For years, anger and annoyance grew and grew with every move our daughter made as she aged into her teenage years. Those emotions didn’t wane as we inched nearer to placing our daughter in a treatment program.
After dropping her off, we weren’t allowed to see her for the first three weeks — the first time we were allowed to see her coincided with our first Parents Conference and Easter. The Parents Conferences were made up of sessions held by the staff of her program that enabled us with tools, teachings, and the opportunities to talk to other parents. At first, they were uncomfortable, and while we knew they were important, we didn’t realize how necessary they would become on our path to growth.
During the first conference, one of the staff members conducted an hour session on dependency. The topic seemed pretty straightforward; all of our children in the program had some form of addiction they were trying to break away from. We did a few exercises identifying those dependencies of our children and talking about them. Then the topic shifted to what our dependencies were, as adults and parents. While I was not prepared for it, the simplest statement struck me:
A dependency is the thing that makes ‘you’, ‘you.’ It is the thing you need to make you ‘ok.’ It is the thing your identity is rooted in.
The concept still hadn’t sunk in until she took us through the second part.
Anything that makes you ‘ok’, or ‘you, you’ — that isn’t your relationship with God is a dependency.
Setting the choice of faith aside, it still impacted me. At that moment, I realized my dependency, the thing that defined who I was, was work; my job. It wasn’t my ability to parent, my marriage, my faith. It was who I was on a day-to-day basis related to how I performed, the accolades I received, the importance I felt when needed by those I worked with.
This dependency had created a distinct barrier between myself and my child. Think about all of the things that get in the way of the relationships we need. While I didn’t immediately seek to apply this to my faith-based relationships, I did recognize that my dependency was something that kept pushing my daughter and me further and further apart.
This realization broke my heart. We had our daughter at a rather young age; I had not yet turned 22 when we had her. For all the right reasons at the time, I leaned deeply into my career. Both because I enjoyed it, but also because we needed it. We were a young family that needed a stable income, so we both did the best possible job we could, and it showed. We were continually growing in our careers, always traveling at various points, making the income we needed, etc. Not once, until we were in the situation of a treatment program for our daughter, did I realize that this drive for my work had blinded me to what my daughter needed from us. Our daughter, for too long of a time, had also become a job. Something I was managing, not nurturing.
Recognizing this came with a great responsibility to find ways toward change. I had not only to take accountability for my past actions but also to apply different measures toward changing my habits to do better (and repair) the relationship I had with my daughter.
On this quest to understand how we change our actions, we started reading and researching various aspects of how we become mindful. We were always fans of Brenè Brown, researcher and Ph.D., who focuses on topics such as vulnerability, shame, and how our actions are associated with those, and other, feelings. Along the way, we came across this video, and it completely changed our understanding of how we approach our behaviors.
For the better part of fourteen years, we regularly blamed our child for her behaviors. Our anger, sadness, hurt, concern, fear, dislike all projected onto her as blame as did hers.
When she would make a mistake or conduct herself in a manner we disapproved of, we’d say things like:
“I can’t believe you did this, again, what is wrong with you. I just don’t understand why you can’t stop!”
“I figured you’d just lie to me again. You never tell us the truth. I don’t know why I expected otherwise this time.”
“You just can’t help yourself, can you. You’re such a brat, you have no respect for other people.”
We realized that not only did we have dependencies in our way, but our emotions from the strain of that relationship with her, the feelings we felt based on her behaviors, all resulted in blame.
Progressing from blame to accountability.
In both realizing my dependency and recognizing the output of my emotions were resulting in blame (leading to more separation), we become extraordinarily intentional about using accountability as our new approach.
As it related to my dependency, work, I had to start evaluating how I approached both my job and our treatment program. The health and wellbeing of my daughter and our family had to come above my job. This wasn’t hard because I didn’t believe what I just stated; it was hard because of what was ingrained in me (by only the actions of myself) to put work first. For example, to step out of that parents’ conference and take a phone call was once the right thing to do. It was an easy behavior pattern to follow.
Accountability regarding my handling of work started to look something like this:
- During our visits, when we could spend a day or more with her during her program, I completely logged off. My colleagues knew I would not be available, and I went to the degree of making sure my email on my phone was turned off so I wouldn’t be distracted.
