As your sons or daughters progresses through their program, you probably wonder what life will be like once they return home. You likely have hopes and expectations of returning to a 'normal' family life. You get excited at the prospects, yet worry nags at you as you wonder how trust will ever be built. What if they backslide into old behaviors? What if things go back to the way they were?
Here's a newsflash for you. They worry about that too. They struggle with trusting themselves, because they do not want to go backwards either. And though they may not tell you directly, they also wrestle wondering whether or not they can trust you. They feel safe within the environment of their program where they know their staff, and even their peers, will hold them accountable. They feel the program structure in place has provided the parameters they need to make the tough changes necessary. The closer they come to going home, the more they worry about whether they can count on you to say what you mean and mean what you say. Don't count on them to tell you that. Don't count on them stressing how much they need rules and consequences to live by. After all, they are teens and that's pretty contrary just by the very nature of that stage in life. Regardless of whether or not they verbalize it to you, your children need to know they can count on you to hold them accountable, just as they have learned to rely on the staff. Your kids know you better than you think. By your actions, they'll determine if they can count on you when they return home. They will pay close attention to what you're doing, how open you are to staff direction, your level of participation and how you follow the program rules and guidelines.
You've enlisted the aid of professionals because your way was not working in creating the results you had envisioned for your child, or maybe even your family for that matter. Create a tight alliance with them and be willing to learn. Empower yourself by taking the focus off your child for the moment, and hold the 'mirror' up to you. How are you doing? Look at yourself from your child's point of view and be willing to take an honest look at how you're showing up to them. Here are two things your child will pay close attention to while in their program, and will give them clues as to how you're doing and where you stand.
Packages: Be it the holidays or their birthdays, programs generally have specific guidelines as to what types of gifts are approved, when they are allowed, the amount of gifts and/or size of packages. If you decide your child is 'such a special case' that you don't have to follow those rules and guidelines, first be willing to admit that has nothing to do with what is in the best interest of your child. Rather, it has to do with you and your approval needs, guilt, etc. If you do not follow your program's guidelines, be very clear you will be sending the message to your child that rules are made to be broken. In addition, you reinforce their 'sense of entitlement' attitude. If one of your complaints has been your child's attitude of entitlement or ingratitude, this is a good time to take a look at how you've contributed to that. The package guideline rules, like all program rules, are in place for specific reasons and purpose. For instance, to help your child realize that meaningful gifts, such as a heartfelt letter or family photos, matter more than material ones. Not to mention the simple practicality of limited space or being fair to the other kids in the program.
Off-grounds or home passes: When leaving campus, there will be rules and guidelines in place that affect both child and parent. If you bend or ignore the rules, the message your child will hear is that when it comes time for them to return home, any home contract in place is made to be bent, broken or ignored. They know better than you do what is expected of them during these visits. They have worked hard to earn that privilege. By not honoring the structure that has supported their success, you are invalidating their hard work. On the flip-side, if you make a mistake, own it. Set the example for them by being accountable, correcting it, and getting back on track. Then there's the question of what to do if your child breaks a rule? They will pay attention to how you handle that too. Will you backslide into an old behavior of enabling by covering it up or not reporting it because you want to spare them their consequences?
The off-grounds pass and home pass are a dress rehearsal of life at home. Neither you nor your child will be perfect. Life is not that way. The way you handle the challenges and what you learn from them however, are key clues as to how ready you are to have your child home, and how things will go.
If you want to banish the feelings of helplessness you once lived with, then be willing to look for ways you can change and improve. Empower yourself by changing what did not work before. Be willing to ask your staff, and your child, for feedback as to how you're doing. Be willing to hear what you could be doing different to achieve a better result.
Your child needs you to be the parent, not their friend. Your child needs to know that you're working together as a family, and that it's not solely on their shoulders. Your child needs to know, through your actions not just your words, that they can count on you to hold their boundaries in place as they gain strength within themselves until the time they are ready to hold the boundaries on their own.
Glenda Gabriel is a strong advocate for parent's rights and the parent-choice industry. In addition to being the mother of a program graduate, she's worked for many years developing vital parent support services for structured residential boarding schools.