This is a special post, written anonymously from an alumni parent. Though it is written for single parents, I encourage all parents to read these helpful words.
Here are some pearls that really work –– pearls gleaned from kids in the muck, from therapists, and treatment centers. Pearls culled from hard core experts. These are proven truths you may not want to know.
As a single parent for six years and the sole parent for almost four, much of what I have to say about successful single parenting of a great and demanding child is equally true for the co-parent.
In a way, being the sole parent is easier – easier to hold a boundary, easier to keep things consistent because you’re in only one home, easier not to have to compromise and have the difficult and challenging––often heartbreaking talks with someone that feels differently. It’s easier because when someone is messing up your kid through lack of work or trying to be a friend instead of parenting, or doesn’t believe anything is wrong or (you fill in the blank)… it’s way easier to just do what you think is right. It’s also a harder and lonelier road as well.
Do your work, and do more work, and do tons of it. Yup, this is why you may not want to hear this, because it means you have to work, and work hard. You may see results from all that sweat, but you might not. So there is no guarantee. All you get is knowing you did the right thing by your kid, even if he or she could not heal.
Get your own shrink and preferably one with expertise with teens like yours and issues like yours. See your shrink often. You need an advocate and someone to help not only with good advice when it comes to your kid, but how about helping you deal with the carnage of all this? If he or she is a wall flower, get a new one. You need active help. Single parents need strong support. If you can’t afford it, find experts willing to mentor. Join support groups. Tons of options exist and we are not alone. It just takes work.
Hire experts. If you have the money, spend it; you have no better investment. If you don’t have the cash, find it. Do the best you can. Borrow if you have to. Educational consultants, transporters, wilderness programs, shrinks, behavior treatment centers, private schools … there’s a long list here. Boy, do I feel lucky that I could get help for me and my kids, and working really hard at it all makes the money go a lot further.
Read everything that anyone you’re working with suggests. It will give you a good look into what they’re thinking and how much continued work they’re doing and you’ll learn a ton in the process. When you’re visiting a potential school, ask the question – what are you reading?. Talking to a shrink? Ask the question. Reading this article? Ask me this question. (Oh, well, thanks for asking … I’m reading The Unexpected Consequences of Divorce and Motherless Daughters … sounds fun, eh?)
Go to everything offered. If you’re on a conference call with a wilderness treatment group and they suggest going to AA meetings, go that week. If the wilderness program has a sleep out: go. If the school offers holiday visit, go and bring the family. Go to all the meetings, and events, and travel opportunities, and say yes to it all and use up whatever vacation time you have to do it. It often sucks, it is very expensive, you don’t get rest, it’s emotional horror, and it’s what you need to do. Showing up for our kids is like passing the biggest test possible. So on to Pearl #5A
Kids know it when you do and really know it when you don’t. If you’re known to show up, people work harder for you and for your kid. You learn more; you’ll grow so much. It really is worth it.
You cannot hide –– they see it all. Kids know what is going on if you’re showing up at everything – they know, and all the other kids know. Boy, do they know if you’re not showing up. You can say “sorry” for being late to a conference call, or not going to a meeting or whatever; it may make you feel better but it doesn’t work because you can’t hide. Doesn’t matter that your boss was awarding you a silver star or firing you: kids only know that you didn’t make them the most important thing. What after all is more important than our kid?
Don’t hit yourself over the head with “what-ifs.” Perhaps, perhaps if had I done this before … Well, screw that “perhaps.” You’re showing up now. If you yell and lose your temper – you cannot hide from that. If you smell of booze, you can’t hide. How about that grass you’ve hidden? They know. They know what we’re scared to know.
You know how people behave differently when people are watching? Do this always with your kids, act as if someone you respect is watching you talk to your kid – because they are people of the most important type and they are watching — and you can’t hide anyway. There is no faking this.
Stick with it. Be strongly in support of the programs you choose. I have seen kids not work, hang out waiting because they know the parent isn’t committed. Mostly I see this with a couple or co-parenting split marriage when one doesn’t think the kid needs it as much as the other. So the kid stalls – now we single parents have no excuse here – make the call and then stick with it. Work the program hard, pick a great one and make sure that kid knows this is going to take as long as it needs to take. No short cuts. Before my kids’ mother died, she played the good guy, “I will get you out” – that kid in a behavior boarding school waited – no matter how committed I was, she thought she didn’t need to work. It became very clear after her mom passed that she had one way out – graduate the program and succeed. Recently with a relapse, now living at home, she joined another local program (Kids Off Chemicals – Santa Rosa – it kicks ass) — again, she had to work the program. Last night she graduated, another growth milestone.
You may have times when you need to change programs – this is not the same as not backing your play. It’s hard in the face of a kid that is so convincing and may even be right at times. Do the work, show up, work the program. Do not give them an out.
