At what point can I just give up on my son?

As a mom and as a daughter I'm at the end of my rope.

Published June 9, 2006 11:05AM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

I have a hard question for you. At what point do you give up on a child?

I had my son when I was 19 (something I would never advise to anyone else). After he was born, my mother told me it would be easier to live with her (even though she is a hideous slob and I'm a neat freak), and because of her schedule (she's a teacher), she could watch him for me in the evenings while I worked and went to college.

That seemed fine. After my son was 2, I moved out but continued to let her watch him on weekends while I worked as a waitress. Then I found out that she was teaching him to lie to me behind my back ("Don't tell Mommy I got this for you -- it'll make her mad. Just pretend you've had it all along"), taking him to movies I didn't want him to see (I'm sorry, a 4-year-old does not need to see "Jurassic Park" -- the nightmares he had were proof), and telling him, "Wouldn't it be fun if you lived with me all the time?"

Fast-forward 10 years. The entire time I've been working hard (even dropping out of college for a time so he wouldn't grow up the way I did -- poor with kids making fun of his clothes), attending school functions, and basically just trying to be as good a mom as I knew how. I know I'm far from perfect, but I did try. When he was 12, we moved to the coast so I could attend law school in another city (a city far, far away from the hick town I grew up in). My husband is trying very hard to be a good stepfather, but my son wants none of it. After about a year, I let him go to my mother's for the summer. When he comes back, his grades drop from A's and B's to F's. Turns out he's been doing his homework (under our supervision), then taking it to school and throwing it away. Then he starts acting out, starting fights, running away (only a couple of blocks away), etc. We try counseling, medication, nothing works. Finally he tells us that he's going to be as bad as he has to be until he's sent to live with his grandmother.

I was in the middle of finals at my first year of law school and at my wits' end, so I sent him back. I thought I was doing him a favor, taking him away from my backwoods hillbilly beginnings (my mother thinks evolution is a trick from the devil), getting him into a more culturally diverse area. I figured it would be temporary. Guess what? He doesn't want to come back. He is now "saved" and makes constant excuses not to come visit. What's more, I can only talk to him by calling my mother and she rarely answers her phone and "loses" any mail I send him. (Seriously, I called three times a day for eight weeks straight and got nothing.) But he's making good grades, even though he's abandoned all the activities he was doing out here (violin, art, etc.).

No one else in my family will have anything to do with my mother. She was abusive when my siblings and I were young, then "found Jesus" and became such a nut about it that none of her kids speak to her. Every time I call and get no answer, I get angry and get headaches. I'm angry at both of them, and if I had known this was how things would turn out, I would have put him up for adoption with a nice, normal, middle-class couple in a city. Now he's going to turn into an uneducated, mullet-sporting Jesus freak, and quite frankly, I'm ready to wash my hands of the entire situation.

He clearly doesn't want to be here with me. He makes no effort to contact me. Neither of them answer the phone when it rings. Quite frankly, I don't think trying to be his mother is worth all the anger and heartache anymore. I tried to reach them for three weeks about booking his ticket to come visit for the summer, but never got a response. Finally I just booked the ticket. Two days before he was to come out for the entire summer, he calls and says he only wants to stay a month because he wants to stay with his grandmother and go to church camp (which I remember from my own youth -- it's where you get the real good drugs).

Can I cut him off? I seriously spend half my day just wishing my mother would die. It would solve a few problems.

At what point do I say, "This is not my kid anymore -- this is her kid"? Please help.

Giving Up on the Kid

Dear Giving Up on the Kid,

Giving up on the kid is not an option.

He's got problems. He's in trouble. He can't talk about what's going on with him. He needs you. He's going to hurt you, but he needs you. He's not an adult. He's a kid. He's not responsible for what's going on. He needs you.

There is no quick fix for this situation. You are all in it for the duration -- your mom, your husband, your son. So I suggest that you take the long view. Begin now by contacting people who can provide you support long-term.

You say, "We try counseling, medication, nothing works." I think you may need to redefine "working." You are bound to this boy by blood, by motherhood, by familial obligation, by law. You cannot walk away. It's not a matter of trying these things and abandoning them if they don't work. It's a matter of establishing a long-term way of living that has the best chance of ameliorating the damage that is already done and preparing the way for growth. If you don't see progress, that doesn't mean progress isn't being made. You have to pick a path and stick to it.

While you are focused on your son, there is another part of the equation. You, also, are in trouble and need help. This has got to be extremely painful for you. You need help managing the emotional pain you are in. You are having trouble not only with your son but also with your mother. You are in a very difficult situation. Ditching your son would not help. Saying that you would like to ditch your son, and saying that you wish your mother were dead are, I believe, only your ways of expressing the enormous emotional pain you are in. It is probably hard for you to even say it directly that you are in pain. It is also impossible for your son to say he is in pain. You are both expressing things by taking symbolic actions. Saying you are in need of help may feel like an admission of weakness. It may be the same way for your son.

But the truth is that you need to bring people into your lives who can be a source of stability and strength week in and week out. It will be slow going. There will be no quick fixes. But it is the only thing you can do that holds the possibility of getting through the next 10 years with some dignity and some understanding, and without a tragic outcome.

Start now. Get back in counseling with him. Get in counseling by yourself. Involve your husband. Join a group of parents with difficult children. Join a group of adult children who were abused by their parents. Participate regularly. Make it a part of your life. Accept that progress will be slow.

Hang in there. Let people help you. Reach out.

Consider yourself in a permanent struggle. Stay in the game.

You can't give up on the kid.

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