(Note to our readers: This is the eighth blog in a series written by a parent who has placed a child in residential treatment.)
I’m on the plane again.
Parents are experts at marking time. We remember previous Halloween costumes, the friends gathered around earlier birthday cakes, the first time, many years ago, when our child crunched along in ski boots.
There are smaller increments, too. Time marked as much by the name of the day as the after school activity we shuttle our child to. We look forward to the other parents we chat with as karate class is in session or the errands we can run while our we have just one hour to ourselves.
I’ve always found comfort in this order and routine. I’ve grown to appreciate the ways this regular pattern provides opportunities to be present. It’s the moments between activities, where I find out details about the school day. Bits of lunchtime conversations are shared. I’m told about how the science test went and who is part of the group for the next humanities project.
As parents we nurture only to be outgrown. We give care with the hope that it is internalized and cultivated and put into reserve, to be given back during the great stretches of time when we are not with our children. Whatever we do, our children need to be able to stand on their own.
My oldest child stepped out of our house earlier than expected, just nearing the end of their* tumultuous freshman year of high school. While traumatic, this shift has become normalized. I do not count days or months on a regular basis. The passage of time only comes up when I’m with other families who have children in residential treatment. In those circumstances, it’s part of my introduction. My child has been in treatment for 11 months.
The weather is turning now. Last weekend marked our first afternoon of short sleeves and sunshine. Soon we’ll close on a year of our child being away.
Every Saturday evening I get a social phone call with my child. With the help of staff, they ring me in the evening, near dinner time. These calls provide some updates and time to connect. We are told to keep them light. Like any teenager and parent conversation, it’s hit or miss. I might get an update on their bullet journaling, a new, socially acceptable way to doodle and create with the added bonus of a stab at organization. Sometimes they share a movie they watched or a therapeutic visit with the cats at the local SPCA. I’m hungry for details about their life, so I always asking them to “say more,” gently nurturing the connection. Sometimes this works. Other times I’m just annoying. My child gets distracted by the other kids around them. And then, they have to go. It’s like that with all 15 year olds. In my case, I don’t get the chance to try again later that night.
My child’s father and I divide the family therapy calls. So every other Tuesday is marked by the chance to really find out what’s going on. I settle into my desk and make sure I have water, and usually a cup of coffee. I always have a notebook. The screen wakes to life. I start with solo time with my child’s therapist. I get updates about how things are progressing in group. I hear about shifts in perspective or new realizations. I hear hard things, too. The repeating behaviors and poor coping skills that landed my child in residential treatment come to the surface.
As the parent of a complicated child, I always dreaded parent-teacher conferences. I could clearly see my child’s strengths and was keen to address the challenges, but no school was ever equipped. I left feeling defeated. I would plunge myself into research, trying to find options or modifications or shifts that would help me better support my child.
My child is finally in an environment where they can get the care they need. For the first time trained experts are running the show. I’m given a more complete picture of what my child is struggling with and how they are coming to better understand themselves. I’m granted explanations and advice. In the toughest years of growing-up, I’m finally not alone. We’ve reached a place where someone can help interpret my child’s behavior. Contextualize. Educate. Advise. During these weekly therapy calls, I gain as much through my own self-discovery as I do understandings about my child.
As the private conversation with the therapist winds down, we make some choices about how to use our family therapy time once my child joins the video call. In the early days, my child would burst in. Unexpected. No warning. There was the honeymoon period when they appeared relieved to be away, to be with other peers who were struggling. To have a community where they were seen and heard. Now, there is a knock at the door and they come into view. They spend a few minutes pulling up a chair, adjusting the screen, choosing a fidget to play or negotiating for a piece of gum to chew. This is my child.
We warm up. I comment on the shirt they are wearing or the surprise of a hat I’ve never seen before. They show me the book they are reading. They ask me to send them something. I tell them about a project their brother has started. Then we get serious.
We’ve had an expected range of sessions. There were weeks of dismay. My child being the victim, falling into a familiar pattern of belief that all was unfair. They tried hard to convince me that they needed to leave. They could not make it through.
We’ve had anger. Arguments about the ways I am too controlling or how problematic it is, in their view, that I adhere to rules. These are also tropes that I’m familiar with. I know the tunes and can predict the refrain. My work has been to learn a different reaction. I’m developing a way to listen, rather than try to convince otherwise. To meet my child where they are. To be present in their emotion, rather than hopelessly try to counteract. It’s hard, but I’m learning.
We’ve also had great moments of connection. Times when I’ve felt my child through the screen with more depth than I've had access to since they were years younger. They have described the patterns of our family unit with more clarity than I was ever able to gain in couples counseling. They have granted themselves moments to pause, to be open about their knee-jerk reaction to a discussion or circumstance and shown a developing ability to consider other options, to forge a new response.
For years we said that our child had a pea under their mattress. Their emotional volatility and range seemed driven by something that we could not see. A bit of molten unhappiness at their core which could take over all rational thought. No therapist was ever let into that space. Residential treatment has made a crack in that vault. I see the real possibility of letting that emotion, whatever it is labeled — confusion, frustration, desperation, disgust — out for examination. There is a chance that our child can learn to manage and accept this complex part of themselves. I’m hopeful.
It’s Friday. I skipped therapy on Tuesday night so that I could have therapy, in person, when I land in Utah this afternoon. I’m in for a weekend visit and there is a real chance that my child has fulfilled their obligations well enough to spend the night with me. To be off campus. When we had our phone call last weekend, they shared plans for our time together. A movie they wanted to watch. A restaurant where they wanted to eat. A visit to a cafe where they could play with cats, their choice of therapy animal. We’ll set this up with the therapist when we all together.
First, we’ll have a session.
There was a big family event last weekend, their brother’s Bar Mitzvah. They did not return for the event. It would not have been a safe move for their first home visit. Too many people. Emotions too high. I’ll admit to feeling relief. It was a special day for their brother and after years of a childhood that was in large part orchestrated around his older sibling and their needs, I wanted this day to be purely about him.
I’ve brought a few photos if my child wants to see them. I have some notes from family and friends who gathered. Our oldest child was in our minds as we gathered for this passage of time, this ritual that marked a transition in our younger son’s life. It’s not as expected, but that does not make it bad.
With any luck, lives are long. It’s my greatest desire to have children who are sturdy in their own lives. Who can move forward with independence. I did not have the skills to teach my oldest child what they needed to take their next steps. Their pacing has landed on an unexpected beat. My time with them is measured in phone calls and video conferences. Sometimes, we get a bubble of time long enough for a range of experiences and emotions. Time slows down and we are present again, together, in real time. We’ll see what this visit brings.
The plane is about to land.
* The author’s child identifies as ‘they/them.’ The gender identity of the child is not the reason the child is in residential treatment.
If you want to learn more about this author's experiences and reflections, read these blogs:
September 27th, 2017: The Teen Years: Residential Treatment is Filled with Hope
November 17, 2017: Family Weekend During Teen Treatment: We Are All In This Together
November 20, 2017: Family Weekend During Teen Treatment: New Communication Skills Take Shape
December 11, 2017: Relocate. Repair. Refocus. Required.
February 27, 2018: “I’m Not Going Anywhere…” When Teen Treatment Gets Messy
May 24, 2018: It's Fine
May 30, 2018: Nearly Normal
June 7, 2018: The Passage of Time
July 16, 2018: You Have to Work With What You Have
August 10, 2018: Healthy Teenage Boundaries - Taking Control
About the Author
The author lives in NYC and is the parent of two fascinating and engaging children, ages 15 and 12. An instructional leader at an elementary school, she has the privilege of spending her days supporting a wide-range of students and teachers.