One of my favorite family pics of almost all of us a few years ago!

Friday, January 25, 2013

I'm Not a Pushover. But I Choose to Overlook a Lot From My Troubled Teens

I’m Not A Pushover.  But I CHOOSE To Overlook A Lot From My Troubled Teens.

The people who love me and know me best routinely ask me the same questions time after time – out of concern for my sanity I’m sure. I would think that the people closest to me would understand by now.  But I’m not sure that is really possible until you actually live with troubled kids (and even previously traumatized adults) 24/7, constantly trying to assess their needs to best address their problems and issues for the long term. And my family and friends have my best interest at heart.

The truth is, my friends and family watch me bust my butt. 

They know when I’m totally exhausted, but I still have to make another child or event feel “special.”

They see me hurt by deception and terrified by some of the risky actions of some of my kids, and they want to know why I continue to put myself in that position. 

They watch me burn out when enough is enough and I don’t have anything left to give.  But I have to give anyway.

They listen to me cry when I’m at my wit’s end.  

They have to endure my complaints when I find myself asking these same questions – trying to determine if it is worth it – again.

They know that I take on more and more responsibility – even when it doesn’t make sense. 

They watch me and my husband sacrifice to raise my children’s children while the mommas go about life as they choose.

Although I rarely speak it aloud, so as not to cause unnecessary fear in others, I think they know that I occasionally go to bed wondering if one of my crazed troubled kids or their friends will kill me in my sleep. 

And they witness all this knowing that I do this without pay and without much in the way of earthly rewards – at least as we are accustomed to seeing them. 

The questions vary a little based on the situation, but they are something like this: 

Why do you let your older kids take advantage of you?

Why do you let him scream?

Why do you let her walk out of the house with her cleavage showing?

Why do you work so hard and let them off the hook?

Why do you let her walk out of the house and leave her child(ren) behind without even asking if you care?

Why do you allow her to come back home again and again when all she does is run away? 

Why do you let the birth parents have contact with their children when they never do anything to show that they care – unless they want to see the kids? 

The answer begins with a command.  God called our family to this mission and he hasn’t told me or my husband to stop in the past 17 years.  Some of my family and friends understand the simplicity of that answer.  Some don’t. 

Second, although this instruction is given to all God’s people – not just our family, we are told to take care of the widows and the orphans. And by definition, widows and orphans have suffered a major loss that may affect their actions. 

But these two answers only account for why we voluntarily foster and adopt troubled kids. 

Why we parent this particular way, requires another set of answers.

First, God gives me grace and compassion and mercy and understanding.  But he also gives me commands and instructions and limits and consequences.  I pretty much suck at it most of the time, but our goal is to raise the kids with this kind of balance.  The truth is, I have zero patience or tolerance for the little annoying things all children and adults do, troubled or not.  However, much of the time I’m fairly decent at doing this when the kids are traumatized and I can literally see and understand what motivates their conduct – or misconduct – as the case may be.  Maybe that is why I was called to this particular job.

I’m not exactly the kind of person one would describe as a pushover.  I’ve got a strong personality.  I’m confident and assured. * Heck, I’m an attorney so I was trained to be combative. It’s not easy to fool me. I tend to be more authoritarian than democratic in my realm of  decision making for our super-sized family, simply because we are too large to operate otherwise. (My husband is far more democratic!)  

Generally, I don’t tolerate disrespect.  I will nag my kids for hours about proper work ethic when we encounter people in the service industry who give less than adequate service. I expect a great deal of respect from my children – just because I’m the mom.  I challenge others.  I challenge myself.  I don’t like to be around other people’s children who are being disrespectful to their parents.  I don’t accept mistreatment of me or of others in our house.   

So, it’s a little crazy to think that I am somehow unwittingly being subjected to the alleged mistreatment. And I’m not.  I’m still a no-nonsense, obey because I said so kind of parent, even to the troubled kids.  I set limits and have many rules and expectations.  But I try to tailor the rules and expectations to the particular problems that need to be addressed for that particular child at that particular time. 

I am knowingly and willingly choosing to overlook much of what would drive a normal parent of a normal child (as if there is such a thing) bonkers.  And “overlook” is the best word I can think of to describe what I see and what I know is a problem.  Yet, I overlook what might be a capital offense for another child because intellectually or intuitively I know that the issue can’t be dealt with just yet.

Raising a houseful of troubled kids (some of whom are now adults but still a work in progress) brings new meaning to the phrase, “pick your battles.”  I am forced to prioritize the issues created by the trauma that each has endured and thus far survived. Typically, the problems are so numerous, that we are only able to deal with a few at a time – starting with issues involving life or death. 

In case you are wondering what kind of issues I might be talking about, let me give you some general examples of the kinds of experiences these kids have lived through:  Repeated rape, incest, severe neglect, abandonment, constant lies and deceit, domestic violence, hunger, extreme poverty, prostitution, witchcraft, guns, forced games of Russian Roulette, stealing, alcoholic and drug addicted parents, infidelity, divorce, multiple fathers, unwanted pregnancy, constant physical and emotional abuse, murder, prison, and the list goes on and on.

And these aren’t things the children did.  This is what the parents were doing, or what they were doing with or to their children.  And what the parents of the parents did to them.

And I’ve only given you words.  Not stories.  The stories are horrendous.  It is a wonder that any of my kids can string words together into a thoughtful sentence, let alone become functional, productive members of society.

Perhaps this is the point at which I need to clarify.  I am consciously and conscientiously avoiding doing anything that enables the bad conduct to continue. But you can’t teach a child to read all at once, and you can’t teach someone to quilt in one sitting. You have to tackle the problems a little at a time. 

