David Altshuler, M.S.
(305) 978-8917 | [email protected]

Choose Your Story, Part One: Mr and Mrs Andirez and their son, Ricky

The Andirez family came to see me, concerned about their 15 year-old son, Ricky. Did he need a placement in wilderness therapy for his drinking and substance abuse? Did he need a therapeutic boarding school to address his anger management issues and oppositional behavior?

“He refuses to do homework,” Mrs. Andirez began. “Sometimes, he even refuses to get up in the morning and go to school. I’m worried that if he…”

“Only when he’s at your house,” Mr. Andirez interrupted.

“What? Only at my house? What are you saying?”

“I’m just saying that Ricky and I never have that problem when he’s at my house. He only acts out when he’s with you.”

“Oh, right. Like you’re such a perfect parent, like there’s never any trouble at your house. The problem is that you never set limits. You let him get away with everything.”

“Is that right? It was at my house that he first started smoking pot and hanging out with those low lifes?”

Ricky looked up from under his red, yellow and green knitted cap for the first time and entered the conversation. “My friends aren’t low lifes, you stupid witch,” he began. “And I’ve told you. I’ve only smoked pot a few times.”

Considering Ricky’s torn black tee-shirt and his blood shot eyes, I figured that he might have smoked pot “only a few times” that day. But I let the family continue with its narrative.

“You’re so strict,” Mr. Andirez continued. “No wonder he doesn’t do every little thing you tell him.”

“Maybe if you weren’t six months behind with your child support, I could afford to be a little less…”

Ricky interrupted. “Shut the heck up, you stupid witch. This is all your fault. I hope you die.”

Mrs. Andirez looked at her ex-husband. “Are you going to let him talk to me that way?”

Mr. Andirez said nothing. I wasn’t sure, but I thought I might have seen the hint of a smile on his face.

How should a good counselor help these people? How could I start to take away their pain? Clearly, Ricky was triangulating his parents. Clearly, he had a Master’s in Manipulation and a PhD in Deception. He had been playing, “Dad says I have to brush my teeth, so I’ll go live with Mom; Mom says I have to do my homework, so I’ll go live with Dad” for a long time. Mr. and Mrs. Andirez were so invested in blaming each other that they couldn’t see how sad Ricky was. I let them yell at each other for another half hour–the words were different, but the meaning was unchanged–then asked them if I could make a few remarks.

“Imagine the three of you are all in a boat together,” I began. “And there’s a hole in the boat. Is there any point in arguing whose side of the boat the hole is in? Wouldn’t you agree that it doesn’t matter where the hole is, that you’ll all drowned if you don’t work together to repair the hole?

For the first time that day, the Andirez family could agree on something: They agreed that I was an idiot.

“Why are we here?” Ricky said. “This is stupid.”

“You shouldn’t let him talk like that,” Mrs. Andirez said to her husband.

I excused Ricky to wait in the outer office while I talked privately to his parents. I wanted to help Mr. and Mrs. Andirez get past the “blame game” so that they could see Ricky for who he was–a kid in need of help–rather than as the product of the failings of their ex-spouse. In order to get them back on the same team, I thought I would remind them of how in love they were back when they first met. Since they had been fighting for 13 years and divorced for 11, I figured enough time had gone by and that they might be able to remember their dreams for their lives together.

I addressed Mr. Andirez first: “Remember when you first met your ex-wife? Remember how you thought she was the most wonderful person in the world and how you wanted to spend your life with her? Remember how all you wanted to do was stay up all night and listen to her play the violin, talk to her, cuddle with her?” Mr. Andirez was silent. And then pressed a tisuue to his eye.

I went on. “And you, Mrs. Andirez. Remember when you first met your ex-husband, how you thought he was the greatest guy ever? The most creative, the most charming, the most entertaining? Remember how you planned to be together forever, to be a team of two against the world, to make a family and live happily ever after?”

For the first time that day, Mrs. Andirez was introspective.

“In order to help Ricky, you’re going to have to put your differences behind you. You’re going to have to look past the disappointments and hurts; you’re going to have to get past the slights real and imagined; you’re going to have to stand together shoulder to shoulder. Otherwise, Ricky will make so much “noise”–it’s all your fault–that the important signal–he’s damaging himself and his future with his poor choices–will be lost.”

I felt I was getting through to them, that they could understand that they would have to agree on treatment and work together to help Ricky get back on the right path. I thought about reminding them of Benjamin Franklin’s “We must all hang together or assuredly, we will all hang separately.” Instead, I said, “Now. I want you to work together to help Ricky. No more arguing in front of him. No more unkind words about the other one when he’s around. Even when you think your ex has said something stupid, I want you to…”

Mrs. Andirez interrupted. “But he does say stupid things. Just the other day, he said…”

And she was off to the races again, elucidating chapter and verse all the bad parenting decisions that Mr. Andirez had made, all the promises that he had broken, all the disappointments that she had experienced.

I realized that I wasn’t going to be able to help Ricky’s parents help Ricky, that he would be able to play one parent against the other. I realized that by the time we got around to talking about Ricky’s issues–school refusal, substance abuse, oppositionality–that Rickey would be eligible for social security. So I let the family go home and went to look around my office to see if there was a large spear that I could put through my head.

What would have been the better approach? How could I have been of better help to these people? How could I have been of help to Ricky?

I await–eagerly–your comments.




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