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Chapter 1: Family Matters
What's wrong with the world...
People livin' like they ain't got no mamas.
-- THE BLACK EYED PEAS
He lives in two worlds, this twelve-year-old boy. Every day, he troops in and out of those two worlds, in and out of the tiny paint-peeled tract house he lives in with his father, mother and three sisters. To say his is a modest neighborhood is kind. To the casual observer the houses are indistinguishable. There is kind of a peace and order to the cookie-cutter sameness, everything in its place and a place for everything. At least so it appears. Like every other neighborhood in America, suburbia or the inner city, every home is a façade, an outward face that betrays little of what lies inside. Sometimes what is inside is the opposite of peaceful. Behind the social masks, all too often lie families that are chaotic and disconnected, that threaten to disintegrate with the next crisis. The boy lives in just such a house and in just such an American family.
Outside the doors of his home, the boy finds a world that seems immeasurably more validating. He has a small group of friends and acquaintances to whom he in some ways feels closer than his own family. Yet they too seem distant and different because he is different, at least in his own eyes. Among them, he, like so many others, wears a social mask of "okayness," but he doesn't know theirs is a mask as well. He seems relaxed, even confident, but secretly he's always on guard, because he knows he's not like them, not really. He knows he and his family are poor and that they live differently with different problems, problems you just don't talk about. He's making one of the first and most common mistakes children make: He's comparing his private reality, his world behind the door, to the social mask of all of his friends. He assumes that what he sees is the truth, and in comparison, his image of his own family situation suffers dismally.
In the world beyond his home, the discovery of athletics has been an absolute godsend. He and his family don't have the money, the clothes or the ability to participate in any of the extracurricular activities except for sports, which are free to all students. In fact, at his young age, the boy already works two jobs, and so he embraces sports as a leveling device. On the playing field, he doesn't have to talk or be like everybody else; he doesn't have to have money or a fancy upbringing or even a stable home. He just has to be what he is -- a strong and coordinated kid, able to excel at just about any sport. Through athletics, he has found not only his self-esteem but an acceptable outlet for a burning anger that he doesn't understand, but knows is always there. Even with sports as an outlet, violence and fights are an everyday occurrence in a rough testosterone-driven world. Backing down is not an option. Because of sports, the urge to win has been planted in his head like a fast-growing seed -- he loves being in the thick of competition and he has learned what it takes to win and others are eager to follow. The seed has sprouted; he doesn't like being second-best.
School life is less comfortable. He is smart, though not academically motivated. He reads all of his textbooks from cover to cover the first few weeks of school and masters the material, but could care less about class or grades. Homework is turned in only if it is handy to do so. Teachers find him quietly charming but reluctant to get involved. His writing is excellent when he bothers to do it. His test average is A+.
To his twelve-year-old sensibilities, being out with his buddies, playing sports with a passion and getting through each day are what life is all about -- "out there," at least, in "that world." Out there, in that world, he is his own person, but always with an undertow from the other world, the world behind the door.
Once he goes home, he enters a completely different world, and he becomes a completely different person.
Cut off from his friends, his athletics and his school life, he is withdrawn, sullen, depressed, lethargic and emotionally detached from the rest of his family. Being the only boy, he has his own small room and he stays in it the vast majority of his time. He has no television, not even a radio. He just stays quietly to himself and even comes and goes through his bedroom window to avoid walking through the house. Unbeknownst to his parents he roams the streets after the family is asleep. He sleeps little as his paper route starts at 4:30 a.m. Days and nights don't seem much different when you are alone. He yearns for the hours to pass so he can make his way out into the other world, the one in which he is more functional, engaging, successful and motivated, at least in some areas of life. There is an astonishing contrast between what he is like in that world, out there, and what he is like in this world, in here.
Before that question is answered, let me tell you that in the many years that I've worked with the parents of troubled youngsters like this one, it became quite common to hear a mother or father request that their "problem" child be fixed. "Get our child straight!" they would demand. "We just don't know what happened! He just seemed to go downhill overnight. He is so withdrawn, so down and depressed. What is wrong with him? Can't you do something to fix this problem?"
Is this right thinking? Not even almost. No matter what maladaptive behaviors a child is exhibiting, I can guarantee you that the problem is almost certainly with the entire family, and most often the child is just the sacrificial lamb dragged to the altar of the counselor because he or she happens to be making the most noise and has the least amount of power or ability to shift the focus to someone else.
Trying to understand a child's behavior without interviewing the rest of the family just won't cut it, and any therapist worth their salt knows it. I want to be sure you know it too. So let's step through the front door with the twelve-year-old boy I described earlier and observe the other five parts that would be missed if a therapist, or more importantly, you, as a defensive parent, trivialized or ignored the family aspect.
Life "in there," life with his family unit, is tumultuous, volatile and unpredictable. Here's the real cause for this boy's refusal to plug into his family: His father is a severe and chronic alcoholic. He is typically emotionally unavailable to the boy, and to the rest of the family. He and the boy have clashed violently when the alcohol takes over and while the father barely remembers the confrontations, the experiences are seared into the boy's mind and heart. Further, the father has aborted his career in sales, uprooted the family, moved to a new state and returned to school at a university in the hope of a brighter yet highly speculative future. Though nobly inspired, this decision hurtled this family of six into grinding poverty. There is little inner connection as each family member's own personal struggles drain them of energy. Hunger gnaws at times and doing without is just how it is. Life is insecure, as the children are the poor "new" kids. Life is emotionally barren, full of desperation and drama, with one crisis after another. Tired and struggling, this family is not coping well at all.
dClearly scarred by the psychological and emotional stress, the boy's two older sisters try in their own way to escape the turmoil. But this turns out to be a classic case of "out of the frying pan into the fire." Both sisters have ill-fated elopements with boyfriends before finishing high school. Tension is everywhere in the home. The boy loves his sisters and they have protected him and helped him in a number of ways, but then they were gone. When they returned home, they were strangely different. They weren't just the other kids in the family anymore. And so, the boy feels further isolated. Although loving and caring, the mother works long and grueling hours on her feet as a store clerk just to keep food on the table. She is ill-equipped to deal with or counterbalance such a dominantly patriarchal family and such disconnected kids fleeing from their father's alcoholism. Baby sister is cute but silent. God only knows what she must be thinking. She is extremely dependent, afraid to leave home even to sleep over at a friend's house. She must stay close; this deal could cave any minute. The boy stays close to her, and they talk late at night, but he realizes that the less she knows, the better.
Both the mother and father were born into poor, uneducated families, and consequently, they had very little idea that life offered anything other than what they were exposed to. Tragically, the father had suffered severe mental, emotional and physical abuse at the hands of his own mother, and this legacy crippled his relationship with his own wife and children.
This is the world in which we find this twelve-year-old boy. He is embedded in a family on the verge of imploding ...