Thursday, August 10, 2006

Survival mechanisms

All of the foster kids have had some very basic personality traits which have been distressing to me. They were hard to live with. In just about every case I could see how this trait was a strategy that helped them to survive their childhoods. It was annoying to me and, I thought, destructive to healthy adult relationships, but it made perfect sense that they were they way they were.

Carl lies. He lies about everything, all the time. (Actually since I only have access to reports about his life and not his life itself I can no longer know to what degree what he tells me is true). It makes sense. His mother had emphasema. She could not normally leave the house and she could not help with problems. She wanted to hear that everything was fine, better than fine. School was great. His friends were great. Everything about his life was wonderful and promising and there was nothing that she needed to worry about.

When Carl answered a question he seemed to be tuned into what he thought the person he was talking to wanted to hear more firmly than he was tuned into reality. In other words, where I have to decide not to tell the truth, he had to decide not to say whatever would please the person he was with. The first thing that would come out of his mouth was what he thought you wanted to hear.

David forms very superficial emotional attachments that last only as long as he is getting what he wants (he would say "needs" but he does not recognize any distinction between those two). If one person will not fill his needs, he looks for somone else. The adults in David's life abused and abandoned him. He saved himself and his brothers by finding people who would give them what they needed. Cutting himself off from hurtful people and moving to someone else may have literally saved his life when he was small.

The thing is, neither Carl nor David recognized these traits in themselves. I wanted so much to help them to see these patterns, recognize that while they were survival techniques that were creative and smart and important when they were children, they were not going to serve them well in adulthood. These ways of dealing with the world were preventing them from having fulfilling adult relationships.

I had to accept though that I could not help them to see this. The very best I could do was to give them a picture of a different way of relating to people. They could see in the way Hubby and I treated each other that there was another way. Hopefully it would not be the only alternative picture. Maybe that picture would be a resource. Maybe someday they would want to be different, relate to people differently, and maybe the picture they got from us would help them to do that. Someday.

But something is happening with Evan that has not happened with the other kids. Evan is noticing one of his own childhood adaptive behaviors. He told me that he has been talking with his counselor about it. He asked me what I thought.

We had a wonderful conversation yesterday in the car. I told him the ways in which I thought it was something he needed as a child. He agreed. He wants to rid himself of it, but he is not certain that it can be done. I told him that one of the reasons I was going to see the counselor was to work on some of my childhood survival mechanisms that were not serving me well now. He laughed a little when he told me that he wasn't sure it was better to know about it, since he wasn't sure he could change it.

It was one of those fantastic parenting moments that you cannot allow yourself to hope for. The conversation was the sort of thing it would be so easy to imagine that you would get to have as a foster parent. "Once they trust me, we will be able to talk about their childhood and how it affected them. I will be able to help them, just a little, to over come the pain and heal the hurt. Because of my influence they will be healthier and live happier lives."

I'm not saying that we don't help them heal, but it does not usually feel like it. Mostly it feels trying to convince a tree that has grown twisted in the wind to uncurl and stand straight. Daily life is sometimes good and ordinary and sometimes exhausting and frustrating. If the youth develop any insights into their own pain, their own lives, it happens very slowly. If you look closely you can notice that the child, like the glacier, has moved, but you almost never SEE it moving.

You almost never get to sit on the freeway, stuck in slow moving traffic and listen while a kid says, "I realize I do X in my relationships with people. I don't think I want to keep doing that. Do you think it is possible to change that sort of thing about yourself?"

Best traffic jam ever.

1 comment:

  1. I'm sure you have heard the old joke:

    Q: How many shrinks does it take to change a lightbulb?

    A: Only one, but the lightbulb has to want to change.

    That tired old joke seems so applicable to foster and adoptive kids. Like horses, it's relatively easy to lead them to the proverbial water, but they have to want to take a drink. The challenge for all of us is to try to inspire kids to take that drink -- to take advantage of the love and stability that good foster and adoptive homes offer.

    It's a great thing when it finally happens. We are all celebrating your success.


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