Sunday, April 24, 2022

Fostering an adult child's independence

I haven't written for half a year because life has been ... interesting. New job. New adventure with our son that has involved a lot of growth. Dealing with our daughter's unusual medical problems. Etc. Today I am writing about our son's journey. And our journey with respect to our son.

Shrinking world, shrinking hope

Our youngest son has autism spectrum disorder, has grappled with major depression and anxiety, and has been seriously suicidal multiple times. This has led to a variety of challenges over the years. We have tried very hard to make sure that our son has had access to good mental health treatment. And yet, it has been a real struggle for him, us, and the whole family.

Oddly, our son's social and employment capacities seemed to shrink from the time he got his first part-time job in high school until he spent much of last year holed up in his bedroom sleeping. Even his time gaming and doing stuff on the computer diminished.

As his world shrank, our son increasingly tried to control his home environment. We kowtowed to that for fear of him turning to self-harm. But months of walking on eggshells in our own home took a toll on other family members.

The problem with this was not lost on our son. He felt increasingly hopeless about ever becoming independent or living a decent life. He and my wife searched out various programs focused on helping with these kinds of issues, but they were all very expensive. We even initiated the enrollment process for a program designed to address failure to launch syndrome, but the cost prevented us from pursuing it further.

Coming to terms with the cost

After nearly a year of living through this situation, we visited our financial planner for our annual review. He suggested that we consider cashing out some of our carefully earned investments to cover the cost of a program for our son. We were surprised by this advice, but our planner contrasted this approach with what it might cost us to care for a nonfunctional adult son for the rest of our lives.

Our son was fully on board with this plan since he had researched the target program himself. The enrollment process required him to undertake significant steps, so it took a few weeks. The staff reviewed the application and accepted our son. (Some applicants are not accepted because they don't fit the program profile.)

The program

About five months ago, we drove our son many hours to the main office of the program, left him there, and drove back home.

This program differs from some others in that it includes a significant amount of unstructured time with a high degree of accountability. Many of the young adult men in our son's program have autism spectrum disorder, ADHD, OCD, depression, anxiety, executive function disorder, and/or other challenges.

In this program, young adult men work through levels where they develop and demonstrate the skills necessary for independence. Over time they engage in a variety of program activities, participate in personal and group therapy sessions, find and work jobs, gain transportation independence, save money in a launch fund for independent living after graduation, and develop a viable plan for living independently.

The young men live in townhouses that each host five participants. A professionally trained life coach is assigned to each house. Each participant works with a licensed therapist. As the typical kinds of problems with living in this kind of arrangement arise, participants learn how to deal with the issues and learn healthy accountability.

Most who enroll in the program reach graduation in 6-9 months. It might take some longer because the pace of preparation for independence differs by individual. Some leave the program without graduating. They are adults and can legally make their own choices on the matter. Some participants move to other programs that are more suited to their specific needs (including substance abuse issues).

Family involvement

Parents of participants also work with a therapist to advance through levels designed to help them learn healthy ways to support their adult children. They also engage in family therapy sessions and weekly parent group sessions.

Program staff make it clear that they cannot "fix" your child. They can provide tools to help participants and their families develop healthier personal and family dynamics. How the participants and families use those tools is up to them. The support system is designed to help participants and families wean themselves from the program, which can seem confusing or disorienting from time to time.

The growth experience over these past months for our son and for ourselves has been painful, soul stretching, and healthy. As parents, we have:

  • Read a pile of books (see list after this post).
  • Learned about our enabling and codependent tendencies.
  • Written letters of accountability and hope.
  • Worked on implementing healthier patterns.
  • Developed a whole new way of being toward our son and toward each of our children.

Telling stories

Humans function on the stories we tell ourselves. One of the main goals for parents involved in this program is for them to be able to tell their son's story in a way that is meaningful to their son, and to be able to tell their own story in a way that is meaningful to themselves. Participants have a similar goal.

That may sound easy, but it requires a whole lot of listening and giving up on scripts and roles that have defined relationships for years. It can feel like ripping away parts of your own identity, so it can be painful. The truths found under those layers feel raw at first but exposing them allows for a level of authenticity that has been hidden even from ourselves.

Some of our story

Our first serious encounter with our son's challenges occurred when he expressed suicidal thoughts at age 10. His first therapist told us that we had to back off our expectations. We took this (probably far too) seriously. We grew to where we unwittingly tried to protect our son from any and all challenges.

