We had just moved to a new house, where my teenage son was in the basement and my bedroom was on the main floor. I called down the floor to my son “dinner’s ready!” and waited for him to appear. Seconds ticked by, and no reply. I called again, a little louder. Still no reply. Hesitant to climb downstairs in a body that was aching from unpacking all day, I tried a third time, more loudly. “Don’t yell at me!” he replied, and still didn’t come upstairs. Exhausted, sore and frustrated, I began to eat dinner alone. Halfway through, he came upstairs and said “why did you eat without me?”. I explained I had called him 3 times and he never came upstairs. He said “I don’t like it when you yell at me, that’s why I didn’t come.”
As we continued to live in this new house, I noticed that often when I called downstairs to him, even for something positive or neutral, I would get an automatic “no” or the question “am I in trouble?”. He was pretty used to being in trouble, as his stubborn refusal to comply with almost any request made for rough going. He wouldn’t be seen in public with me. He wouldn’t do his homework. He wouldn’t sit inside his classes in school. He wouldn’t pick up after himself or do any chores without threat of dire consequences. He was very often grumpy, angry and out of sorts. Living together was difficult. He’d been diagnosed with ADHD long ago, and had always struggled in social situations. The move to high school seemed to put him over the edge.
I knew my kid was struggling emotionally. Although he was attending a school he had chosen, and he got himself to school early each day, he was calling me several times a week pleading to go home due to headaches or stomach aches. He was “too tired” to do homework or chores, and he really did seem tired. The child who used to love to be always at my side now would hardly speak to me. He came home and slept, seemingly from exhaustion. I worked tirelessly on his Individualized Education Plan (IEP) at his school, trying to improve the experience so that he would be able to succeed.
He was diagnosed with depression, and new medication was tried, but didn’t really help. I re-examined how I was parenting him, which was basically a behavioral model with consequences, and realized it just wasn’t working. My child clearly was struggling with his mental health, and needed that struggle to be acknowledged. I began to involve him directly in solving the problems his behavior created, using a method called Collaborative Problem Solving. (link to website). I began with the upstairs/downstairs problem. I asked him why he often said “no” or asked if he was in trouble when I called down the stairs to him. He said when I yelled it sounded like I was mad. I asked him what he thought we should do about that. He suggested I text him when I needed something, rather than call down the stairs. Problem number one sorted.
Next, we discussed him calling out from school sick frequently. He said the noise, crowding and sometimes the academics made him feel overwhelmed, making his head and/or stomach hurt. We discussed various ways to cope with this, including taking a break from the classroom, using his earbuds during individual work time, taking deep breaths, etc. We got some of these items added to his IEP. We also made an agreement where he could call out sick from school once per week if needed. Over the months, we narrowed that down to once every 2 weeks, then to once per month, until it was no longer needed. This didn’t make school easy for him, but it let him know he was not alone in trying to make school work for him.
For chores and hygiene, we discussed what the problems were and how we could both have our needs met. He didn’t like some of the chores he had been assigned, and also wanted to learn how to cook, which was usually my chore. We switched some of his chores around to ones he liked better, and agreed I would give him cooking lessons and do the dishes on the nights he cooked or helped cook. The aim was not for the result to be completely fair, but arrange things so there was less strife in the home, less reasons for him to get locked into the “no” mindset. Little by little we began to work on all the things that spurred on the “no” response, such as where to sit in the car, being reminded to do chores, being asked to do something that was not agreed on, etc. For each one, at a time when we were both calm, we discussed our viewpoints and came up with a compromise, often one that meant I was shouldering a little more of the housework or yard work. I didn’t see this as a win just for him, it was also a win for me. Most of what was draining my energy was the emotional work of managing his negative emotions. If I could do a little more physical work and have the benefit of a child who mostly complied or talked things out rather than stomp off, yell at me or refuse to speak with me. I also was very pleased to know that the “yes” and compliance pathways in his changing teenage brain were finally getting more of a workout than the “no” pathways. He was learning skills that would help him manage throughout his adult life, which was looming ever closer. Most of all, we were connecting and I had more glimpses of the loving kid I remembered from childhood. I could finally see a path through the struggle, and so could he.