Teenagers Need Love Too.
I know -- this seems like a ridiculously obvious statement, but hear me out.
I think it's very difficult to know exactly what a teen really needs. I think it's even more difficult when that teen is autistic with a history of difficulty communicating his or her wants and needs. To make matters even more complicated, it's easy to be swept up in thinking your autistic child is coping well or doing fine when he or she happens to be extremely high-functioning and is showing minimal signs of struggle.
This was brought clearly to our attention this weekend when we were visiting my brother's house for my mom's birthday celebration, and A. kept pleading for a hard, definite time to leave. I'd been aggravated by what I had been perceiving as a selfish, sassy attitude -- an attitude I felt had been a problem all summer long. My husband nudged me to give her a hard answer, so I picked a specific time (a time I made sure I later stuck to). It was about an hour off, but A. breathed an audible sigh of relief. "THANK YOU!" she said, and then amused herself on the computer for the rest of the visit without an issue.
"I had a moment of real empathy with our daughter today," my husband told me later. "I could see the absolute panic in her eyes because she was in a completely unstructured situation. We haven't been doing nearly enough to support her lately."
And he's absolutely right. Part of it was because I felt she could handle it -- she'd succeeded in 6th Grade, which I'd thought would be so overwhelming for her, and she's becoming more independent and more grown-up by the day. I've tried to stop being such a helicopter parent, and have tried to let her take more initiative in her self-care and self-regulation. Part of it was simple and sheer laziness -- there's a big relief that comes when your children are finally old enough to start taking on a lot of the responsibility for taking care of themselves, and there's a lot of freedom you feel as a parent as you can start spending more time and energy on other things. Considering I was so young when I had A., this is an easy trap for me, since I missed out on that sort of freedom to spend time and energy on things outside parenting the first time around. But part of it was because I'd felt as if she were actively pushing me away all summer long, and I'd been trying to respect her wishes and give her whatever space she needed to work things out.
What I've learned, however, is that sometimes when your kids are pushing you away, that's really when they most need for you to push back.
It's a delicate balance, of course. Teenagers are really too old to be micromanaging their lives and disrespecting their boundaries. They are always going to think their friends are cooler than you -- you are not going to be their best friend anymore, and that's okay. They are practicing at adulthood, and they want the power and freedom to fully practice that adulthood. But, that doesn't mean they're adults. Teenagers -- and especially autistic teenagers -- desperately need their parents to be two steps behind, building the scaffolding around their shaky dreams, providing extensive, hands-on training on foundation repair and window replacements for when the earthquakes inevitably hit.
I've spent the last 32 hours practically attached to my daughter at the hip. If you'd asked me a week ago, I would have told you she'd be sick to death of the attention, that she'd be begging for me to leave her alone and annoyed that I was asking her a thousand questions and forcing an interaction every five minutes. I was stunned to discover that this wasn't the case, at all. She loves it when I watch her play her video games. She wants to show me the things she's discovered on the Internet. She's even agreed to a Nobuta wo Produce marathon with me. The key is, I have to give her structure, let her know when the events are happening and how long they'll last. She even when shopping with me today with no complaints, because I told her exactly how many items we were shopping for, and I didn't deviate from the plan. And her mood has improved exponentially -- from the deepest dregs of depression just a few short days ago to a much friendlier, happier, even jovial attitude today -- despite the fact she still can't get on Facebook (she's grounded from it this week.)
I still have a lot to learn about parenting, it would seem. I don't think that's ever going to change. But I'm guessing that my daughter has really needed a lot more time interfacing with me in a loving, non-goal based manner, where we're just hanging out, doing things, and spending time together. And because my daughter is who she is, she wasn't able to communicate this need to me -- she'd get upset and push me further away, which would just make us both feel even more horrible. Much like I did when A. was two, I still have to anticipate her needs; I still have to respond to the things she isn't saying. That part hasn't changed, and it's possible that it never really will.
It's like this -- my teenager is in this boat, all hell-bent on conquering Mordor all on her own. But I have to be Sam. "Of course you are. And I'm coming with you." She may sometimes hate me for it, she may sometimes try to send me away, but she can't finish the quest without my help or support, and I'm not going anywhere.
(And yes, I realize this is at least the second blatant Lord of the Rings reference I've made in this blog. I've never pretended to be anything but a total nerd.)