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"Our son's school problems surprised us." Adolescence and independence.

"Our son's school problems surprised us."

Our 15-year-old son Michael is having a great deal of difficulty in school." Helen Drew, a slender woman in her early 50s, spoke quietly. "Mike has cerebral palsy and has just entered the ninth grade. Prior to this, he was in a small private school. He got a great deal of individual attention. We all thought that it was time for Mike to go to a public school. The timing seemed excellent. He was going to change schools in any case. We met with the staff at the high school last June. Mike was excited about going to the same school that his older brother and sister had gone to. After looking at his school records and his achievement tests, the principal placed him in the various college-bound sections of classes.

"We were all excited and looking forward to this fall, but things have not gone well. It was a big surprise because Mike gave us no hint of trouble. If we asked him how things were going, he would say, 'swell.' He's made an effort to participate in the programs and he's been to every one of the football games. So we were stunned last week when the principal, Mrs. Stein, called and wanted a meeting with my husband and myself. It turns out that Mike has been having temper tantrums in his classes whenever he has difficulty with the material.

"In elementary school, I would go over his work with him almost every night. When he entered the junior high school and began to have more homework and projects, I was available to Mike probably two or three nights a week. Since he started the high school, he has not been willing to show me any of his work. If my older kids hadn't gone to the same school, I wouldn't have known at all what was going on. If I asked him, he said it was time that he did the work by himself. But his refusal to work with me has been puzzling. I expected him to be more independent, but I certainly have felt shut out completely.

"Mrs. Stein told us that when he gets frustrated, he begins to make noise or bang his feet on the floor or his hands on the desk, and often doesn't know how to stop when he is asked. We met with his math teacher, where this happens a great deal. This Mr. Davis is very sympathetic but it is very disruptive to his class, and he wonders whether the work might be beyond Mike.

"His English teacher is an older woman who says that Mike could do the work, but it's important that he lets her know when he needs help. He's been reluctant to do this even though she has invited him several times. Both teachers talked about how upsetting it was to the other children in the class. It's ironic that his desire to make friends is being undermined by his own behavior.

"David has a different view of it. The principal wanted to know what we thought could be done about helping Mike change his behavior at school. She was prepared to bring in the school psychologist and psychiatrist for an evaluation of Mike but she needed our permission. When we got home, David thought that we ought to come back to you. We didn't tell the principal that we had consulted you when Mike was having trouble in the second grade.

"The problems my husband and I have are the same, David and I disagree about how much we should let Mike do on his own and how much we should help him. At that time I was very involved and although we all agreed it was helpful, I began to find ways of backing off and giving Mike more freedom. David also feels that it's the school's problem to figure out what to do with Mike, not ours. We also differ about what we think Mike can accomplish. I don't know what kind of career or life Mike is going to have after he gets out of school. But I am convinced that he can do good school work. He has already demonstrated that, and that we should support his efforts even if we don't know what the outcome will be.

"David has also felt that I have supported his behavior, I am reluctant to tell Mike he couldn't do things or to set limits on him or to discipline him. It's not my way. It might be David's way, but it's not my way. I'm much more likely to try to negotiate. This is true not only with Mike, but with our other children. I think we both are bewildered as to what the next best step for Mike is."

"I think some of the problems have to do with the difference that Helen and I have about where Mike is going." David Drew, a tall, slender man in his early 50s, spoke quickly.

"I am pleased at how well he has done in school, but I wonder if we're not just setting him up for the kind of disappointments that he's now experiencing. He is different from the other kids. Our older son graduated college and is now working and our daughter Linda is in college. I'm not sure Mike can do this.

"He wants to be like the other kids. He wants to be involved in the parties and after the upset at school they told us that he really is always by himself. By being in a small private school, he was out of the community and so that he doesn't really know of the other youngsters and that's part of his problem. But I think he measures himself against his siblings and this frustration is just a reminder of what he can't do.

"We have to come to peace with what he can't do before we can examine what he can do. We have also differed about discipline. Everybody will tell you I have no trouble with him. He does listen to what I say and when I'm with him, things go easily. The older two kids tell us that we have been too easy on him, that my wife and I change everything in our schedules because of Mike and it's about time that we begin to try to take our own needs into greater account. The older two kids are on the way out of the house, and in some ways we've got to figure out where Mike is going to go.

"Helen is also right about the way I look at things. The schools are supposed to do their job. They're supposed to figure out how to make things work. I don't think we should come in with solutions so that they can say they don't like them. I would much rather for them to come in and say, 'Look, this is what we think, this is what we would like to try,' and then do something; then it gives us choices.

"We discussed our meeting with the principal with Mike. He had more understanding than we expected. He discussed his frustrations with school work and making friends. He also said he was more concerned about the limitations his disability placed upon him since he started school. He hoped things would go better. He does want a chance to solve this by himself and I think we should give him a chance.

"We are a family that talks a lot, particularly my wife and my kids, to try to understand and accept and explain, and I think there's been too much of that. I think it's time for my wife and I to get as much information as we can and take some action. It's not that we didn't find our previous visit with you helpful, but I wonder when are we going to be able to act on our own."

The Drews came to discuss their 15-year-old son Mike's problems in school. Mike, who had cerebral palsy, had entered a large public high school after having spent his entire educational life in a small private school. On the basis of an evaluation the previous June, Mike was placed in a college-bound curriculum and in an advanced placement class in math. He had not mentioned school difficulties to his parents and had rejected the usual academic support that his mother had offered.

