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Teen with toxic mama
August 10, 2010 7:51 AM   Subscribe

Handling a teen-relative-with-alcoholic-mom...

I have a teen relative who has a mom in the advanced stages of alcoholism. Mom has done some horrible things (elder abuse), so we aren't in touch with her. Teen is angry at us for not enabling Mom, and has said some horrible stuff to us, so we're not in touch with teen, either.

Despite this, teen is doing well with studies. What can teen expect in terms of caring/dealing with Mom? What is teen going through? I ask, to understand what teen's situation, and in case teen has a change of mind and decides to re-establish contact with us.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (17 answers total)
 
Anyone who remains fiercely loyal to a crazy person is probably also crazy. People are very inventive when it comes to figuring out why their own craziness is really sanity, and why everyone else is really crazy. I expect that if this person does re-establish contact with you it would only be for the purpose of saying more horrible stuff to you. Someday she is going to phone in order to tell you "My mother is dead now and IT'S ALL YOUR FAULT YOU MONSTER!!!" If by some chance this teen re-establishes contact and has something nice to say, then you can build a relationship with said teen, but the odds are against it.
posted by grizzled at 7:58 AM on August 10, 2010


I disagree with grizzled. The teen is that, a teen. And it's their mother. I don't think the Teenager is crazy, but probably scared and confused. And it doesn't sound like he/she has anyone to fall back on but their mother. I do agree that the teen may end up blaming you/the family, though.

Teen might start drinking too. Teen is/will be depressed. Good grades now doesn't mean that won't fizzle out later.

I think it really depends on how you want to be, Anon. Do you want contact with this teenager? Do you want to be a mentor? If you don't, don't answer the phone. If you do, listen to the teenager. Try being wise. Don't talk badly about their mother, even if the teen brings it up. You don't have to pretend like you approved or understood, but in the same token - don't insult her.
posted by royalsong at 8:11 AM on August 10, 2010


They've probably been forced to grow up a lot quicker than most, having to take responsibility for their alcoholic parent. Life probably sucks for them and they hate having this burden to bear all by themselves. Instead of hanging with their friends, they're cleaning up puke and other messes, mom's too drunk to do her parental responsibilities, or spent the rent on alcohol. If the parent is guilty of elder abuse, they're possibly abusing the teen as well.

In short, they're probably in a living hell, torn between loving their parent and being loyal and the mess the parent is causing them. Depending on the relationship, it could be very deep and twisted with manipulation and other abusive tactics.

I would reach out to them, meet them in a safe common place and tell them, "look, we don't like what your mother is doing, we can't control her and are not going to support her behavior and addiction, but we want to be there for you. If you want to talk or need a safe place, we're here for you, but we respect that you're going to love and support your mother as you see fit." Talk to some people and get some resources for the teen to help them through this.

Let them know the door is open if they need it. They're a victim of their circumstance and might not see any other way out.
posted by NoraCharles at 8:12 AM on August 10, 2010 [6 favorites]


Anyone who remains fiercely loyal to a crazy person is probably also crazy.

I think that's a gross oversimplification. Sometimes we are loyal because we feel protective of a person. Sometimes we are loyal despite our misgivings because we resent meddlesome outsiders. Sometimes we are loyal because we believe we are better off with the devil we know than the devil we don't know.

Most (if not all) teenagers are a little crazy already. They side with people, even dangerous people, for strange personal reasons. As this relative's needs change (and they will, both because of growing up and because her mom will continue to decline) she may do or say some surprising things. I think that it's important for her to know that she can always call you, regardless of anything nasty she may have said to you. Guilt, shame, and stubbornness may keep her from doing so up to a point, but by presenting yourself as a perpetually open mind, she may still reach out to you at a critical moment.
posted by hermitosis at 8:14 AM on August 10, 2010


I think it's probably a matter of the teen not understanding what enabling is. To people who know what it is, it's a negative thing. To a teenager, enabling is equal to helping someone out, which is what's usually taught to kids. This is often difficult for adults to grasp too because the way you're supposed to treat an alcoholic goes completely against what you're taught as a human being.

Granted there are differing opinions on this, but it sounds like your family is taking the no-enabling approach, which is fine by me.
posted by thorny at 8:20 AM on August 10, 2010 [1 favorite]


[I had to put s/he all through this and hated how it looked, so have made the teen a boy for the sake of distinct pronouns - apologies if this is not the case. We can always change him back.]

This teen's mother will continue to let him down in more and more extreme ways, and the teen will either go down with her or will finally feel driven to draw a line somewhere. If the latter, the mother will most likely turn on him and try to make the teen feel like a betrayer for turning against her, just like all the rest of you. The teen will (and probably already does) feel horribly guilty and resentful for being forced into a position where he has to side with either a mother who is killing herself and abusing everyone around her, or with those who are "against" his mother.

