What killed Whitney Houston? Was it drugs? The world will find out soon from the Coroner. I would contend, however, that Whitney Houston (Disclaimer: I was never a fan) died from her money. She was exploited by producers and media hounds for their own selfish reward and yet she made, and ultimately burned through, millions of dollars with a sordid, drug-addicted lifestyle that ultimately killed her. There are millions of young people similarly addicted to drugs but they haven’t earned their own money, made successful careers, or accomplished much of anything on their own. Rather, their lifestyles are underwritten by parents who continue to shell out thousands of dollars each year for their young adult child. They harbor hope that each new scheme; to go to Community College, or get some certification, or get a low paying job, will be the beginning of change that ultimately never comes. These parents harbor the fear as well that if they don’t support each new attempt, their child will fall further (maybe) and become worse or do even shadier things to support their addiction (maybe). But shelling out dollars year after year, in fact, may really be depriving the young person of his right and responsibility to become a healthy, constructive and productive member of society (or not). Sometimes, desperate parents force their children into expensive rehab stints thinking that somehow 28 days will make the change in their child that they could not. And it rarely works, except as a business plan for the rehabs. So parents use their money as a proxy for love in that they “just want their child to be happy and successful” and they are attempting to control the outcome of another adult’s life. In fact, it sustains the dysfunction. Parents’ money in these circumstances maintains the young person’s ability to live a lifestyle of drugs, school failure, job loss and on and on. Parents can get off this treadmill but it requires letting go of the outcome, setting their own boundary and offering a long term plan not a short term fix.
from the desk of Lexy Spett Educational and Therapeutic Consultant
I just finished reading a compelling article from the Science Daily, “For Family Violence Among Adolescents, Mattering Matters”.
Do I matter? Do you see me, recognize me, and value me? It’s that kind of mattering. The kind of mattering that has been the cornerstone of adolescent angst since the beginning of time (or at least since the industrial revolution) and the connective tissue between Donny Darko, Holden Caulfield, all the Twilight movies to Columbine.
Now in a new study led by Brown University sociologist, Gregory Elliott, the need for “mattering” can be tied directly to adolescents and family violence. “Mattering” is the “belief persons make a difference in the world around them” and is composed of three components – 1) Awareness, 2) Importance and 3) Reliance. See me? Value me? Help me?
Elliot sees mattering as the fundamental motivation in human beings. Above all, he says, “there is a need to matter”.
The study found that girls are more likely to hit family members than boys, Hispanic youths are less likely to be violent in the home, Children from large families tend to be more violent, Religiosity diminishes family violence and children whose parents did post graduate study are more likely to be violent than children whose parents did not finish high school.
The outcomes are interesting and do a good job of dispelling some stereotypes. However, if we reconsider “mattering” as a developmental concept then it means we need to re-evaluate how parents, significant adults and communities demonstrate to our children that they do matter. When kids question their value or purpose, we can not just write it off as adolescent angst. . Its not always attention seeking or manipulation, it is an instinctual directive to feel valued, connected and needed. Their need to feel connected to their family system and ultimately to the global community is a strong enough drive to create violence either outwardly directed as the study shows or inwardly as the high numbers of teen suicides suggests. So much of our self concept is developed by how we matter and why we matter. The authors of the study believe the “mechanism behind mattering is that it has an effect on both self esteem and on one’s attitude toward violence, which ultimately determines one’s violent behavior”.
So, blog reading community, I ask you -How can we create more opportunities for our children to feel like they matter and how can we reinforce more authentically that they do?
From the desk of Trine Syverinsen, Educational Consultant
As educational consultants, usually there comes a time in our first meeting with a new family when we ask “do you have any other children?” And often this triggers an emotional response from the parents.
Sometimes an angry one: “He is really being a terror at home, and he does not seem to care at all that it is having a severe impact on his younger brother. The younger one really adores him, but he is just mean to him, and bullies him. It makes me angry and sad, and part of the reason we are here today is because we have come to a point where we have to make some changes at home to protect our youngest child from being exposed to this.”
Other times it makes parents voice some frustration. “His sister is a straight A student. She is accomplished, internally motivated, dedicated and caring. She really defends him in front of her friends, but we also see that she has started removing herself from him, because she says that he is just hanging out with losers.”
