How To Parent When Your Child Can’t Live At Home.

It’s a trial many parents find themselves in when their child ends up in residential treatment or juvenile detention. How do you continue to be a parent when your child lives somewhere other than home?

Business woman sitting on chair in visiting room

Twice a week, I visit my son. Twice a week, I sign myself out on a lined piece of paper. Twice a week, I retrieve my belongings from a locked box as a staff member walks me to the door. Twice a week, the door swings shut behind me and as I cross the parking lot. Twice a week, my eyes well up. Twice a week, I turn the key in the ignition and catch my breath as the tears are too much to hold back.

Our son has a mental illness and brain damage. He has difficulty making safe choices. Because of our current situation, it is not safe for our son to live at home. This isn’t the first time it has been unsafe to live together. This isn’t the first time we’ve been apart. I used to feel devastated because of our situation. My distress overshadowed all the good in my life. Over the years, our family has found the support of other families like our own. Through the relationships we’ve built we have learned a few things about embracing the reality of parenting a child who cannot live at home.

  1. Reset your expectations: When we dream of becoming parents we usually don’t dream of the hard stuff. I was the number one culprit of starry eyed dreaming. Before my children came home, I imagined all the wonderful things my life would be. I was certain that we would read stories each night before bed. We would always pray at the dinner table and I would serve healthy meals that they would happily receive. I dreamed of playing baseball, walking our dog and going on nature walks. I envisioned celebrating holidays and birthdays as one happy family. I pictured dressing up for family photos and creating handmade Christmas cards to send to my college roommates, featuring our perfect family.I did not picture psychiatric hospitals, therapists, probation, IEP meetings or Department of Child Services. I didn’t imagine that police would ever enter my home for any other reason than to join us for a neighborhood barbeque. The reality of raising children is a lot messier than the fantasy. When we reset our expectations we can allow ourselves to accept that our children are flawed. When we reset our expectations we can admit that we are flawed too. Our new expectations allow us to truly live in a way that is not hindered by regrets. When we leave behind our fantasy and embrace the authenticity of our real life we can love our children more completely right where they are.
  2. Grieve: I used to worry that if I allowed myself to feel deep sorrow that I would detract from the equally great love I also feel for my children. I have discovered that both emotions must live side by side. If I do not acknowledge the sadness that lives in my heart, it festers and eventually crowds the other emotions. It’s ok to cry over the loss of what we hoped for. It is ok to miss, worry about or even fear for our children. These emotions are all a part of the love we feel. It is ok to cry over imperfect holidays or missed birthdays or upturned plates of food or yet another hospital stay. The grief must come out of us in order to make way for peace. Take private time alone or with a good friend to cry, scream, yell, pound your fists and lament over the reality.
  3. Choose Joy: This may take a little work. Start small. If you have a phone call, make the most of it. Tell your child you love them and believe in them. Concentrate on the sound of their voice and try to find at least one way to connect. If you are allowed to visit, listen to the sound of your child’s voice, watch them as they talk or smile, etch it into your memory. Feel the sadness of a visit that isn’t going well but also allow yourself to feel the joy of a moment of connectedness with your child. Even the small, short-lived moments can be tucked away in your heart. Be thankful that your child and your family are safe for this day, for this moment. Choose gratitude for even the tiniest connections and out of this thankfulness will come moments of joy.

Living away from our son has been one of the hardest parts of parenting but it is the reality we live in right now. Accepting our new reality, grieving our losses and choosing joy have helped us to come to terms with this stage of life.

Question: Are you parenting a child who doesn’t live at home currently? Share your story with us in the comment section below. You can leave a comment by clicking here.

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  • Tina Brausch

    Not sure if this is a current situation for you or a past blog post but thank you for sharing. It was one year ago today that our daughter was spending the night in the Children’s hospital extended psych facility. The pain was unbearable leaving her there as she smiled and waved bye because they offered her ice cream… I was crying and she was just happy to get ice cream!?! I’m not even sure which hurt the most, having to leave her there knowing she hated her life enough to want to kill herself or the fact that she didn’t seem to love us enough to be upset by us actually LEAVING her there. The struggle of RAD was very real in that moment.
    Thanks again for your honest “confessions” of the reality of YOUR normal that I’m beginning to realize is also mine.

    • Kristin Berry

      We’ve been there. RAD is so hard! I’m thankful to know others are going through this too.

    • Missy

      These are the exact feelings we felt the first time we left one of ours at the inpatient facility. The feelings we had were almost unbearable and he was practically skipping away. We thought maybe we had lost our minds…made a mistake. We had to literally talk out loud the events leading up to that stay and remind ourselves it was all part of the disease.

