About a year ago, my wife and I gained custody of my sister's 15-year-old son, James (not his real name). When he came to live with us he had been failing school, mainly because my sister was addicted to a variety of drugs and James's academic life was not her priority. Now he's regularly attending his classes. He seems to love living with my wife and me. When we're home he follows us from room to room. If we're making dinner, he asks questions and wants to help. We're making plans for the summer, camping trips -- he wants me to teach him how to play the guitar and repair bikes. So, basically things are good.
Our concerns are mainly with a 16-year-old girl James began seeing about three months ago. Chloe and James share similar histories. It didn't take long before Chloe was spending most of her time at our house. We wondered if it was too much, but then thought it was clear she could benefit from the consistent support of adults who cared for her. We thought things were OK, but last week my wife happened to catch a glance at James's back while he was changing his shirt, and noticed it was covered with bite and scratch marks. We talked to James about them, and he said Chloe sometimes gets angry and will bite him. But he told us she can't help it and feels bad about it afterward. He also told us she used to cut herself. James is a big-hearted kid, and is insistent that Chloe needs him in order to get better. We can see how he might feel that way, but we also want his girlfriend to stop abusing him.
-- Uncle Undone
Dear Undone: Your nephew is extremely lucky to have you and your wife. The two of you are enabling him to learn to do something he wasn't able to learn while in the care of his mother -- how to feel safe.
This is hugely important. There is a growing body of research on what helps kids bounce back from traumatic experiences, such as living with a mentally ill and or substance-addicted parent.
Research shows that the presence of one caring adult has everything to do with whether a child will recover from trauma. It also helps if that special someone has high expectations forthe child ("Of course, we want you to stay in school"), as well as opportunities to contribute in a meaningful way ("You want to learn how to make soup, here's an apron, I'll show you how it's done"). In your home, your nephew has found what he needs to move into his future as a healthy young man.
The self-harming behavior of his girlfriend and her abuse of him, while alarming, is also somewhat common in kids who have experienced abuse and neglect. In the absence of a caregiver capable of modeling how to make sense of and manage emotions, some people don't learn healthy ways to regulate their feelings. Imagine not knowing whether you could cope with how you felt from one minute to the next. For people who live with this level of unpredictability, life feels like a constant threat. Self-harming behaviors are one way to manage this internal chaos. Fortunately, with the help of a trained therapist, both your nephew and his girlfriend can learn new ways to manage their emotions.
Learning more about how to care for children who have difficulty managing feelings would benefit you both. Feeling "undone" is a normal reaction when faced with the reality that someone close to us is suffering.
It is also a sign you need to ground yourself. Some people hike, some people go to church, others cook or mow the lawn. However you do it, do it.
More than anything else, your nephew needs to see, again and again, how people close to him plant their feet upon the ground. Children learn what they see.
Ask Mom is a weekly feature in the Walla Walla Union-Bulletin. If you have a question you would like to submit to the Ask Mom panel, send it to firstname.lastname@example.org. This week's column was written by Patrice Janda, MSW therapist with Cocoon Project SAFE. Cocoon Project SAFE serves Walla Walla parents of teens. For free consultation and support, call 1-877-339-4179.