Ottawa Citizen
Wednesday, October 16, 2002

Society protects children from everything except themselves

Dave Brown
The Ottawa Citizen

'It's an awful thing to lie awake at night hoping your child out there somewhere will be hurt -- not enough to cause permanent damage, but at least enough to smarten her up." The speaker is a member of Parents Supporting Parents (PSP), an organization that carries a subtitle explaining they are dealing with "challenging teens." It isn't a new problem, and any way you look at it, it's parent abuse.

When street kids ask for help, almost all of them have stories of abuse. They can't live at home because their parents are abusive, or they've been kicked out. Not wanted.

In 1985, after checking out some of their stories, I wrote a series called "parent abuse." In many cases the kids were kicked out because it was the only way the parents could survive. In many cases marriages had failed as kids often as young as 13 decided to start making their own decisions, and that included kick-starting their sex lives, taking drugs and staying out all night.

After meeting and talking with many parents, the definition of parent abuse included this: If you can't sleep, you're being abused. Response to those columns was so strong that abused parents were invited to meet at the Citizen's conference center, and the result was Parents Reaching Out (PRO). It had a built-in failure factor. Once parents weathered those turbulent years with an out-of-control teen, they dropped out of PRO. The organization would go through several rebirths. Parents Supporting Parents (PSP) started seven years ago with help from the Children's Aid Society of Ottawa, and it still meets weekly at CAS headquarters with a staff social worker on hand to try to help. It's as close as one can get to a parents' aid society.

While there's no doubt there are abusive parents, that shouldn't close minds to the fact there are also abusive kids. We'll call one of them Ruth. She came within a whisker of breaking up her parents' marriage. By the time she was 11 her playmate was a 13-year-old drug dealer and their play was not childish. Her upper-middle-class family had become boring to her. Over the next few years her parents, both professionals, would lose track of the number of trips they made to the courthouse.

Her parents were discovering we have developed a society that protects children from everything but themselves. On the few occasions police found her, she was quickly processed and went back to the street. The eldest of four children, she poisoned the atmosphere in the home. By the time she was 14, one parent couldn't say no when she showed up promising to behave. The other would no longer trust her and wanted her kept out. When she did get back into the home she stole and disappeared again.

She's 16 now and living on the streets. "She believes she has found her lifestyle," says her mother, "and the problem is us because we don't understand. She's underweight and denies she's an addict. She has unprotected sex.

"When your child rebels like this, you think things can't get worse. Then you meet other parents going through it and realize -- yes they can."

The reason this mom wants to talk now is that she's about to graduate out of the PSP program and wants to repay the help she and her husband got. She believes it saved their marriage. She wants to recommend it to other parents going through similar stories. "You take so much abuse (from your own child) that it becomes difficult to move on with your own life. You find yourself being asked to forgive things you would never forgive in a friend, but this is your child. The two predominant emotions you live with are guilt and rage."

Those are strong emotions that can kill love. A marriage failure is often the result of a "challenging" child. At some point parents have to give up and make an effort to save themselves. The problem is that usually one parent makes that decision before the other is willing to.

Worst crisis faced by this mother was a Christmas when father couldn't think of daughter not welcome at home, and mother unwilling to trust her in the home again.

"She came home for the holidays and left in the middle of them without waiting for Christmas. She stole again. It was a heavy loss."

PSP is supported, but not run by CAS. Parents who feel in need of this kind of help can call 233-4867.

Dave Brown is the Citizen's senior editor. Send e-mail to dbrown@thecitizen.southam.ca Read previous columns at www.ottawacitizen.com

© Copyright 2002 The Ottawa Citizen