I once overheard Douglas Bodin remind a family in a meeting that parents are never happier than their least happy child. That is usually the child that we are working towards creating a plan for: the Least Happy Child. But the family situation is of course also affecting the Perfect Sibling.
Kids are different. Some kids need more help, love and support, and others are natural self-starters and go getters. Seeing the Perfect Sibling move forward with school and friends when he himself is spinning his wheels is very hard for the Least Happy Child. It can cause resentment, be used as an excuse for failure, or be fuel for emotional manipulation of the parents. “You never give my brother a hard time over things like this? He gets more privileges than I do! You are comparing my grades to my Perfect Sibling, and that is unfair. C+ is a good grade!”
In our work we always focus on the family as a system when we address the needs of the Least Happy Child. All the members of the family have different needs, and they play different roles in the family dynamics. Watching a successful sibling can be really hard on a non-successful child with low self-esteem. Finding a venue for them to have their own successes is very important – whether that is in an experiential treatment program, in a different academic setting or just in an after school activity. Also, the Perfect Sibling usually needs a break from being the caregiver, the defender, the object of shame and envy and the lightning rod for frustration and anger.
As parents we have a natural instinct to protect the weaker child, the Least Happy one. To give him more time, more help and sometimes more love. And then we turn around and beat ourselves up about the effect this choice has on our Perfect Child. Concerns for both children are valid reasons for seeking help. The choice to proceed with a residential treatment plan for one child is often a choice that is made in order to protect both children from negatively impacting each other, and hoping to achieve a healthy family dynamic again in the not too distant future.
One cannot avoid hearing and seeing the very public and tragic flameout of Charlie Sheen. It is clearly a stark reminder of the ravages of unchecked addiction and mental illness. But there are messages to our young people that I fear are accelerating the race to the bottom of our culture that are inevitably and visibly filtering through to all of us. Our young people more and more not only follow popular culture, but they emulate it. They draw lessons from it whether they (or we) are conscious of it or not. Fame, money and notoriety seemingly without consequences are seductive and toxic. Can one really party for 36 hours straight culminating in another trip to the hospital and still come out and demand an additional one million dollars per week? Apparently so. One could argue that Charlie Sheen has lost (in addition to his mind) his series (for now anyway), his children (for now anyway), his marriage(s), his reputation, etc.
However, young people don’t necessarily process things this way, especially young people who may already be on a self-destructive path and are looking for role-models to justify their choices. They are the most vulnerable to this and only see that he is claiming to have cured his addiction himself, at home, in the blink of an eye with the power of his “Tiger blood.” They see models, porn stars, sex and partying and the appearances on every crappy pseudo-news show with sycophantic interviewers who don’t seem to want to really call attention in any meaningful way to the serious destruction he is causing to those around him or to the impressionable viewers of his “hit” TV show (Disclaimer; I have never seen Two and a Half Men.) . It’s the not being able to turn your eyes away from a car wreck social phenomenon. The network shows are all too happy to boost their ratings with the latest reality show and Mr. Sheen appears all too ready to have a psychotic break on prime time . You can bet there is a reality show already in the works, “At Home and in the Psychiatric Ward with Charlie Sheen“
20 years ago, when PeeWee Herman was caught in an adult movie theatre, he lost his career and was a pariah in the industry. At about the same time, Charlie Sheen was in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off
and it is amazing foreshadowing of the flameout to come. But the depth of the debasement and what we portray to kids who do not have the adult ability to filter and process what they are seeing is what really concerns me. When Charlie Sheen’s addiction and mental illness as well as his contempt for pretty much everyone is somehow tacitly acceptable, we all have to worry for our kids. No one can prove that you can’t blink your eyes and go from addicition to non addiction. But we have ample statistics of recidivism to conclude that it is the rare bird that can do it without help. And seeking help is the last thing they want to do because it admits to weakness and acknowledgment that the addicition is bigger than them.
It is another one of life’s bitter lessons for us all, but especially for parents of teenagers, that you need to be the role model you want your children to emulate; to focus their attention, not on fame, fortune and the easy buck but on commitment, passion, dedication and hard work. Ultimately that is what will turn them into happy, healthy, productive adults. I grant it is hard to turn your head away from being ‘Charlie Sheened’. Once you turn your head back, remember who your children are really looking at.
