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Seventeen Down: Relativity (updated)

Today, John and I inadvertently celebrated Hannah's 17th birthday by paying a visit to the counselor she saw last summer. We walked in feeling frustrated, defeated, and desperate; we wanted a tip or a pat on the back or an understanding nod, because we don't get any of that when we talk to other adults in Hannah's life, particularly the ones in John's family. We feel like we're screaming from the roof tops that things aren't good, something is wrong, she needs help or a diagnosis of some kind or different medication or different schooling or SOMETHING, but everyone around us is deaf or oblivious.

We like this counselor because he gets right to the point. He told us a year ago when we first discussed the possibility of his seeing Hannah that he would not see a kid who was coming against her will. If she didn't want to talk to him after meeting him, he didn't want us wasting our money or time on bringing her in; nothing would be solved by that, anyway and the argument could be made that it would actually exacerbate certain issues. "You can't force someone to be motivated or productive, or to 'feel better,'" he told us. Hannah met with him a few times and claimed to enjoy the sessions, but, par for the course, when the responsibility was placed on her shoulders for letting us know if and when she wanted to return for further sessions, she did nothing. As the school year started and the same problems surfaced that have surfaced every school year for the past two or three years, we threw our hands up in exasperation and did the only thing left we could think of: called a professional.

He asked how she was doing in school and we immediately unloaded: "Not well. It's a total repeat of the year before. She was failing English within a month!"

"Does she care?"

[Blank stares.] "Uh. Huh?"

"Is she upset that she's failing? Does she want to fix it? Is she distraught and looking for ways to get out of the situation?"


"So you're upset about it."

"Um. Yeah? I mean, I see what you're saying - these are her choices, they'll be her consequences and all that. I know all that. The thing is, we don't really care about her grades in school. School is just one symptom of the larger problem."

"What's that?"

"She has no motivation to do anything in her life. It would be one thing if she were flunking a class here or there but she was really into her job or really into art or really into social clubs or volunteering or acting or music, or ANYTHING. But she's not. Nothing. She is interested in and motivated by nothing."

"Does she go out with friends?"

"Oh, yes."

"So she is motivated to do some things."

"Okay, but listen! Here's an example! When she was 15, we told her in order to take driver's ed. and get her driver's license when she turned 16, she had to keep her grades up. She still barely passed last year, and as a result still doesn't have her license!"

"So she doesn't care that much about the driver's license. I imagine she doesn't really need it. Her friends probably give her rides to where she needs to go, right?"

"Um. Yeeeeah."

"At 17, you can't make her be motivated to do well in school or do anything at all. At this age, she could flunk out and choose not even to get her G.E.D. But for some reason, she continues to go."

"Only because her friends are there and it gets her out of the house."

"So? Half the people in college are there for the social aspects. If she gets a degree secondarily, then great! It's better than the alternative. Have you tried telling her that? Saying, 'We're disappointed that you aren't making better choices about school because we know you're smart and could do much better, but hey! There are a lot of kids who just choose to drop out completely and not even bother to graduate. We're glad you're not doing that. Thanks for going to school.'"

"Isn't that kind of like saying, 'congratulations for breathing air'? She's expected to go to school. I don't see it as a choice."

"But it is her choice. You don't have control over her. Some part of her still wants to please you as her parents, which is why she meets very basic expectations. She doesn't have to. I see plenty of kids who don't. It's all relative. There are parents in here whose kid is a straight A student, but nobody likes her, she has no friends, and her parents want to know what to do about it. Sometimes I wish I could wheel and deal issues. Would the Johnsons be willing to take some bad grades in exchange for a social life? Would the Browns be willing to try no social skills in exchange for a few A's?"

"Okay, but it still seems like she has no aspirations, nothing that motivates her or makes her accountable to herself for her actions."

"For a lot of kids, rather than set expectations and then have to live up to them or listen to their parents say, 'You said you wanted to go to college! How do you expect to be able to go to college if you're failing in high school and not preparing?', they just become bottom dwellers, barely scraping by: no expectations, no failures. It doesn't mean they won't become productive individuals later on. It doesn't mean they won't find something that motivates them, and that's why we don't give up on our kids. You can be disappointed in her choices and you can explain the consequences when necessary and appropriate, but being angry and frustrated doesn't help you and doesn't change her behavior. I tell parents I see that they just have to let that go. What you have to ask yourself at this point is how much you can control. Her decisions are her own at this point. Grounding her or punishing her isn't going to do much, as you can see - it hasn't motivated her or changed her behaviors to this point. And eventually she'll have to be ungrounded. She has to have some life. You don't want her languishing at home all the time anyway. You have to find a way, as difficult as it is, to live life with her and enjoy being around her while simultaneously knowing that you don't like the choices she's making for herself. It can be very hard for parents to do. But that's part of not giving up on our kids. And it might mean praising her for doing things you consider to be 'expected'. Maybe it won't change her behaviors at all, maybe she'll act like she doesn't care about the acknowledgement. But it certainly won't hurt anything."

When he said the part about not giving up on our kids, I felt like he had exposed us under a huge spotlight in a room full of mediocre parents, exposed us for the ones who didn't belong in the room because we weren't even mediocre, we were sub-par, and the spotlight was pointing out the couple whose parenting license was being revoked. Revoked for conceding, throwing in the towel, buckling, relenting - barely being one step above abandonment or disavowal. Ouch, that spotlight burned. The top of my head is still a little singed. Had we given up on her? Have we reached a point where we have to thank her for being responsible enough to get up and go to school? Apparently. But as the counselor pointed out, it's all relative. We could be the parents whose child was just killed in Iraq, who wish their kid was home again with motivation problems and weight problems and flunking 11th grade problems, because then, back then, there was still a chance for something better. "Because there's always a chance, which is why we don't ever give up on our kids."

UPDATED: I should clarify that the counselor wasn't implying that we HAD given up on Hannah. Rather, he was talking to us as if all three of us were on the same page: "We collective decent parents never give up on our kids, right?" It made me feel guilty because I had to hesitate when I considered whether or not I found that statement to be true for us. Of course it is, because as many of you have already pointed out, we wouldn't have been there, and we wouldn't have the stress that we do over all of this, if we had reached a point where we had truly thrown in the towel. The doubt over it was uncomfortable and unsettling, but it was purely my own - not implied by the counselor (at least not directly or purposely).

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