On some level the teen knows that this is not right, but is surrounded by the perverted logic of the alcoholic, and is allowing himself to be convinced that "right" means supporting his mother no matter what. Seeing that his mother is wrong means seeing that his mother loves drink more than she loves him. It means seeing that he has never been put first, never been given the unconditional nurturing that he deserves, never really been mothered. Since the mother has driven everyone else away, this means accepting that he is terrifyingly alone.

Her mother will almost certainly continue to polarize the situation and make the teen feel that he must be for her or against her. Your best hope of being able to do him any good will be to not go along with this. Despite the horrible things the mother has done, do not let her force you into a with-me-or-against-me game. The teen will have a much easier time turning to you if he doesn't have to cross the Rubicon in order to do it.

If I were you, I'd write the teen a letter in which you say that this is an extremely difficult situation, there really isn't a "good" way to handle it, and you really regret that it's resulted in bad feeling between you and him. You want him to know that whatever happens, he can always come to you, that wanting his mother to be healthy and good to others does NOT constitute betrayal and does not mean he has to be alone. He'll always have you, and you will never make him choose between you and his mother. If he responds in anger, respond that you understand how angry he is, you'd be angry too - but you don't care about that, you want him to know that no matter what you'll be there. He can always come to you. Include your conviction that he is a good, valuable person, and deserves to be nurtured and loved - but DON'T contrast this with his mother's treatment. Just assert it.

Keep this up like a consistent, steady, reliable, predictable drumbeat, even if you get no answer or hostile answers. Because this is what a parent is supposed to be - reliable, steady, always there, and he doesn't have that. I know you're not his parent, but he has to see that there is something, somewhere, that is steady and reliable and won't get pulled out from under him. Of course, that has to be true of you. You have to decide now that you really will be there.

Even if he never turns to you, in later life he will remember that there is such a thing in life as someone who reaches out just to be there for you, as someone who recognized that he deserved love and thought it was worth while to offer it to him. It may save him from bitterness and a self-destructive path. I know I remember vividly those who did this for me. They may not have realized it, but they made a critical difference to my sense of the world and whether it was an okay place to be.

Good luck to all of you.
posted by Betsy Vane at 8:41 AM on August 10, 2010 [9 favorites]


Is there another parent in the picture, or is the mother a single parent?
posted by illenion at 8:59 AM on August 10, 2010


From the OP:
Good responses are helping me to better understand where teen is coming from.

Teen initiated contact with insults, accusations, arrogance (due to acacemic achievements), condescending attitude, a desire for face-to-face confrontation, and profanity. Attempts at reasonable conversation resulted in more of the same.

I would be willing to have an adult-like conversation with teen, but not if it devolves into the above and will have none of that in my life. My relatives feel the same way.

Mom is a single parent, and has taken a similar approach in her dealings with us. The dad isn't in the picture, and hasn't been for a while.
posted by jessamyn at 9:38 AM on August 10, 2010


I would be willing to have an adult-like conversation with teen

Teen is not being adequately assisted to become adult-like. You will want to either step up and help out with that, or lower your expectations, or forget it.

Hoping for teen to have a "change of mind" without a change of wretched circumstances may be unrealistic.

Betsy Vane's advice is lovely.
posted by kmennie at 10:45 AM on August 10, 2010 [1 favorite]


This is going to sound nuts, but I consider this teen's attitude a positive sign: they still care, and they're still fighting. They probably haven't given up, yet.

I was not dissimilar to this teen, and I upset many with my attitude at the time. I seemed to thrive while siblings/friends in similar situations wilted, so I was (literally) elected as the responsible one (at age six). I thereafter spent my child/teen years habitually defending poor family behavior, hiding the truly disgusting behavior, and cleaning up after as many messes as I could... all the while still managing to keep my own life plausibly on track. You get defensive living like that, and adopt a siege mentality: it was me vs. the world, and the only time it didn't feel like I was winning was when someone lit into my parents. It was never personal, but somehow it was always personal -- the parenting critique attacks were against me, because I hadn't covered something well enough if someone noticed to complain about it; when someone refused to help my mom out, I was upset because I knew that problem would be at my feet before long; and when my younger siblings dropped out of high school and started popping out way too many kids way too early... that was my fault, I should never have left town to go to college. I was the responsible one.

