Friday, December 16, 2011


Ah, sigh. We're in a down cycle. It was bound to happen.

At times like this, I'm often aware that I'd like to be a therapeutic parent, capable of endless patience and commitment, but I'm too human to achieve that. I get tired of the cycles. I find it hard to strike the right balance between warmth and compassion, on the one hand, and reasonable limit-setting on the other. I find an average of extremes more often than I find true balance; parenting him is like sailing, leaning into the wind of love and connection one minute, and then suddenly shifting to the other side and using your weight to provide discipline and structure. Just when I think we've hit a patch of calm water, a gust comes up and we're off again.

An acquaintance recently said to me in passing when I was describing some new challenge with T, "Oh, he's just a typical teenager." But he isn't. It might look that way to outsiders. We deal with many of the usual teen issues - sex, driving privileges, parties, curfews. The difference is that a typical teenager (hopefully) went through a period of loving attachment and parental limit-setting ten or fifteen years ago, and despite the gale force of hormones and teen brain development mitigating against sanity, they formed basic habits of self-governance. That just isn't true with a kid like T. He might seem like a regular teenager (often he even seems hyper-disciplined) to someone who sees him for a few hours, but at home, things are quite different. There's a lot of chaos and confusion and cycle-rinse-repeat that goes on at our house. As my mom always says, it's like parenting a three year-old who is six-foot-three and can drive a car and is simultaneously experiencing all the physical and psychological changes of adolescence.

There's a reason we humans first attach to our mothers, then go through our toddler years, and only later, go through adolescence. It's very turbulent to go through all of those stages at once. When other kids were learning to accept limits from a loving, attached parent, T learned that nobody is looking out for you. He learned to keep his instincts on high alert because misfortune could (and often did) befall him on a regular basis. He learned that a hint of anger or frustration in someone's voice might signal life-threatening violence in the immediate offing. He learned that nobody could ever understand his needs, nor would they want to meet them if they could. He learned that mistakes might bring extreme punishment or even abandonment. He learned that other people will use you and take from you and that if you want to survive, you need to be prepared to do the same.

There are days when, frankly, nothing works. It might take him until he's 30 to learn a new pattern. He might struggle with the same patterns for his whole life. I still want him to be safe and achieve a basic level of well-being. He works harder than most, and results are much, much harder to come by. What often happens despite our best intentions is that he makes a poor decision, and I get exasperated, and he can sense that. Then he feels shame, and that makes him disconnect, and then I feel guilty, and then we both feel bad. Eventually, we manage to pull ourselves out of that cycle and reconnect, and then we try all over again.

He makes me very, very aware of my own limitations and personality flaws, which is only fair, because I probably serve to make him feel his more keenly too. It's something to work on--and an aspect of motherhood that, in my opinion, is not often acknowledged in honest terms.


GB's Mom said...

It is inevitable when therapeutic parenting. No one human can maintain those standards all the time. Kudos for doing your best and regrouping.

Anonymous said...

Yes! I've been there and felt that! Thanks for expressing this so clearly.

Anonymous said...

It is a pet peeve of mine when some well meaning person makes a comment "He is just like everyone else" or "all teens do that". It's so untrue. I bet I've explained hundreds of times over the years that the difference between my boys and "all teens" is the intensity and duration of the behaviors. No one could be a perfect therapeutic parent all the time given the challenges our kids bring home. Give yourself a little break.

Merry Christmas to you and T.

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