Today in "Weekend Parenting" we continue a series of excerpts from “Laying Down the Law: The 25 Laws of Parenting to Keep Your Kids on Track, Out of Trouble, and (Pretty Much) Under Control,” the most recent book by “Today” show contributor Dr. Ruth Peters. In this passage, we go to the beginning of Dr. Peters’ book, where she introduces a troubled family she tried to help; come back next week to find out how things turned out for them.
The Preamble to the 25 Laws of ParentingMitchell didn’t mince words with me when I introduced myself in the waiting room of my office. No niceties, just a well-known four-letter word. Okay, I thought, we’ve got a live one here.
It took every ounce of self-control not to give him a quick “back at you!” Instead, I just took a deep breath and smiled. At least his rather direct salutation was a first. I’m sure that over the years many kids have wanted to say that to me (or something along a similar vein), but have used restraint and kept it to themselves.
It was evident that this guy wasn’t even going to try to con me — he was satisfied with letting me have it right between the eyes. Mom would have crawled into a crack in the floor if she could, but only shook her head and meekly tried to apologize for Mitchell’s rudeness.
Okay, what do we do now? Since he refused to come back to my personal office, I asked Mitchell’s mom and my secretary to wait in the file room, and I began to talk with him right there in the waiting room. At least the kid was verbal — he had no difficulty describing what a jerk his stepfather was and how his mom had turned out to be a wimp and a whiner. Mitchell also let me know that he was less than impressed with me. Few sentences were emitted without some commercial-grade cursing, and I was impressed with how many permutations of the “f” word he could come up with.
Cecelia, Mitchell’s mom, had recently found baggies of what turned out to be a mixture of marijuana and nutmeg, various white powders mimicking cocaine, and a stash of semi-nude printouts of women obtained from the Internet. And this kid was only 13 and in the eighth grade! His list of crimes included changing grades on his latest report card, skipping school, and sneaking out of the bedroom window at night to meet his friends and smoke dope. When Mitchell was at school he displayed a very short fuse — if a teacher chided him for yakking while she was teaching or for not turning in his homework, Mitchell would get in her face verbally. He was too smart to actually hit or push a teacher, but he had no qualms about sticking it to her with his words.
At home, though, Mitchell had become more physically aggressive in the past year. Pushing his younger brother around was a daily event, and Mom was considering sending her youngest to his father’s house to live until Mitchell was “fixed.” Even Cecelia was becoming afraid of this kid, as he would slam his bedroom door when frustrated or raise his fist at her in anger. But he never actually hit her. Oh no, not Mitchell. As an avid reader he had become somewhat of an expert in criminal law — especially when it came to juvenile issues. He knew where he could draw the line and get away with it.
He was convinced that he could bully his Mom and little brother without consequence, since all that Mom did was yell or call his stepfather or threaten to send him to military school. Mitchell knew his mother well enough to be assured that these were idle threats — she didn’t have the guts to send him away, nor the money, and he was right. Step-Dad traveled, and it seemed that Mitchell’s outbursts occurred mainly when he was out of town and Mom was the one supposedly in charge.
Well, Mitchell was the one really running the show, and everyone knew it. Here was a 13-year-old kid, who I would have considered handsome had it not been for the pierced nose, Goth attire and perpetual scowl on his face, making his family miserable. And, as I came to understand through my talks with Mitchell, he wasn’t particularly thrilled with life either. This kid really believed that his parents had it in for him and that nothing he had done, or was currently doing, played a role in their perception. The teachers were plotting against him, the preps and the jocks were just jerks, and if his folks would only leave him alone and let him make his own decisions, he would be okay.
Over the weeks Mitchell eventually came back to my private office to talk with me, and even though he consistently threatened his mother that this was going to be the last session, he always showed up at the next one. Go figure. He still cursed like a sailor, but after a while his life and his behavior began to make sense to me. This young man had inadvertently been allowed and therefore encouraged and trained to be disrespectful, nasty, and irresponsible.
This behavior began following his parent’s divorce, when Mom was so distracted with the financial and emotional stress that she caved in to almost all of Mitchell’s demands. He’d historically been a tough cookie, rather demanding and defensive, but once he saw that she was vulnerable, the boy went in for the kill. And he was a pro — lamenting that nobody liked him would usually get his Mom’s undivided attention and perhaps a trip to Toys “R” Us. Since they rarely saw their father, Mom felt sorry for both of her boys, and basically let them decide their bedtime, curfews, and the menu for the week. As Mom returned to work and was absent from the home in the afternoon, Mitchell became bolder. It wasn’t unusual for him to invite friends over after school, even though no one was supposed to be allowed in the home without an adult present. He would let the answering machine take Mom’s futile messages rather than pick up the phone and have to listen to her whine or nag at him about breaking house rules.
Even his stepfather, David, had given up on the kid. As he was afraid of Child Protective Services becoming involved in the family’s affairs, he adamantly refrained from disciplining Mitchell. David had long since reached the end of his rope and felt that if he entered into the arguments between Mitchell and Cecelia, he might become physical with the kid. To prevent that from happening, David either left the house or said nothing. Needless to say, the marital relationship was more than rocky, and now David had given his wife an ultimatum — either get Mitchell’s behavior under control, or he was out of there.
As I learned in my therapy sessions, David leaving would be perfectly fine with Mitchell. That would be one less adult to have to deal with, and he already had his mother well figured out and securely under his control. Mitchell liked running the show, and he even took a perverse glee in intimidating his brother and mother. He also enjoyed being viewed as somewhat weird at school — some kids were afraid of him and the other Goths seemed to accept him.
But Mitchell was becoming depressed. As it turned out, not only was he reading literature such as “The Radical Diaries,” chock-full of instructions on how to make bombs and mind-bending substances, but Mitchell had begun to explore information focusing upon the least painful ways of committing suicide. You see, even though from the outside it looked like this kid was happily running the show in a dictatorial manner, he really had no constituency. No followers. No friends. No one liked or trusted him and he was lonely. Sure, Mitchell knew how to get attention from his mother, teachers, and the kids he held hostage by his classroom antics, but these very people had learned to avoid this rude, disrespectful, and self-absorbed young man.
NEXT WEEK: Applying the 25 Laws of Parenting
Dr. Peters is a clinical psychologist and regular contributor to “Today.” For more information you can visit her Web site at . Copyright ©2005 by Ruth A. Peters, Ph.D. All rights reserved.
PLEASE NOTE: The information in this column should not be construed as providing specific psychological or medical advice, but rather to offer readers information to better understand the lives and health of themselves and their children. It is not intended to provide an alternative to professional treatment or to replace the services of a physician, psychiatrist or psychotherapist.