It took being away from that for years before I truly understood how twisted around I was. The only reason I ever got to that place was because I never stopped fighting and caring -- the friends/siblings who kept fighting until they got away all made better lives for themselves, and those who gave up and accepted that life as normal (the vast majority) all made new copies of the exact same family and spread the misery to a new generation. In time, the energy I used to spend enabling my family turned into me fighting for my nieces/nephews and friends (with similarly limited success, admittedly), but I still have to fight my defensive instincts when someone gets harsh on my parents... even when I know they deserve it. That's the whole "keep it in the family" thing in play, I guess.

The people who "helped" me most don't all realize they did it... they were simply there, providing a non-judgmental example of a better way to live. They understood it wasn't about them, were patient when I was moody, forgave me when I was unkind, came up with clever excuses to feed me or have a spare piece of clothing find its way to me when it was obvious I was going without. They were really careful not to attack my parents, though I know they wanted to... they were rare, patient, kind people. And in the end, they were the kind of person I ended up striving to be.

If you can be that person, you may well help. Just don't be too forceful about it, the things that need to happen here include a lot of internal things that they need to come to on their own.
posted by Pufferish at 12:19 PM on August 10, 2010 [4 favorites]


My mother is an alcoholic. I am the oldest daughter, and was raised to be the only responsible person in the family. I cleaned up the blood, the broken furniture, took care of my brothers, and endured almost nightly tirades and abuse from her and my stepdad. When I was a senior in High School, a teacher that I liked and respected had an occasion to talk to my mom at some school event (I was probably getting an award or something - I was a good student). She kindly and gently took me aside and said that she had noticed that my mom had seemed to be drunk and did I want to talk about it.

I told her to fuck off and mind her own god-damn business. In those words.

Why? I still don't know. But it has to do with the kind of co-dependence that can only be generated by a mom telling her child over and over that if "you say anything they will take you away and I will die." It comes from saving someone so many times that it's a habit. It comes from shame, it comes from fear of losing the only home you know, it comes from a well of cussed pride that is the only compensation for the shit that you have to deal with every day.

You have no idea how crazy it can get, and how hard it is to untangle that crazy. I immediately regretted not taking the help my teacher offered. I resent her somewhat for not making a bigger effort to get past my resistance. I needed help and had no way to get it. I rejected her help as a dog in a burning building may bite the fire-fighter carrying it out.

If you care about this kid, then don't abandon them. Find a way to talk to them that doesn't scare the shit out of them. Be their friend, let them trust you, let them need you and maybe they will learn that the world isn't like they think it is. Stop punishing the kid for their mom (you know it happens - bad apples and all that). This kid needs your help.
posted by The Light Fantastic at 12:54 PM on August 10, 2010 [2 favorites]


You get defensive living like that, and adopt a siege mentality: it was me vs. the world, and the only time it didn't feel like I was winning was when someone lit into my parents. It was never personal, but somehow it was always personal -- the parenting critique attacks were against me, because I hadn't covered something well enough if someone noticed to complain about it; ......I was the responsible one.

Well put, Pufferish. (Damn, I'm sorry you had to go through this too. Sucks, don't it.) I just wanted to point out to the OP that this is very, very true.
posted by The Light Fantastic at 12:59 PM on August 10, 2010


This is an incredibly difficult situation for any kid to be in. More than likely she's been parentified where she is the mother and the mother the child. This is a codependent relationship where the mother will make demands, the daughter will comply but at some point will begin to rebel, act out and possibly seek a way out - in a dysfunctional way, either by getting pregnant, using drugs herself or running away.

The mother will continue to drink using her child as the scapegoat and bemoaning her lot in life, blaming her family for her troubles and her addiction. The daughter will keep returning to the mother out of guilt, stay for a while, but when it all becomes too much will escape again. Unless there is intervention for the daughter, consistent and remedial - it's more than likely that this will cause her to go down the same road as her mother. There are kids in this situation will use school as an anchor to keep them grounded, but it's definitely not enough to keep her together emotionally and to prevent her from spiraling out of control if and when the situation at home becomes more than she can handle.
posted by watercarrier at 2:17 PM on August 10, 2010


I would be willing to have an adult-like conversation with teen, but not if it devolves into the above and will have none of that in my life. My relatives feel the same way.

Mom is a single parent, and has taken a similar approach in her dealings with us. The dad isn't in the picture, and hasn't been for a while.


First of all, I don't think you'll be able to have an adult-like conversation because no matter how responsible this teen is they are still just a teen. If the mother has a similar approach then it seems to me that the teen has been taught this behavior. The teen might not know any other way to interact with your family. Basically Mom has brainwashed the teen. Expecting an adult-like conversation is setting yourself up for disappointment, and this teenager doesn't need anyone being disappointed in them.

