June 15, 2010

Letting children live their choices

Christina's World by Andrew Wyeth

This picture speaks to my heart when reflecting on troubled times with my children. It’s as if they were a thousand miles away and couldn’t find their way home again. Home referring to the metaphor of the self. Not the potpourri smelling heavily draped house their mother redecorates on a five-year cycle. Redecorating being a metaphor for my healing self.

Home is a resonating metaphor for the secure place within the self where we feel at ease, protected, loved, nourished, and can drift to sleep without worries of malice and harm. How do we guide our children ‘home’ when we they are lost in a sea of weeds? How do we reassure them that coming home is not a trap or obligation, but a choice?

Both of my children went through a ‘lost’ period in their lives, rebelling against authority. As a mother, I feared they might destroy themselves before setting one foot on the path leading home. As painful as it is to suffer our own struggles, there’s nothing comparable to watching a child destroy themselves and you call as loudly as you can and you shout “Come home!” with every ounce of your being but they do not hear you; of if they do, they refuse to trust that you really mean it. So you watch and you pray and you worry yourself into panic attacks during endless nights of feverish thoughts about what you can do to change your children’s alienation. If you’re like myself, you lay in bed tossing and turning and blaming yourself for not being the perfect mother who could protect your kids from a culture than normalizes unhealthy behavior and encourages them to define themselves in ways that ultimately destroy connections to family and self.

“I shoulda done this. I shoulda done that. Had I known how dysfunctional my marriage was, I woulda done x, y and z. It’s my fault they’re drinking and drugging. I caused their problems. If I caused their problems, I can fix those problems. I just need to think of ‘how’.” And off you go on a desperate romp though unfamiliar mental territory becoming very familiar overtime, looking for ways to change your kids so you can sleep through the night knowing they’re safe.

It finally got to the point where I’d reprimand myself sternly by saying out loud in the dark of night, “CZ, you are obsessing. Nothing you can think about right now will change the past.” That realization initiated a separation process from my children, putting my power over them in proper perspective. People make their own choices and unless they have mental problems precluding introspection, they learn from their choices. Especially the bad ones. You might need to grip the sides of your mattress waiting for kids to learn from their mistakes and you might need to grit your teeth or put cushions on bended knees but ultimately, no matter how much we want to pretend we can motivate them to love themselves, the task is not ours to bear.

Change doesn’t happen overnight. Finding your way home after losing yourself in a field of weeds appears to be a long stretch beyond the visible horizon. You know those scary dream scenes in movies when the more you walk down the path, the further the destination becomes? A lone and dreary night is like that. One fretful night turns into a year of lone and dreary nights with no end in sight, until suddenly, reality has her way with our illusions and eventually wears us down. You wake up with an epiphany and realize you cannot ‘will’ your children into coming home. They must make that choice themselves.

In the interim, while we watch with broken hearts and a pocket of Prozac, what can we do?

The first place I found support and guidance was a 12-step organization called Alanon. The meetings were oriented towards parents of alcoholic children keeping my scattered mind focused on the problem at hand: my kids. I could not believe what I heard at the first meeting and didn’t exactly respond to other parents in a compassionate or sympathetic way. “How could a parent lock a child out of the house? What kind of parent is that?” I wondered if these folks were justifying bad parenting because you didn’t do stuff like that in my family of origin. Instead of taking definitive action like locking kids out of the house after they pawned the family heirlooms, my family taught me to preach.

I can preach sermons like you can’t believe. Topics like Your Body Is A Temple or You Are A Child of God Why Are You Acting Like Satan's Bar Buddy? You know, the kind of sermons that DISCONNNECT people from one another as if “I” didn’t do self-destructive things myself! The kinds of sermons that teach kids’ all about Control and Criticism. Not Freedom and Love.

“Talk doesn’t matter,” someone said in a meeting, jarring my social programming loose as she went on and on and on about her son’s sincere promises to stop drinking this time. “They have to walk the walk,” she said. Then she added a comment making everyone laugh except me, “and WE as parents have to WALK our TALK.”

