Even now that my child is safely in residential treatment, the list of events that brought them* there are hard for me to fathom. School truancy. Running away. Days of not getting out of bed. Endless hours of computer use. Hospital stays. Police involvement. Cutting. Suicidal ideation.
Our child’s challenges were not new to us. Sadness at not being able to sustain a social encounter led us to find weekly therapy at age 5. By fourth grade they* were enrolled in a special education school which supported nonverbal learning challenges and emotional regulation. We championed each moment of progress. Friends were made. Independence was slowly achieved. Life benchmarks -- sleepaway camp, Bar Mitzvah -- were met with equal parts joy, and sighs of relief.
Then we entered the teen years.
Like many parents I had done my fair share of reading about each developmental stage my child entered. I was not blind. I moved forward with a decent understanding of the changes that made these pivotal years a roller coaster. Even neurotypical teens can seem otherworldly to their baffled parents. Intellectually we know this is because their frontal lobe, the brain center responsible for self-regulation, impulse control, and planning is the last area to develop (Jensen, 2015) but emotionally, this can leave parents to feel like they are suddenly back to toddler mood-swings and outbursts in a much larger, more demanding and riskier package.
In earlier years I comforted myself by believing that at least by the time most parents were really struggling with their child, we would be light years ahead, having already laid in a good foundation of therapy and self-discovery. In reality, the opposite was true. As we entered the teen years, every aspect of our child’s beautiful complexity became even more challenging. Areas that had always been a struggle only intensified and the parenting moves that kept our house functional in earlier years -- a structured environment, support with social interactions, goal-oriented behavior modification -- became ineffective in an unexpected flash.
Rules became completely optional and there was no way to enforce behavior. Simple requests -- do your homework, take a shower, eat dinner, call me when you leave -- were disregarded and could easily send our whole household up in the flames of argument that left everyone feeling helpless.
“It’s not fair. It’s my right to be on the internet. It’s a free place. You are cutting me off from all my friends,” our child screamed through the hallway of our apartment at 10pm one spring evening. Our family drama ricocheted through off the walls and down the pipes to the surrounding homes trying to have a peaceful evening. There they stood, clutching their computer, eyes wild as if possessed. It was the look of desperation. These were the actions of an addict, willing to do anything for the gratification of connecting through the screen. Arms began to thrash. Shouts got louder and louder. The modem remained off, wifi cut from the house for all of us. We blocked the door with our bodies and a bookcase, aware that it would not be safe for anyone to leave. This was seen as aggressive. We watched our child’s face grow red and sweaty as they screamed and screamed.
I wish this was a low point, but it was not. By the time we decided to make the move toward residential treatment, this kind of episode was way too normal.
There is not a parent in the world who wants to live without their child. We are hardwired to believe that we can make it better, embody the help that our child needs, provide the environment in which they can thrive. That’s what makes the shift to Residential Treatment, even the possibility of this shift, so difficult. It goes against our very being, yet it’s just the answer that is sometimes needed.
Shortly after the transition to treatment in Utah, I came to the realization that our child needed parents, but that they had become unparentable in our house. We were no longer effective and could not meet their needs. Not for lack of tireless effort and love. Simply, factually, we were not able to give them the learning environment that they needed for the lessons of the moment.
Each year is precious. There are milestones to be made, developmentally, emotionally, socially at every age. The constant challenge of parenting is that it requires us to be present and honest about our own child and somehow remove our own expectations, wishes, and desires. In parenting, the acts of love must be custom-fit to the needs of each child. Sometimes, that means doing the hardest thing possible and admitting that you are not the person best equipped for the task.
If you are looking for a residential treatment center, your child and your family are already in crisis. All families in the process of making this move for their child have suffered. For this reason alone it’s important to view this move through the lens of hope. The possibility for Residential Treatment grows from the belief that your child can have the future they want, and the chance for them to learn with independence. Parenting is not for the faint of heart. This may be hardest choice that you’ve ever made for your child, but remember, like all other decisions it is made with love. We must support our child’s journey and realize that it is not ours to make.
* The author’s child identifies as ‘they/them.’ The gender identity of the child is not the reason the child is in residential treatment.
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.