Ruben was a fourteen year old ball of fire when he arrived at the program. He had been expelled from 4 Jewish day schools and a public high school for failure to accept basic discipline. In one of his schools he had set fire to a classroom. In another he had been in physical fights and had sent another student to the hospital with a broken nose.
Ruben was an adopted child of lovely caring and somewhat older than average parents. He was an only child and he was clearly overindulged. His parents were broken up over the fact that they saw no other choice but to send him to a residential treatment program. Because his family were observant Jews, they searched for a treatment center that could provide for Ruben’s emotional needs and provide him with a Jewish environment.
When Ruben arrived at our center, his moods would vacillate between wild hyperactivity and periods of dark moodiness. After psychiatric consultation, it was decided to take him off the large dose of psycho stimulant medication that he was taking to treat his hyperactivity. In place of the medication, we began to relate to Ruben with heavy doses of explanations about why rules are for his benefit. We helped Ruben slowly begin to see that authority is not there to be his enemy. We helped him gain insight into his own cognitive script that called for him to defy authority in an automatic unthinking fashion. Together with Ruben’s parents, we developed collaborative contracts based on clearly defined achievable goals.
Dr. Chesner describes what happened during one of Reuben’s family sessions:
I recall how Ruben was being incredibly disrespectful and devaluing to his parents. I have learned that when this occurs repeatedly the adolescent is almost always begging for someone to take control. The exaggerated act of not accepting any control usually reflects a deep sense of insecurity and a lack of safety. At one point, I turned to Ruben and asked him the following question:
“Ruben, I need to ask you something, and I hope you won’t be offended by it, but I feel it is right out there and we need to address it. When I listen to you talking to your parents, it is hard for my ears to bear. I feel as if you are going to the bathroom, pulling down your pants and literally taking a dump on their heads. Afterwards, you expect them to simply wipe the crap off their face and smile and give you whatever you want. What have these people done to you that is so terrible that you constantly crap all over them?”
After a few moments of silence in which Ruben simply stared at the floor, he looked at his parents, and asked them, “Is that really true, what Dr. Chesner said. Do you feel like I am crapping on you?”
Ruben’s parents were extremely refined and reserved and they were not used to talking with such graphic imagery. His mom quietly replied through tears, “I never would have described it like that honey, but the fact is, that is exactly what it feels like. No matter what we do, or how hard we try, you always make us feel like dirt.”
Ruben’s eyes welled with tears. He looked at his mom and dad and said, “I never want to hurt you. I just feel like I need to always attack, otherwise I won’t be safe. I know when I think about it, that none of it makes sense, but that is how my brain seems to automatically work. I do first and if I think at all, its only later.”
The bulk of our work with Ruben, centered on having him come to understand that limits and rules are there for his well-being. When we developed a contract with him, we made him a full partner in the agreement and we allowed him to help formulate what the positive and negative consequences would be for his actions.
The change did not happen overnight, but it occurred gradually and steadily. Ruben began attending classes and actually doing some homework. Although, we had not addressed directly any issues related to Judaism, Ruben began putting on tefillin (phylacteries ) for the first time since his Bar-Mitzvah. He began praying with minyan (quorum of ten) on a regular basis.
When Ruben graduated high school, he decided to apply to a relatively competitive university. At first he was not accepted, because of his inconsistent high school history. He asked us to speak directly to the university admission office. After a series of letters and phone calls, Ruben was accepted. He has made Dean’s List for his first two semesters. Recently, we received a letter from the university guidance counselor, thanking us for convincing them to accept one of their star students.
Ruben’s story shows how when limits are set in a caring environment, children and parents are able to transform from enemies to partners on the path of self-actualization.