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: My son had a scary skiing accident three years ago, when he was 12. He was with friends at the time, and we were initially told he might be paralyzed. Miraculously, he came away with only a very severely bruised tailbone and sore feet from the impact. More than a couple of doctors were amazed that he wasn't more seriously injured.
However, I am aware that the incident has impacted him psychologically. He talked about it repetitively in a very flat way, with no associated feeling, saying that he thought he was going to die. To add insult to injury, as he was being placed on the backboard and unable to move his legs, a group of teens stole some of his ski equipment. In the last year, he has been having pains in his feet, and just in the last few months in his back. His doctor says it's likely this is post-trauma, because recent examinations haven't revealed anything.
He used to be very happy, talkative, and outgoing. Now he is sullen, withdrawn, and has, as his counselor has said, "developed a wall around himself." This past year, my son has been involved in some high-risk activities fairly constantly and seems to be either in denial or resisting the reality of the risks he is exposing himself to. I know that adolescence itself is a time of more risk taking, but I am concerned that something more is going on.
Do you have any words of wisdom or suggestions? I have done a lot of praying, imagery, using art, and journaling about healing energy for him; he has also started seeing an art therapist and enjoys doing the art, but I don't know if it's having any benefit. Sorry this question has been so long-winded!
A: It sounds like you are doing all you can to make your son's psychological recovery possible, providing him with all sorts of resources--conversations, understanding, psychological sophistication, and sensitivity, not to mention counselors, art therapists, imagery, distance healing, prayer. In fact, your devotion and degree of attention to him suggest he's either an only child, or else you've got a lot of time on your hands and/or very high parenting standards set for yourself--possibly all of the above?
Here are some suggestions for you to think about:
You might want to keep an open mind about the foot symptoms; one shouldn't assume it's Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)or something strictly psychogenic just because the doctor didn't find anything. It could very well be some physiological residual that doesn't show up through X rays and tests.
As a parent, you do have the right, and indeed the obligation, to curtail a 15-year-old's risk-taking activities if they are truly dangerous. Sometimes, it's a good idea to put away the psychologist cap and just exercise some pure, legitimate parental authority. In the words of my hero, pediatrician-analyst Dr. Donald Woods Winnicott, with adolescents, sometimes you just have to "stand firm and let them hate you." I love that line, because it gets right to the core of the difficulty for the parent!
And, finally, you may want to be wary of the "hothouse plant" school of parenting. It's true that your son had a terrible scare and that he experienced some really nasty human behavior when his stuff was stolen as he lay helpless. These things are hard. But on the other hand, life is tough, people aren't always wonderful, and these are important lessons we humans must learn. He's learning them.
It's also possible that all your hovering concern, at an age when a kid's job is to get some distance from his parents, is exacerbating some of his difficulties. The kid might be learning that almost getting killed generates a lot of excitement and attention. Keep in mind, adolescence isn't just a time of risk taking; it's also a time of becoming sullen, withdrawn, and developing walls, especially with a very concerned, connected parent. That's not to say he has the right to be rude or obnoxious, but he may need more distance than what he's getting under the circumstances.
So, in sum, I'd say this to you: Be patient. Don't hover. Tolerate some distance. Don't spend too much time in his head. Assume he'll get past this trauma, with or without your help--that's mostly how it works with healthy people and accidents. Exercise your authority--you're his mom, not his shrink. And try to remember, it's not your job to fix him, just to prepare him--so give him room to take his lumps and develop some protective skin of his own.