Ditch the “Unified Front” Please
February 15, 2016
The experiences a child has with their parents become the building blocks for all future relationships. Sometimes this is a good thing, sometimes it’s not. One of my favorite quotes is by Pam Leo and it states “Let’s raise children who don’t have to recover from their childhoods.”
Anyway, here’s the deal. We’ve recently become entangled with a family who has the most delightful 17 yr old son. Like many 17 yr olds he’s craving some independence. He’s the only child of a divorced couple. Mom has remarried, so the three adults work together to be his parent. Only, he’s growing up now and the “techniques” they used in the past aren’t “working” and they’re super stressed about it.
I put the word techniques in quotation marks because in my world, parenting isn’t something you “do” using a “technique” but a relationship, that would ideally be built on mutual earned respect and communication and raw honesty. You don’t “do” relationships using a technique, you HAVE relationships and your technique is who you are, not a strategy designed to turn them into something YOU want them to be. They’re either healthy relationships someone choose to engage in or they’re unhealthy relationships that you’d be wise to avoid.
I put the word “working” in quotation marks also because relationships shouldn’t come with the goal of eliciting some specific response on the part of another person. Having a dog is something that can “work” for a person because you’re either capable of being an alpha and your dog behaves or you’re not and he doesn’t. If you’re not good at having dogs, don’t have them. If you want to be good at having dogs, learn about how dogs think and work WITH them instead of ON them. Likewise, if you want to be capable of having a relationship with your child, learn a bit about your child by COMMUNICATING. Research child development, nonviolent communication, peaceful parenting and relationships in general. Better yet, get a hobby but don’t block his ability have happy relationships with other people. People are capable of higher levels of reasoning than dogs and if you engage in a relationship with another person intent on reaching some specific arbitrary goal, then you’re doing it wrong.
But just to keep things fair, by their measures (and don’t get me started on measuring the success of a relationship), their technique was working. The boy got good grades, he was active in sports and participating in the state’s college-in-high-school program. Most states
have these. Here in WA it’s called Running Start. I don’t remember what it’s called in California, but either way, it’s a program whereby students get dual credit for college enrollment while they’re in high school. It’s an awesome program that allows them to finish high school with their AA degree and it’s paid for by the state, potentially saving a family tons of money on higher education.
So he’s a good boy. He helps with the dishes, he’s funny, considerate, articulate and an all-around awesome young man.
Unless you’re his parents. In their world, kids don’t deserve privacy or respect. They’re not smaller humans engaged in learning what life is like, they’re unruly animals that must be controlled and molded into conformity. They’re property (Seriously, one of the dads called the boy “my most prized possession.”)
They mean well, they really do, but they’re creating a relationship that’s really unhealthy for the boy to engage in and they’re pushing him away from themselves while claiming that he is the one “being bad” for wanting to break away from the insanity. The name of this insanity, folks, is “A unified front.”
Instead of each of these parents having individual relationships with this child, they fight amongst themselves about how every single thing will be approached. One is naturally inclined to be a little more gentle, one is an absolute narcissist and the other tends to be violent. The three of them band together into one “force” and they have all agreed to stick with the group. This is not parenting-by-consensus, it’s an organized effort to alienate the kid from real relationships with any one of them and bully him into compliance. But coercive child-rearing creates a mentally dangerous environment.
“Coercion—the use of physical, legal, chemical, psychological, financial, and other forces to gain compliance—is intrinsic to our society’s employment, schooling, and parenting. However, coercion results in fear and resentment, which are fuels for miserable marriages, unhappy families, and what we today call mental illness.”
They believe that he’s depressed, and needs medication. But when he’s here he doesn’t seem depressed. My house is peaceful. It’s not always sparkling, but it is peaceful. He says he’s not depressed, but he is upset about the way they treat him. He’s sick of watching them fight amongst themselves about HIM. He’s sick of being monitored 24 hours a day like an inmate (Seriously, GPS tracking…) and he’s sick of them devoting all of their spare time to deciding “what to do to him” instead of actually getting to know him and trusting that he also has his best interest at heart, even if he’s making different decisions than the ones they would make for him.
“Coercion creates resentments that fracture relationships.”
Which brings up an interesting conundrum… wouldn’t it be wise to look to the child your parenting has created before you decide whether or not your “technique” has any merit? Nevermind the fact that even that statement infers that the child is a product, and ignores the child’s own independent existence. They’re so firmly committed to their “technique” and believe that it’s so effective and yet their son is suffering because of their inability to relate to him on a deeper level, but they’re still convinced that this “method” works. How crazy is that? Tough love is NOT love at all.
