The problem is that you are putting in all the effort to see me and I’m not doing any effort to show you that I want you to visit.
This was my son’s explanation of the main problem in our family relationship during a phone call.
He continued, “when I don’t do what I’m supposed to do, I’m sending the message that I don’t care if you come to see me.”
The kid is smart. He knows what he’s doing.
In the beginning of his residential treatment stay, we visited our son every weekend. However, his behavior escalated and his actions became increasingly violent. We reduced the frequency of visits based on his behavior.
His therapist agreed he needed to have some responsibility in our family connection, unrelated to other behaviors. As part of his therapy, we created a behavior plan which required our son to do a chore and a lesson in a Bible devotional each day in order to earn a visit.
Because our main objective during that time was also to ensure his sister’s safety, deleting the visit was a negative consequence if he had a violent outburst during the week. Assuming he did not assault anyone, we would show up.
Our son agreed to the plan.
The therapist ensured the chore would take fewer than 5 minutes. The devotional page also required about 5 minutes. In order to fulfill his behavior plan, our son needed to put in only 10 minutes of effort each day.
We purposely kept his responsibility simple, to ensure that he would easily be able to attain success. We wanted to show him that when he did what he needed to do, he would get what he wanted.
As the therapist worked with him to prevent thoughts from becoming behaviors, he stopped assaulting other humans. Instead, he began beating on the walls, doors or windows when frustrated. Sometimes he threw or flipped chairs.
He made the mental connection that we were not visiting during times when he had been violent with another person and assumed that we would visit if he didn’t hit someone else.
By this time, though, the behavior plan was in place and he needed to complete those two simple actions in order to have a visit. Instead of complying with the plan, he became angry that we were not visiting even though he had not hit anyone. He refused to complete chores or the devotional.
For weeks, we encouraged him during nightly family calls—as well as during family sessions with the counselor—to complete his plan.
Eventually, he began doing the chores but still refused to do the devotional work. He said he didn’t see a point because he already knows who God is. No amount of reasoning worked.
It became a power struggle and I asked the counselor if we should simply give up, but he agreed that if we did so, our son would simply see us as liars, even though we would be breaking our word in a positive way.
The counselor and I began to wonder if he was simply convinced we wouldn’t visit and was making sure that he was in control of the situation.
I wanted to make sure that he knew we would visit, so the counselor and I came up with a compromise. If our son did not finish seven lessons by Thursday, I would do the rest of them on the phone with him so they would technically be completed.
We were able to get him to do three of the lessons on his own by Thursday. On our evening call, I told him to get the book and completed the last four lessons with him on the phone so that we could make a plan to visit him on Friday.
Last night, I saw my son for the first time in over a month. Waiting until he completed his behavioral plan may seem extreme, but we wanted him to grasp the necessity of putting effort into the relationship. We also wanted him to see that we would immediately reward that effort.
We want him to know that he can trust us to show up. We also need him to grasp that relationships take work.
Last night, we had the best visit we’ve had since his treatment began. He was thrilled to see us and knew that he had completed what was required of him in order to make it happen. He had done his part and we had done ours.
Interactions weren’t perfect, and he was still less than truthful when it came to owning up to behaviors during the week. However, I have never seen him so happy.
I believe he experienced the kind of joy you feel when you know you’ve been responsible and done your part.
We played a couple of card games and spent the rest of the time playing Monopoly. It was the first time we’d ever played the game as a family, mostly because I wasn’t sure he would react well to some aspects of the game.
He amazed me, interacting and trading and paying rent and going to jail without flipping out.
I had a foot-in-mouth moment the third time his sister went “straight to jail without collecting $200.”
“I never expected you to end up in jail a bunch of times; I always thought it would be your brother,” I grinned at her.
Then, horrified, I realized what I’d said and slapped a hand over my mouth.
He cut his eyes at me, then cracked up with a true belly laugh.
He patted my arm. “It’s ok, Mom. Don’t feel bad. That was pretty funny.”
For the first time since October, I think perhaps we are making headway.
I know it’s a long road ahead. Expecting things to be perfect (or even to consistently go well) would be ridiculous.
But for the first time in months, I believe we will be able to have game night in our own living room, together. Not tomorrow, but someday.
I have hope, because last night, for a few hours, we had a Monopoly on Happy.