The main thing I noticed during the Parent Workshop at Luca’s boarding school last weekend was how respectable the parents appeared. For instance, Julia from Seattle, with her chic bob and hand-knit poncho, you just would not have expected her to utter with a resigned shrug, “Dylan held a knife to my throat. Twice.”
And Beth, the elegant blonde from Savannah with the unlined face, this was not a woman you would have imagined admitting that her son sat across from her at the kitchen island, watching porn on his laptop.
And Paola, whose husband, it was rumored, owned a lot of Spain. Who would have thought this mother would not be able to get her son to go to school for six months?
For four days, I sat in rooms with parents of the forty teenaged boys who attend Luca’s therapeutic boarding school. We had flown in from all over the country, and in Paola’s case from out of the country, to a state that few of us would have had occasion to visit if our sons’ school hadn’t been plunked down in the middle of it.
In those rooms, therapists taught us how to turn our Hearts of War into Hearts of Peace, and the benefit this could have on those around us, even ragingly non-compliant teenagers. The school psychiatrist discussed his judicious approach to medication. Teachers explained not only the curriculum, but the accomodations they made for sensory-overloaded kids.
During the Parent Support Group, we sat in a circle and shared where we were on the continuum of raising challenging children. One mother burst into tears, confessing that she was afraid her son would never be able to come home.
One mother stated, dry-eyed, that she did not want her son to come home.
Two single mothers of only children described what it was like to have all their maternal eggs in one basket, to grieve the loss of the child who had been their “everything,” to avoid church functions and family reunions because they couldn’t bear being around families who looked the way they had dreamed theirs would.
One gray-haired father leaned back in his chair and said he didn’t give a shit what anyone thought anymore.
My own husband, Luca’s stepfather, raised the issue of parental trauma: the physical and psychological impact of years spent trying to raise children who refused to be parented.
Thirteen years ago, when Luca was a golden-haired toddler who giggled and cuddled and slept through the night, I attended a different kind of mommy group. While our children played with wooden toys and chewed on Goldfish and Cheerios, we basking-in-the-glow-of-new-motherhood moms traded stories of toilet-training, preschool applications, who was vaccinating and who wasn’t.
During one playgroup, a boy hurled a truck at Luca, barely missing his head. As I wrapped my arms around my son, I glared at the boy’s mother, who, I thought, did not demonstrate an appropriately chagrined reaction.
All manner of judgments raced through my mind. The boys’ parents were too permissive. They argued in front of their kid. Perhaps they hit each other! The boy, age three, showed no remorse for almost decapitating Luca. This was an ominous sign, a sure prediction of this boy’s future as a teenage hoodlum.
And now, what seems like eons later, I am that parent who is the recipient of Mother Blame, the societal finger-pointing at parents, but mothers especially, who clearly must have done something to mess up their kids.
Shame was the theme that bubbled up and coalesced during the Parent Support Group. Everyone seemed to have a story of being blamed for their child’s behavior problems: by their own parents, by siblings, by neighbors, by spouses.
Shame was the thread that bound us together; but seeing ourselves reflected in others let us toss off the albatross that is blame, if only for a weekend.
In the evenings, the moms congregated by the fireplace in the hotel lobby, drinking wine and exchanging “why is your kid here?” tales. Save for the fact that I was the lone middle-class parent (the dire economy apparently had leapfrogged over these folks, who, like my ex-husband, were shelling out ten grand a month to keep their boys at this school), I nestled in the comfort of being with mothers like me.
One night, I got into it with Luca. Feeling rejected by a group of boys who did not want to hang out with him, he had vehemently argued with me when I told him he could not run around the hotel unsupervised. Back in our hotel room, I finally made Luca draw a “card” for arguing, with instructions for a positive behavior replacement on the back. I left him in the room stewing while I slogged down to the lobby and collapsed onto a couch next to some other mothers.
“I listened to him beat you down for an hour,” one said.
“You should have given him that card an hour ago,” said another, directly, without a smidgen of judgment.
“I know,” I sighed. “But we were standing in front of everyone, and I guess…I don’t know, I was afraid if I gave him a card, he would make a scene.”
“Are you kidding?” said Julia, the mom whose twelve-year-old had held a kitchen knife to her throat. “Do you think any of us in this room would have thought less of you if Luca tore up the lobby?”
And in that moment, my self-judgments — I screwed up my kid because I got divorced, work full-time, got remarried, was too lax, too reactive, too tired, too, too, too — melted away with a few sips of robust Cabernet and the metaphorical embrace of mothers who knew:
Some children cannot be raised at home.
Sending your kid to residential placement is usually a symbol of commitment, not rejection.
There are nurturing residential placements out there; research, and the aid of a qualified educational consultant, will steer parents clear of facilities that utilize harsh discipline.
At the end of the workshop, when I drove Luca up the long, winding driveway back to his boarding school, I inventoried the events of the weekend.
One blow-up. No skirmishes with Luca and his stepdad. The fear on my 7-year-old stepson’s face when he first saw Luca at the airport subsiding, replaced by smiles and laughter. Franny hugging Luca goodbye.
“What was the workshop like for you, Luca?” I asked.
He didn’t even hesitate.
“Fun,” he nodded. “I liked it.”
So did I.