In Dr Gabor Mate’s book In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts: Close Encounters with Addiction, he talks about why kind love is more effective than tough love in treating patients whose self-soothing habits can cause permanent damage.
He defines addiction as “any behavior that is associated with craving and temporary relief that has long-term negative consequences.” People can be addicted to gambling, shopping, reading, drugs, one-night-stands or pretty much anything else. He believes that we should recognize that these people are traumatized and what they need is not more trauma and punishment but more compassion. Trauma, he explains, occurs both as a result of something terrible happening and also as a result of something beneficial NOT happening. Needs aren’t being met, so the patient must find a way to feel better. Is it so difficult for these parents to see that their refusal to connect deeply with this kid and acknowledge (even celebrate) his growing independence is actually causing trauma? Instead of embracing the fact that he’s going through an appropriate developmental stage defined by a thirst for independence?
The boy’s parents want him to come home more frequently. Any parent would worry if their teenager wasn’t coming home, right? I know I would freak out beyond measure if I didn’t know where my teenage daughter was in the middle of the night. But instead of trying to understand what he’s thinking, what needs he’s trying to meet by avoiding their respective homes and working to create an environment that’s happy, supportive, stimulating, comfortable and peaceful they report him as a runaway and threaten the families of his friends with arrest for allowing him to be there.
They’re not concerned with his safety or comfort because alienating him from the places where he’s comfortable and safe can mean that he’s sleeping on the streets, but they don’t care. Their goal is to “break him” and force him to stay home when he clearly doesn’t want to be there. Instead of creating a home environment where his emotional needs are being met, they want to bully him into compliance and force him to exist in an unhappy state and they’re seriously angry that he’s not going along with this plan. I wouldn’t want to live somewhere I felt criticized, condemned and discouraged all the time. Would you?
Instead of dealing with the boy who is having an issue, they’re dealing with the behavior that’s manifesting from his issue. His issue, in my opinion, is them. In addition to the whole “tough love” nonsense, they’re completely ignoring the fact that he’s a human with basic human needs. He’s a young man who has worked hard in his life to reach the academic success that he’s enjoyed and is currently turning into the autonomous being that he has every right to be, in preparation for adulthood.
Yet they’re treating him with such malicious disrespect that it’s no wonder he doesn’t want to be around them. They actually have a copy of his phone and read all of his text exchanges, without even considering that violating someone’s privacy and respecting personal boundaries might make him less likely to actually feel respect for them. It’s not parenting, it’s a work-release program. Prisoners might fear the warden, but they don’t respect him.
The child is caught between conflicting ambitions which the parents have for it, to succeed and to fail simultaneously, and they are programmed to self-destruct should they ever threaten the power and control, the self image, of the Narcissistic parents. Since Narcissists feel permanently under threat, the child lives in a constant state of tension. The child’s primal instinct urges it to survive at all costs, but their parental programming tells them to sacrifice their life to save the parents. (An upturned soul)
If my daughter didn’t come home, my first question would be “Are you ok?” and “why didn’t you text me?” and “Did you feel safe?” and address her safety first. I want her to know that her safety is my utmost concern. I can’t imagine approaching the issue with hatred, blame, violence, further restrictions and increased surveillance. I actually did have an issue last year with my 15 yr old not reporting back and I think she finally understood the importance of staying in touch when I said “Every time you’re not home when you say you’ll be, my first thought is that you’ve been hit by a car, drugged and kidnapped into a sex trafficking ring, murdered or something else horrible. You have no idea how much freedom you could enjoy if you simply set an alarm on your phone to check in with me periodically.” Since then, she’s successfully checked in 80% of the time. In the past 3 months, I’d rate her success at 95%.
As promised, I have extended curfews and loosened the reigns, comfortable with the firm belief that she is capable of listening to her intuition and knowing when she’s safe or not, but more importantly that she’s sympathetic to MY NEED to know she’s feeling safe.
Imagine how scared I was last summer when she spent the night at a girlfriend’s house 3 blocks from here and didn’t bother to text me because her phone battery was dead. Obviously, I was pretty freaked out but we dealt with it; me sharing my fears and her, motivated by the mutual respect that results in a natural desire to not give her mother a heart attack.
