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What causes adolescents to rebel is not the assertion of authority
but the arbitrary use of power, with little explanation of the rules
and no involvement in the decision-making
(Laurence Steinberg)

I think most every parent will take offense at even implied criticism of their parenting skills. Seriously, none of us is perfect, yet we all want to be. My sis in law and I have very different parenting styles. She thinks I'm too easy and I think she’s too strict. Each of us is convinced we are right. And both of us take offense at the other saying or even implying that we don’t know how to parent. Our defense mechanisms prickle up because most parents question their own parenting skills and it hits us where we hurt, at our own uncertainty. We have resolved the problem by making “parenting” a taboo subject between the two of us unless one specifically asks the other…”What would you do?”

I wrote this blurb on my scratch pad a couple of months ago. It is good to have this objective view to look at when the friction all blows up. It is good, because I will look at this to remind myself why there is so much anger directed at me. No, I take this back...It is good to remind myself about this when my brother has disowned me because of my views.

Let me back track...my niece ran away at the end of February. I found this out from my daughter after she had been missing 24 hours. My brother didn't call anyone. He did not even call my niece. In fact, he disconnected her cell phone. I am from the point of view, safety first, work out differences when the anger is less intense. I do not believe that the best way to force a child to comply is to cut her off. Like I said, different parenting styles.

A little background information: My niece and her stepmother do not get along. There is no trust and respect flowing in either direction. My brother is stuck in the middle. My sister in law blows up over the little things. None of these blow ups are ever directed at her natural born children. They are solely directed at her step-daughter. The step-daughter reacts poorly to these. She's a teenager, so the natural pushing away of teenagers is also playing a role. I oversimplify this very complicated dynamic.

A lot of my niece's "attitude" is blamed on my divorce. I am not kidding. When I first moved to town, my sister in law point blank told me to not stop by unexpectedly. She told me to run all possible invitations my daughter might make, through her first. My daughter was not allowed to discuss any ideas with my niece prior, because chances were it would not be allowed and she didn't want my niece knowing about the things my daughter would be doing that she couldn't. My sister in law told me that the only reason I allowed my daughter so much freedom was because I was making up for the divorce. She told me flat out that she totally disagreed with my how I was raising my children and it was inappropriate. It was an eye opening, stunning conversation to say the least. The only words I said in response to this in-my-face diatribe was that she was mistaken, my ex and I hadn't changed anything with regards to our parenting style. Honestly, it was pretty much the only thing he and I did agree on. My daughter and my niece are best friends, two months apart. This was two years ago, when the girls were 16. Prior to my arrival, my niece's "attitude" was blamed on her birth mother. My niece was allowed limited contact with her as well. I also have very strong views about this. Views I have not shared. I did not take her criticism of my parenting very well. Would you? It would not have accomplished anything to tell my brother and his wife that keeping his daughter from her mother would have repercussions. They did not want to hear it. For the sake of family peace, I kept silent.

My daughter was visiting her father out of state. She calls me frantic. "Mom, K has run away. Can you find her?" My niece had called her. Within a half hour she was on my couch, sobbing. It took me an hour to calm her down. She was not going home under any circumstances. She had had enough. She was moving in with her boyfriend. She had three months left to graduate high school. I talked her out of the boyfriend move, which would also have included dropping out. She agreed to stay in school, continue with all other activities, stay as normal as possible until things blew over, but she refused to go home. I made the choice to let her stay with me for the time being. My brother took that choice as a betrayal. He believes, still, that she was with me for that first 24 hours and that I had encouraged her to defy him. They sold her car. They emptied her bank accounts. They told her they would not pay for college. They told her she would never see her siblings again. Actually, the exact words my sister in law used were "You will never see MY children again". And yes, she emphasized the my. If you had seen my niece's face, your heart would have broken. My brother feels I should have left her on the street so she would eventually crawl home. I botched his plans by saying she could stay with me. I should not have interfered. Again, I oversimplify a very complicated situation.

3/18/07

I would like to talk a little about trust, respect, and family. These are important. I have not yet figured out how to arrange the words together in a cohesive passage other than to say that the family is made up of pieces and that the trust and respect help glue them together strong. A crack developed in a family close to me.

A precious china cup is thrown
to the sidewalk and shattered.
How does one glue that back together
when the handle has been flung away?
The bowl of the cup does not feel
it needs the handle to function.
But does it have the same value?
What of the pieces that once touched the handle?
What becomes of the handle without the cup?
Can it function alone?

This have kept me awake for the past week. If you can't count on family, who can you count on? This is important.

My brother's view of parenting is a patriarchal one. His word is law. Period. End of discussion. Do what he says or face the consequences. This is the same style we grew up in as children. My view of parenting is more of an open dialogue with a gradual increase of individual choices as the child ages. Case in point. 1)My daughter wanted to date someone my brother disapproved of. He was covered in tattoos, he had a kid, he was divorced, etc. Tattoos? So what? My daughter had a tattoo. Basically, my concern was that he came with prior baggage, but he was very upfront with her about it. He may not have been my first choice of boyfriend for my daughter, but the point is, it's not my choice. She is 18. I trust her to make her own decisions. I invited him over for dinners, he was always welcomed in our home. I grew to like this guy. She decided for herself after several months that it wasn't a good fit. 2) My niece wanted to date someone my brother disapproved of. He said No. She didn't date him, but they talked on the phone occasionally. She worked for her father. He fired her.

