Monday, January 16, 2012

Letting Sleeping Teenagers Lie

My two youngest are home from school today.  It’s Martin Luther King Day.  Our school district gives the kids the day off and makes the staff work.  (Yeah, I don’t get that, either.)  Anyway, Youngest Son and Princess are still in bed.  It’s 10:15 as I type this sentence.  They probably should be up, or at least moving.  However, I’m enjoying the peace and quiet.  He’s not barking orders at her.  She’s not bouncing off the walls.  I may have to pay for this quiet later, but for now, I like it.  I like it a lot.

There’s been a lot of trauma-related stuff going on with my kids the last few months.  The holidays are always hard, as I’ve written before.  It starts with Halloween (literally the holiday from hell around here) and builds to a crescendo in January – the anniversary month for a major traumatic event in my kids’ lives.  Every year, the reactions in each kid have been a bit different.  This year, their 5th January home, their reactions seem more introspective, even if they are still sometimes acting out. 

For example, we live near the campus of a former American orphanage.  It is now a children’s home for foster kids who are hard to place into private foster homes.  It’s a beautiful campus.  There aren’t a lot of kids there anymore, but there are still some.  They are kids with significant behavioral challenges.  My kids call it “The Bad Boys Home.”  (I cannot get them to stop calling it that.  I’ve given up trying.  Girls live there, too, by the way.)  Anyway, my daughter and I drove by the campus on the way home from school the other day and she asked, “Why is ‘The Bad Boys Home’ so nice?”  I had to think for a moment what it was she was really asking.  After I paused, I answered her question with another question.  “Princess, are you thinking about your orphanage and about [birth country]?” 

BINGO!  Survivor’s guilt.  Things were nicer in America.  “Why is it so much nicer?”  Even in America, the orphanages were better maintained.  “Why are these buildings so nice when my orphanage was in such disrepair?”

What answers can you give a child who wonders at our middle-middle class American abundance?  How do you handle the irony, when just that morning, she was complaining about how we didn’t have the resources to do things or have some of the possessions some of her friends have?  Frankly, I didn’t answer her questions.  (On one level, I didn’t want to go there.  On another, I knew it wasn’t about what she seemed to be asking.)  I asked more questions instead.

“Princess, are you thinking about the people you left behind in [country] when you came to America?”  (Yes.)  “Are you thinking about some very specific people?”  (Yes.)  “It sounds like you’re thinking about your friends at the orphanage, but are you also thinking about [birthmom]?”  (Yes.  And OH, YES!)  This opened the door for more questions.  “Why did she do this?”  “Why did that have to happen?”  “Why did I have to go into an orphanage?”  “Why didn’t she come see me?”  “Why didn’t she come GET me?”  “What is she doing now?”  “Does she know where I am?”  “Does she think about me?”  “Do I matter to her?” 

These are questions our kids have.  We can’t ignore it.  We can’t take it personally.  We need to put ourselves in their shoes and acknowledge their loss – and their survivor’s guilt.  We can reassure.  We can love.  It won’t take the questions away.  They remain and the questions are sleeping dogs we cannot let lie, lest they wake with a vengeance.  We won’t always have definitive answers to the questions, but we can listen and acknowledge them.  It’s okay to let our kids know we wonder, too.


It’s not quite 11 a.m.  I think I’ll let the sleeping teenagers lie a while longer.  I do enjoy the quiet.

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