We lost our 12-year-old son to a long illness this year. In the meantime, our elder son, who is now 15, has become a problem. He was a happy child but he got neglected. Now he has withdrawn from us, stays in his room and is often rude. We took him to a counsellor, who tried to help him deal with his grief as well as anger. But he just fobbed her off saying, ‘I’m okay’, that all those things were in the past and he has no problems. How do we draw him out and back to us and his old self? We are worried he may fall prey to drugs or alcohol. Please help.
Outsider: Pay attention to your teenage child in times of family crises.
Your family has been through a harrowing time. It often happens that when a family has a sick child, the one who is alright gets sidelined, as the parents have only that much energy to deal with the situation. This is also true in the case of homes where there is a child with special needs—whether ill, disabled in some way or one who has serious behavioural issues. All eyes and energies are on the child who has the problem, and the other child ends up simply growing up on his or her own during this period. His/her normal, healthy and undemanding presence gets taken for granted. Ideally, in a situation of this kind, either one of the parents or a close family friend or relative should consciously “stick to” this child and try to ensure that he or she has some normal interactions.
What happens with a child who gets neglected in the process of a family emergency or chronic problem is this: At first there is the numbness of dealing with a sibling who is ailing or seriously troubled. Then there is his need for the parents, but the child tells himself that he should be “good” and not bother his parents during the crisis. However, there is also a build-up of resentment and anger at being neglected. Close on its heels is guilt and self-criticism for having these feelings. All of this becomes a bad mix of unresolved emotions and unfulfilled needs which the child cannot act upon. The child finds ways to disconnect so that he doesn’t feel so hurt, neglected and angry. The parents may find that this child begins to behave cool towards, and detached from, the ill/troubled sibling too. This emotional cut-off helps the child deal with the pressure.
You need to find a counsellor or therapist who will get to your son’s core in an empathetic and non-threatening way. Perhaps you too should have some sessions with this person. You could also approach your son and tell him that you have lost out on being with him and being there for him. If you find it awkward to be direct with him at this juncture, find ways to indirectly communicate this. Pull out pictures from his childhood; repeat funny or endearing stories from his earlier years; plan a vacation or even some regular home activities together. Meanwhile, the counsellor can work on helping him connect with his grief and anger, and finding his way back to you.
Gouri Dange is the author of The ABCs of Parenting.
Send Gouri your queries at firstname.lastname@example.org