This is what was the beginning of the last straw for my niece, one straw on the top of a hay stack that had been building for years. She started dating this boy her father disapproved of. He was forbidden from my brother's house. My niece found another job. One thing on top of another. So many stresses added to her. Then there was an incident at home that truly was the last straw. Began over a seemingly insignificant spoon. My sister in law began hurling expletives at my niece calling her among other things a "fucking bitch". The incident soon escalated to something dangerously more. My brother became involved with even more anger. So,my niece did the only thing she could do to defuse the bomb, she walked away. He told her that if she walked out that door, she would never be allowed back. She made the choice in that instant, enough was enough. Everyone has a breaking point. Everyone has a line that they draw for themselves. Hers was reached.

I believe that swearing is one of the lowest forms of disrespect. I do not believe a parent should ever direct them towards their children, nor vice a versa. I also do not believe in absolutes, especially given in anger. I believe in walking away until cooler heads prevail and then discussing the problem and coming to a resolution. These are my beliefs. I did not turn her away. I took her in. For that, there are consequences and I accept them. Our parenting styles have clashed. My brother never once called me to ask why I did what I did, nor does he believe that I did not encourage her behavior. He believes I lied to him and that I betrayed him. I can not convince him otherwise. Communication is of utmost importance. We have none. Family is all a person has. Fractures should be fixed. That is my belief. I worked on what I considered was most important at the time. I can only hope that my brother and I can sort this out some time in the future. I put my focus onto my niece and helped her sort out her anguish, while keeping her day to day routine as normal as possible under the circumstances. It took me two weeks to convince her to consider going back home if her father and stepmother asked her to return. She didn't think they would, but she agreed to consider it. She missed her brothers and sister. The rift with her father was eating her up inside, but she could not abide the situation with her step mother. There was a big uproar in school. Her sister was upset. The middle school was calling the high school. They were trying to determine if family services should be called in. My niece assured them of no abuse, just discord between her and her stepmother. The schools could not interfere because my niece was 18. They offered counselors, which my niece refused.

My brother asked her to move back home a little while ago. She tossed it about a few days, talking to her mother, her grandmother, me, her cousins and her boyfriend. It came down to two overriding factors; she missed her brothers and her sister, and she hated the rift with her father. She and her father hammered out a deal of sorts. She is to say as little as possible to her stepmother. She is to shut up and take whatever her stepmother has to say when she is angry without even the sign of a raised eyebrow on her face. They were insisting she quit her new job. My niece said no, this would be the deal breaker. She gets to keep her job but they will not pick her up nor drop her off. She gets to date her boyfriend. The rest of us take turns shuttling her back and forth to work. She's saving money to buy her own car in her own name. She's opening her own account they are not attached to. She barely speaks to my sister in law and vice versa. This is unfortunate. They have not addressed the underlying issue that let to this series of events. Anytime a child runs away, it should be a WAKE UP CALL. This family is in crisis. There is a serious problem that must be looked at if there is any shot of my niece and my sister in law having any sort of relationship like they once had long ago.

Another unfortunate consequence. My brother is a person of absolutes. I am never allowed anywhere near the other three children again. I am never to contact his family. And the newest caveat that is being pushed is that I am not allowed to transport my niece to/from work any longer. My car in the driveway might be upsetting to the other children who can't understand why their aunt has disappeared. So now, I drop her off at the corner. Unfortunate is perhaps too mild a word. This has deeply affected this family on many levels. My daughter waits for the axe to fall and her uncle fire her too. She is not secure in her job. His family did not come to the Easter celebration. They say it was because this year they decided to spend it with his wife's family, merely a last minute change of plans, but they have always spent Easter with this side of the family and Thanksgiving with hers. In my heart, I know the last minute change was because I am not allowed near their children. This has deeply affected me. And yet, I tell you now that were this scenario put in front of me again, I would do exactly the same thing and accept exactly the same consequences. These are my beliefs. You should be able to count on family no matter what. You should be able to feel safe within your own immediate family. You should be able to go into the extended family for support if that becomes necessary. Perhaps that is what my brother is feeling. That he couldn't count on me to back him up when our styles clashed. But above all of these beliefs I hold, the health and welfare of the child comes first. Always. My niece was in crisis. I responded to alleviate that crisis. I would do it again. You may have done something different. There was no easy cut and dry solution. I can only hope in time, my brother and I will be able to talk about this objectively. I don't know that it will ever happen, but I can hope. After all, he allowed his daughter back into his life after threatening to cut her out forever. But then again, I'm not his daughter.

Why on earth would I share something so deeply personal with you? One, to illustrate the difficulties in blended families. Two, to show the problems when conflicts in parenting styles arise. Three, to demonstrate that communication is imperative. Four, to show the pain that can occur when family clashes do arise. Make no mistake, there is great pain and anguish. I have struggled with these words for weeks. It is important that I share them. There has been too much loss. Perhaps if you see a similar situation beginning in its infancy, you might be able to avert it. Perhaps the stepmother will recognize textbook fairy tale stepparenting and adjust a little before alienation sets in. Perhaps the intractable parent, might be a little more open to discussion. Perhaps the child about to run away may consider all that she may lose before the flight. Or perhaps she may seek out a counselor's ear to intervene on her behalf when she feels like an outcast in her own family. And perhaps if you have such a choice before you, you'll have had time to consider what you would do if someone you loved showed up on your doorstep and said, "Help me".

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