Monday, October 16, 2006

It's Not the Behavior We Love

Life with our seventeen-year-old son diagnosed with FASD (fetal alcohol spectrum disorder) is always a bit perplexing. I should have known from the beginning that our lives would be forever different with his presence in our family. The early signs should have alerted me: the scattered thoughts (attributed by professionals at that time to ADD or ADHD), the impulsivity, the lack of trust and attachment, the destructiveness, the lack of a sense of cause-and-effect and consequence. In those early years I attributed his dysfunctioning to early years of trauma and neglect, and I believed ardently that in time his behaviors would change, that he would feel comfortable in our family eventually, and that our consistent, patient, disciplined work of parenting would have some effect.

That was nearly nine years ago. And Mike's behaviors have not changed. He is still impulsive, distractable, scattered, lacking in trust and attachment and lacking a sense of cause-and-effect and consequence. Along the way I have had to decide whether to love the child or to love his behavior. This has been a most difficult task, because we parents have been socialized to believe that "good parents" create "good kids." When kids do not behave in socially appropriate ways or when they choose paths their parents have not traveled nor desire for them to travel, the tendency is for us to ask: "Where are the parents?"

And, to be sure, there are many situations in which ineffective or non-functioning parents bear the the blame of their offspring's miscreant ways. It's not only birth parents who can be held so responsible; there are plenty of adoptive parents who are ineffective, too, so my words are not a blanket indictment against birth parents.

But there are a couple of things I have learned and continue to learn in my experience with a child who has FASD. I have learned, first of all, that no amount of consequence-based, love and logic, tough love parenting will alter Mike's behavior. He suffers an organic brain damage that disallows him from understanding that modus operandi. In the same way that I would not blame a child born without sight for her inability to read a written text, I cannot blame my son for the damage that occurred while he was being formed in his birthmother's womb, a supposed place of safety and security.

I have learned, secondly, that regardless of his disability, I cannot make Mike's choices for him. I can encourage him, I can point out what the right choice is and why, I can do my best to protect him from himself, but ultimately the choices he makes are his choices. When he was nine years old and found a way to poison his elementary school's air conditioning system with pepper spray he obtained at local convenience store (I have never figured out why a convenience store would sell pepper spray to a nine-year-old, but that's another topic), I felt responsible. When he destroyed any mechanical item he could his hands on until he was twelve years old, I believed I should have been able to keep him away from others' valuables. When he stole my class ring, my great-grandfather's ring and assorted cash over the years from our locked bedroom, I accepted the losses as part of the stakes of parenting a high-risk child. When he began to disappear for days at a time when he was fourteen, fifteen, and sixteen, I believed we needed to intervene. Hence the numerous trips to the county sheriff's office, the uncounted trips to the juvenile delinquency center, the hapless machinations of attempting to work with county social services to obtain help for him.

But Mike is now nearly eighteen. In five months he will be, in the eyes of the society, an "adult." The choices he makes and the consequences he receives will be solely his. He will certainly blame us, as he does now. In his mind iIt has always been our fault that he steals (we don't give him enough money), that he runs (we don't give a damn about him), that he spends his time with a group of people not in his best interest (we are prejudiced against his friends). I have learned after nine years that there is only so much blame any one or two parents can rightfully assume, even in the best of situations.

And finally, I continue to learn that it's not Mike's behavior I love. It is Mike I love. He can choose for himself (however inadequate his capability to do so) what he wants to do. He can decide to ridicule us, blame us, reject us, poison his siblings with words of derision about us, and ultimately leave us.

But there is one thing he cannot do. He cannot make me not love him or care about him. The years ahead will be even more difficult than the years past as he attempts to establish some independence in his life. The challenge will be enhanced because he has little attachment or connection to us emotionally. His dubious choices will likely get him into further legal trouble. His behaviors will catch up to him in ways that will always surprise him. He will be angry and destructive. And he will blame us.

But it's not his behavior we love. It is Mike we love.


independentsw said...

What enabled Mike to be successful in his last program?

Bart said...

This is a very good question. My wife and I have talked about this at length, and we feel there are a couple of factors. One is the nature of the program itself. It was a 13-week program with immediate intervention and direction by trained staff (Department of Corrections officers, actually). The slightest infraction was met with immediate intervention and consequences. The clarity of the program was to Mike's benefit, and the consequences were ones he could clearly identify. In the case of this wilderness program, it involved hand cutting, hand splitting and hand stacking a "rick" (roughly 1/3 the volume of a pickup bed) of wood for each infraction.

A second factor was its geographical location. He was in the wilderness more than 20 miles away from the nearest sign of civilization. There was no benefit to running from the program because he had no where to go and the vacuous forests of northern Minnesota were a disincentive.

A third factor is that he had no contact with us and had to make some choices about his future. He spent the first ten or so weeks determining for himself if living in our family was really better than a program like the one he was in, or in the foster home immediately before that, or the group before that or the residential treatment facility before that. He chose that living in a family was a better alternative.

But sadly, Mike came to us as a kid who had learned how to manipulate/survive (you pick the right terminology) the foster care system. It is a street skill that he has never forgotten and so when anything becomes more difficult than he wants to acknowledge, his first response is to flee.

His first response is still to flee, but we are trying to be non-anxious and remind him of our family's policies and how his working with us will benefit his future. Tough to do with someone whose brain doesn't think about the past or the future much, but who lives in the very present moment.