The message we derived from much of the suicide prevention material was that we would be at fault if our child completed or even attempted suicide. The guilt this promotes is harsh. As our lives became a constant suicide watch, we spent years parenting from a place of fear masquerading as love.

Our parenting styles strongly sent "you are not OK" and "you can't do this without us" messages to our son. It nourished "we must fix our son" and "we must fix situations for our son" attitudes in ourselves. Frankly, that can offer a heady feeling of importance and even identity for a parent. It also allows a parent to seek validation by whining about their son, his challenges, and how this affects them.

This was a toxic mix that wasn't good for our child or for us. It also fed unhealthy relationships with our other children, and between our son and his siblings. We did not realize that we were seeing our son as an extension of ourselves rather than as a separate individual with unique capacities, hopes, dreams, and accountability.

Changing for the better

Stepping away from these kinds of codependent patterns has been difficult. For years we have been telling ourselves stories suggesting that these patterns demonstrate that we are good parents and individuals. These stories have been deeply imprinted, so it is easy to get sucked back into the old patterns.

At the same time, our son has gone through his own soul stretching. He has been learning to see himself as a separate individual who is part of our family group rather than as simply an extension of our family. This is a fundamental identity shift, so it has been painful.

One of the more challenging aspects for us has been establishing and maintaining healthy boundaries. We have frankly been poor at that. After our son entered the program, we had to put up a solid boundary saying that he would not be permitted to move back home for any reason.

While that is a liberating stance in one way, it led to one of the most challenging experiences of my life. About a month into the program, our son was seriously struggling. He couldn't see himself succeeding in the program. His fundamental identity was being challenged. The fact that he had been sick with a cold and was short on funds didn't help his mental condition.

The program ensures that participants have enough to eat even when they are out of cash. The food provided in these cases is utilitarian but adequate, so our son wasn't going to starve. But he was determined to leave the program. He said he was leaving even if he had to choose homelessness.

We reiterated our boundary that we would pay for our son to move to a different program, or we would send him camping gear if he desired it, but he could not move back to our home. He stomped out of his therapist's office and walked away. The staff kept tabs on him until he eventually wandered back to his townhouse several miles away. He was crushed that we would not let him come home.

Holding that line was one of the most difficult things I have ever done in my life. And frankly, I wasn't sure at the time whether it was the right thing to do. It is difficult to describe the level of guilt I felt for weeks. Some of that pain remains even now.

But we have discovered that guilt is neither a good source of motivation nor a good framework for determining what is right. Healthy parenting may require a parent to learn to sit with parental guilt for some time. Doing what is right doesn't always feel good.

A glimmer of hope

The first few months in the program were rocky for our son. Almost every interaction with him involved him appealing to us for rescue on some level. After all, we had been rescuing him for years. But little by little, he has begun to find his way.

Recently we had a very good adult-to-adult conversation with our son with no hint of a rescue request whatsoever. He is feeling competent. He is owning his own path. Although he was originally opposed to working in food service, he is a line cook at a restaurant for now. He envisions better things in the future. He is putting money into his launch fund and has an initial (realistic) plan of how he will live independently after graduation.

That plan will have to become more concrete and fully funded over the next few months. Our son is much fitter than he was during his basement-dwelling couch potato life. He recently hit his highest squat press weight, which is amazing for a guy who used to only wishfully think about exercise.

Our path and our son's path

But to be honest, we don't know where this is headed. We have learned that we must give up trying to manage our son's outcomes. We are working to accomplish the parent requirements in the program. We can do the work that brings our own inner peace. We can model healthy parenting.

We can do many things better than we used to. But we can't dictate where our son is headed. That's his journey and his life. We must allow him to go where he chooses and allow him the consequences of those choices. We can connect with him, learn his story, and honor his pain. But we must not rescue him from it.

This is the way to parental peace, even if it sounds painful. Truth be told, you can experience pain and peace at the same time. You can empathetically hurt for your child while incorporating that pain in healthy ways. Easy? No. Right? Yes.

One parent with a struggling child asked why they should go to all the work of good parenting if it can't guarantee healthy outcomes in their child. Their therapist responded that good parenting is its own reward. You choose healthy parenting practices because it is the right thing to do, regardless of what your child chooses. Doing the right thing brings internal peace, even when external things work out less than optimally.

This is the journey we are on. For now, it consumes a lot of resources and takes a lot of our energy. But we have greater inner peace. And it is the right thing for us to do.

Some of the books we have read on our journey: