I will always remember the day. In a moment of overwhelming frustration, my teenage son blurted a totally unexpected yet brutally honest statement.
How can you understand my pain? Your life is perfect.
Since his perception immediately became my reality, I tried to reassure him.
My life’s not perfect. No one’s is. What we see on the outside doesn’t tell the whole story.
He didn’t buy my abstract response. In fact, I made the situation worse
Let’s face it. Being a teenager is hard for every kid – but even harder if you don’t fully understand your past.
Such is the case for many children who are adopted – like mine. Children who experienced alcohol in utero, early trauma or any form of abuse – like mine. Children who have cognitive or emotional challenges – like mine.
That night before falling asleep, I kept hearing my son’s words over and over. I then thought about my response. Although it was true and sincere, I had spoken from my perspective – not his. Apples and oranges to say the least.
In other words, my start in life was far more perfect than my son’s on many levels. To think otherwise would show a complete lack of empathy.
Telling kids to “get over it” is easier said than done.
Soon I found myself being extra careful in sharing personal stories from my younger years – especially ones that reinforce his “fantasy of the perfect parent.” I had little choice. You see, triggering his sense of unworthiness with my innocent words happens easily – which makes me seem even more perfect.
And leaves him ridiculed with uncertainty about his own abilities. Shamed. Disconnected. No parent wants that.
To shift his jaded perception, I never talk to others about our challenges in front of him. Never. I emphasize family relationships over things that we cannot afford. And most importantly, I share my imperfections in rich detail – when the opportunity is right.
Like the time I talked in class and spent an hour in the hallway. Of course, the principal walked by – not once but twice.
Like the time I wrecked my parents’ car. Of course, my mom had never allowed me to drive alone until that day.
Like the time I lied about not wanting to go to the school dance. Of course, I was afraid to ask a certain girl to go with me.
When my son laughs with me, we re-connect. I suddenly appear less “perfect” through his lens. I become real, more approachable.
Even with being intentional in my comments, I still hear the same misguided words from my son as each layer of past trauma is slowly removed – further exposing vulnerability underneath.
Your parents raised you. They still love you and call every week.
Your mother didn’t drink alcohol during pregnancy. Mine did.
You have friends. I never will.
You went to college. I don’t have a high school diploma.
You know how to do everything.
What will happen to me when you die?
I can’t undo the past or entirely eliminate my son’s present challenges. But I can be mindful and meet him in the moment. There I listen, acknowledge feelings and relate my own less-than-perfect experiences. Furthermore, I identity his successes for him – no matter how small, with a hope of building upon them.
This simple and down-to-earth approach continues his healing. Everyday.
No doubt, his fantasy of the perfect parent still exists – but with time and patience, the fantasy will no longer be his only reality. DCP
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