Holding boundaries – state them and hold them. Simple right? It’s hard and it’s the key to the kingdom. If you have kids over 18 it gets very simple. Here are my rules: Sober, productively employed (college, work, volunteer, great international travel, living well, productively pursuing life), you let me know how you are doing, and what you are doing when I ask, you do not have anyone in my home without advance permission, no violence. My oldest in college knows this well. If she holds to this, she can count on my financial support––this is a no exceptions play. If she breaks one of these, I no longer pay for college, no more money … and she could not live at home. Period. Yes she hates it and she pushes at times, and it is so very clear. She is sober and working hard at it in college, and struggling. She is now a full year home from an RTC and Wilderness and suicide attempt and self cutting, rape, alcoholic … hard core. She needs these strong boundaries. My 17-year-old has the same rules and a few more since she lives at home. It’s harder because I can not kick her out if she falls and I can’t cut her money off entirely so have a little less leverage. She was away for two-1/2 years before coming home; another very lost child. She has made so many mistakes since being home over the past two-plus years. First it was every week … then every few months … then less. Been about six months now and doing really well. And it’s the rules and very tight boundaries that allow me to catch her and help her back up. It is so hard doing this work, it would be so much easier in the short run to say yes. And when they start to do better you need to catch them at this as well, giving more, teaching new boundaries. It is our job to “raise the floor” – so they don’t fall so far again.
This is a long term job – it’s easy when they are away by comparison. So get ready to really work, rest up if you sent them away – because coming home is all on you – so get your game on.
Demand Sweetly –– I write this as a reminder to practice this. Demand sweetly: be strong and kind. No use getting pissed and showing it –– they love that and are playing you. Distance so you can be strong, loving so you can support. You have to find a way to be stern and clean about it without the emotional games we put out and on kids.
Taking care of yourself – going to meetings, doing the full load of work for you and your kid is taking care of yourself and you need more. Get a massage, hire someone to sleep over so you can get away, take a day off and sleep, read for pleasure. Do what you like to do when you can because they will leave and you need to be healthy. So what have you done today to take care of yourself? Even a little is enough.
Co-parenting – while I am a sole parent you may be a single parent still needing to deal with an ex. Keep this in mind: one of the most important determining factors in your kid’s success is successful co-parenting. So you’ve got to figure this out. I have seen parents who hate each other agree that the kid comes first and they do. I have seen a solid mom or dad and a shit show on the other side and no way for this to work and IT MUST WORK. So while this is messy, do everything you can to model great behavior, kindness and be strong.
Model the behavior you hope for in your kid. Keep the booze locked up, don’t keep or use anything around your kid, get sober, go to meetings, see a shrink, do the work and be seen doing it, be good when no one is watching, do thoughtful nice generous things when it fits, catch you kids at small goodness ––“be the change you want to see it the world” get healthy. Yup–not eating like you want is more hard work.
Forgive. Forgive yourself for all this –– heck it’s a great thing to keep forgiving yourself for everything. It’s the ultimate act of self love: forgive your kids, forgive your ex — it’s really hard. I am still angry at my kid’s mom and I am just sick and tired of my story, so will continue to work on forgiving her, because I don’t need that crap on my heart.
This ride has been very hard –– two girls in treatment and horror upon horror; and I love my life more than ever, my relationship with my kids is hard and wonderful. It really is true about hard work: it delivers.
Remember, if you’re reading this and doing the work (any work at all) on yourself and for your kid, YOU ARE the good parent. You are not alone.
Listen, this is really what it’s all about, and the trouble is, the work just never ends. Layer upon layer, and it is so hard.
Yesterday my daughter in a rage:
“Time to get up, getting late…we gotta go…”
“Dad, I didn’t sleep again and feel sick…”
What a crap show.
It ran into a big fight. A real icky situation. I didn’t hear her and was not listening. What she was saying was, “I feel like crap and need some comfort and understanding about how hard life is on me.” What I heard was her getting ready to pitch me on staying home from school. Had I listened to her, I could have been more gentle. I could’ve comforted and been more understanding as I pushed her out the door.
Read about the “I feel statement.” Read The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People and his tools on listening. Read How to Listen So Teens Will Speak … and practice caring about what your kid is really saying. So often they speak under the mess coming out of them. This is so hard because it’s tedious work, because we can listen and allow a teen to be heard without agreeing and yet it feels like we’re agreeing if we listen. When people feel heard, really heard – they live with things better and are willing to hear you. Teens don’t trust adults – because most just don’t listen. And kids have a lot to say.
3 thoughts on “Pearls From the Fox Hole: Single Parenting a Hard Core, High Needs Kid”
Dear Anonymous Dad,
Thank you from the bottom of my heart for each and every pearl of wisdom you discussed. Reading this renewed my faith that I AM doing the right things for myself and my daughters.
You are so right that is never ending hard work but it IS worth it.
I am sending positive thoughts your way so that you know that I am their in spirit to keep you strong and gentle.
Thank you again.
You are welcome – since I wrote that we have been through some real big ups and bigger downs. Right now both my kids thrive – one in treatment and now at 18 on her own… working and doing great…the other on a long NOLS course. Really great when you work it…it can work.
Powerful words, Nicholas. I think the hardest part for so many parents is to really understand and acknowledge just how smart kids really are. They don’t miss a beat and absorb everything that goes on with and between their primary caregivers. As a kid, I did 2 RTC tours. My folks found the resources; but that’s where their involvement stopped. They scratched their heads, thought they’d been had and couldn’t understand why I didn’t come back ‘fixed.’ It’s a long hard road to health (mental, physical, spiritual. ..) Your beautiful girls are so lucky to have a Dad with your commitment. The work never ends, and that’s even more true when you start your own family. Blessings to all 3 of you. And thank you for sharing.