In his early life, he learned to avoid abuse by being perfectly compliant. As an older child who badly wanted to find adoptive parents, he subjected himself to excessive self-discipline, disguising his rough edges and showing adults what he thought they wanted to see so that he would be a "desirable" child. So I often feel caught in a classic catch 22: if I hold him to the highest standards of academic achievement of which he's capable, I contribute to his success, but I also play into his perverse perfectionism and stress him out. If I parent to his emotional needs and allow him to relax and behave as the much younger child he is in terms of his emotional development, then I fear that I'm undermining his potential for academic achievement.

So I ask myself a lot what matters. The part of him that is the youngest, freshest, newest and most vulnerable is the part that is loving and accepting of love. It's the part that recently started blowing us air kisses when he leaves for school in the morning. Bio parents who start with babies have years to build bonds before they have to turn their attention to preparing a kid for college. We arrived late to the party and we have to make choices about which message to send him at any given moment, and which growth buttons to push.

Saturday, October 9, 2010


Long time no blog, because the back-to-school season and a busy phase at work kept my fingers from my keyboard.

Back-to-school: a mixed blessing for sure. We don't need to fill T.'s days. On the other hand, he's a junior in high school in a big city with lots of opportunities to get up to his business and a certain fragility in terms of his self-esteem.

Last Monday, we busted him leaving for school with a Coke bottle full of vodka and orange juice. How did we find this out? Well, we read his text messages. Imagine my horror when I discovered a text letting his friends know he'd be bringing some vodka 'n orange for an early morning rendezvous. Imagine how much I kicked myself for even having vodka in the house! Until now, he has been entirely averse to alcohol (but not marijuana), but it was stupid to have it around.

Had this happened last year, we would have freaked out completely. We're becoming more seasoned. After he left the house, we actually kind of shrugged and sat down to our morning coffee before thinking about whether he needs rehab or just a good grounding. In part, we've learned to manage our reactions better in order to preserve our own health and sanity. Adopting a teenager can be like going from zero to 100 mph without a period of adjustment and the g-force occasionally leaves us limp. Panic is the enemy, and no good for our partnership either.

I still didn't have the answer when I got home from work that evening. T was playing video games quietly in the tv room. I decided to just wing it. I went it, sat down close to him, and said "I think you left for school this morning with vodka in your orange juice. I don't want to argue about whether that is or isn't true. I just really want to hear from you why you did that. I'm worried and I need to understand what's going on."

He turned to me with his huge round eyes. He had a gentle sad expression. "I don't know why I did it," he said. He's not a particularly good liar, nor a particularly manipulative child. He looked genuinely quizzical. I said, "Were you angry? Have you been drinking before school? Did you hope that I'd notice?"

"I haven't been drinking," he said. "This was the first time. But my behavior has always been a problem. I don't know why. I do good in my classes, but I behave badly." He really does talk like this sometimes - in part, the "system" as he calls it taught him to be self-critical in this way. But it's also part of his personality.

"Why do you think that is?" I asked.

He made his puzzled face. Then he said softly, "I think about so many things. Like my mom is never going to talk to me again. And my brother, he's still in the system. We came in together, but now I'm out of the system and he's still in it. I think about it all the time."

Nobody planted this idea in his mind, and it's rare that he refers to his various tragedies - he despises the idea that anyone might feel sorry for him. He and I have talked about his mom and his brother a few times over the past year, but not often, by his choosing. We tried visits with his brother, but T. shut it down - the dynamic between them is extremely complicated and painful. For awhile, he had polite contact with his mom (and so did I, to a limited extent) but she flew into a rage last spring and cut him off. There is no easy obvious "fix" in this situation. It will take a lifetime to make sense of it.

We talked for awhile about the difference between teenage experimentation with drugs and alcohol and using drugs and alcohol to cover up feelings that seem unmanageable. I told him that if I feel that substance abuse has got him by the tail, I am going to step in because I love him. T. and I have gone many rounds trying to make progress on reducing his use of marijuana. Consistent limits are a necessity, but the only thing that works so far is when we ask him to modify his behavior just because we care about him. No other consequences or rewards have made one lick of difference. I offered that instead of punishment, what I'd like is a quiet evening without television or video games, and for us to spend some time talking a bit more about what's going on with him.

It was a bumpy conversation. We sat together in his room for awhile and he stared at the floor. He told me how he hasn't been able to cry since the last time he was removed from his family. I told him how I think about his birth mom a lot and feel badly that she missed out on his childhood (they didn't meet until he was twelve). We talked about how maybe his mom doesn't know what to say and how to make it right between them. By way of helping him depersonalize his mother's rage, we talked about how using drugs for a long time change someone's personality and make it very hard for them to control their anger. He told me that there's a "secret reason" why his mom doesn't want to talk to him or any of his siblings, a reason he can't share with me. We talked about some options for rebuilding his relationship with his brother, and he offered that he thought he'd like to start with regular phone calls.

I also asked him what he would do if he were the parent and he found out his most-loved child was taking vodka to school in the morning. He got a very serious look on his face - he slips easily into the role of parent/counselor and he really likes this approach. "Well," he said, "I would ask him. Did he drink it? If so, I would treat it very seriously. Did he sell it? That would be very bad, and he would have to lose his privileges and be in big trouble. But if he took it and gave it to someone else, and he didn't know why, and it was his first time, I would talk with him and try to understand him, and I would let him know that if he EVER, EVER does this again, there will be very serious consequences."

That's some childish logic, and not the final word on the subject. Obviously giving alcohol to other kids at school is totally unacceptable. But I do appreciate the progress he's making toward recognizing a connection between his use of mood-altering substances and the pain and confusion that come from the losses he's sustained.

Since our conversation, we've had nearly two weeks of much more moderate, relaxed behavior. Recently, he asked me to fire our therapist. "We do our own therapy," he said. "She doesn't know me." (In another post, I'll write about our frustrations with therapy and the general lack of services for teenagers like him.) T. makes me realize all the time that all that keeps us from falling off the edge sometimes is knowing that we don't want to hurt or disappoint someone who's opinion we care about, someone we feel really knows us. We can't fix what's happened or stop T. from feeling deep grief about everything he's lost. But we can sit with him, know him well, be honest with him when he's off-track and let him be honest with himself.
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