Strained Relations

Strained Relations: Help for Struggling Parents of Troubled Teens

A Couple and Their Daughter: Estrangement and Reconciliation

Posted by Marcia on June 1, 2011

Last year, Stacy attended one of my talks and bought my book and she found consolation in it. She gave it to her husband, and he emailed me mid-way through the book.

“Ron” and “Stacy” married in their teens and had very little money and no emotional support from their families. They stayed in rented rooms and both worked two jobs for several years. He is mechanically inclined and earned his living at auto repair shops. He’d had little patience for school and used his high school vocational education to land a job at a gas station. Stacy completed high school and attended a vocational school in their early years together.

Stacy established herself in her occupation and Ron began to earn a good living as a mechanic. Although they were earning their own way, they had learned that education opens doors to promotions and better salaries. They felt insecure and inferior when running into old classmates or meeting new people. They agreed that the best way to get ahead in life is through a great education, and when their only child was born, they moved to a different community to get her into a better school system.

From the time “Mary” was little, education was stressed and there were educational toys, flashcards, games and activities designed to enhance her life. Her parents were focused on giving her the opportunities they felt they had missed.

Mary was an average student who wasn’t interested in most of her classes. She had friends and liked some activities, but did not have special hobbies or sports she enjoyed. It became a daily struggle between the parents and Mary, a constant nagging and bribing for her to do her homework. Each summer from 7th grade on was spent in summer school, not for enrichment classes but because she had failed basic courses.

They were able to have good times on weekends but dreaded school days and nights. They went to doctors, therapists and coaches, trying to find the right answer to help this child. Nothing worked because Mary did not want help.

On Mary’s high school graduation day, they were proud, excited, happy and relieved that this part of their struggle was over. They had hoped that she would go to junior college and work to help with the costs.

When they saw her after the ceremony, she told them she was leaving, that she’d be staying at friends, that any place was better than living with them, and she walked away. They were stunned.

What should have been an evening of celebration and happiness turned into a difficult and frightening eight years.

They thought she would come home that night or the next day, but she didn’t. Her friends said they didn’t know where she was. They contacted every person they knew. Finally, one of Mary’s friends called and said Mary was staying with a guy she had met. The acquaintance had asked Mary to call so her parents wouldn’t worry, but Mary refused, so the friend called.

Ron and Stacy went through everything in her room. As impulsive as this had seemed to them, Mary’s running away had been planned. Favorite clothes and her childhood bear were gone. They had saved enough money in cash to pay for several months’ rent if they needed it, but that had been taken, too. They found some unidentified pills but no other answers to the questions of what happened and why.

They called her friends regularly, some would answer; others would not. Some said they hadn’t seen her and seemed sincerely worried while others seemed to be lying and covering for Mary.

Ron and Stacy “went through hell” worrying about her, second-guessing themselves. They weren’t bad people: they worked, had friends and went to church. They thought their biggest difficulty had been fighting over school, but now they knew Mary had been taking drugs and lying about it and stole a substantial sum of money from them.

Stacy scoured the papers and checked online to see if there was some note about her daughter – maybe she’d be named in an accident, in a burglary, maybe she’d be in a photo taken at a street party. Maybe they’d find an unidentified female body, someone Mary’s size. She created accounts on MySpace and later Facebook to look for Mary and her friends.

There were no answers and no contact from Mary for years. They experienced anger over her betrayal and the emotional trauma of not knowing where she was and if she was alive. They went to a family therapist to talk about this grief and worry and to keep their marriage intact.

The pain lessened but it was always there. They gave up on finding her and felt they’d done all they could do by letting her friends know that they wanted to see her.

Stacy read my book and said learning about other parents and what they did or how they coped was helpful for her. It was comforting to know they weren’t alone and others had similar or worse problems.

Ron was partway through my book when their phone rang one evening and it was Mary. She wanted to meet them over coffee. They arranged a time to meet and the place, and the call ended.

Ron wrote to me and asked how to approach her, what to say, should they hug or what? It was the beginning of the weekend and they were to meet her on Sunday. Their therapist was away, there was no one to call. So they reached out to me.

I reminded them I’m a parent who wrote a book and I’m not a therapist. They just wanted to talk it over with someone who might understand their situation, may have thought it through. I have thought about what I might say to my son and how I might react, but nothing is certain on either side and it’s emotionally scary to extend oneself and risk losing that person again.

Here’s what I suggested: let her lead the way. Go to listen and not confront. Don’t run up and hug her, just greet her and see if there is a sign she wants to be hugged. It’s been 8 years and this is not a teen but a 26 year old woman.

They did let her lead the way so it was a rather short meeting, but now they are hopeful. It was hesitant and scary, and they didn’t hug when they saw her or before they left. They didn’t probe her to find out where she had been. Mary is hesitant and scared, but she had joined Alcoholics Anonymous and part of the program is to ask forgiveness of those you have hurt. Mary has agreed to go to family counseling with them. Ron and Stacy are hopeful but cautious: they’ve been wounded deeply and fear losing her again. There is a small light at the end of that tunnel, and I’m keeping this family in my thoughts.

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