As a result, they were surprised when the principal called to say that Mike was having temper tantrums in class that the teachers couldn't manage and were very disruptive to the class. Mike had had similar difficulties in the second grade that had been resolved in a period of six months by work with Mike and his parents.

When his parents discussed the meeting with the school principal, Mike felt embarrassed but felt that he could handle the difficulty by himself. However, the principal had given the Drews a choice between an evaluation by the school personnel or having an evaluation that they themselves paid for. Mike was reluctant to become involved with the school psychologist or private psychologist. He thought that now that he was aware of his behavior, he could stop it.

Mike told his parents that although he was making great efforts to get to know other youngsters and was participating in a math club and going to the football games on the weekends, he still felt isolated and alone. He had hoped that by this time in the school year he would have a network of friends like he had in his previous school. He was having some difficulty grasping the new concepts in math and the new ways of working with youngsters that he didn't know in his other subjects. He would then make comments about his own behavior that were self-critical and deprecatory. This behavior had helped him in his previous school when the classes were smaller, the youngsters knew him and would laugh. Here he realized no one was able to quite make out what he was doing and that it called attention to him.

He also envied the boys who could do sports. For the first time in a long time, he wished that he could run and get involved in the kinds of sport activities he saw all over the high school -- the activities that seemed to allow youngsters to make friends. He asked whether he could try to work things out by himself without going to the therapist.

All adolescents struggle with the issues of independence and dependence. Part of them has an intense wish to grow up, to become independent of their parents and individuals in their own right. At the same time, the struggle for independence increases their yearnings for the kinds of supports and dependencies that were helpful in previous stages of their lives. Often, this fear of remaining dependent feels so overwhelming that adolescents flee from it. This can be heightened for adolescents with disabilities whose struggle about emotional dependence is heightened by real physical dependence. It was not surprising that Mike wanted another chance to function on his own, not only independent of his mother, but of any therapeutic intervention.

The focus of school's concern struck a responsive chord in the parents, as it was reminiscent of similar kinds of behavior when he was only eight. It is not uncommon for adolescents in their struggle for growth in the challenges they face to resort to less mature behaviors.

All adolescents struggle with the issues of heterosexual relationships and the power of new friendships. Adolescents turn to peers for support as they try to gain independence from their parents. Mike had hoped that the new school environment with broader opportunities for social relations would help with his own increasing interest in girls and his new concern about his own adolescence.

Adolescence arouses in all young people concerns about the adequacy of their body. For the adolescent with a physical disability, it is a new reminder of their own vulnerability. Adolescence concerns are often handled by action. Actions that other people find disruptive. Adolescents often find sports a way of channeling these impulses within socially acceptable bounds. Mike recognized that this was not available to him. Instead he wanted to find activities that he could participate in.

Adolescent's activities stir up issues in their own parents from similar stages in their own lives. Their problems generally remind parents of difficult times in their own lives. These problems often highlight the disagreements that parents have as they try to make decisions on behalf of their children.

Mike's current behavior problems in school aroused memories that his parents had of a difficult time in their own lives. Mrs. Drew had partially resolved her concerns about Mike's educational life by becoming heavily involved in his day-to-day schoolwork. She had found an appropriate balance between giving him the support that he needed to grow and develop and that which would have been stifling. Adolescence made Mike want to reject this kind of support and has left his mother feeling helpless. Mrs. Drew's old method of working with him was no longer available to her, and she struggled to find some way in which she could be useful. These feelings of helplessness were only increased when she heard about Mike's difficulties at school.

Mr. Drew had always been concerned about what would become of his son. This had immobilized him as a father and he had been unable to help when Mike was in the earlier grades. Rather, he was glad to turn over problems of his son's educational progress to his wife. Entering adolescence rearoused the issues of career and career development for Mr. Drew. He began to wonder about whether the time, energy and pain that his son might experience was going to be worth it. It also made him feel that his role in the family as the one to deal with the stresses and strains of the environment could not be met. He began to feel there was nothing he could do that could prevent his son from suffering. What he didn't understand was how this struggle was similar to his experiences with his other children as they began to move on and out of the house.

The Drews were helped to see the difference between their perception of their son as a boy with a disability as opposed to an adolescent struggling with adolescence whose solutions would be shaped by the fact that he had a disability. By viewing Mike as an adolescent, they were able to think about their other children and their struggles with adolescence and growing up.

The Drews were able to see how they dealt on Mike's behalf throughout his life and how the current difficulty was only their different styles of solving problems.

Since Mike so intensely wanted an opportunity to try to solve his own problems, the therapist called the principal on his behalf. He met with the principal and two of his teachers to discuss the coming months, what they might do and were reassured they could turn to the therapist for more information if they wanted.

Since the school was willing to make this concession, Mike felt more comfortable about meeting with his parents and the therapist on a regular basis.

The Drews met throughout the rest of the school year on a monthly basis and included Mike in their meetings. His behavior dramatically improved at the beginning. After some disruptive behavior in April, Mike met with his teachers and discussed the kinds of help he needed from them in his academic work. They discussed what Mike might do to let him know when he was having difficulty.

Mike continued efforts to go to the various social activities. His schoolwork improved considerably as he began to get to know better a number of youngsters. He is hoping that next year might bring close friendships at school.
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Author:Schleifer, Maxwell J.
Publication:The Exceptional Parent
Date:May 1, 1989
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