      • Tina Brausch

        Exactly. She was with us for a year in foster care when CS decided they needed to break the bond because they going for one last attempt to reunify with a Grandmother so they placed her in a residential treatment facility. She was 6… She was there almost 6 months and they decided reunification wasn’t an option so they had the gall to call and literally asked us if we wanted her! I said when do we get my baby back?! We believe that stint was the straw that broke the camel’s back in what could have been a healthy attachment to us. In not only broke the bond but pushed her over the RAD edge…. Believe me though for as happy as we were to finally have her back, in the 5 years since, there have been MANY times we have thought ‘What in the world were we thinking?!’.

  • Margaret Milkas

    Beginning about three years ago our adopted son began with several trips to acute treatment this meant 5-7 days away from home to get stable and work out medication. Then it became a month in youth detention, he went straight to residential treatment for three months from detention. He came home for a time. Then violated his probation and went to detention for 8 months. He has been home since July. It has been very hard. Not sure how will do from here.

    • Kristin Berry

      I’m sorry to hear you are going through this too. Hang in there.

  • Jeanette Bousman

    This is very raw with me right now. Our 16-yo adopted son is now in a residential treatment facility through probation. He also has fetal alcohol syndrome which means most of the treatments the facility knows do not work well for him. Every time we visit or have family therapy, all we hear are the negatives — he’s aggressive, his anger ramps really quickly, he doesn’t relate to his peers, blah, blah & blah. They are right–all of those things do happen with him! But, they cannot change those things in him with the behavior modifications that work with other kids. We know; we tried! Every visit and phone call we feel more and more defeated. It is a very lonely place to be.

    • Kristin Berry

      This is exactly where we are right now with our son. Thank you for sharing.

      • Bob Gustafson

        Kristin, Mike,
        Our 16-year old (FAS) will be ordered to go into residential by the court next week. How he will respond is a wild card. It will be a one week after that until space opens at the residential facility and placement occurs. There is an option on the table to use detention for the interim week to keep us safe, him safe, and minimize flight risk. Do either of you have thoughts or experience using detention as a holding tank prior to residential? Is the trauma of detention greater for a child than the emotional trauma of having the youth-transport service arrive in the night at home and separate him from us? A week in detention could make residential seem like an upgrade, but seems like it could add unnecessary emotional scars.

  • sheluvskids

    Both of our kids are in placement. This month marks 1 year with them both gone. We have no idea if either of them will ever be able to come home to live again.
    There comes a point though where you just can’t live with the violence anymore.
    Now we pray for good phone calls and visits.
    Something that people often don’t understand is that, despite all the violence, we love our kids. They will always be ours no matter where they live.

    • Kristin Berry

      Oh goodness. This is so hard with even one! Hang in there.

  • Becky McLaughlin

    We are marking our tenth year of residential or group home placements for our daughter. We see her every week, and talk daily on the phone. It has been interesting being on both sides of the equation, and neither is easy. So few people understand. I recommend reading Chasing Lilly.

    • sheluvskids

      We are on year 7 with our son, and our daughter has been gone a year.
      Everyone seems to think we should stop being their parents, but you can’t just stop.
      I will find the book. Thanks

    • Kristin Berry

      Thank you for the recommendation and for your encouragement of us and others here.

  • 2mommas

    It’s been 3mos since our 11yo daughter has lived at home. Acute stay-home for 3hrs- then back to ER. DCS involved for placement at a youth facility same night, supervised visits, court, then to a PRTF 4hrs away, and currently on day 17 of an acute stay on an adol psych ward in a private hosp down there. She’ll go back to the PRTF if they can get her stabilized. We’ve seen her x1 in the last month. We’ve had numerous 5min phone calls. We are relieved to have her elsewhere getting help we can no longer provide.
    We are almost certain she’ll never live at home again.

    • Kristin Berry

      I am so sorry to hear you are going through this too! This is the toughest thing we’ve been through as a family.

  • Sharon Blome Twenter

    Thank you for the uplifting words. Our 16 year old adopted son has been in residential care for 75 days. We see him each weekend and we talk on the phone a couple times a week. I really like number 3 and will be striving to do just that.

    • Kristin Berry

      You are so welcome! It really is so hard to be separate from our children.

