“She babies them. They all act like fruits. All they do is hug her all the time.” At 17, Marcus is the newest addition to our household and the biological brother of our other 3 chickens. He has some very strong objections to my parenting style. For example, he has taken a quite stringent stance about hugging. Absolutely no hugging shall be allowed in his presence at any time. Since we are a family full of hugging, this leads to a great deal of outraged teenage protests such as, “You guys are so gross!” or “This is so girly!”
He has become increasingly agitated over the few weeks he’s been home for good. He quit talking to me all together last week. If I walk I to a room with one of the others he leaves. Immediately. My husband Luke, on the other hand, is immune. Marcus wants to spend all day, every day with Luke. Since he never got to have the “dad” experience he is reveling in it now. I’m pretty sure Marcus has started to dress like him.
We desperately needed to bond. I had to find a way to get through to Marcus that I am not the enemy. It isn’t weak to be kind. It isn’t weak to show affection.
We made a mural as a family last week. We got huge posters and all kinds of markers and sat around the table. Luke got Marcus to come and sit at the table. I drew Luke and I surrounded by chickens (of course!) and Luke drew cars for Carl. Mary made hearts with family names. Sean made symbols of all of the things we have done together over the last year such as the family crest we made and our “cozy corner” full of sensory diet materials.
Marcus put his head down and stared at the table. He passed markers to the littles when they requested a certain color. He didn’t say a word. He did not pick up a marker for himself. Slowly, our mural began to fill up with pictures. Marcus sat in front of a blank space. A huge family collaboration with a big hole in the center where Marcus should be.
He claims that he wasn’t raised to be “soft” the way we are. Too many hugs. Too much “nice!” Too much “Mom.” I matter-of-factly told him that this is just who I am. It’s how I parent. He said he was raised to be “hard,” to be the strongest and the toughest. He was encouraged to fist fight and show others not to mess with him.
What Marcus is experiencing is a conflict of loyalty. If he accepts the way I parent, then he is betraying his biological mom. If he allows himself to be “soft” then he becomes weak and vulnerable. He is hurting and therefore he needs the world to hurt with him. In situations like this bonding and attachment take precedence over consequences. Heck, they take precedence over my own personal feelings of failure. I must get through to him and show him how to be kind. For kids who have become “hardened” to human relationships, they need to experience a form of empathy and compassion with something less important than their caregivers. With the littles, we had them care for dolls and modeled how to talk to a baby doll and care for it lovingly.
For Marcus, it’s horses. In the hopes of building a positive experience that he associates with me, I scheduled him for riding lessons. As a surprise. Here is my sullen, angry, quiet teenager from the city. He has a notebook at home with the words “thug life” emblazoned on the cover with graffiti handwriting. At first he looked out of place in a barn. But then, I saw him with the animals. He smiled. A huge smile! He actually laughed a few times as his instructor joked around with him.
And then came his interaction with the horse. This “hard” city kid was showing kindness and affection to a farm animal. Here he was gently stroking the horse’s mane and patting the horse’s neck.The same angry, sullen boy was whispering to a horse. The same boy who threatened to rip off his brother’s arms and use them as weapons, was gently stroking a horse’s mane. The truth is, sometimes it’s easier for attachment-challenged children to show affection to animals. For Marcus, I chose to surprise him with horseback riding lessons. Just the two of us. I really wanted to show Marcus that he could be caring in a way that wouldn’t be too “soft.” And it worked. Hopefully, he will grow to generalize this kindness to the rest of the family. For now, it’s enough.
He may not say anything, but I saw our family mural. It was changed. There, in the middle, was a sky full of stars and a beautiful drawing of planets. His area was complete. I love you, too, Marcus.
If you have ever considered fostering or adopting, I encourage you to start your own adventure!
*Names have been changed in order to protect the privacy of the children.