Sunday, August 21, 2011

Teenagers are Children Too

Last week, during our family visit at the treatment house, I was being a nag. T lost his patience, stormed away from the table where we were having dinner and refused to come back for group family therapy (which we do every Sunday). We shrugged our shoulders and, after he made it clear he would not return, left.

During the course of the week, we got a reasonable apology letter explaining that "I get a lot of feedback here every day and sometimes I just don't want to hear anymore. I'm working on myself, and I'm making change, but more pressure from you doesn't help." He added "What I did was wrong," and also "You are the best parents I could have!" He excels at stream-of-consciousness.

We returned to family group this week, and T made me an origami paper heart while we were talking. He also made a lengthy speech for all present about how he is there voluntarily, and about how he came there because he wanted to stop hurting us. He went on to explain that he used to think that it was his choice if he wanted to do things that caused him harm, but eventually saw that hurting himself was hurting us, and realized he didn't want to cause pain to those who love him.

He also went on to share an epiphany that I found most striking. It went something like this:

I like to help other people, but I could never help myself. I wanted to focus on others, because to focus on helping myself would mean thinking about my history. I didn't want to look at my history. I've been through pretty much everything you can go through. I am starting to realize that I can help myself by looking at what I've been through, and that helps me listen better to other people too.

I am often astonished when the kids join us for the join parent/teen session at how much they illuminate the room with their insight and tenderness. Most are on parole, and all are "at risk", or however you want to put it. Many are not there voluntarily. And yet they are all working so hard to communicate with their moms and dads, and they are full of self-reflection and uncertainty and perception. It makes me think that perhaps teen addiction and teen treatment is quite unique; their motivation to repair a rift with a parent, and their awareness about needing parenting in the first place is surprising and moving. Their flexibility is also striking - they try out new ideas, and absorb optimism when it is offered to them. They are all still children, in many ways, some perhaps all the more because they have missed out on certain healthy experiences of adolescent independence by falling into substance abuse and dependency.

Tonight, we mixed it up and parents spent some time talking with a kid other than their own. The boy I was paired with told me how much he wants his dad to take him to the movies. He said that his dad works so hard that he only has time to talk to him when he does something wrong. He wasn't accusatory - he offered this in a shy, gentle way. What struck me was how earnestly he longed for his dad to just ask him to the movies.

I think sometimes as parents of a teenager, it's easy to assume that they'd rather die than spend time with you in public. But that's not true, according to these kids. They seem to just want a break from official parenting, long enough to see that you really really like them. As one of them said tonight, "When we were using, we stayed out all night and all we thought about was what we wanted. Now we're all in here, all we want to do is get that next visit with our parents. All week, I just think about when I'm going to see my mom."

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