Thursday, June 15, 2006

Arizona Travelogue Day Six: Save Intensity of Affect for the Good Things

Of our days in Arizona, today will go down as the most ordinary and least memorable. I sat in my seminars from 8:30 – 5:00 PM, and Tony and Kyle lounged in the sun and watched television. Other than trips away from the hotel out to each lunch and dinner, we have been here with each other for extended periods of time.

These days, and today in particular, have given me the opportunity to do some assessment of my fathering influence over the past ten years. Kyle came to our family at the age of eleven, the age Tony is now; Kyle is now nineteen, a young adult. Tony possesses some of the behaviors Kyle had when he arrived. He is oppositional, defiant and disrespectful, although the difference is that Kyle could self-regulate enough to get what he wanted. Tony is unable to do that, so he often is frustrated that things do not turn out the way he wants them to.

What I am seeing after ten years is this: often, in response to Tony’s inappropriate behavior, Kyle responds from a values base that he has learned in our family. When, for example, Tony says “God,” Kyle says, “Tony, you can’t say that. It’s wrong to say ‘God’.” That is something Kyle learned from our family. When Tony is requested to do something, and then does that one thing just one more time in a defiant act, Kyle will say: “Tony, I don’t know why you do that. Why don’t you just stop when you are asked?” Or when Tony uses an inappropriate word, Kyle will reprimand, “Tony, you know you can’t swear.” When Tony sees an African-American sports figure on television and attributes his athletic prowess to his athletic ability, Kyle will say, "Tony, that's a stereotype."

Don’t misunderstand what I’m saying. Kyle has a distinct personality, and he is certainly no clone of either Claudia or me. What I find so fascinating, though, is that he has owned the values we have taught him, even though his personality is still very much his own. It gives me great hope that parenting, even children adopted at older ages, can benefit from the moral values of their parents and family structures. There is no greater tribute to the hard work of adoptive parenting than to see your young adult son own the values you have taught him, while being true to the person he himself is. And the beauty of a parenting job well done is that the young adult child doesn’t even realize that the values he possesses are ones you’ve nurtured in his life. That these values are seemingly a natural extension of his own developing personality is a tribute to God’s goodness and committed parenting.

The one key insight I gained today in my seminar was something I knew all along intuitively, but the presenter has given me the words to express it. The presentation concerned itself with interventions for mental health disabilities, for General Anxiety Disorder in particular. In describing the disorder and helpful approaches, the presenter said, “Save intensity of affect for the good things; for correction or confrontation be matter of fact.” This makes great sense logically and emotionally, yet it is counter-intuitive to the way most parents handle the stresses of parenting. Most of us, when we have an aggressive fifteen-year-old male screaming in our face, or a snippy adolescent female enumerating the inadequacies of her seemingly pathetic parents, respond with intensity. As the adrenaline of the encounter courses through our blood stream our reptilian brain urges us to respond with intensity, to fight adolescent animosity with adult rage. This intensity of affect is not helpful; it only draws us into our adolescents’ spiraling emotions and creates a sense of powerlessness within our own psyches.

Save intensity of affect for the good things, the presenter says, and approach conflicted situations with a matter of fact approach. Over the past few months I have attempted to be more intentional in this way. When I find myself in the midst of a conflict, I am attempting to identify my own rising irritation in order to regulate my emotion. If you happen upon me speaking very softly and quietly, looking into the eyes of my child, you will know that I am in a very emotionally aroused state, and that by sheer willpower I am choosing to flatten my affect. It is a very difficult task, because that is not the way I (nor most humans) have been socialized. But it does diffuse the situation rather quickly (in most cases) as well as offering me the freedom of having no emotional regrets afterward. I mean, how guilty can a parent feel after an emotional enounter if the most you can say about yourself is that you were very quiet and spoke so softly your child had to stop screaming to hear your words? And believe me, I’ve had many opportunities to practice this technique over the past few days with two of my most reactive sons.

Final reflection: if, in the next eight years, Tony can make as much progress as Kyle has in the past eight years, the world will be a better place, and I will be a happier dad.

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