From the Desk of Douglas Bodin, CEO of Bodin
Perhaps one of the nicest parts of the holidays is the outpouring of cards and letters from clients and schools. Some of our client letters are from the current year while others are from clients we may have worked with decades ago. We get pictures of weddings, new children, graduations, joyous family vacations. The pictures are wonderful, but the words of gratitude and pride are phenomenal. One young man we worked with several years ago has a new baby on the way and is in his fifth year in the military. A young woman, who as a teenager lacked self-esteem and self confidence, walked down the aisle this year, proud and happy. Another young woman, who had success in a therapeutic boarding school had fallen back a bit when she returned home, but is now back on her feet, holding a good job and attending Junior College quite successfully for the past year and a half. The stories go on and on. They not only bring joy and satisfaction, the stories and pictures help bring confidence to us and hope for the families that will turn to us in 2011 and beyond. When young people are at risk, the Holidays bring an added level of stress, fear, sadness and guilt for the parents who have such high hopes for a peaceful and serene Season. But with each letter and card and picture comes the reminder that tomorrow’s families will have those in the future with love, work, effort, sacrifice and determination.
We receive these reminders year-round, of course, but the outpouring during the holidays is something for which I am quite grateful.
Like a flash January is gone but may the rest of 2011 be a healthy, prosperous and peaceful year for us all.
From the desk of Lexy Spett, Educational Consultant
Ms. Pozatek’s new book “The Parallel Process, Growing Alongside your Adolescent or Young Adult in Treatment” addresses a frequently overlooked or underdeveloped component of residential treatment that is essential for success. That is – the role of parents in shifting dynamics and patterns in their relationship with their child.
Often the initial perception is that the child is the person in crisis and in need of residential placement; the child is often the one expected to make all the change in order for treatment to be considered successful. Yet, working from a family system model the position is that if the system doesn’t change the individuals within the system can not or will not sustain change. As Ms. Pozatek illustrates in her book, if parents do not actively reflect upon and ultimately change their roles in the family dynamic, then the treatment process for the family will have limited success.
The Parallel Process is both a new book and a parent coaching model developed by Ms. Pozatek. The model asks parents of young people in treatment to work alongside their child in examining their discordant patterns and developing self awareness in order to foster the change their child is making.
Ms. Pozatek states that parents are doing the best they can under extraordinary circumstances. Parenting in 2010 is a completely different experience from the parenting challenges of past generations. Multi-generational families no longer live within a three block radius of each other, community support is limited, and to survive, most families now need two incomes. With increasingly limited family time, there has been a shift toward trying to create more connection -avoiding major family conflict by keeping the “peace” rather than disciplining or holding the child accountable. The result is a merging of boundaries in the parent/child dyad, resulting in poor behaviors being ignored or overlooked or over protection, and enmeshment.
Ms. Pozatek writes about creating “Balanced Parenting” – “it’s about parents working toward and becoming emotionally attuned to the child. Balanced Parenting is allowing your child to struggle and to problem solve independently”.
Ms. Pozatek notes that often “parents know their patterns and know that they are not working but they don’t know how to change or shift them.” Therefore, her work with parents is less about identifying patterns but rather creating change. In enmeshed dyads, the parent and child scan each other to read or interpret feelings and try to make each other feel better. The work within the Parallel Process model will result in more parent/child intimacy – having parent and child talk and share feelings, but with each owning their feelings. Ms. Pozatek is clear that parents can be just as nurturing when they are holding their child accountable.
Ms. Pozatek said that “The Parallel Process” is “the book I always wanted to direct parents to when I was working as a wilderness therapist. The book is a tool to work with their child’s treatment team in wilderness or in residential treatment. It creates a point of reference and a framework for parents to begin to understand their role in creating change.”
The message of her book is one of optimism: “I want parents to know that it’s not about being perfect, nobody is perfect. It is about making mistakes but staying the course. It is about committing to self awareness, owning your mistakes and changing patterns. When parents engage in their own process and work collaboratively with their child, a family can be transformed”.
“My hope is that the book is helpful.”
Krissy Pozatek, LICSW, has over ten years experience in wilderness therapy and adolescent treatment. She was educated at Middlebury College, Smith College School for Social Work, and NM Highlands Unversity, and is a licensed clinical social worker. In her therapy practice Krissy works with parents so that they grow alongside their child in treatment. She lives in Vermont with her husband and two daughters. The Parallel Process is her first book.
