“Letting the 13-Year-Old Drive”

How do you empower a child entering his teen years in a state of defeat, powerlessness, and utter self-disregard? You give him a key and tell him to take off!

Teens Alejandro and Rosanna, adopted as older children from foster care
Alejandro (17) with his sister, Rosanna (12) [pictured above].


Alejandro was not quite 14 when we met him, but, in many ways, he’d already lived a life well beyond those years. His small, somewhat delicate hands, with chewed nails and a firm grip, spoke volumes to me even before he said hello. His shyness was nearly debilitating—something you could see in his chocolate brown eyes if you simply took a moment to look into them instead of at him. He lacked any sort of self-esteem, especially outside the home or beyond his small circle of “support,” which included only his younger sister Rosanna, age seven, his social worker of seven years, a lawyer, and their judge, who knew them only by reports and folders.

The siblings, who were living at a group home at the time, chose to meet me and my husband, John, at a local family fun park. This little man walked right up to us, extended his hand, and shook both of ours, as any true gentleman would. After that, he didn’t speak a word for most of the two-hour visit, but he registered every word spoken and watched each move we made. He was Rosanna’s older brother, her acting father and guardian, and made that quite clear to us from the start. It was a role he filled, but one he didn’t seem to want. Choice was not something either of them had had in almost any aspect of their lives. I couldn’t imagine not being able to choose anything, for any part of my life. How do children ever get through this?

My heart was filled with admiration, yet broke with sadness for the life he had and for all that he must be holding deep within. I knew instantly that he was never going to replace the son I had lost some 34 years ago, but he had already bored his own spot into a part of my heart that I thought had already turned to stone. I knew he was going to be trouble for me, but not in the way many would think. I was right; he has made me see parts of myself I thought were locked away forever. I saw that power in him in that first meeting.


A Clean Slate

Six days after that first meeting, a van from Social Services pulled up in front of our house with Alejandro and Rosanna, two duffel bags filled with Alejandro’s stuff, and four duffel bags filled with Rosanna’s stuff (of course!). They were here! They each walked into their own rooms and were left to “settle in.”

After about 30 minutes I walked into Alejandro’s room, sat down on the bed next to him, and spoke these words: “Listen, here’s what you can expect from me. First, I promise to help you become the best person you can be, and, second, if you want, whenever you are ready, I will help you understand your past. As far as the rules go, all I expect from you is to be completely honest with us. We can help you achieve anything in this world if you do this. You start with a clean slate here and have our trust in you 100 percent. You must actively and purposely do things to chip away at that trust, regardless of what your file had to say. Got it?” To this, he nodded his head in agreement. He has never let us down.

For the next few days, I watched him. He was a little man in a little boy’s body, struggling to grow physically and emotionally. I wanted to—no, I had to, empower him in some way…but how?

One of the very first questions he asked me was whether he had to get a haircut. I looked at his crew cut hair and told him no, not unless he wanted to; his hair was his hair and he could grow it to the floor if he wanted to—and he almost did! His hair wasn’t touched by scissors for three and a half years. The only stipulation was that we had to be able to see his eyes. When it got too long to wear it with a side part, he used a center part, and then wore a ponytail. Then, out of the blue one day, he said he wanted to cut it all off and donate it to a non-profit organization that makes wigs for kids with cancer. Sporting his handsome new look, Alejandro shipped off a 13-inch braid and, soon after, was pleased to receive a thank-you letter.


Empowering Alejandro

Giving my son permission to not cut his hair—and helping him understand and know that he was in control of himself—was the first way I felt I could empower him. The next was buying him a punching bag—one with a solid base, thin pole, and a balloon-like leather top. I showed him how to hold his hands and make a fist and told him that it was his to do with as he wanted or needed to. He smacked it a few times and grinned. It was a hit.

As I watched him from the kitchen window over the next few days, I could see the anger slip through his fists as each punch hit its allowed target. Who knows what thoughts were racing through his head or what he saw when he hit that punching bag? All I knew was that, after he’d released some of that pent-up anger and energy, he would talk a little more at dinner, share and engage a little more with the three of us.

Within three days, the punching bag was destroyed beyond repair. At that point, I went out and bought two pairs of true boxing gloves, a pair for him and a pair for me. We became sparring partners. I never held back with him; the gloves allowed me to safely strike. But I did teach him to defend himself, protect himself, and seek the opportunity to become aggressive—instruction he took well and continues to use.

The final act of empowerment John and I offered Alejandro was the key to his own ATV, presented the summer after he successfully completed seventh grade. That first morning when he took off, up and over the dunes of the Yuma Desert, brought tears to my eyes. He was free.

Taking power away from someone, especially a child, may be done with the best of intentions, and can happen too easily. Giving it back…well, that’s a whole lot harder, but it is vital to anyone’s positive and true existence in this world. Teens especially need to feel empowered. Without this, they can easily turn to other people, or in other directions, that may prove to be poor choices. It’s all about letting go and trusting. As foster/adoptive parents to an older child and a teen, who had to let go even as we were building a bond, we got a crash course in this!

In seven short years we’ve seen Alejandro grow in confidence and communication, at home and at school. Watching him throw his cap into the air at his high school graduation is a proud memory that will be frozen in my mind and heart forever. And now, our much more determined and centered son who no longer lives in fear of looking toward the future, just took his entry exam to join the U.S. Air Force. But having to say goodbye is another story altogether.


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