Monday, February 22, 2010

Parenting Tip #2 - Time Out for Difficult Children

Before I share this particular parenting tip with you, we need to define what I mean by a 'difficult child.' Being a novelist, I can't do that without telling a story, so here goes.

In the late1960's my husband and I and our two sweet children lived in the Los Angeles area. We had a struggling business, so to take up the economic slack, I taught for several years in an elementary school that was located in a poverty pocket in an otherwise middle-class city. My own children attended the school where I taught, and each evening as we would drive home, I would grieve for the circumstances of my students.

My husband and I talked it over, and we decided if the opportunity arose, we would adopt an 'unadoptable' child, one that wouldn't have a chance for a happy, middle-class existence. It was to be our little mite at saving the world, one child at a time.

We were terribly naive. But, as often happens to simpletons, we got lucky. Or, at least, we got our wish. Before the year was out, we had another child. She was seven, had been a foster child for the five years since she was wrested from her negligent mother, and had been in several homes already. A fellow teacher had taught her in head start, and that's how I found out she needed a home.

This daughter came to us with a small paper bag of clothes but trunks, suitcases and duffle bags of emotional baggage. However, we wobbled along, thinking that love and structure would conquer all.

Love and structure conquered a lot. In fact, about five years later, things were going along so well that we thought we might try another rent-a-kid. We had a family council and talked it over, and the kids agreed. The state adoption worker kissed us on both cheeks and presented us with a seven year old boy.

The fact that he went to day classes at the regional mental hospital should have told us something, but his foster mother said he was teachable. Knowing that love and structure could conquer all, and having had success with our first rental, we said we'd take him. So we did.

And, it wasn't too bad. He was a sweet boy. He brought a suitcase full of clothes and a bicycle when he came, but the emotional baggage he brought was immense. He was the result of a fling his mother had with another man. She didn't leave her husband, and she waited until this son was six to give him up (there were five other siblings). During those six years he had landed in the hospital twice with parent-inflicted injuries. One day she simply took him to DSHS and said she didn't want him any more.

So, we wobbled along with that addition, too. Love and structure, you see, will conquer all, and I was the master of structure. My husband, Derrill, called me The Commandant. Sometimes the structure came easier than the love.

By the time a year had rolled around, things were going so well that we started thinking we were wonderful. We had the magic touch. Love and Structure R Us. Let's have another kid, only let's get one a little younger this time.

In no time at all we had a three-and-a-half year old boy. The adoption worker, the same one who had brought us our previous child, felt he was meant to be ours, and we thought so too. He had brown eyes, curly hair, and a dossier two inches thick. We said we knew what we were in for. We were prepared. Love and structure, after all, etc., etc.

We had some pretty good years until puberty hit first one and then another and knocked the props out of our love and structure thing. The emotional baggage all spilled open and there was no way to get everything folded neatly and put away again.

Our saving grace was our old farmhouse. As sturdy as it was ugly, it had one beautiful thing about it: nine bedrooms. Each of our children (seven by the time I was making use of this parenting tip, because we had two surprise cabooses after our last adoption) had his/her own bedroom, so I was able to send whichever of the children was acting out to his room for a time out.

There was a problem, though. Quite a few of the bedrooms were in the basement. There was also a family room down there with a TV in it, and I found that several times when one of the boys was sent to his room, he would go downstairs, slam the door, then sneak out and watch TV until I sent word that he could come up again.

It made me so mad that I had the desire to screw the bedroom door shut, or at least put a dead bolt on it. As satisfying as that would have been, it wasn't safe, so I did the next best thing. I taped it shut.

Now, the tape didn't do anything to hold the door closed. It simply let me know if the door had been opened during the period of banishment. There was no more sneaking out, because there was no way he could get back into the room, close the door, and replace the tape.

I knew I was onto something when I arrived a little early to a family counseling session and heard our therapist telling another parent about this time-out technique. I had shared it with her several weeks before.

I know none of you have difficult children. But, if you know someone who does, they might like to add this to their bag of tricks. I've got others I'll share as the spirit moves me.


elleskiles said...

thanks for sharing a peice of your journey. i have two stubborn and strong-willed kids. sometimes, they take turns, sometimes, they both come at me. tape is good.

Monique said...

Fabulous! thanks for sharing.

Liz Adair said...

Thanks for commenting, Michelle and Monique. Your children are all so sweet, I doubt you'll ever need to tape a door closed.