Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Five Days and Holding

I wish I knew the secret of helping post-institutionalized youth find success on "the outside." That's the general concern I have, but really my issue is much more focused: how to assist our seventeen-year-old son to find success after two years of involvement in the social services and Department of Corrections systems. I am trying to practice the recovery community's foundational premise "one day at a time," but as each day wears on I find myself becoming a little more anxious. It has been five days now that Mike's behavior and choices have been above average to excellent. He is focused, content and settled.

Yesterday while at my grandmother's funeral Mike was sitting next to me and on his own reached out to touch my shoulder. This seems like a small, forgettable, thing to "ordinary" parents, I suppose, but to parents of an attachment-disordered child it is really rather significant. I looked at him and said, "Mike, I'm really glad you're back home. I've missed you," to which he responded with his most charming smile, "I'm glad to be home too."

My fear, I suppose, is that these first five days' success will soon crumble into decline. My fears, unfortunately, have good reason to exist, based upon our times together with Mike. The pattern has typically been a pleasant return to home, an initial successful period of time, followed by a progressively deteriorating series of choices on his part, leading to utter collapse. My heart tells me that this time could be different.

Mike is, after all, seventeen-and-a-half years of age, and even though he functions more like a fifteen-year-old at this point, even fifteen is a better place to be than twelve or thirteen developmentally. Then there is the reality that he has finally completed a program successfully and this, certainly, adds to his feeling of success. And he expresses dread and revulsion for the experiences he had while in the county's care ... his position is that social workers don't really care, that foster care wasn't at all helpful for him and that group home living is sucky. We haven't tried to challenge his assertions (not that we think all social workers are uncaring or that foster homes are a farce or that group homes serve no purpose) because we have been hoping for years now that Mike will figure out that having parents who love him and a home to live in are better options than any of the others that he has tried over the years. He speaks of the need to finish high school, get a job and go to college so that he can have a successful life. He articulates in his written work that he needs to trust his parents because "they have successful lives." For the first time in years we have no official social services or Department of Corrections involved in our family's life as a result of Mike. We now live in a new community where Mike can make a new start if he so chooses. There are many reasons to believe that he may well be on his way to a new kind of life. But still I wonder.

I hope, I pray, that as each day of success adds up a new foundation is being created in Mike's life. Today I am exercising more faith than I've ever pushed forth to remain positive, kind and consistent in my approach with Mike. It is all I can do not to succumb to my anxieties and simply let go as so many parents do at this point in their child's life. Even the best of parents with the most health relationships find hanging on too tightly to a seventeen-year-old a misguided quest. I struggle with knowing whether to think of Mike as nearly an adult or to think of him as developmentally about fifteen. I know all too well how this has gone in the past, and I so want to avoid that.

My personal strategy at this point is to remain as unemotional with Mike as possible, to be clear with expectations but not shrill or attacking. I have done well so far with gentle reminders and he has responded appropriately, but I wonder how far my patience will go. So far, at five days and holding, my patientce hasn't begun to be stretched, but that time may come, and I dread it.

So, while I am internally anxious and doing my best to remain positive, the tyrrany of the past haunts me. I believe that this is what many parents experience, and I wonder if it might be enough simply to rejoice, minute by minute, day by day, in observing what most families take for granted: healthy communication, clear expectations expressed and followed, freedom with boundaries and trust developed through interruption and reconciliation. Is it enough to rejoice that Mike has acted "normal" for the past five days?

I suspect it is. And so today I rejoice that God is giving us yet another chance to believe Mike's future may be more optimistic than his track record leads us to believe. Maybe it's simply necessity to believe this way. I don't know. I think I will simply call it faith and ask God to help me, one day at a time, to believe in the impossible.


Lisa said...

I am a former foster child and current child advocate.

Have you ever heard of Foster Care Alumni of America? It's a relatively new national organization, dedicated to harnessing the "collective voice" of foster youth and alumni.

I aged out of foster care (lived mostly in group homes in the 80's due to lack of foster homes for older youth) and started college at age 16. Once I was legally emancipated, I was on my own.

I made it through college and graduate school, marriage and stepmotherhood... and my stepdaughters are teenagers now.

My guess is that your 17-year-old son needs a positive direction, and a goal to work towards.

That's why I mentioned FCAA... If he feels dissatisfied with his foster care experience, he could harness that anger and frustration into making a positive change in the child welfare system.

- What talents or abilities does Mike have?
- Any physical outlets like sports and weight-lifting to give a testosterone release?
- What opportunities does he have to be a leader or role model to someone else? (This could even be care of a pet).

I don't know the whole story.
I've never met Mike.

These are just the first things that come to mind, from my perspective.

Have a wonderful day, and please don't give up hope,

Anonymous said...

Bart, You and Claudia represent the most important aspect...y'all are STILL there for him, after everything, after all that. This is your story and his, the fact that you have stood by him through the good, the bad and the ugly. Period. You are STILL there. That's all he needed yet didn't know he needed. This is what parents do and y'all did it.