There are scores of slogans in 12-step that sound stupid to newcomers who are accustomed to searching for deep and complicated answers to immediate problems. Reducing something as serious as teenage drug addiction to a slogan was ridiculous in my arrogant opinion. Week after week, when all my preaching still had no impact on my kids’ behavior, and my eyes were pocketed with dark circles from sleepless nights, and my brain was so overwhelmed I couldn’t think through another stinkin’ theory about Dysfunctional Families or read another book by John Bradshaw, I finally said to myself, “I didn’t cause it. I can’t cure it. I can’t control it.” And that was a moment of clarity because I knew WHY people related to simple slogans for complicated problems: your brain is fried. You have to stop intellectualizing because your circuits are kapoot which fortunately sets both feet on the path to living from the heart. You learn to trust that ‘everything is unfolding exactly as it should’ because frankly, you can't think your way out of a paper bag. “Turn off the intellectualizing,” I preached to myself, “and heal thy neurosis.”

The 3 C’s slogan was like a giant billboard in my brain and it allowed me enough peace to get a good night’s sleep. I no longer traveled into the mysteries of convoluted thinking because the billboard worked like a Stop sign. Even knowing that somewhere in the city streets, my kids were doing things a mother cannot bear to know, I slept better. Not that I didn’t wake up now and then with the vague sense that Hitler was snoring on the other side of the bed. But that little problem had to wait another few years before my marriage bottomed out.

I had numerous clarifying moments during my children’s fugue from reality, one of them being that a Good Enough Mother was perfect. A good enough mother left some of her children’s needs unmet so they could take care of themselves. A good enough mother allowed her children to grow up which happens much faster if she respects their right to choose for themselves. A good enough mother hugged her kids and loved them, but did not take responsibility for their lives because that was a sure-fire way to keep them crippled in a field of weeds, unable to find their way home, expecting mama to carry them on her back or cut a path through the weeds for them.
A rescuing mother becomes the repository of children’s projected blame and fault, the very things they must reclaim to empower themselves and grow up. As long as mothers are willing to be the cause of a child’s troubles, children infantilize themselves and avoid taking responsibility for their lives.

I had a hard time letting go of my kids, but so did they have a hard time letting go of ‘me’. I sense that this happens frequently in narcissistic families when children feel safe with one of their parents and rejected by the other. They become overly reliant on the empathic parent to meet their emotional needs and at the same time, worry about their lovability because of the narcissistic parent who in their minds, rejects their worth as human beings. Of course, at the time, I had no clue about the importance of empathy, mirroring, attachment, bonding, or the narcissistic personality. And you don't even have to know all that stuff with a program like Alanon in order to restore a healthier perspective on parenting. Which means to me, "LOVE your children, don't LIVE your children's lives for them. "

When I stopped blaming myself for my kids’ problems, they were stuck with being the creator of their own problems, which meant they had to resolve those problems by controlling themselves. Which they did. Eventually. Not before we increased profits for Kleenex, Inc. though.

As synchronicity would have it, my neighbor across the street was going through a similar thing with her son. She didn't attend 12-step meetings with me, which I have to say in retrospect, was a humbling experience. 12-stepping parents admit we are unable to control other people, places and things which feels terrible but it's true! Instead of my good-hearted neighbor accepting her powerlessness to change her son, she continued doing what a lot of people do: cleaning up his messes, showing unconditional love no matter what he did, and rationalizing his abusive behavior as her fault. Alanon members listened to me say similar things (as most newcomers do) and respected my right to slowly process everyone’s stories, not all of them ending in happily ever after fairy tales.

But I was lucky. I was lucky that my kids eventually found themselves in the barrow pit (so to speak), took stock of their messed-up lives and decided to take control because mama refused to do that for them. By that point, they didn’t expect me to come to their rescue and they didn’t expect me to put up with abusive treatment because I caused them to treat me that way.

