April 09, 2020

Kids aren’t thrown away

Imagine you are a parent. That wasn’t so hard. OK, imagine that you are the parent of a child who struggles with mental health issues. A little trickier isn’t it? Try to imagine finding yourself trapped in the never-ending maze of therapists, school meetings, and appointments as you try to get your child the help she needs.

Imagine that you are that same parent after your child has run away; You have worked hard to get them back on track only to have all of your efforts rebuffed, not only by the child whose skinned knees you bandaged and whose tears you’ve wiped away, but also by the well-meaning system that supports her self-destruction and works against your efforts to set limits.

Now, imagine how you might feel as this same parent unexpectedly seeing your child’s face on the cover of a newspaper under the inflammatory phrase, “throwaway kids.”

Welcome to my world.

Not only am I the parent of challenged kids, I am a social worker who also works with families not unlike my own. I see their hard work and commitment to making things better, and share the joy when breakthroughs happen. They inspire me to press on when my own family life seems out of control. I also feel deeply for them when, as it happened with our daughter, their efforts fail. For all that families like mine must endure, we deserve more than the blame we often get.

Recently, the Bangor Daily News published an article to educate readers about the Shaw House’s Streetlight Program for homeless teenagers. While the program offers some important relief to children who truly have no place else to turn, the implication that families in crisis “throw” their kids “away” is not only hurtful but extremely inaccurate.

Children end up on the streets for various reasons, but I can tell you from experience that not all of the children living at the shelters have been kicked to the curb by hateful parents. In fact, there has been growing concern that programs like Streetlight, however well-intentioned, are becoming more like flop-houses for kids who simply do not want to follow the rules at home, a place where they can come and go as they please, hang out with friends, and enjoy freedom without responsibility.

As is the case with any issue, perspective is everything. I am blessed to have four children. They each bring something special to our blended family. But families with adolescents who struggle with emotional/behavioral issues will acknowledge that they present special challenges as well.

Families like ours work very hard to stay together, to learn new ways to overcome significant family problems. They have to steel themselves against our parent-blaming culture that automatically assumes that if the parents had only ‘set limits’ or ‘disciplined them better’ that things would not have gotten so out of hand. Perhaps in some cases this is true.

But in the case of many families like ours, something deeper drives the anger, the rebellion, the self-destruction. For fighting through those hard times, understanding and support of parents who are struggling with their kids would perhaps be the more appropriate than adding to the hurt with phrases such as “throwaway kids.”

Jennifer Allain-Winchester is a resident of Winterport and a licensed social worker employed by Wings for Children & Families Inc. in Bangor.

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