We brainstormed ways to stay in touch with a dead battery, ways to keep that battery from dying in the first place; ways to mitigate the obstacles that could stand in the way of our relationship. Because parenting is above all else, a relationship. It’s not that she was avoiding our home, she was simply out having fun and didn’t think of me. And that’s fine. There are apps for that. What kind of teenager thinks of their parent’s needs constantly? One that’s raised by narcissists, that’s who.
This boy, by contrast, doesn’t want to go home. He’s deliberate about making sure he’s there as little as possible. He had a 9pm curfew and for a little while he’d go home at 9pm, go to bed and leave hours before school started in order to avoid seeing his parents because the relationship he has with them isn’t healthy or emotionally fulfilling.
That’s not “bad behavior” or “mental illness.” That’s what any sane person would do in the face of an adverse situation. Stay out of trouble. He’s bouncing around trying to fly beneath their radar and still managing to make it to school most days and keep up with the majority of his homework. His grades are slipping because of this. His parents know that a stable home would help his grades but they make no effort to ensure that he feels welcome, safe and happy at home, instead they’re simply requiring his presence (recently changing his curfew to 6:30pm.) He is, essentially, homeless. How sad is that?
In Washington, he could become emancipated if he can prove that he can financially support himself. How on earth can a kid do that unless he’s working full time? There is, apparently, no legal route for a 17 yr old to declare that they’re done with the parenting they’re being subjected to, without sacrificing their education. There’s no legal way for him to declare “Your home is not safe for my mind, I’ve found a place that is.” and I’m afraid that there may be tons and tons of teenagers suffering this very same fate. Or worse, believing that life is all about catering to the psychotic and self-centered needs of the “people in charge” without regards to their own personal state.
The teenage years are exciting. First of all, you think you know everything, isn’t that right? The only thing you really know, however, is how you feel. You’re in love with the girl. You’re angry about an unfair grade. You’re tired. You’re hungry. The whole “teenage rebellion” thing is a product of a culture that advises parents to control their little children’s every move ’til they head off to school where teachers and administrators control their every move, with a very large gap called “teenage years” where apparently they’re expected to be a little out of control, followed by adulthood. I don’t buy it. Controlling humans is a bad idea, always. We’re born into families and the healthier approach is to RELATE, not to control.
There’s a popular meme that says “I am not your friend, I am your parent” and it basically goes on to tell the child what a jerk the parents will be in the name of love. That sort of thing bugs me because so many adults have a terrible time navigating adult life precisely because their parents were jerks who valued controlling their life over building a healthy relationship.
The world is filled with messages that we’re inadequate, that we’re too fat or too skinny, too dumb to manage our own lives, too pretty to be smart, too geeky to find love, too artsy to manage our finances but it’s our friends that remind us of our assets, build us up when we’re feeling down and stick with us during hard times. Kids need that, not the stalking and domineering and bossing that take the place of actual communication. Here’s my answer to that: (Incidentally, you can buy it as a canvas print or poster at RedBubble)
I’m not sure where I’m going with this. I’ve talked to his parents a little bit, in the hopes of helping them see that maybe their attitude is the problem, I might have actually told them that they need professional counseling. One of the dads was formerly a therapist, so he thinks he knows everything (even in spite of current evidence to the contrary). So my only recourse to let off some steam and vent about this situation is to stand on top of my virtual podium and bitch about how unfair the world is that some of the coolest kids have to suffer with the most awful parents and they’re literally trapped at the mercy of age-discriminatory laws that state that he can’t choose freedom for another 11 months.
I hope the boy is seeing a different way of interacting. I’m sure the contrast between the peace and freedom we choose to live by is evident and one day when he grows up to have kids he’ll know that he can choose a different way. I’m also hoping that maybe I’ve put the itch into these parents to actually do some research into effective ways to communicate with him. In spite of how much I hate their parenting, it’s easy to see that they really do love him. That’s got to count for something, right?
Instead of banding together with this ridiculous “unified front” thing that inhibits honest and raw communication and traps them all into a compromise that turns them into bullies for the force, it would be awesome if each of them were able to simply be themselves, and instead of punishing him and inventing ridiculous consequences, worked on fostering happier one-on-one relationships with him, being their best selves, and naturally creating an environment of peace and goodwill in their home that invites relaxation, personal growth and progress toward goals. (Total run-on sentence, I know).
Also, secretly, I hope they’re stalking out the crazy mom that told them they need therapy. Hi guys. Get help.