In a reciprocal manner, the more I respected my role as a mother and a human being, the more they respected themselves. The more they respected themselves and their ‘freedom’ to make their own choices, the less willing they were to live out-of-control lives limiting their freedom. They learned that they only hurt themselves, not me. (You have to extricate yourself from your children’s choices so they are the only ones suffering their consequences. Not that you won’t lay in bed weeping but that’s something they don’t need to know. )

I could write an epistle if I started talking about my relationship with my now-X-husbaNd who never attended Alanon, nor psychiatric counseling with me and the kids. At that point in my life, the children were ‘my’ responsibility and it didn’t appear abnormal for a mother to be driving her kids to 12-step, DUI classes, and even a trip to the attorney’s office without their father taking an active role, too. Because of Alanon though, my son paid his own dues to society, which stripped his savings account of the money he had saved from his paper route. He learned from this experience because he paid the costs without me stepping in to show how much I cared by writing a check. My first impulse, in all truth, was to pay his fines because it hurt me to see a child deplete his savings. I did not walk my thought, though. I considered it but kept my thoughts to myself. I held steady and let him own his problem and write out the check himself. Thank you Alanon.

For my neighbor who continued saving her son no matter what, he eventually ended up robbing his parent’s home for items he could sell for drugs. When they allowed him to return home to live with him after his time in jail, he sold drugs out of their garage, unbeknownst to them though I was pretty wise to his antics. Kids driving up and down the street stopping for five minutes to check out his toolbox didn’t fly past my wizened radar. His mom of course, assumed his friends were really really really interested in his carpentry tools. *grin*

Eventually, they realized what he was doing and changed the locks on their doors because my brother who was working for the DEA at the time, (life is so ironic!) told me in no uncertain terms that should a child sell drugs in his parent’s home, the DEA wouldn’t hesitate confiscating their home. I, of course, being a dutiful neighbor, informed my dear friend about the threat her son was to her security.

At some point and maybe it has to get really bad like my neighbor’s story, parents MUST separate from their children. It got pretty bad across the street before they could do that. They also owned stock in Kleenex, Inc. and we spent many a luncheon crying our eyes out. Her husband resolved his disappointment and pain by disinheriting his only son. *sigh*

Her son ended up being incarcerated and spending time in jail. Twice. He was one of those kids who punched holes in her walls and socked police in the eye if they arrested him. Though we talked nearly every day and consoled one another, nothing she did made any difference and that taught me something else, too: we can change our behavior, change the way we relate to our kids, change and learn and change some more but the child is the ultimate captain of his or her own Titanic. This is the most heartbreaking thing of all, allowing children to self-destruct with no bottom in sight and sometimes, an inadequate number of lifeboats.

My heart goes out to her and all the other wonderful, compassionate, and loving parents I have met whose children would not, or could not, find their way ‘home’.



  1. Thanks for sharing all of this CZ, for taking the time and digging deep and feeling the feelings that come up when painful times are recalled. Thanks for using your gifts of writing and creativity to reveal what your experience has taught you in such a loving and lovely way. The Alanon meetings that I've been to are so enlightning as is your blog. Thanks again.

  2. I have too much to say, Geneva and can't narrow down my experience into short and simple messages.

    The background story with my two children is integral to my approach with my nephew. We build on what we learn from prior experiences. Without knowledge about someone's history, we leave so much open to misinterpretation. In other words, no single book on the self-help market helped me MORE than dealing with my own children and being able to put that experience to use in dealing with my nephew.

    I will continue with a couple more posts about my experiences so people better understand where I'm coming from. My post about letting my nephew sit in detention without hugs and cupcakes on visiting day, upset a few people. I got emails.

    If they do not understand the principle behind allowing a child to suffer his or her own consequences, they might see me as an uncaring, distanced and rejecting woman which is clearly not the truth.

    I also believe more parents are like me than not. We need direction and guidance and we need support from one another.

    I find that community (peer) support, even sharing stories, is more useful than a pile of research papers on Object Relations or even Parent Effectiveness Training. For some reason, it's easier to see myself in other people's real life experiences which is why I continue writing about my personal life which isn't really all that interesting unless someone else is going through the same thing.

    I didn't realize you attended Alanon but I'm glad to know you are taking advantage of a relatively inexpensive way to help yourself. So many people balk at getting help, especially from non-professional people. There is so much wisdom to be gained from those who LIVE and LOVE troubled kids because it's real. It's not a theory. It's life.

