Question for Bernie:
My husband and I adopted our granddaughter at birth. She is now 13 and dealing very poorly with abandonment issues. Poor coping skills and immaturity, along with her adolescent brain and raging hormones, have created this intensely negative person, and she is sucking the life out of me.
We are making every effort to open all doors for her to heal her heart. I feel it is up to us to get her on a healthier path. Before all this became my life I was a very positive person excited about life, but now I feel like my life has been hijacked. How do I help her without losing my mind and my health?
You are still a positive person or you would not be asking for strategies to use as you go through a very disruptive time, so I’m going to ask you to do something difficult. It is to step back and look at the behavior of your granddaughter as something actually positive that reflects the loving upbringing you have provided so far for her. She is throwing out her emotions for all to see, and while it creates great discomfort in your home right now, please recognize that it is healthier for her in the long run than if she suppresses them. While her message seems to be that she feels utterly abandoned, rejected, and angry, the real message is, “Please keep loving me like you always have.”
If your granddaughter gets the assurance from you that she is loved, even as she challenges you to love her by creating so much disruption in the family, everything will change. She, like almost all teenage children, is testing you. They are struggling with messages from their bodies and brains that change is upon them. The messages are very confusing—some tell them adventure awaits and so they begin to venture forth into new territories. But other messages tell them that they are not yet ready to leave, and from these messages, they can develop the fear that they will be forced to leave—abandoned. However difficult it is for you to do it in the face of her emotional outbursts, keep repeating “I love you” no matter what she says.
Yes, discipline is appropriate, but tell her that it is for her safety—and always tell her that you love her. Even if she says very hurtful things to you, just repeat that you do love her. Balance your care by being sure to give her opportunities to do what makes her happy.
Listen to her closely when she has a problem, even if you just respond with “mmmm.” She may not always be asking for you to solve her problem…it is just her way of letting you into her life and what she is thinking about. If you are now being very directive and telling her what to do and how to solve everything, stop. With teenagers, that approach very often leads immediately to resistance and acting out.
Put her pictures up around the house and keep sending her love every time you see them. Remind yourself that as she goes through the teen years, you have little control over outside influences on her thinking, but you can respond to clues that she is grappling with new ideas and peer pressure, and again, reassure her of your love and that you are a family.
Bring her into your life in a very positive, healthy way—join a yoga or meditation class with her. Let her feel that she has a role in helping you take care of yourself.
Add humor to your relationship. Get together with her and think about any funny things that made you laugh out loud. Tell her you have heard that laughing every few hours is very good for health.
Have faith and patience and it will work out—as the father of five, I know.
Peace be with you,