Laugh With Him: How to Navigate Co-parenting a Special Needs Teen
A heartwarming scene: As friends and family dab their eyes, a 19-year-old young man, in Special Ed since middle school for both "behavioral" and "cognitive" learning disabilities, hears his name over the loudspeaker, and with unself-conscious delight in his face shuffles across the platform to loud applause. He receives a warm hug from the principal - and his high school diploma.
We've all been there - sweet moments that help other, more sobering parts of modern life be a little easier to take.
A few days after the graduation, I met with that same young man's divorced Dad. He described tearing up just like everyone else as he clapped (sitting well apart from his ex and her side of the family) "just seeing that expression on my boy’s face," and he definitely appreciated, and was "really touched," by all the warm applause and support for his son.
But now he’s almost weeping in frustration, "Does it make me a bad person that I can't get past knowing that - honestly - my son really hasn't learned much of anything, hardly ever cracked a book, can barely read or write at all, and, if anything, has a shorter attention span now at age 19 than when he started high school five years ago?"
He wasn't saying this just to vent about the school's apparent "just show up" standards for graduation. He was more concerned that the school didn't see - or was ignoring - that his son's behavior had also been deteriorating along with his academic non-performance. Early on, his son's sweetness and friendliness had carried him. He'd become well-known around the building - "kind of a school mascot." But senior year he'd started to "backslide": angry outbursts, had several "bad restraints" right in the hallway in the last few months. Plus, according to Dad, "His mother doesn't mention out loud how hard to handle he’s getting to be at home with her (she has primary residence) and she sure doesn’t want people to know how scared she can get sometimes." In anguish and frustration: "Am I not supposed to say what I'm seeing? Am I supposed to just shut up?"
Examples like this one do get me reflecting (for a few milliseconds, at least) about a professional social services culture that apparently needs to coerce people (while denying it) into pretending things are positive - when they’re really not. What so many apparently feel in these strange, postmodern times is that positive fudging for the right reasons - and ignoring the negative (even when it's blatantly visible for all to see) - produces the best outcomes.
Maybe. Some of it is no more complicated than the simple instinct to be nice to - and protective of - vulnerable feelings. Basic kindness and decency.
But I thought we all also knew to be wary of “group think”- even for noble reasons. In this case, there was the obvious, major front-end investment of resources, energy, and time - by so many well-intended people - driven by assessments and diagnoses requiring professional services, and I don’t doubt for a second that virtually every professional along the way was competent and acted in good faith. (I'm also sure that other students with even more severe problems and limitations – and even lower academic achievement - have also graduated.)
So, what played out here wasn't unique to this young man and his family, but it's hard not to detect a sense of mutual denial of an inconvenient reality. Parents, as well as mental health, and education professionals allowed their needs for validation of their efforts and a desire for a happy ending to trump candor and a clear-eyed view of actual academic achievement and true level of skills. It was more about them.
The gist of my suggested approach:
But - what should my client do from here, now? In a nutshell, the gist of my approach with Dad was: you may well be essentially right, but you shouldn't just need to be right and get sidetracked on how others deceive themselves. Take the high road (a recurrent theme of mine). Your son needs his Dad now - and he’s going to be needing you well into the foreseeable future. No matter what else is true, you absolutely still must effectively co-parent with your ex-wife, and that means active, two-way communication, real cooperation, and, yes, occasionally agreeing to disagree about what’s working and what’s not.
You are absolutely right about safety: those concerns do need to be broached and effectively addressed. So that may mean “bite your tongue” diplomacy on your part while you gradually persuade your ex to come around to seeing that the problem exists, needs to be addressed, and agree that expectations, limits, and accountability should be part of the mix.
Also, both parents should anticipate inevitable feelings of loss, even depression, when confronted with the reality that their son will be with them for awhile. No matter how prepared you may think you are, it's a blow to be face-to-face with the reality that your son won't be following the usual script: moving out of the family home and going out on one's own after high school.
I also concurred with my client's concerns about Psychiatry and psych testing. It's an art, not a science. My client was concerned that a psych eval might possibly result in his son being sedated – in the name of "treating" him. It's simply a fact that his ex-wife does give more creedence to professional expertise. OK. Work with it, keep the conversation going, don’t only be a critical “nay-sayer.”
And please don't be so bothered that it causes you to forget to enjoy your time with your son. Yes, give him firm parental feedback about his behavior, but also be happy when you're with him. Look for fun, stimulating activities. Laugh with him.
Yes, some of what’s going on these days in the name of education and mental health can be absolutely surreal. You're not wrong. Reflect on it - for a millisecond or two - then get back to helping your son. And, for sure, we’ll be talking again....