    If you have a particular topic you might want to talk about, that would help narrow down the scope a little. I am willing to share almost anything other than my king-sized bed which I'm pleased to keep all for myself. ha!


  3. the child is the ultimate captain of his or her own Titanic.

    And so are we :)

    Hugs -- you are, as always, inspiring and challenging. You make me think -- outside my realm -- which is a good thing!

  4. Hi Louise!

    Time has been short lately and I need to catch up on your life, too! I hope you are doing okay because I certainly send happy thoughts your direction.

    My Ellie tree in the backyard has finished blooming and now she's becoming a luscious deep purple for the summer. *grin*

    For those who haven't gone through the agony of self-destructive kids, it might be hard to relate to some of the things parents do to extricate themselves from the child without rejecting the child.

    I shoulda added that in my rambling post. We extricate ourselves, we don't reject the child. That's much trickier said that done and as I posted in my message, 'disinheriting' the child is a chicken-shitola way to avoid FEELING the pain.

    Whenever i meet someone who has been through this, too, I'm always amazed at their story! How they showed love without ennabling the child. How they separated without alienating the child. It really is complex and every family relationship will differ in the way people manage their relationships. I don't see how disinheriting the child is showing love, though.

    (Not that a lot of us haven't HAD that thought!)


  5. CZ,
    This post touched my heart. Thank you for sharing your hard-woN wisdom, CZ. I hope to have your courage and compassion when I become a mother someday. My NM is still caught up rescuing my BPB, and she'd be rescuing me if I let her. She reminds me of your neighbor. Perhaps the most difficult reality of parenting is letting go w/o rejecting, allowing your child to be the captain, even if they're headed full steam ahead toward an iceberg.

    I hope that my parents come to understand the importance of letting go and letting us live our own choices - but like you, I didn't cause their parenting views, I can't control them, and I can't cure them.

    big grateful hugs,

  6. This all sounds painfully familiar. Both my sons took the scenic route to adulthood, which included DUIs and stints in jail. We were enablers with our younger son, but by the time he turned 18, I was plum out of excuses.

    When I found myself talking to my son on a phone, while looking at him on the other side of the plexiglass in jail, I told him I would NEVER do that again. And the next time he was arrested, I didn't.

    It was only then that my son realized it was all up to him. He still has his struggles, but he's turned his life around. I never went to Alanon, but have read the literature, and it was extremely insightful. Words are no match for addiction.

  7. Hi CZ,
    I left a comment but it went away :(
    Thanks for this post. I enjoyed reading it.
    I'll come back to your blog soon.

  8. Hi CZ,
    Just checking in on your blog today. I hope you are okay.
    I don't have much time but thought I'd come here with my morning coffee.
    You know one thing I wish Alanon had is a group that also focuses on mental illness, along with an addictive disorder. I went to Alanon meetings in my twenties to help me live with having two parents with alcoholism. (My dad went to AA and recovered but died when I was 25. I've always been glad in my heart to have seen him recovered before he passed away. My mom just quit drinking but I wish she had gone to AA.) She is 75 now :).
    I never actually worked the 12 steps myself but I think they are good, for just about anyone. And, maybe after reading this post, I will think about a meeting. My son has some addiction issues, although he is much much better now than when he was first ill at age 18 and 19.
    In an Alanon meeting I feel like they don't understand about mental illness. At a NAMI meeting I feel like they don't get it about the addiction issue. I know I'm supposed to find similarities and not differences, but it is hard.
    I guess, for the past several years, I've just been going at it all alone, which doesn't seem to be serving my mental and emotional health all that well.

    Thanks for writing about this. Thanks for sharing and I look forward to your next post.
    Wishing you, and yours, peace and wellness.

  9. I must apologize for not keeping up with comments. My post today lets everyone know why my time has been so limited lately.

    I'm setting up a separate website about 'narcissism' and its taxing my brain figuring out a structure that will help people understand the Narcissistic Continuum. AND, i am one of those single-focus people now that my age is creeping up on me.

    I don't multi-task very well, not like my younger years.

