Thursday, June 23, 2016

J-son's Resolution

So, what's been going on with J-son?

I've hinted a few times that things had been rocky earlier this year, and occasionally scary bad, and that they've turned around. This is a description of the turning around. It's kind of long, but the distance he's come is so remarkable I want to share it.

I don't want to share what he did that made things rocky, because that's his story.  But I can share the effect that those things had on family and on him.  For one thing, he alienated both of his nearby sisters.  For several years now, K-daughter had been (justifiably) suspicious of his every move and angry at him for what he'd done to her.  I-daughter, last November, confided in me that "I know I'll probably forgive him someday, but I don't want to be in the same room with him for a while, and he is NEVER allowed to set foot in my house again."  And I completely understood.

My husband had such a hard time dealing with the fallout of J-son's behavior that he (thank goodness) started going to therapy, signing up both boys as well. He had many discussions with me about what would happen next year, when J-son turns 18 and becomes legally an adult: will we move him out of our house? (Because J-son repeated kindergarten way-back-when, when he turns 18 he'll still have 16 more months until high school graduation).  In fact, these conversations put a bit of a stress on our generally solid marriage: at one point, I remember telling my husband that if I were forced to choose between parenting J-son until graduation and staying with my husband, I wasn't sure which I'd pick, but it'd probably be J-son.  I think it's no surprise that it was this particular winter that I wound up twice in the hospital for suspected heart attacks that turned out to be "only" heartburn; it's been a fairly intense time.

It's not that I'm particularly pollyanna-ish about this kid.  My husband affectionately calls me the "Iron Maiden" because I tend to hold the kids to higher standards than any other parents he knows.  When I thought I couldn't do more, I've "given up" on other children: I was the one who called the police to come take C-son away when he spiraled out of control; I was the one who decided to leave X-son in Haiti and help support him there rather than bring him to the U.S.  When J-son was spiraling into the awfulness we associate with what our family still calls "The Horrible Week",  I was the one who confiscated his bedroom furniture so he'd have no hiding places, who did daily inspections of his room for contraband, who put an alarm on his door so I'd know of nocturnal wanderings, who signed him up for more drugs and for therapy.

But through it all, I do think that his troubles are something that J-son can be parented out of.  He's not mean; he's not defiant --- in fact, most of the people we know outside the house go out of their way to rave about what a great kid he is.  He's fantastic with small children.  He's funny.  He's really good with his hands and has the potential to do really well in the trades (we're thinking welding).  But he's had huge problems with impulse control.  Everything I know about developmental psych -- and everything I see in J-son himself -- tells me he's got a good chance of growing out of this, if he's got the right kind of help.  So I want to see him all the way through high school and into a technical school, and I also want to help him get beyond the stupid, hurtful things he's been doing.

Things came to a head on Christmas night.  J-son came into our room, all bubbly and happy to talk.  During the conversation, he complained that his job as a ride operator at the amusement park was boring.  It was a minor complaint, but the compounded effect of all the built-up stress caused my husband to blow his top:  How could this kid, who we'd done so much for, be so ungrateful about having a job?

Later that night, my guy vented for a half-hour to me.  I don't even LIKE this kid anymore.  I can't wait until he leaves the house. I know he's supposed to be my son, but I can't stand him.  I tried pointing out that J-son was trying desperately to earn his father's approval and affection; the complaining about work was what he thought grown-ups did.  I told my husband that J-son and I had had lots of talks about my husband; J-son had no idea what it was that my husband wanted him to do.  That's NUTS, my husband said.  I asked him, Well then, name one thing he could do or say that would show you he's actually trying.  My husband stared at me for about 15 seconds.  See? I said, if it's not obvious to you, think how much harder it is for him.  Finally, my husband said, Gratitude.  He could say 'thank you' for ANYTHING he has. So, we'd made some progress.

Except that when I left the bedroom, I discovered that J-son was sitting on the stairs near our bedroom, sobbing.  He'd heard every word.  He'd heard all the   I don't even LIKE this kid anymore.  I can't wait until he leaves the house. I know he's supposed to be my son, but I can't stand him.  And of course, J-son was devastated.

