Over my nearly 17 years of living with and managing my son’s mental and emotional health issues, I have learned many things – especially things that do not work. (I wish there were nearly as many things that did work because life would’ve been so much easier to deal with.)
One of the things that does not work is using law enforcement for help. When my son’s defiance escalated to absolute disrespect, no self-control and many times, destruction of my personal belongings, I would often resort to calling the police for intervention. This is what schools, therapists, social workers have all counseled me to do in our heated situations. In a period of about two years, the police probably came to my home several dozen times and more often than not, we would meet the same officers.
A few of them – not many – were empathic and after helping to defuse the situation would say things to show me support and compassion. Things like – “You’re doing your best. It’s hard but keep doing what you’re doing.”, “It sucks that he acts like this to you – especially since it’s just you here – but I know you’re doing the best you can.”, “Try to find help through this but call us if you need us anytime.”
Many, many more however were not so compassionate or even helpful. In fact, many more made me feel like a burden or like I was completely incompetent. And the same ones treated my son with the same disrespect that he was showing to them. So many officers walked into my home, with the smug “oh this household again” look on their faces, only to tell me several times to go to court and give up my parenting rights to his absent father or to the foster care system. Really? That’s a solution – to just give up being a parent to your own child? Or just transfer issues to an irresponsible person or complete strangers – both inexperienced and incapable of dealing with kids with mental and emotional problems?
Many left my home shaking their heads and subtly suggesting that I not use the police for a silly family dispute. Every now and then, to the dispatcher taking my call or the officer in my home, I would say with utter frustration – “When should I call you then? When a dispute has totally crossed the line and someone is hurt?” Because let’s face it – kids who relentlessly defy know how to push buttons and not all parents have the self-control and resilience to handle it over and over again.
After two years of this maddening cycle between me and my son, I realized that the police just aren’t the right people to turn to for help – not even to defuse a situation like ours. They aren’t trained to deal with mental health issues. Therefore they aren’t trained to deal with people suffering from it and with families living with it every single day. They don’t know how to be compassionate which frankly, in a situation like ours, would’ve been the best possible intervention they could’ve provided.
And most importantly my son’s feelings and perspective have been adversely affected by my calling police and by their intervening. When I put myself in my son’s shoes, after the fact, I realize all of it has fed his resentment towards me, towards them, towards anyone and everyone who just doesn’t understand him. To this day he remembers all those calls and he never makes me forget.
Do I wish I never called? Yes and no. Yes because of the negative memories that he has from them and from the feelings he harbors towards me for involving the police. But also No because what other choice did I have in that moment? Dealing with oppositional defiant disorder, in the heat of the moment, is hard as hell. When buttons are pushed over and over again over a long period of time, people will eventually break. So what are we to do? I needed help. And the police could be there to provide immediate intervention. In the end, it wasn’t constructive. The police could only stop a heated situation from getting worse. What they could not do – which is far more valuable but very challenging to find – is provide the type of long-term support necessary to affect real change (for the better) in households like mine.
But in those moments, I didn’t have many (or any other) options. If you are fortunate enough to have options, exercise them. Take a walk, call a friend, call a parenting support hotline or just read You’re Not A Bad Parent.
Our situations may be different but our experiences with mental health issues are the same. This is absolutely hard to deal with and we need to help one another as much as possible.