Tuesday, February 12, 2008

When You Cannot Protect A Child From Herself

For better or worse one of the things that Claudia and I have not sought to do as parents is to protect our children from the consequences of their choices. Looking back over the past eleven years of parenting I can say that it was easier to do this when our kids were younger. It is one thing to "ground" your child from the phone or fun activities when school grades are not acceptable when he or she is eight than when she or he is fifteen. The fifteen-year-old challenges in new ways and the old ways of parental intervention no longer apply.

I was thinking about that this morning as I took our oldest daughter (15) to her therapy appointment in a community a number of miles away from our home. She and I are both introverts by nature, so I don't become nervous when there is little conversation between us during a routine drive like this morning's. I reflected to myself about how different things are now than they were six months ago. Less than 180 days ago she was hateful, embittered, guilt-ridden and an emotional nightmare. She was spending time with people she knew were not good for her and people she knew her parents would not find healthy. She was engaging in activities that were beyond our and her boundaries of acceptability. Everything seemed to crescendo in the mid-fall when her attitude, behavior and friends pulled down to a very low spot.

As her parent I had a good idea of where we were headed. I knew intuitively that things were deeply, horribly amiss in her life. But I knew even more strongly that there was only so much I or her mother could do to stop the plummet from occurring. We could remind her of our guidelines (which Claudia, especially, consistently did). We could provide a safe and loving home environment (which we sought to do). We could provide her the example she needed (which we did and do). We could love her in spite of her typical -- and atypical -- moodiness and anger. But we couldn't stop what she was unwilling to stop.

Having experienced similar (but not identical) situations with two of her older siblings, we knew that the time would come when the scenario would spin itself into a desperate place, and it would be only in that place that she would have to come face to face with her own self-imposed demons. And, as we knew it would, the time came. The gravity of her situation became reality only when she began to see the legal and other consequences of her actions. It has helped that law enforcement, probation, social services and her therapist have been supportive of our efforts as her parents. In our fifteen-year-old daughter's case we parents were not blamed for her behavior (as we were in the situation involving her two older siblings). The professionals have been respectful of us, our guidelines, our parental authority and our role. It has been such a huge difference from our previous experiences.

Part of it, of course, is the child in question. She is emotionally, psychologically, mentally in much better shape than her two siblings whose lives have progressively fallen apart for the past five years. She knows what is in her best interest, even if she has not been willing to abide by those principles. She believes that her mother and father do love her, can be trusted and are good people who can help her. She understands that working with the legal and social services systems will help her get out of her dilemma; she's smart enough to know how to cooperate when she must.

Sadly, her older two brothers have really never figured all of that out. It's not because we are different parents, or that we suddenly had different insight in how to raise her versus them, nor that our guidelines or principles have changed. They haven't. The difference is that the professionals have worked with us in this situation, and our daughter has come to understand that even if she wanted to she could not manipulate them into believing that somehow her parents are the cause of her choices.

I am a critic of much of the child welfare system as it exists, as anyone who reads this blog knows. But this is one situation where the players -- all of them, the "professionals," the parents and the child -- have come together, and the result has been promising. She is now getting her life back on track, but it is only because we did not protect her from the consequences of her actions. Early on we were encouraged by well-meaning law enforcement folks to avoid the legal process by not pressing charges and "just take her home." We knew, in our hearts, that would not work, and that even if it did, it would produce only a short-term result. I am more confident than ever that our choice not to protect her, but to let her receive the consequences of her actions while standing beside her. That's an important part. We didn't cut her off. We stayed with her, assured her of our love, reminded her that she was capable of much better and that we would not desert her.

But we didn't protect her from herself. If we had it is likely that we would be dealing with the same or an even more compromised daughter than we were six months ago.

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