Those of you who have a sibling or two may have the experience of being either the "perfect child" or the "black sheep" of your family. In either case you felt the pressure of having to maintain your role in the family. People expected you to behave a certain way, and you probably never failed to disappoint. Either by being provocative or by being just incredibly lovable.
I recently met with parents whose two teenage boys aged 12 and 17 fall into the good boy/bad boy trap. Their 12 year old son is the "perfect" son. Bright and successful in school, a talented athlete, sweet, even tempered, affectionate and a joy to be around. The 17 year old, not so much. He on the other hand, has some learning challenges, and therefore has found school to be a place that made him feel like a loser, and smartly enrolled in a vocational high school when he hit 9th grade, where he feels more successful. But still he is a mediocre student. He has no outside interests or passions and spends all of his non-school time playing video games or on face book. His anger and attitude are impossible to deal with. He isolates himself from the family, and it seems his only contact with them is when he needs or demands rides or money. And to top it off he can very mean and abusive to his younger brother. Dad coaches the younger son's sports team, and both parents spend weekends at his games, leaving the 17 year old feeling a bit out of the loop I am guessing.
Mom and Dad are successful professionals. Both graduated from college, went on to get masters degrees and both have successful careers. Their older son feels like an alien to them. They admitted that when his school difficulties started they thought he was just being lazy, just not putting in the "work" he needed to do for school. In middle school he was finally diagnosed with learning disabilities and was put on a program through the school system for support, but by then, I'm guessing he saw himself as lazy and stupid.
It is hard to be "that kid" in the family that doesn't fit the family script. And the more you don't fit it, the more you become the opposite of it. In this family, being smart, athletic and and having a sunny disposition (sounds like Mary Poppins) is the character description, all others need not apply. There is no doubt that these are loving parents, but they are stymied as to how to connect with their son. And he makes himself so unlikable to boot, that who wants to spend time with him anyway.
These parents described to me the attempts they make to include him in family outings, but unfortunately those family outings are built around the younger sons sporting events. If you felt like the loser in the family would you want to go and watch your nemesis being the shining "star"? I think not. Dinners out with the family become a fighting match, with the older son antagonizing the younger one at the table or he just becomes such a pain in the a** that the parents just don't do that anymore.
The good news is that this 17 year old has some good attributes. He is not a party guy, doesn't drink, or do drugs. Not an easy feat for a teen these days. He is a steady girlfriend and some good friends, all really good signs. What is missing for him is connection with his mom and dad.
In families like this where there are obvious differences between the kids, it is so important to make each child feel important. With this family, it turns out the dad and the 17 year old share a love for movies, but the dad being so involved with the 12 year old's sporting life doesn't leave him much extra time to engage with his older son. How hard it must be to watch watch his dad go off every weekend with the younger brother. I encouraged the dad to make the time, maybe a Sunday night when together, just the two of them, go off for a night at the movies. Or the mom, when dad and 12 year go off to practice every Friday night, get some take out and a movie and just hang together and enjoy each others company.
Some kids do not make themselves lovable. They push you away, and tell you to go away. Ignore that!!! It's all a ruse to protect themselves from rejection. Never stop trying, drive them crazy with messages of "I love you". Do not buy them off with money or clothes or phones, or cars or doing their laundry, they love the stuff, but they are not stupid, and know that stuff is the easy stuff, the hard part, is for you the parents to keep at, not allowing their attitude and anger to push you away. It takes time for them to believe that in spite of not being "the perfect" kid they will always be "my kid", and that is enough, thank you very much!