STOP IT, PAULINE! STOP IT RIGHT NOW. “Luca” is not the way he is because he’s from a “broken home”, a product of bad mothering or bad fathering, or any thing else you write. “Luca’s” wiring is messed up. Those are the facts and that’s what you must deal with. If he had a physical ailment, would you be blaming yourself?
Pennie Heath says
Ah, I’m so glad you were there. No one can support you more than other mom’s who have been there. It sounds like Luca is doing well too! And also, I love when I read how Atticus seems so very sweet and how your welfare and safety (both emotional and physical) as such a priority for him. It seems so fortunate to have someone that wants for YOU to be ok.
Argh…would I be blaming myself? Probably.
Atticus has been amazing. Financially, the trip was way too expensive for us to take now, but it was his idea that the little kids go. He is truly a stand-up guy, in his quiet way.
Mikalee Byerman says
Beautiful writing as always; your words powerfully, evocatively relate a personal, somber, beautiful tale. And yes, I do believe it is beautiful…because I see real progress and healing happening.
Congrats to all of you. You so deserve some peace…
Thank you, Mikalee!
so happy for you all!
Lucy Pritzker says
Love reading your entries and so glad we have reconnected! Your thoughts ring so true to me, as I have a 12 year old in his second year of boarding school and he couldn’t be raised at home. He is thriving now and so are the rest of us. I see it so often in my Ed Consulting practice too- the peace that is finally returned after, literally, a lifetime of chaos and blame.
Thanks, Lucy. It sounds like heresy to parents of typical children, but sometimes sending your child to a residential facility is truly the most loving, healthiest thing you can do, not only for that child, but for the entire family. Always nice to hear from someone who “gets” it!
Aw, as a Mother who is very used to the shame game, I completely feel you. I wish that I had the friendship of other people in similar situations. Two things it has taught me 1) Never judge other people’s problems and 2) Don’t giggle in the face of wistful young mothers, wait till you get home.
If you don’t mind me asking, which residential treatment center did you send your son to? Thanks!
Hi Dan: Wish I could tell you, but I write under a pseudonym and try not to give too many identifying details to protect everyone’s privacy.
Ok….my daughter was at a center in Utah for 17 months…..a few years ago and while the program gave her ( me and my ex-wife) good tools, she struggles still today.
Just e-mailed you.
“research, and the aid of a qualified educational consultant, will steer parents clear of facilities that utilize harsh discipline”
Unless it doesn’t. Buyer beware… but is it worth the risk?
I completely understand your concern. But not getting out-of-control kids help when they still have time to turn their lives around is also a risk. Most families are just not equipped to handle these kids at home.
Yes, community based care is sadly significantly underfunded, but it would be false to say residential care has proven its efficacy, scientifically. Outcomes just don’t support the anecdotes programs provide to market their programs. Skills just don’t transfer from an artificial setting to real life.
From a rights and values based perspective, it neither respects a childs right to live with their family and, due to the segregation off from society, the general deficit-based approach and impossibility of individualizing residential care, it does not offer the individually tailored care, youth empowerment values through youth guided care, that community based care does. I will concede, however, these services are grossly lacking. But the risk of harm (trauma from abandonment) and risk of being subjected to inappropriate care and abuse is often whitewashed through the instilling of fear in parents of the risk of harm to youth in the community, which may lead families to believe they need to send their child away. I hope to see community services for such families in need increase so families don’t have to be faced with the false choice that placement is necessary for lack of community care. I do wish you and your family the best of luck.
My own mother found herself in your position… as have countless other families. She did the research and believed Jill Porter, our educational consultant was qualified to make recommendations. Ed cons are not qualified to distinguish between abuse and treatment. I lived 18 months in fear and subjected to mental abuse. I’m not alone in that. So, while I respect your plight, I think it’s important to be clear that research and Ed Cons do not assure a childs safety and well being in a poorly regulated, poorly monitored and under a ‘standard of care’ that lacks any scientific merit to claims of efficacy. Not only that, some major industry players have misinformed the public w/ research that lacks any scientific validity. So, again, I respectfully caution you to be as vigilant as possible.
Hear are some helpful links for parents from the Alliance for the Safe, Therapeutic and Appropriate use of Residential Treatment (ASTART) founded by: Robert Friedman, Ph.D. Professor Emeritus, Child & Family Studies, University of South Florida; Lenore Behar, Ph.D.? Child & Family Program Strategies, Durham, NC;
Nicki Bush, Ph.D.Assistant Professor of Psychiatry, UCSF
Help for Parent & Teens
Treatment Research Lacks Good Science – (Re: Aspen Education Group)
Program Warning Signs
Well, I definitely agree with you that there needs to be more community-based programs but the ones that I know of still don’t usually provide enough support. I think the issue is larger and has to do with the breakdown of community in our culture. It really does take a village.
As for abandonment trauma with kids going to residential…I know what you’re saying but usually the kids have done things to get themselves to residential. Kids with run-of-the-mill behavior issues rarely end up there.
There are many reasons why the recidivism rate for kids coming out of residential is what it is. Some of it has to do with the circumstances they’re returning to. Some of it has to do with chronic mental illness.
I’m sorry you had such a traumatic experience with residential. I really like where my son is; they have a gentler approach than a lot of placements. And I do know families who feel that their kids’ lives were saved by going to the right boarding school.