- I stopped traveling if the timing conflicted with something program-related, whether that was a day for our weekly phone call or something else that required my attention.
- I started being more mindful of when I was online versus offline in preparation for the day she would be home. Weekends and evening were no longer times to carry-over work from the day, but instead to focus on my relationships at home.
None of these things were comfortable, and fortunately, I have an extraordinarily graceful and kind employer; but, these actions were necessary, and they’re still things I practice even after two years of her being home. Even if I have work to do after 5, I will always leave to be home and spend the time I can with her, pushing work to later in the evening.
Responding to our daughter’s actions through accountability instead of blame required thoughtfulness and a lot of breathing. In the program and out of the program, she didn’t stop making decisions we viewed as poor, but the intent to do better was undoubtedly there. It was our responsibility to hold her accountable for her actions and stop just blaming her for the outcome.
Holding her accountable transformed into conversations such as:
Before: “I can’t believe you did this, again, what is wrong with you. I just don’t understand why you can’t stop!”
After: Help me understand why you did that. How can I help you not do it again?
Before: “I figured you’d just lie to me again. You never tell us the truth. I don’t know why I expected otherwise this time.”
After: What makes you afraid of telling us the truth? The truth is what will help us work together to get through this.
Before: “You just can’t help yourself, can you. You’re such a brat; you have no respect for other people.”
After: What you just said really hurt my feelings. When you’re ready to talk to me respectfully, I’ll be here.
By making her stop and think about her actions, and asking her questions as to why she was doing the things she was doing, we enabled her to have real conversations with us, through which we grew together.
Avoiding false blame.
Understanding accountability also means not accepting false responsibility or laying false blame. I know that a good portion of my behavior, while not intentional, led to where we found ourselves when we placed our daughter in her treatment program. But, it wasn’t entirely due to that. She made her own decisions and choices; for these, she had to be held accountable as well.
By laying too much blame on myself, it would have prevented her from taking enough accountability to her actions to apply and see real change. She would have had the ability to continue to blame me for her actions, instead of recognizing her own culpability. We realized, through our work together, that this was a dance along a fine line, we would struggle with even to this day.
As parents of children in rehabilitation, we tend to swing one of two directions:
- Everything is our fault. Nothing is their fault.
- Nothing is our fault. Everything is their fault.
Neither of those statements is true. What we have to learn to operate against is that fault isn’t the thing to focus on. Understanding what led to our position was critical. Learning what our dependencies were was one of the most important things that led to our recovery. Accepting our actions and holding one another accountable changed the kind of conversations we had and made us a stronger family unit.
Lessons learned, lessons applied.
Dependency. As a parent, identify what the things are that are blocking a healthy relationship (or a healthier relationship) with your child. The lessons we learned here were not meant to convey that our child should have been our dependency. That would have been no healthier than my work. Instead, it was to realize what was blocking our path toward healing and treat it differently, with less priority.
Although I set the faith aspect aside earlier, it is essential to come back to here. Both recognition of my dependency and building my relationship with God helped me heal, helped me see how to become a better mother and wife, and how to take the lessons of our situation and use them to help other families. That is how we made our way. But it isn’t the only way.
If your perspective isn’t based on one of faith, it doesn’t mean this lesson doesn’t apply to you. Anything that gets in the way of understanding those things — is your dependency.
Blame & accountability. Blame and fault are the outputs of emotions we have in a situation. The laying of blame does not change the result. It does not change what you or your child do ‘the next time.’ Understand what emotions are barriers to a real exchange, and turn the conversation toward accountability when challenges present themselves. Ask yourself what you should be doing and why you made the choice you made if the result is not one you wanted. Ask your child why they made the choices they made if the outcome wasn’t ideal. Accountability based conversations enable more thoughtful dialog, create better transparency between one another, and allow us to recognize the consequence of our actions before we take them.
Lastly, know that this isn’t a one-sided approach. As parents, we should not expect our children to take accountability for their actions if we aren’t taking it for our own. We also cannot act as if we’ve learned everything we must in life to be perfect parents. We can always work on ourselves, and our teenagers will see that. Our teenagers are meant to grow and understand how their choices impact their lives, and if they see us holding ourselves accountable, it will teach them.
Holding ourselves and our teenagers accountable for the way we conduct our lives is the key to real, sustainable difference.