T has been in a fascinating place for the last few weeks: calm, introspective, warm and mostly engaged. He still has troubling behaviors that dog him and, realistically, probably always will. Nothing is "fixed" or "solved". We're just in a good place right now, and grateful for it. He's managed through a combination of the right circumstances (new school, for one) and personal resolve to take better care of himself.
He has a tendency to abandon himself, no doubt stemming from harrowing experiences of abandonment in his early childhood. He'll grapple with that for his whole life, I think. But he is also capable of modulating that instinct. He tries to keep himself engaged, aware and safe most of the time and he is capable of success and growth in that effort. It's like watching someone walk on a frozen lake that you're not sure can support their weight.
To avoid the perils of co-dependency (or perhaps one could just call it disappointment), we try not to worry or fixate on the sustainability of such good times. I try not to nag him or reveal my anxiety about his fragile balancing act. I try to look laid-back, as if I'm pleased and amused but not at all surprised by this recent turnaround. I try to congratulate him, and to make sure he feels the warmth and ease that can flow when you are not in crisis mode.
It occurred to me earlier this week that what we are all learning to do together is to get past the polarity of "good" and "bad". T often strikes me as being trapped in this polarity, driven by fear of being "bad" and self-imposed pressure to be "good" that, ironically, produces a lot of stress-based acting out. (I grew up in a traditional Catholic community and attended strict Catholic schools, and while I'm grateful for many things they taught me, I also think their extreme emphasis on "good" and "bad", and the consequent shame and guilt, helps me better empathize with T.)
The foster care system, at least as we've witnessed it in LA, exacerbates this tendency I see in T. In the first place, the kids are often taken from their families because something "bad" is happening at home. So now they are taught that the consequence of that bad behavior (that of their parent or caregiver) is very extreme indeed: the loss of everything.
Then, if they are not fortunate enough to find a loving, adept foster family (and there is a dramatic shortage), they tend to skip around amongst semi-institutional foster group homes (the kind where there are six or more kids, often around the same age). T did so for about 11 of the 15 years preceding coming to live with us. Those homes tend to have elaborate systems of consequences, and because the child must operate within that system of consequences before she or he has had a chance to form any emotional bond with the adult or adults in charge, they seem to me to privilege discipline over love. If you are "good" you get rewards; if you are "bad" you get consequences - and, as T's experiences makes plain, those consequences can include being packed up and shipped off to a new foster home if you are "really bad."
Then all of this instability creates difficult behavior at school. So now the kid starts getting negative feedback there. T, like other abused kids, developed an ultra-vigilant emotional intuition, such that disapproval or anger directed at him by teachers and administrators takes on a level of significance and threat in his mind out of proportion to reality. And all of that only served to confirm for him the assumption in his child-mind that all of these "bad things" happened to him because he was a "bad kid."
So all that is to say, when we are in a balanced, stable place as we are right now, I try really hard not to tell him he's being "good". I try to show him, and remind myself, that we are all capable of many kinds of behavior, some of it craven and selfish and some of it altruistic and loving. We try not to live on a rollercoaster of extremes or cast ourselves as angels or devils. We try to show him that we aim to avoid hurting ourselves or other people--and to avoid pressuring ourselves with expectations we can't sustain.
I try to do that by being specific with my praise, as in "that was so nice when you explained yourself to me in such polite terms." When I set a limit or a rule, I try to explain why I am making the request. For example, "Be home on time or you're going to lose your privileges" sounds like "don't be bad or something bad will happen". By contrast, "I'd like you home on time because I love you and when you're in the park late at night, I fear you might be hurt by someone else," feels a lot different. He sometimes looks frankly surprised by such explanations.
Surprise is a really good goal, I think. When he registers surprise, I know we've satisfied a need he didn't know he had. He's often surprised by fun, irreverence, unexpected gifts, laughter, and being listened to. Surprise is an interruption in the circuitry laid down by his early childhood. I like to imagine that, when we are most effective as his parents, we are like a gentle jack-in-the-box. "Surprise! You're loved!" or "Surprise! You're forgiven!" or "Surprise! Nothing bad is going to happen today!" The shock of abuse can dictate thought patterns that plague survivors into adulthood, but I think the shock of happiness can sometimes interrupt those patterns or suggest other, unexpected paths.