One of the things I admire so much about our foster/adoptive teenage son is what I think of as his skill at family.
It is beyond comprehension where he acquired these skills, unless you either accept that such things are innate, or decide that it's possible to learn positive skills through negative examples. In any case, I believe he is good (and getting better) at key aspects of family life: attunement, organization, reconciliation, and play.
Attunement: To me this means knowing how to get in synch with another person. I am pretty sure he developed this capacity through trauma - I'm sure it's quite useful when you're living with a severely abusive adult to be able to read and respond to their moods. However, he's able to carry this skill forward in more healthy environments. We noticed it early on. If you hum a song, he picks it up three rooms and way and finishes the tune. If the mood tilts too far in one direction, he'll switch it up to establish equilibrium. Sometimes he'll start an argument, just to get us back on the same page - he's like the princess with the proverbial pea under her mattress if there's something that needs to be aired and he won't rest until it is.
Organization: There is seemingly no end to the chaos that a life in foster care can wreak. T. has been in sixteen homes. He's had multiple caseworkers. Some of his case files are in another county, on paper, and thus not accessible to his current caseworkers. His birth family, for various reasons, had severe difficulties such that the whereabouts of his father and his siblings was difficult or impossible to track. He told me recently that he's not sure how he's actually related to the person he calls "grandma"; he's pretty sure she's his second or third cousin. Perhaps in response to all of this upheaval, he's quite orderly. When he first came to us, he was TOO orderly - I believe the clinical term is "overly compliant." After that eased up, he became just garden-variety organized. He keeps his important papers in a neat stack in his desk drawer. He remembers dates and appointments and names. He knows the phone numbers and birthdays of all his nearest and dearest by memory. He's taught me that children need organization, and that lack of organization is a cause of significant anxiety, especially for traumatized kids.
Reconciliation: Living in close quarters with others produces intimacy and some bumps and scratches. I greatly admire his capacity to resolve the inevitable misunderstandings and hurt feelings before they fester. He has bursts of temper like any teenager. But if we sit still on the sofa afterwards, he circles back repeatedly, "pinging" us with little attempts at reconciliation. If we respond with openness, eventually after a few "pings" he settles in for a "big talk." He doesn't get up until everyone has said their piece and we've moved along. Often he stays on to chat a bit, euphoric from the feeling of having been heard. It's a great skill, one that really surprised us the first few times we saw him in action following a conflict.
Play: One day when T. was telling me some anecdote about a previous foster home, I had an epiphany. He was talking about how he'd been disciplined, and what he'd done wrong to deserve it. I knew him when he was in that foster home, and I was familiar with the environment there and what his life was like then. "You know what always bothered me about that house?" I said. "I think parents have to give guidance. It's part of what we do. But we also have to bring the fun. That house didn't seem like there was much fun going on." He looked surprised, and he agreed. We play alot. T. likes to lick us by surprise sometimes - he'll sneak up and lick us on the cheek just to hear us squeal. He hides sometimes when we come home so we have to look for him. He loves to flop on our bed and tickle our feet, and he's very quick to pick up a silliness and turn it into an inside joke. We sass each other and tell each other the things that nobody but your family will ever tell you, like "your feet smell." He's just fun.
In all the writing about foster/adoption of older children, I think the basic skills of family living are often given short shrift. We navigate many complicated issues with him, ranging from substance abuse to grief about the relatives he's lost. His skill at attunement, organization, reconciliation and play are a big part of building the day to day bonds that support doing that work.
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