Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Looking for Yes

In T's first year with us, we were puzzled by the difficulty of getting him to school. More specifically, being first-time parents, we were puzzled by the fact that he would set off, apparently calm and prepared for the day ahead, only to diverge from his path somewhere en route. I remember talking to my mom (he was a sophomore in high school), and her saying "Well, it's kind of like he's three years old, and you wouldn't put a three-year-old on the bus alone in the morning and expect him to arrive at school without a mishap."

That struck me then and now as exactly true. Intellectually, T has always been his chronological age or well beyond. But like other traumatized kids, his development stalled or circled back on itself at critical junctures.

And why wouldn't one put a three year-old on the bus to school alone? For one thing, of course, they would be physically vulnerable, which T is not. But you also wouldn't do it because they would be too easily distracted, readily exploited by others, incapable of independent judgement, and prone to wander off on some escapade of self-gratification and self-endangerment. Which is pretty much how one might have described the daily risks that pertained to T being out and about in the world.

Upon reflection, it strikes me that he has not yet learned to accept "no" as an answer. He won't accept it from himself and he won't accept it from others. "No", in almost any form, often makes him very angry, sometimes vindictive. With us, in good times, it made him confused. We once had a stunning conversation; he came to me puzzled, after some disciplinary discussion, and said this: "Having parents is hard for me, cuz I used to not care what anyone said, but now I do care what you guys think! That makes me feel controlled and that feels weird!" Wow. Yeah. He was doing okay with that struggle until his substance abuse worsened, and then it was as if he decided to hell with the discomfort of attachment and self-governance, and sank into a craven cycle of pursuing short-term sensations.

I watch my young nephew, and the toddler-aged children of friends. I see those little kids asserting their willpower, trying to get a "yes" - whether by charm, willpower, or force - to whatever they want in the moment. And I see their parents giving them calm redirection, and "no"s, for their own good. Not only did T not attach to anyone in early childhood enough to accept their discipline; he also received very confusing attention from adults. He was in an extremely abusive environment, so much so that to this day, he still had very noticeable physical scars on most parts of his body, including his head. Over the last few years, I've come to understand a little better the wounds that abuse inflicted on the inside.

Whereas one might think that an abused child hears "no" all the time, that is not necessarily the case. I think he rarely heard "no" in any sensible way. Rather, it seems like he rode the rollercoaster of extreme ups and downs of the adults around him, hanging on by his fingernails. In our foster parent training classes, we learned how a human being develops along a timeline that begins with intense dependency and therefore attachment, and that such attachment is vital in many ways. Beyond mere survival, attachment builds the basis of trust and dependence on which a parent can later construct discipline. Those raging toddlers of my friends hate hearing "no" and yet, they love and need their mom or dad, and so they begin to accept limits and, eventually, to set those limits themselves. A kid abused as T was lacks that vital attachment and trust, and therefore lacks the opportunity to move beyond a cycle of craving and self-gratification. It strikes me as a most pernicious form of neglect, to fail to teach a child how to delay gratification and accept appropriate "no"s. Abuse is not discipline, and is, in many ways, its opposite.

All of that is extremely fertile soil for the type of compulsions he has now as a young man. This is part of why I feel resolved that we have to hold strong to the loving "no" we've given him. He is raging against it, pulling out all the stops to try to persuade himself that he can continue to have what he wants, and that anyone who tells him "no" must not love him. That is, of course, the cycle of addiction. He's now beginning to hear a firm "no" from the handful of other people in his life who truly love him, people that he thought he could fool in order to continue to get what he wants.

Observing his struggle from a distance is like watching someone in a fun house full of mirrors trying to steady himself while surrounded by distorted reflections. He keeps looking for "yes", mistaking it for love, or at least love's cheap substitute, while all around him a chorus of voices of people who love him is getting louder, telling him the opposite.


marythemom said...

Another insightful post that really resonated with me. Thank you!

Thank you too for the insight into why my kids react the way they do to the word, "no." This explains a few things.

LaurenL said...


Anonymous said...

I'm so grateful for your posts, for both the similarities and differences from my own parenting journey.

Carla said...

I am fostering a 15 year old girl whose journey reflects your son's, who sometimes can only punch love in the face. Thanks so much for these words.

marythemom said...

I glanced at the beginning of this post and the part about putting a 3yo on a bus jumped out at me. Recently I watched Pinocchio again, and it struck me that Gepetto sent Pinocchio to school by himself the next morning. Who does that? Pinocchio was less than a day old, and big surprise he was diverted by the fox, and got into all sorts of trouble. Is it any wonder why our kids, who are emotionally much younger than they are chronologically get into trouble?!

Why can't we just be allowed to treat them based on their emotional age? If that were the case maybe my son would have been encouraged to stay home, instead of being repeatedly told he was an adult now and needed to be independent and not listen to his parents any more. He chose to follow society's expectations for him and out on his own he made really bad choices. Within months, he was off his meds, in jail, charged with a first degree felony.

We talk about kids aging out of the system. My son had a home. He didn't have to be out on his own, but he didn't feel he had a choice. His addictions and traumas, combined with encouragement from school and other people who weren't tailoring to his needs, but just giving him the standard spiel... may have made this inevitable, but I hate that we didn't get any support in trying to change that.


Lulu McCabe said...

Hi Mary. I really have a lot of empathy for your situation! T is not dissimilar - encouraged by "friends" he charged out into the world thinking that at 18, he can do what he wants, only to find that he's totally lost. While he was in school, doing independent study at home gave us a window of time when we were able to respond to his needs, rather than chronological, age. But like you, with teachers and social workers and counselors, we often found that they didn't take the time to understand him very well, and tended to treat him as if he should be able to just snap out of it, stop the destructive behaviors, and get himself ready for adulthood. As I often say, "If he could do that, I believe that he would, but he can't, so what do we do now?" The bottom line for me is that there just aren't enough options for mental health care for deeply traumatized kids and young adults. I know there will be a day when he'll be ready to get help for himself, and I want to have an option for him, but we've knocked on so many doors already and I've come to the conclusion that we just have way too few mental health care providers to meet the needs of our kids.

marythemom said...

The sad thing is that while I think that my son still needs mental health providers to help him, I think a lot of this behavior is caused by permanent damage, and he needs support in a totally different type of life (full of caring, enforceable structure) to stay out of trouble. As far as I can tell jail is as close as we're going to get (which only provides safety, not therapeutic help). No one will force him to take his meds and stop him from running so he can work on his issues now that he's an "adult." If only his IQ were just 10 points lower all the time!


Lulu McCabe said...

Hey Mary. We've felt something similar - the only really good therapist we ever worked with told me that she feels sure he has some brain injuries due to prenatal drug/alcohol exposure that require long-term management. I asked her what to do, given his present state, and she said "wait" - and I know she understands fully just how excruciating and potentially dangerous that is. But her advice was that we might need to wait until his brain development matures, in his mid/late twenties (!). Then she advised seeking out a specialist who understands organic brain damage caused by prenatal exposure, and said she's seen such specialists help young adults like him learn a framework for managing their behavior to compensate for some of the impulse control and executive function that's been compromised. I really hope that in waiting, his legal problems don't overwhelm his life. The metaphor she used is that kids like him can learn behavioral management the way someone who has lost a limb might learn to walk.

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