  • Allisonm

    Several aspects of your story are familiar to me. We were older than typical, not parents before we adopted our three school-aged children, and our children had had numerous previous placements and suffered with RAD, PTSD, ADHD, in-utero substance exposure, sensory deficits and several related challenges. We used to see the behavior you described and much more, routinely. You are right. It will be hard to learn how to parent the children you have effectively. But it can be done. I have had to change so much about myself that I feel almost unrecognizable compared to my pre-mom self. It’s been very, very challenging, but absolutely worth everything it’s taken. As I learned the skills I had not been taught as I grew up and practiced them diligently, they became a part of me. As my perception of our children and our situation lined up better with our reality, my ability to be creative and proactive on behalf of our family’s healing and thriving expanded rapidly. I had to learn to think about my children in a completely different and more helpful language. It was a transforming experience for me and for our family. It didn’t happen overnight. AND I still don’t get it right all the time–just a whole lot more often.

    You are at a point of great opportunity. Please be encouraged for yourself and your family. It is never too late to change. It sounds like you have a lot of insight into yourself and your contributions to the situation your family now faces. If you are indeed prepared to make significant changes in your lifestyle and the way you think about and approach your children’s and your family’s challenges, you can make things better. You can become the mother your children need and the mother you will feel proud to be.

    • Connie

      Allison, thank you, thank you, thank you! There is hope.

      • Allisonm

        Yes, there is hope. Lots of it. Don’t let the downturns in the road discourage you. You will continue to make mistakes, but as you learn different things from them based on new perspectives, new information, and new experiences, you will parlay those mistakes into a better future for your family.

      • Kristin Berry

        You are welcome. I’m so grateful to be a part of this community.

    • Kristin Berry

      I 2nd everything you are saying. Thank you for always being willing to share your invite with us and others!

  • Kristin Berry

    Thank you for your honesty in sharing a part of your story with us. You are not alone in this!

  • 2mommas

    I am not going to reassure you you’ve done all you can. You went against professional advice time and time again because it suited YOU to do it differently. Foster-to-adopt is RARELY successful with traditional parenting. That’s why you have to go to all the classes beforehand and learn all about trauma and how it can change the brain, etc. Shame on your agency if they spoke nothing of it.
    That being said… LEARN FROM ALL OF THIS!!! Be realistic about what YOU as the SAHM and your husband can provide. That boy may be better off staying in the therapuetic placement while you 2 focus on healing yourselves and the other 2 kiddos. It’s hard.
    Time to take serious responsibility for yourself and your denial. You will not have a “normal” family. He will not have a “normal” childhood. You did not “save” these kids.
    Please get THERAPY FOR YOURSELF regarding the grief you are experiencing and the cyclic grief you will experience as more and more things become evident WONT HAPPEN in this unrealistic view you have of your family.
    Out of love and compassion and DEEP understanding I can say all of this.
    You ARE RIGHT!!!! You and hubby need to change to help those kids.
    Think BRAIN FIRST… their BRAINS aren’t allowing them to do what they are supposed to not that they WONT do it… and see what changes. Accommodate the environment. (You KNOW you have too many toys then sell them and put the money toward therapeutic gross motor activity support (tramps, swings, hammocks, climbing stuff etc)).

  • momoffive

    I just discovered this site and I’m so thankful for it! We have 3 bio sons and 2 adopted daughters. Our oldest daughter was just diagnosed with partial FAS. The diagnosis was overwhelming, but validating at the same time. It made sense of all the struggles we’ve had with her since the moment she was placed with us at age 2. She is 8 yrs old, emotionally 4 yrs old, but in the body of a 12 yr old. She has always had a temper but over the years it has gotten worse and worse despite all our efforts to parent “therapeutically” and find the right therapies. A few months ago we were advised by her psychologist and psychiatrist to put a plan in place just in case she needed to be placed in a residential treatment facility for her safety and ours. This was a shock! We were able to get through the roughest part of the terrible phase she went through, with the help of medication and therapy. We drastically changed our lifestyle to accommodate her needs. Learning about FAS has helped us to create the structure she so desperately needed. We are still tweaking our daily routine to illuminate as much stress as possible. She still has meltdowns quite frequently, but they are not as severe as before. We are struggling with feeling like we have been held hostage by our daughters needs. We have always been very social people, along with our other children, but we have had to cut back on almost all socializing. We’ve even cut back on how much our daughter is at church. Divide and conquer as been our method so that the rest of our family doesn’t have to miss out on everything. We have come a long way since first being told about the possibility of a residential treatment facility. I feel like it is inevitable and see that it may be the best thing for her, if things get out of hand again. My husband is still hopeful that we can avoid it. Our youngest son truly fears that his little sister will kill him. She has told all of us that she wants to kill us, numerous times. She always apologizes and seems to feel true remorse after all of her meltdowns. I have mostly heard of kids ages 12 and up needing to be placed in a treatment facility. I would love to hear from someone who has had to face this at such a young age. Also, I’d like to hear from someone who has found a facility that meets the specific needs of kids with FAS. We live in Texas