How parents are bad for their children
Since my husband’s fifteen-year-old daughter moved in with us in September, I’ve seen A transform and become radiant. I didn’t realize the gravity of A’s anxieties and insecurities until I saw her shed them, week after week, as she started at a new school, joined clubs, and (joy of joys!) made awesome friends. She carries herself with more confidence now and even my parents and friends remark on how her face glows.
My daughter is not mentally ill (I mean, in as much as being a high school sophomore doesn’t constitute temporary insanity!). But I found myself thinking about her on Friday as I was driving and listening to a podcast: “The Problem with the Solution” from Invisibilia.
In the town of Geel, Belgium, families board the mentally ill as other families might board foreign exchange students. Since the 1300s, even those with serious illnesses—people who would be drugged up and institutionalized in the U.S.—are sharing family meals and riding bikes and going to cafés in Geel.
Geel’s success is owing to meeting its boarders as they are; there is no intent to “fix” or “cure” anybody. When a boarder wakes up in terror because lions are coming out of the walls, his host helps chase the lions away. When a boarder twists every button off his shirt, his hostess sews them back on every night because, “It helps him — to twist the buttons off every day.” Apparently the solution to healing mental illness is to not seek a solution.
But it turns out there’s a blemish on paradise: no family is caring for their own.
The reason is that a mentally ill patient’s own family is just too close to able to see their loved one wholly, resulting in behaviors that prevent healing or self-realization.
In the 1950s, it was shown that schizophrenic patients who return to their families after hospitalization were significantly more likely to relapse than patients who returned to independent lodging. The researchers attributed this to families being more likely to exhibit three behaviors in particular: criticism, hostility, or emotional over-involvement.
We compare our loved one to the way they used to be, or to a fantasy of who they could be, and become frustrated; or we over-cautiously monitor their every move, saying, “Here, let me do that for you!” so we never find out how much they can do on their own. As one woman’s second husband said, after observing his wife with her biological son, “I think she doesn't see the right problems because she's a mother always defending him, not seeing clear. [She’s not seeing him] as other people do.”
As I listened to how families negatively impact the health of their mentally ill children, I immediately wondered: What about the families of average children?
My daughter, at fifteen, chose to move away from the stay-at-home mom who raised her to instead live with a dad who’s often away for work and a busy bonus mom who only met her four years ago.
I think the pain the Momex must have felt to see her daughter leave must have been excruciating—rivaled only by now having to watch from afar as another woman goes to her daughter’s band concerts, books her dentist appointments, and makes her meals.
But is it not true that A choose for herself the next best thing to boarding with a foster family? What if we saw her choice not as about picking favorites among her parents, but instead as about recognizing the environment she needed to maximize healing and growth during her difficult teenage years?
A is a wonderful young woman, witty and empathetic and companionable—a testimony to how great of a parent her bio-mom was as A moved from infancy to toddlerhood to childhood. But as A comes into womanhood, she seems to be responding better to a bonus mom who can better see her “as other people do”. I don’t have a preconception that “mother knows best” and so I’m better able to meet her where she is, wholly.
This plays out even in conversations between my husband and me: A is more inclined toward sedentary activities, so it was a huge win when she agreed to do a “Jingle Bell Jog 5K” this weekend and then walked-ran herself to the finish, keeping a positive attitude the whole time. But then says my husband, “Maybe she’ll do a ten-miler! Maybe she’ll do a triathlon next summer!!” No, husband, she won’t. And she is never going to join the military. And when she applies to colleges, she’ll do it with a normal application package.
Teens are manically hormonal, face tremendous social and other pressures at school that lead to anxiety and depression, and are cycling through new identities at a rate that could almost be called schizophrenic. As my own mother said to me before I left home at thirteen, “There’s a reason for boarding school.”
And perhaps now this is the way I may understand A. She’s here not because she and her bio-mom don’t love and appreciate each other; just the opposite, perhaps their bond is so strong that it prevents the Momex from letting go of the need to fix A’s problems and it prevents A from having the freedom to cycle through the normal breakdowns of identity and healing that are so necessary to come of age.
At least for the present, A seems to need a parent who can meet her where she is: no criticism, no fixing, no over-involvement in her every decision or emotional state. If she says there are lions, there are lions, and I’ll be here to help her chase them away—if she wants me to.