    As soon as the structure to the new site is up and running, my life should go back to normal. In the meantime, I am missing reading people's blogs and staying in touch with everyone! My cyberfriends have become a very important part of my life---a grounding and fearless way to face the tragedies of our lives.

    Hugs to all!


  10. wow. I love your blog. I am going through this with two of my children, ages 19 and 17. I allowed my oldest' actions to control our family. He was getting worse and worse. He was spiraling out of control and I tried to "HELP" by talking to him and pretty much bailing him out of his messes and suffering all his consequences for him because I didn't want to see him suffer. This last time was a doozie. The day after thanksgiving, I tried to make him clean his room and he blew up, spit in my face several times and started throwing things around, punching doors and finally holding me by my arms when I tried to keep him from breaking anything. The police were called and he resisted arrest, getting maced and tazed and taken to jail. I refused to bail him out. He stayed almost a month. Finally, his court appointed attorney got him a PR bond and he paid a portion down depleting his savings, so he could be out for Xmas. He has court tomorrow Jan. 7 and he must submit to an alcohol and drug screen weekly until then and after.... New Years Eve, he decided to get drunk and smoke weed at a friends house...Knowing he had a drug screen not 7 days later. He said he was talking and didn't realize he was smoking pot until he had already done it. I guess month in the slammer wasn't enough to make you remember the conditions of your bond. He didn't come home last night or call or anything. He wouldn't answer my calls or texts and I was worried sick something had happened to him. I know all too well the sleepless, crying nights. I have vowed not to bail him out and he must work out his own mess. Its really really tough. Thanks for your messages of hope for us moms going through similar things. Tammi

  11. Hope you sorted things out Tammi.

  12. This is exactly where we are with our only child...who is in the Navy. After two years of doing nothing but playing with his car on the weekends, and spending his paycheck on friends and going further into debt....we are finally 'allowing' him to run his own life.

    The other night I received a phone call from one of his shipmates who refused to identify himself, saying that my nagging emails to my son was making the captain sad( awwh) and embarrassing his crewmates. My son didn't have the guts to say this to my face. There was public humiliation in what he did, but then again....????

    He has the right to grow up in his own ways at 24, and we have the right not to watch a trainwreck in the making. We also have the right not to accept phone calls from him where he continuously lies to us about his life, etc.

    Right now, I need to reread your post, CZ...it goes straight to my painful heart...but the two dogs he left and ignored while he was here are barking and the new puppy I bought into the house yesterday to give some joy to me....is joining the chorus.

    I haven't slept much last night because of the new puppy, but I haven't slept for years because of the kid.

    Lady Nyo

  13. First thing I can share with you, LadyNyo is this: if you must write to your son (and he won't melt into a puddle, if you don't write to him)use the Hallmark motif. No lectures, no criticism, no judgments. No reprimands, no counseling, no maternalistic guilt-dumping. What do I mean by that?

    Well sometimes mothers apologize to their kids to relieve the mother's guilt. Or mothers try too hard to make up for imperfect parenting in the past when frankly, our kids don't need us to babysit or counsel them anymore.

    I have no clue what your relationship with your son is like so don't overhear my advice. For myself and for others who've been through a similar separation from their children, the only way to 'hold on' was to 'let go'.

    If your son is getting upset because of your emails, stop sending emotional-type emails. Just a quick "thinking of you" will do. Don't pry and perhaps he won't lie...some kids have a difficult time disappointing their parents. So difficult that they'd rather be deceptive (which only hurts their self-esteem in the end, even more than letting their parents down.)

    I have learned to let my kids survive their own trainwrecks, just as I have survived the wrecks of my own making (and the major trainwreck caused by a lousy conductor who didn't have a licence to drive in the first place). ;-P


  14. Thanks, CZ...right now, I don't plan on any more emails or phone calls to the brat right now...for a while...but I'll take your (good) advice about the Hallmark version.

    I just feel...well, exhausted. I took on his problems because I felt that I had been such a bad parent because I didn't cover all the bases, and homeschooling was actually a bomb for us...but a necessary bomb.

    Well, a lot of guilt here, but damnit! We did the best we could at the time. And you are right...the deception of this kid is because one, he's avoiding looking at what he is doing with his life, and two, he fears disappointing us.

