Last night, T came to ask permission to go to the movies with his girlfriend tomorrow. A perfectly mundane occurrence in some households, but kind of extraordinary in ours. A constant refrain in our house is "Come with a plan, and ask for what you want in a straightforward way." He started strong, great eye contact, a nice smile, a perfectly reasonable request ("I'd like to go to the movies tomorrow"). But he lost confidence half way through and started to interrogate me so as to try to trap me into saying yes. I stopped him and said, "It's been a good week - why don't you just ask for what you want and see what I say?" To this, he blurted out "I'm afraid because you might say no!"
I imagine that we all feel that way when we make ourselves vulnerable by exposing a desire and giving another person the power to grant it or not. But the fear is really exaggerated in T, as it must be in other kids who've been severely abused from a young age. At a time when he was meant to be voicing his needs without forethought, he was in a situation where even the most basic childish desire would likely be ignored, or lead to punishment, suffering, shame and humiliation. To ask to have his needs or wants met was an extremely risky proposition.
For three years, we have been working with him on asking for what he wants with confidence. In our early days together, he couldn't ask for anything at all - he found it quite difficult to allow himself to want anything in the first place, much less ask for it. We had to start with the basics - eye contact and putting things into words. We would often structure multiple options and ask him to choose, working on identifying simple preferences, as the first step to voicing requests.
As he emerged from his shell and started to have specific desires - a new pair of jeans, a night out with friends - he was like a man who awakens to his last night on earth. The wanting ran wild. He had no sense of "normal". He was so hungry for experiences, and so accustomed to loss, he would go nuts with the exhilaration of the moment. He still does that sometimes, exacerbated by substance abuse - containing himself for days on end, then wheedling/manipulating/threatening/sneaking what he wants. Then he's struck by guilt, remorse and consequences and sequesters himself again. Finding balance will be a lifelong project.
There have been many "no"s in our house lately, as he was in a relapse. We decided to restrict a great many things in order to communicate that we would not participate in or tacitly support his relapse behavior. It's a joy to all of us that he has pulled himself out of the relapse with a great deal of hard work (he voluntarily entered an outpatient substance abuse program where he goes for four hours, three times a week). So it was a joy to give him a "yes" last night.
Getting in trouble or being denied is what he expects and confirms his belief that he's a bad kid. And by the same token, making a reasonable request and hearing "yes" is so abnormal in his experience that he doesn't even know what such a conversation might sound like. He is unaccustomed to being treated like a reasonable and deserving person, and to thinking of himself that way.
He got his "yes". He deserved it, too.
12 hours ago