I figured some things out today. Somehow in the course of teaching two distracted classes of students, I managed to do this other thinking, and it really helped. The unexpected part is that I feel very connected to C and very settled.
First, I figured out that the independence kids are attaining in adolescence is not a distancing, but a coming out of the self. “I want to do this. I don’t want to that other thing. I want to do this.” It’s a positive development, not a negative one. It is not a rejection, but coming close in a different way. It’s a revealing of the self. That’s the scary part. Extending the self outwards into the world is scary. It has not met with a positive result in the past.
And that’s why when she says no to me there is fear in her voice. The problem for me is I hear fear and I want to protect her. I have the instinct to come close, or at least have a look and assess things. Then she is deathly afraid. Then she falls apart. She is saying no sometimes for normal reasons—she just has a different idea in mind of what she wants to do—and also because she is trying to regulate. No, don’t come meet me at school, because then you leave and I can’t bear it.
Presenting herself to me is the real trigger, and there are two types of moments that are particularly intense: expressing affection and warmth and expressing a distinct desire (which looks like setting a boundary). These are moments that would have ended in disruption and violence in her family or abandonment in her family, but they are two sides of the same coin. They are the self.
She reaches and fears abandonment or violence. She individuates and fears invalidation, engulfment, or assault. And that’s going to keep coming up between us. She is going to be afraid to express affection and warmth and she is going to feel afraid to assert her own desires. Every time she needs to perform these ongoing relationship functions, she is going to be triggered and she is going to get dysregulated and she is going to need to regulate herself again. I didn’t realize this, because she wasn’t afraid before. She was always afraid of abandonment, but she didn’t feel afraid of setting boundaries until I became a lot more “mom.”
All week, that went wrong. She asserted herself and was afraid. I responded to the fear by acting protectively or trying to, and it scared her more, until she completely fell apart. It doesn’t suggest a particular plan of action to me, but it gives me hope. I think she can do it. This is her power tools and her whistle. She can do this. I think I can do it too. I can figure out how to be responsive to her and understanding, how to support her in the process of development. I can celebrate the person she is becoming and enjoy it and she can learn to let me celebrate that person.
I feel so proud of her and so hopeful. It was so hard for her to say, No, don’t walk with me past the bridge. I want you to leave me here. And she did it. Now the reason she did that might be to protect herself from the feeling she would have in my leaving her. Much better for her to decide when I leave. But that is okay.
I think I never talk about her actual personality, just the dynamic between us. She is this lovely strongwilled person (most of the time, when she isn’t triggered). She knows what she thinks about a lot of things and it’s not always what everyone else thinks. She is scared of any kind of criticism, but she still has her own ideas about things. Usually, in a conflict between us, she wins. (As you recall from the umbrella and from the parting at the bridge.) She is lively and energetic and social and sweet with little kids and assertive in enacting positions of power. And she is lovely.