    Either way, we need to withdraw until the feelings all around are not so raw.



  15. This is what I'd suggest. Keep it Hallmark. Don't take a No Contact approach which appears to be an 'ultimatum'. Plus, it would entertain his buddies no end if they knew his behavior was 'getting to ya.'

    Unless the kid is stealing, abusive, threatening your safety somehow, No Contact is 'retaliation' and that will only increase his anger towards you both.

    Be non-committal with him. Don't be overly happy to hear from him as if a tiny crumb thrown your way is all you deserve. Treat him like a neighbor kid---you're interested in his life but you aren't responsible for his choices.

    I have found with narcissistic people that it's much easier to have good boundaries myself than to enforce a No Contact Zone. (unless of course, it's absolutely necessary and yes, sometimes it is!)

    Let your son 'want' for your attention...let him choose to eat a little humble pie for a change and see if it cuts through his narcissism.

    What do you think?

    I love Roseanne Barr-Arnold's quote (Paraphrasing here). "It's five o'clock and the kids are still alive. My job is done."

    Your son is alive. He's well-fed. He's healthy. He's been offered many opportunities. Fussed over. Worried about. He's been loved and cared for, even doted on. OH, the misery of this narcissistic generation, eh? Whatever will they do with such attentive parents?!!


  16. Thanks, CZ....we have and are walking the NC with the NM since July 4th of this year. Our own independence. That was necessary, and was proved so when I went into a deep, deep slump of depression and didn't think I would ever come out alive. I almost didn't. NC was a life-saver. In this case with the child, I have applied it as knee-jerk and too broadly.

    When you have such a narcissist in your life, and the wounds have been all your life, it is hard not to throw this narcissistic label around. And it was even harder for me to set boundaries with the NM.

    Reading something of Carl Jung tonight, this struck me like a brick to the brain: "I never felt whole when I was around her (the NM)...I was only parts and these parts were scrambled".

    Because of the rough start of our son's life, and that we adopted him at 3, we were over protective. It's funny-tragic to remember this...but it speaks to something here: he was only fed baby food until he was 3 (in foster) and didn't really develop the swallow reflex for solid foods: we, like the parent birds we were...had to stroke his throat for him to swallow without choking when we got him.

    My immediate reaction to the nasty phone call of this week, and the continued manipulation of our only child sent both of us (husband and me) into a hard place: we didn't want to even hear the sound of his voice. We told him not to dare call home. He hasn't but then again...perhaps things are so raw between us right now that we need this breather..this time out.

    I hadn't seen his 'personality flaw' in this term, but I think you are right: it's narcissism. We have done everything for him that we could possibily do, and he's spoiled....not that we threw money at him, or spoiled him with electronics, games, etc.

    Right now we are hurt and feel he is a 'moral coward'. It is a harsh sentence, but perhaps he deserves some of this.

    In any case, I am sticking with my dear therapists opinion: Let him simmer, leave him alone. Don't feel guilt....you have done your best (and we are very faulty as human parents...)

    And let him feel the full brunt of his choices...though that will take some years.

    I'll take those hugs because I feel so empty now.

    Thanks, CZ.


    1. Dear LN,

      It's never easy to make the No Contact choice. I hesitate encouraging people to take that route but realize that sometimes, It Is Absolutely Necessary. You must take care of your own mental health and besides, one can always hope that cutting off your 'narcissistic supply' will be like hitting bottom is for the addict.

      It may not be, as you know...but he is your son. Let him live his own choices and don't intervene. If he contacts you, keep it Hallmark if you choose to re-engage. The issue as you know is that parents are sooooo happy to hear from their child, so relieved, that they make reconciliation too easy.

      So no feasts for the prodigal son. Not in 2012. It doesn't work that way. Our kids have too much narcissism in them that's considered normal. Life may need to be exceptionally challenging before they'll let their narcissism go and take responsibility for their own lives.

      Each person has to make this decision for themselves. No blogger on this planet, no matter how many tough kids she's raised, can tell anyone else what to do!

      Hugs and Hope,


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...