I have a client right now, let’s call him Brian, who’s been teaching me a lot of lessons about power and patience. He’s quite young - under 15, over 10, right in the middle of things - and he’s quite sensitive. His parents have been quick to tell me that he’s been having a lot of trouble lately and like to give me little updates about him whenever we see each other. To ask him, there’s nothing to worry about. And though I agree with him, I do know that there’s a lot going on in his world that’s pretty troubling - the sort of thing that could be cause for worry if ignored over the long term.
Here’s the thing to remember about Brian: he’s a kid. And what this means, both practically and emotionally, is that he has no control over his life. This is true of every child, with small degrees of variation. Kids don’t have money, they don’t have vehicles, they can’t even reach most shelves. So regardless of what their situation at home looks like (assuming they have a home), their ultimate survival is tied to their caretakers. This is hardwired into us as children, and it’s part of the reason why kids are so sensitive to what’s happening at home. If their caretaking situation deteriorates, their chances of survival deteriorate.
With this in mind, children who grow up in unsure homes, which is to say every child, tend to take on roles taylor-designed to keep their caretaking situation stable. Whether that looks like a kid pushing themself hard to get good grades to show off to their parents, or a seven year old who can work a stove to feed their over-worked single parent, it’s all just variations on the same theme. Kids take it on themselves to take care of their parents, which is more responsibility than any child is equipped to handle. This sounds like a problem, but it’s just human nature. That said, it does offer opportunities for managing the toll all that responsibility takes.
Getting back to Brian, there’s a lot to understand about his life. Due to some common mistakes that his parents made, combined with other factors outside of anyone’s control, his whole family had to move cross country to support his parents’ marriage. So at what may be the most tender developmental period, Brian simultaneously had his entire social life uprooted and lost his sense of personal safety. If one thing or another had happened he’d probably have bounced back without any trouble, but combined they’ve been a real stumbling block for him. He can’t go to his parents for support with his social life, and he can’t go to his friends for support with his family life. He’s stuck.
Resultantly, and unknown to him, Brian has been waging an unspoken effort to gain some personal power in his family. He locks his door and stays in his room for hours and hours. His room is extremely messy, and he’s stopped doing his chores around the house. He’s started screaming at his parents. It’s all extremely unpleasant, to be fair, but it’s not purposeless. And while it’s not the sort of thing that should continue unabatedly, it should continue; this is the only way he knows to assert himself against his family, to step into his own incoming power as a burgeoning adult.
The necessary work here will be figuring out with him how he wants to continue this process in a more self-aware way. That is, how to differentiate himself a bit from his family without making the process more painful than necessary. I think he knows, though I don’t think he’s aware yet, that this process is occurring on a biological timeline, and that timeline doesn’t jive with his parents right now because they’re wanting to slow things down and lick their wounds. So he bides his time and tests the boundaries. When he and they are ready, he’ll tell them what he needs. Until then, his room’s a mess.