Friday, March 30, 2012

I parent teens. What's your superpower?

Came across this question... Privileges for Teens from Hard Places
How do you find the balance of allowing older children and teens from “hard places” to have freedoms/privileges when they haven’t shown the same level of respect  that you would expect from your other children?

My response was too long for the comment box.  LOL. So here it is.

We struggle with this a lot.  We have three youngsters who have been with us for three years, ages 13, 13 and 11.  I have three older children, but only one is at home, age 17, and super easy-going. 
Our 13-yr-old daughter has thought she should have the same privileges as the 17-yr-old from the very beginning (when they were 10 and 14), and has thrown many stubborn fits because of that.  We really haven't found a way to get her to the point of accepting that she is not an adult yet.  So, we have a lot of important conversations about responsibility and privilege.  At present, she is grounded for lying to us about the movie that was slated for an overnight party to which she was invited.  Therefore, she is working really hard to earn back the privilege of going to see her favorite aunt and uncle for a few days at spring break.  We find that when they have something to work for in their minds, they are more attentive to behaving well and treating people with respect and kindness. In other words, working to gain privileges is a better motivator than the threat of losing privileges. 
Our 13-yr-old son, her twin, acts out in different ways, but he too feels he does not need us to teach him anything or even to keep him alive and well.  He knows all.  He has a really hard time accepting help in any way, and will shift into defiance mode at the smallest trigger that indicates he actually does need help.  His acting out was way worse three years ago, and with patience and endless explaining of actions leading to consequences (lost privileges), he has learned a lot.  He has the hardest time when he hasn't eaten enough, and when math is involved. 
The 11-yr-old was the easiest in the beginning, but he has really started expressing his anxiety and anger lately with very rude and demanding comments, and not listening, and not doing as he is told.  We have found that the three of them have different triggers and different ways of trying to gain power, but that it is all about habits of thought and a whole lot of anxiety due to the losses and hardships they have endured.  So, we try to address the thought habits and the anxiety. 
We have found that writing helps them figure things out so whenever they lose privileges, and have work added to make amends for wrong-doing, we also sometimes ask them to write in their journals about the issue.  (We have also often had "a letter of apology" as one consequence for acts of disrespect and hurtful behavior.)  They start out writing from their anger and survivial brain, but slowly, the urge to explain their side moves them into their cognitive brain. 
We do try to give them some power of choice around following through with their consequences. For example, if their behavior interferes with everyone else and we send them to their room, they are allowed to come back when they are ready to treat people kindly.  Or when they have a list of things to do to make amends, they can choose in what order to do them.  My aim is to empower, so even when I have to hold a boundary by taking away privileges, I try to help them see get in touch with their personal power.
All of this takes time.  So, I have learned to be okay with missing events or being late to events in the name of good therapeutic parenting practices.  My friends know this, and my boss does, too.  Love and healing are the priority in my life.  (I'm even getting better at taking the time to love and heal myself!)
My husband and I have had the most success when we have kept ourselves calm and strong in our commitment to what we call Constant Vigilance.  (Oh my goodness, of course, there are moments this does not happen! We all have triggers, people!)  One part of CV parenting (to coin a new term?) is giving frequent positive comments of appreciation when someone is doing good things, like catching themselves in a rude remark and backing up or asking for something with a kind voice or expressing a difficult feeling in a respectful way.  We had to teach them how to do these things and it took a lot of repetition.   Another part of this kind of parenting is intolerance of disrespect.  We try to catch the issues when they are just starting.  We've taught our kids they can change their minds, they can choose a better attitude; they can drop a rude tone of voice or stubborn stance like they can drop a pencil.  We taught (and re-teach on a regular basis) about triggers, habits, survival strategies, and coping versus thriving.  We praise them for having the smarts to come up with ways to feel powerful while living in a children's home for five years, and remind them that those strategies don't work in a family.  I offer choices and I try to give them ways to save face. 
It is parenting out loud... sometimes we talk through our own thought processes.  "Wow, I'm really annoyed by this big mess in the kitchen.  I wanted to come in the door and make some yummy food, but now I have to clean up somebody else's mess first.  Man, I just want to scream and have a tantrum.  But, that won't get me any closer to having food in my belly.  So, I think I will ask for some help with clean-up, and write a note to remind people about putting stuff away and wiping up."  (Yeah, someday, even I will be able to calmly respond to a kitchen mess.)
The funky mind tricks can last for hours and hours, but I just keep on stating the expectation and the privileges at stake.  But sometimes, when he is really stuck, I have to get creative.  I put some music on, gently stand behind my stubborn child, and hold his hands while we put the dishes away together.  I move his body slowly along, and tell him that making mistakes and being told what to do are not things that mean he is less, or that he is stupid.  Needing help and being told what to do mean this: You have a family.  You have a family who can help you and you can help your family.  There are millions of children in this world who don't have a family, and want one, and you have one, just like you wanted.  So, here we are.  Then I just sing along with the music, as we put the dishes away, and slowly he starts using his muscles to pick up the silverware and open the drawer.  And I make playful sword moves at the air with the butter knives, and gently blow his face with the baster, showing him that doing a chore can be fun.  And he smiles.  And he relaxes.  And he breaks through the fog of resistance, into the light of acceptance.  That's when we can talk about what he needs to do to earn privileges and freedom.
I don't pull the orphan card very often.  It wouldn't be fair.  But once in a while, it helps them to remember that they are living the reality of their fervant wish being granted. It turns out I, too, need to remember that having them in my life was once my fervant wish, now granted.
They are smart kids.  They learn fast.  They want to learn.  They just need lots of help understanding their own minds and how to harness their own power. Didn't we all need that?  Don't we all wish we would have been given the gift of understanding how our minds work?


Acceptance with Joy said...

Habits of THOUGHT!




Anonymous said...

Or you're reinforcing bad habits by treating them like toddlers. It is so interesting that trauma mamas talk sooo much about "therapeutic parenting" and other counter-intuitive parenting practices... That somehow aren't in the medicAl literature. Or how none of the zillions of doctors/therapists/anythings out there truly understand attachment ore therapeutic parenting. Implying trauma mamas know all and any professional who spent oodles of time in med school or as a resident or learning a specialty know nada!!!!!!

Barbara. said...

So Anonymous... I don't understand how any of your comment is a response to my post, except for the first sentence. So let me address that. My kids were toddlers when they lost their parents, so yes, sometimes they act like toddlers and need to be treated like toddlers so they can have some unmet needs met. But, other than that, we empower them to choose to take on the maturity and freedoms that other kids their age enjoy.

Now, to the rest of your comment, which I chose not to delete because I thought you might benefit from a response. It just seems like you are attacking me for what you think I might be thinking because you have lumped me in a group and called that group by a rhyming name. I don't think I have ever written anything that shows any disrespect for professional counselors, psychiatrists, and doctors. In fact, I have a bunch of those on my team. It seems like you want all of us "trauma mamas" to let the professionals take care of our kids? Or were we all wrong for adopting kids who have had trauma?

In fact, I do use methods that professionals use in my therapuetic parenting. I learned these methods from professionals... professionals I have asked for help, professionals who have made videos and written books. They have been happy to help, and they have complimented me for my work with my kids. If I left my kids' healing up to the professionals, and didn't do therapuetic parenting at home, no-one would get very far. The professionals can't come live with us!

One other thing, since you are anonymous, I don't know if you have any experience actually living with kids who have behaviors that stem from having lived through trauma and loss. I suppose one could learn a lot from books, but until you have hurting human beings in front of you, you can't really judge the rest of us for our finding ways to help them grow that actually work in a family setting.