From the teenager's point of view Mom has a problem and instead of the family doing what the teen thinks needs to be done the family has abandoned them both. Your teen relative doesn't have the life experience to understand that the steps you have taken are for the best. The teen just sees that the needs are not being met. The arrogance about school achievements and condescension followed by insults and desire for confrontation are saying "Look at how well I did without you!" and at the same time "I want attention from you!"

I think that if you accept the anger and own up to and apologize for "abandoning" the teen you'll get a lot farther. Dismissing the anger and refusing to have a discussion because the teen reverts to immature communication techniques will only cause more of a rift. Be humble and supportive and I think you'll get a lot farther.
posted by TooFewShoes at 3:48 PM on August 10, 2010 [1 favorite]


I think that if you accept the anger and own up to and apologize for "abandoning" the teen you'll get a lot farther. Dismissing the anger and refusing to have a discussion because the teen reverts to immature communication techniques will only cause more of a rift.

I 100% agree with TooFewShoes on this. Requiring adult behavior before you'll listen is appropriate with co-workers and peers, but is not compatible with being a supportive adult presence in this kid's chaos. (Of course, you don't say in your OP that this is what you want to do; we all may be assuming a lot.)

I said above that I remember the adults who...actually Pufferish said it better:

they were simply there, providing a non-judgmental example of a better way to live. They understood it wasn't about them... they were rare, patient, kind people. And in the end, they were the kind of person I ended up striving to be.

But I also remember others, who didn't seem to think that my being a kid and related to them merited anything unconditional, any patience, or guidance, or benefit of the doubt. They assessed me and if I was going to be problematic for them, then forget it. I remember an aunt turning to me and saying, "You just really don't know how to talk to people, do you," and walking away. Like, permanently. I was 14 and took this at face value. Now I think, wait, aren't you a grownup and related to me? If I don't know what I'm doing, then why don't you help me learn? No one else is going to!

Once I got it together and created a good life for myself, then these people wanted back in. And I told them: I remember you sneering at me when I was a messed up KID and had no one to set me an example. That WAS me, you know, I was there. That irritating kid turned into an adult who sees things a bit more clearly now. You really think I'm going to expose my children to you?

My kid told me the other day that she was going to cook me and cut me up and eat me and put my bones in jail. (I know...that's my girl.) Why did she say this? Because she is three and wanted sugar. Why does this kid hurl insults at you? Because he's a teenager being brought up by an alcoholic mother and basically lives in hell. No, he's not three, and yes, he can be held accountable for how he treats people, and no, you don't have to regularly stand there and take abuse. But you can let him know that regardless of any of that, he won't succeed in alienating you. You'll still be there.

If, that is, you intend to be there.
posted by Betsy Vane at 10:36 PM on August 10, 2010 [2 favorites]


From the OP:
It's hard to approach a teen who seems so combative. It's like pondering how to stroke a porcupine. I look at it from all sides, and I just see point bits. I still haven't figured out the answer, though I think it may come with time. We know what we know, and teen knows what teen understands.

Many years ago, I had a classmate who seemed pretty serious and older than her peers. I never thought much about it, because some people are like that. My dad used to commute with her mother, and looked out for her because she was an alcoholic. One night, well after dark, there was a knock at the door. It was the classmate, asking if my father might know where her mom was. Here was someone, 16 or 17, looking around for her mom, when, in an ideal world, she should have her feet popped up against the wall, chatting with a friend. I wasn't sure what to say, but I wanted to maybe invite her in for coffee and lend an ear, since she seemed to have so much on her plate.

That might have worked, but in that situation, I would have been more like the disinterested third party. In this matter, emotions are too built up on all sides. I'm hoping that the opportunity to let teen know that teen is loved by and will always get straight and honest answers from us will present itself.
posted by jessamyn at 5:38 AM on August 12, 2010


You may have to make that opportunity. I keep thinking that it's analogous to taming a feral cat. It may bite and scratch if you pick it up too soon, but it isn't an aggressive reaction, it's afraid and it doesn't trust you. To tame a cat, you begin to instill trust. Invite the teen to something that they are interested in, or out to eat. Make it a short outing that doesn't require a lot of travel time. Keep it light and impersonal, make it fun (but not too much fun, you don't want to overwhelm them). If it goes well, do it again, but with a slightly longer duration (again, keep it light). If it doesn't go well, try again another time. Do try again another time, don't take it personally if the teen reacts less than ideally. Do not get angry at the teen, do not try to talk about "issues." Don't be too personal or affectionate. This kid probably doesn't know how to have a normal relationship with an adult. As the adult, it's up to you to show them how. It may be some time before the teen opens up to you. Wait until they do, don't force it. Thank you so much for caring.
posted by The Light Fantastic at 1:04 PM on August 12, 2010 [1 favorite]


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