So, if a new teen comes to us suffering from sexual abuse at the hands of her stepfather and she’s dressing promiscuously, I ignore the clothing that I would normally never allow one of my other kids to wear.  And I skip the purity lectures for the moment.

When a teen comes to me angry and defiant, but is also suicidal, I place my attention on the underlying issues and ignore the rants and raves and defiance.

When one of my adult children lies to me, and I know it is a lie, and they know I know it is a lie, I often will ignore it and wait for an opportunity to discuss it at a later time.  Even if it means I get the short end of the stick because of the lie.  For some of my kids (even adult kids), there is an ongoing struggle.  If it isn’t life or death for me or them, I try to let it go.  And I really do let it go.  I’m not angry, because I’m choosing to let it go.  I have the power and I made the choice.

When a child screams at me and curses and tells me how much they hate me for stealing them away from their family, I don’t try to reason with them and explain that I had nothing to do with their removal.  Heck, I didn’t even know their family. I don’t even acknowledge the cursing and screams.  If I am able, I just take it without comment or with a simple statement like, “You and I both know that is not true.   What is the real problem?”

When my 4-year-old starts wetting his pants after being fully trained for years because he was tied up and left alone in the dark, I don’t get mad that he has wet his pants or that he demands to sleep in our bed every night. 

When my pre-schooler, who was found in a house where they  were cooking meth the night he was taken into care, exhibits immature and sometimes uncontrollable outbursts at school, I don’t expect him to respond to the normal reprimands and reminders.  It is admittedly frustrating, but I know that he is not choosing to act this way.  So, when I can muster it, I am more patient with him than with some of my other children who weren't exposed to seriously harmful drugs.

When a child runs away from a nice home, warm food, a loving family, and people who want to help, to live on the streets – again – I report it to the sheriff and then wait.  Knowing that waiting usually brings a phone call.  And a phone call usually results in us saying what we always say, “We haven’t changed.  The rules are the same.  The love is the same.  The expectations are the same.  If you want to come home, you are welcome.  If not, you can stay where you are until you are ready. We don’t want you to be here if you don’t want to be here because we can’t help you if you don’t want our help.”

When a teen becomes pregnant through no fault of her own and is too young or immature or mentally ill to make a decision about whether she wants to parent her child, we take both mom and baby and take full responsibility for raising the baby, allowing the mom to choose how much or how little she wants to do for her child, sometimes for years. 

Why?  Partially because the teen did nothing wrong and is unable to do this on her own, yet she doesn’t yet know what she really wants and shouldn’t be forced to decide in the middle of the trauma and emotions.   But also because it is what is best for the baby, who has done absolutely nothing wrong. 

We have taken care of 53 children, and made 21 permanent.  Many come for horrid pasts.  Yet, I have not met a single one that didn’t want to return to their parents for at least some period in their lives.  And not one that didn’t wonder if their mom or dad loved them.  In our minds, giving the child and the mom safety and security is the best of both worlds.
Unless the momma leaves us and leaves the baby behind.
And that has happened.  More than once.  But, as long as she is drug and alcohol free, we have allowed her to maintain a relationship with her child at the level she chooses. And more than once, the momma has begun to heal and to recover from her traumatized past and is finally able to create a new relationship with her child.  Sometimes in our home, sometimes in hers.

And that is the ultimate goal and the reason we sacrifice to care for our children’s children.

Of course, what I have just described is my parenting at its best.  It's unconditional love, with boundaries and rules.  Unfortunately, I’m not always at my best and I screw up daily.  And sometimes hourly.  And sometimes my screw-ups are HUGE.  GIAGANTIC.  UNACCEPTABLE.  ANGRY.  But I’m a strong believer in big picture parenting.  When your heart is in the right place, your motives are pure and you love your kids, you can exercise a broad range of emotions and techniques –some good, some horrible – and still turn out kids who feel loved and can function in society.

There is so much more I could say.  Parents who have parented traumatized kids will understand even if I say nothing more.  Parents who haven’t may not get it because it isn’t within their realm of experience.  And that is okay. 

But I challenge you to think about how you react to people and their situations.  Hopefully, the things you experience aren’t as dramatic as the things my kids have experienced.  But when possible, in order to keep peace, consider simply overlooking certain things people do that annoy you or make you angry. Even if you have a right to be angry or upset.

I know this.  I believe this.  I do this.  But not well.  And not all the time.  It is a daily exercise for me.  And sometimes, I just throw myself a pity party.  But I keep plodding along because I’m committed.

How do you decide what to overlook and what must be addressed?  That is the subject of another blog post.  Maybe I will write that one next.  :-)

Post script:  In another extremely odd turn of events, I was proofreading this blog entry and I turned on the television to a show called Teen Trouble, which I watch when I can to help me better understand my troubled kids. One boy had severe anger and drug issues.  The mentor took him to a boxing ring where a well protected man allowed himself to be hit over and over again by the teen.  The idea was to allow the teen to release his anger. But when the boy realized the man was so protected that he couldn't actually hurt him, he quit.  Another boxer agreed to let himself be hit by the teen over and over again without returning any punches and without any equipment at all.  He said he was willing to do it to help the boy.  He just illustrated exactly what I am trying to explain.  I care enough to put myself in harms way to help the kids.

* Aside: I wasn’t always so strong. As a child I was younger than many of my classmates and I had a one-time bladder control problem when I was 4-years-old that became the subject of torment for the next 7 years of my life.  That led to bullying and tormenting by just a few kids in my class. Another story will explain how I overcame this bullying. But it did involve my mom telling me to punch Missy as hard as I could when she bullied me again.  And then to tell Sister Judith Dianne to call her when I got sent to the office.  J

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