The Parallel Process, Growing Alongside your Adolescent or Young Adult inreatment is published by Lantern Books. It will be available at all major bookstores December 2010 and is available now at Amazon.com for e-readers.
Jessie (not his real name) is sitting in my office. His parents have had a meeting with me earlier in the week, and now they have asked him to come in to see me. Last week Jessie stopped going to school. He spends most of the day at home, playing video games. When his parents come home, he leaves and spends the whole evening with friends that are mostly unknown to his parents. Lately he has also looked and acted as though he might be using drugs more than just occasionally. His parents are very worried, and have told him that this can not continue. Some things have to change.
Jessie is smart. He has the testing to prove it. He also has an attention deficit disorder (ADD) and a slow processing speed. Up until 5th grade he was at the top of his class academically. He was an early reader, verbal, social and charming. All the teachers liked him. For a while he was in a gifted program at school. As he entered middle school things got more challenging. His grades started slipping in the middle of the year, but then he always rallied and got them back up. After he started high school it took more and more for him to rally, but he was a great football player, and continued to work hard to be able to stay on the football team. Last week he dropped football practice as well, along with any other school activities.
I ask him what changed. He leans back, tilts his head and shrugs. He just didn’t feel like doing it anymore. He never did need to excel in school; it was always his parents who had high goals for him. Same goes for football. His dad used to play football, and always wanted him to. He had only really played football for the status it got him with the girls. And now he is done with being everybody’s puppet. He understands that his parents feel that some things have to change, but he really doesn’t see how they can. He could still get A’s if he studied all night, like the “losers” in his school do, but he just doesn’t feel like doing it. I get nowhere with Jessie during our session.
This is a common scenario at Bodin: Parents come in to see us with a concern for their teenager who is struggling in a multitude of ways – but what usually ignited their concern was the decline in school performance.
“We have reduced his schedule. He has dropped AP classes. He has no morning classes anymore. He only has to turn in his homework for the last few weeks and they will let him pass – and I found it in his backpack! He completed it, and did not turn it in!”
The parents and the school can not lower their expectations any further, and wonder why the student is refusing to put in this minimal effort to meet very basic expectations.
Often it is a snowball effect. Something is making it hard for the teenager to be successful in school. He or she responds by avoiding the problem and by spending more time involved in other, more pleasurable and easier activities. It gets harder and harder to keep up with the expectations, and the teenager responds by being more and more avoidant. So far it makes some sort of sense.
But what we also see is that teenagers (and young adults) who were not really struggling for that long, sometimes quite suddenly reach a point where they just “check out”. They go from average grades to failing several classes. Parents describe it as “he/she just woke up one morning a different kid”.
It is usually not that easy. More often than not, things have been difficult for both the teenager and the parents for a while, but they have all been coping. The difference now is the lack of attempt and effort from the young person.
And here is a partial explanation to consider. Success tastes good. Failure does not. For instance, to struggle with ADD/ADHD, or another learning difficulty, means to constantly put in a lot of work, and still often not meet the same goals as your friends. Many teenagers get an ADD/ADHD diagnosis late in their school career, and now they are supposed to start seeing themselves as different, maybe inferior, to many of their friends?
A lot of kids decide that it will both feel better and look better to just plain stop trying. This way, the reason you failed your classes was NOT because you tried your best but couldn’t do it, but rather because you just could not be bothered to put in the effort. Desired coolness factor hence achieved. And in one way, becoming the drop-out, the carefree, oppositional, oh-how-I-loathe-my-parents-character becomes a different venue for the feeling of success. If I can not be successful in the main academic high-school arena, I am going to be the best failure the school has seen this year.
There is no easy solution. But it helps to remember that failure does not feel good to anyone. If success was somewhat easily available to us, we would all choose that. And if somebody we know is choosing failure, it is more than likely that success has become too hard to achieve, and that as parents, caregivers and professionals we need to take a look at what is making it so hard.
Lowering the bar doesn’t usually help in these cases. Jessie knows the bar is low. Stupid low. And he is not stupid. He just doesn’t feel like getting over it, he says – and walks around.