by: Gari Lister
Parenting an adult child with reactive attachment disorder — especially a young adult — can be challenging, to say the least. My oldest is 23, and we have been through a LOT with her since she became a “legal” adult. We have faced questions like: do we press charges, do we give her presents when she won’t see us, do we bail her out of jail, do we pay for drivers education, and do we let her see our younger children? And those are all separate occasions and different phases in her development.
Five-odd years ago, when my daughter was 18 and simply miserable to be around, I went to a seminar given by Katharine Leslie (who gets “it” even more than most experts because she is a mom to four troubled adopted children who are now adults). I remember asking Dr. Leslie after the seminar for advice on how to handle my much-loved but extremely messed-up daughter. I can’t remember exactly what I asked her about — probably whether I should include her in some family barbecue. I do remember that by the time of the talk my daughter had moved out of the garage apartment we gave her, unable to follow our requirement that she stay in high school, and was abusing drugs and alcohol.
Dr. Leslie’s advice has stayed with me all these years, and I have used it time and time again. It is extraordinarily simple.
Five years ago, I remember worrying that my daughter would ruin the party – I worried whether she would show up on drugs, whether she would NOT show at the last minute or whether her drama would otherwise ruin the for the rest of the family. (All quite reasonable worries.) But at the same time I thought: as a therapeutic parent, don’t I need to keep trying? Don’t I need to help her heal?
Here is how Dr. Leslie’s approach works: cut through all the back-talk, and ask yourself one simple question. What do I need? What is best for ME?
And it’s that simple. If I as her mom need to invite her, I should invite her – with the knowledge that she might indeed ruin the party. If I need to enjoy the party and make sure my other children enjoy it as well, then I should not invite her. It is MY choice. There is no right answer.
And it sounds selfish – but really it’s not. As parents who pour our hearts into our children, we MUST learn to listen to our own needs. Because only if we are listening to our own needs can we be the parents we need to be.
I argued at first – isn’t my job as her mom to help her heal? Shouldn’t I show unconditional love? And she kept saying, is that what YOU need? This deceptively simple question takes the control away from our struggling children and gives it back to us.
I don’t have to invite my daughter to that barbecue — I am a great mom even if I don’t. But if I invite her, and she ruins the party, I chose to take that risk.
Today, I don’t just return to Dr. Leslie’s words with my oldest. I use the phrase for lots of other things. I have a 13 year old who is rarely grateful and not always fun to be around. She asks me to do lots of things that are not convenient. Here is how I think about it: What is best for ME? Do I want/need to see her smile after we’ve invited 12 volleyball players to our house for a sleepover? Then I do. Is it more important to me to have a quiet night? Then I don’t let her invite them. It’s not about what she deserves — it’s about what I need as her mom. Because if my needs as mom are met, then chances are I’m doing a pretty good job.
I also used Dr. Leslie’s words last Christmas when I debated whether to send gifts to two sweet but troubled children with whom I no longer have a relationship. I thought the presents might get thrown away, and wasn’t at all sure the girls would ever receive them. And yet I sent a package. Why? Because I needed to know I had sent them gifts.
So when you are facing a challenge with one of your children, especially a young adult, please ask yourself: What do I need? What is best for ME?