Friday, March 23, 2012


Like other abused kids, T has developed formidable powers of resistance. It sometimes feels as if he is leading a sit-in right in the middle of our lives, though he doesn't really have a cause to protest. He's just protesting for sake of protest.

I truly believe that the origin of his resistance is a lifelong sensation of deep helplessness. Understanding where it comes from doesn't make it much easier to live with though, particularly when it is combined with a tendency toward episodes of self-destructive behavior and substance abuse.

A child with this level of resistance will make you want to tear your hair out sometimes. His behavior has, at various times, driven teachers to the brink of insanity, brought seasoned counselors to tears, and alienated friends and family. He acts as if he believes that everyone in his life is trying to FORCE him to do something, and his survival depends on completely resisting the will and wishes of others.

If you know a little about his childhood, that makes complete sense, in its own way. Adults did force him to do things, and did things to him, and constantly disrupted his life. His early life sounds to me like being strapped into a high speed rollercoaster you can't get off; it just kept going, at stomach-churning speed, plunging over steep drops and careening around disorienting turns and flipping upside down. When I think of it, I feel my own body tense up as if to say "stop!", so it's not too surprising he developed a mental habit of extreme resistance.

Today, as a young adult, that trauma translates into refusing to get out of bed, sometimes for the whole day; refusing to develop interests or activities; deliberately circumventing chores, favors and obligations, and not showing up when or where you are supposed to be if you want to make a point or feel overwhelmed. His tactics of passive resistance are extremely highly developed, and his resilience is very weak. Unfortunately, his opposition is totally indiscriminate; sometimes it seems that he resists nearly everyone and everything.

Usually at least one of us is frayed and worn from the needless power struggles, but we do have some techniques that work (sometimes):

- "I" statements. "You need to be here at 3 pm to go to treatment" creates counter-will. "I will be here at 3 pm and I'd like you to be ready to come with me" actually does work better. Not always, but more often.

- Unflinching acceptance of natural consequences. It is HARD to stand by and watch what happens if your near-adult kid refuses to do mandatory community service, for example, or get himself to his job when he's scheduled to work. But we have learned that no amount of coaching, cajoling, nagging, or offering additional incentives really makes a difference. Despite our very best efforts to help him, he is going to self-sabotage, and there are lessons he will only learn the hard (hardest) way. It is unfair to rob him of the opportunity to learn those lessons. I'd rather than he learn them while he is under my roof, before his rent money is on the line, too. So we provide guidance and choices, and then sometimes we just have to stand back and wince as he learns the consequences of his mistaken reasoning.

- Disengagement. T's behavior sometimes reflects a huge dilemma: a yawning need for attention, on the one hand, and a formidable suppressed rage on the other. The result of that is a confused attempt to meet his needs by doing things that are deliberately annoying, provocative, or downright confrontational. The only productive way to respond is to disengage. It sends the message: "I am separate from you and I have my own reality and my own feelings that you cannot control." This strategy works REALLY well to counter his resistance, because it removes the validation that comes from provoking and frustrating someone.

If that all sounds really Zen, please let me be the first to admit, it doesn't always work, and I burn out plenty often. The pointless protesting wears thin. Compassion can get you far, but some days, there's still a gap. On the upside, working with him has made me keenly aware of the fluctuations in my own will and counter-will. I notice it at work, where we are all asking one another constantly, some variation on "Can you do what I want?" and "Can I do what you want?". I hope T can grow to a baseline that allows him to participate in that normal adult kind of negotation.

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