That was an awful night, but it was a huge turning point.  I did a bunch of  . . . well, not shuttle-diplomacy, but shuttle-therapy.  Upstairs to J-son's room, to sit with him and let him sob.  Downstairs to our own bedroom, to talk with my husband.  Finally, for the first time, I got them both in the same room talking to each other.  My husband got to vent some more, but this time in front of J-son.  You think you're so great, that you don't ever ask for help.  And when you get caught, you feel bad, but it's all about yourself.  You feel shame, but not guilt.  If you felt guilty, you'd care about other people and not just making yourself feel better.  And so on.  J-son listened and agreed.  Me, I was sitting there thinking, "What the heck do I do now?"  Not wanting the conversation to end there, I had J-son repeat back what he thought he'd heard his dad say.  He did.  I asked my husband, "Did J-son hear you correctly?"  My guy said yes, and added some more.  I asked J-son, "Do you agree you need to ask for help?"  J-son said yes, and that he wanted to ask us for help.

And the stormy clouds parted just a little.  My husband said, That's the first I ever heard you say that. Maybe there's hope.


The week after that, my husband went to New York with N-son.  J-son stayed behind and we worked together on apologizing and asking for forgiveness.   J-son put heart and soul into that task. He decided to ask for my help putting a poster on his wall -- like Martin Luther, he wanted to nail his resolutions up where he could see them and remember what his dad had said.

This kid.  As I told my husband, J-son has many mothers:  his birth mom, his foster mom, and me, and he gets to see all of us with varying frequencies.  But he has only one dad.  And oddly enough, he takes after my husband in so many ways, both for good and ill.  They both care about clothes and style; they both are athletic; they both lose things like cell phones and glasses; they both are people-pleasers.  At least half of J-son's impulsive  habits that drive his dad crazy are ones that his dad does that drive me crazy.  J-son loves being told that he's just like his dad.  For all the work I do with this kid, it's the love and respect of my husband that J-son wants the most.

By getting his boxing license and working hard through three different fights, J-son chose the perfect medium for connecting with his dad.  Persistence, toughness, bravery: these are qualities my husband has strived for in his own life, and so the two of them have a lot to talk about.  Things are going so well, in fact, that sometimes N-son gets jealous now, and I have to remind my husband to shower a little attention on his other son, too.

But beyond boxing, the work on humility and forgiveness seems to be taking root.  Both K-daughter and I-daughter have told me that they're impressed by how much J-son has changed.  It's good to see those wounds healing.  When I sit down to dinner with the family that's here in my home city -- with the five children who have five different last names and who come from five different sets of birth parents -- I feel again how incredibly wonderful it is that we've managed to build one family out of such distinct pieces.  It's a miracle at mealtime.

As for my own work with J-son:  all along, I've tried to stress honesty above all else.  It doesn't matter what you do, if you tell me the truth I can try to help you.  But you HAVE to tell me the truth.  I've read several books on lying so I could get into his head, and I've read Spy the Lie over and over again --- I can't recommend it enough.  That book changed our family dynamics for the better in so many ways.   For example, if my husband thinks J-son might be stretching the truth, he drops the subject immediately (don't let J-son dig himself further into a trench) and hands him over to me if a follow-up conversation is needed.  So much better than responding with exasperation!

For me, that emerging honesty is where I see the biggest change happening.  It's not so much that J-son doesn't do impulsive things anymore -- he still does, but they don't seem to be of the same magnitude or harm as his earlier mistakes.  But more importantly, he's much more willing to admit to me what he's done.  He takes responsibility for making a mistake and for making restitution.  He accepts suggestions for avoiding stupid mistakes in the future.  That's such a huge difference; combining that kind of integrity with his already strong likability gives me such hope for his future.


  1. Wow, this post brought tears to my eyes. As the parent of two adopted children, I know first-hand some of these struggles. You should be commended for your own resilience, tenacity and compassion in raising these kids. Not just the kids but the world will be better for the love and attention you've given them.

    1. Huzzah for parents of adopted children!

      I am so glad we're doing this, because I see this kid growing up and see where he's headed. But there are parts of the doing that I will be glad to have behind me. As I am sure you well know.

  2. What a beautiful post, blessings to your beautiful family