Monday, August 08, 2022

Fostering an adult child's independence - part 2

 Last April I wrote about our family's journey with moving our youngest son toward independence. As I stated then, "Our youngest son has autism spectrum disorder, has grappled with major depression and anxiety, and has been seriously suicidal multiple times."

Over time our son's world seemed to shrink until he found himself unable to do much at all. Both he and we wondered whether he could ever live any kind of independent life. It was a disheartening place to be for all involved.

For the past eight months, our son has been participating in an immersive program hundreds of miles from where we live that helps "young adult men work through levels where they develop and demonstrate the skills necessary for independence."

At the same time, my wife and I have undertaken a soul stretching journey of our own designed to help us become the kind of parents who can support our adult son's independence, despite his challenges. We have gone through a lot of hard work to redefine how we think about ourselves and how we view each of our children.

We have had to seriously confront our unhealthy codependent attitudes and behaviors. Confronting your own deep-seated deficiencies with the prospect of working to change them is challenging enough that many people choose an unhealthy status quo instead. Our growth hasn't always been much fun, but it has been highly valuable.

Even now, much of our development is fresh and tender. It is soooooo easy to slip back into old established scripts and roles. Sticking with our growth will require work, therapy, diligence, and vigilance. It takes discipline and work to establish and maintain healthy boundaries, but we are discovering that this is what makes it possible to bring wholeheartedness to our relationships.

In April I wrote, "We have learned that we must give up trying to manage our son's outcomes." We have had to give up on thinking that our son must choose to adopt our values or religious beliefs, must seek the kind of education we have, and must achieve the kind of careers and family life that we have found so fulfilling. It has been a relief to realize that we are not responsible for his happiness or even his survival. But this also means giving up on our ideas of what his life should look like.

Our son recently posted this before/after photo. He was in worse shape eight months ago than he appears in the January 2021 "before" shot. The difference between then and now is astonishing even to us. The program he is in includes a fitness component. But I assure you that not all of the young men in the program achieve our son's current level of fitness. This has been something he has chosen to do for himself.

A month ago, we joined about half of the program participants and four staff members as our son and his companions competed in a grueling 10K Spartan Race that included a climb of about 2,000 feet and twenty-five significant obstacles. Our son was tired as he approached the final obstacle stations, but he was in pretty darn fine shape. Instead of collapsing after the race like some participants, he seemed energized and ready to do other things.

Similar changes are reflected in many aspects of our son's lifestyle choices, including employment, emotional management, interpersonal skills, money management, etc. He has learned that he can use failures as learning and development tools. He seems confident that, regardless of what life throws at him, he can figure out a way to get up and move forward. It is difficult to explain how different this is from where he was at the outset of the program.

At this stage of the program, our son is making plans for independent living after graduation. That includes figuring out housing, employment, transportation, food, etc. We are prohibited from getting much involved. And for good reason. Our son needs to own this. He needs to own his successes and failures.

I am deeply impressed by our son's mental and emotional development. And yet, what I said in April still holds true. We don't know where this is headed or what his life over the next couple of years will look like. We must avoid trying to control his outcomes.

We are more at peace with what we can and should do, which is to be the kind of parents we should be. We too can learn from our failures and can use that learning as steppingstones to our own growth and development. We too will be graduating from the program. But like other graduations in life, this won't represent retirement from challenge, but the beginning of continuous challenge without the structure offered by the program.

Why would we want that? Why wouldn't we? We are older than we were eight months ago. But we are more alive than we were back then. Forward!