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Valerie Johnston

Valerie Johnston is the mother of two children. Her oldest son has ADHD, Dyslexia and has struggled with mental illness. During high school, he attended a treatment center. Valerie discusses the impact of her son's challenges on her younger son, which siblings may relate to. Valerie also shares how she and her husband effectively supported their younger son.

Interview 6/5/23

Background: Our oldest son, Jet is 21 years old. We had another son who passed away when Jet was about three and a half years old. He died in the house from sudden infant death syndrome. It was very traumatic. And then we had our youngest son Kayden who is now 16. Kayden was born very prematurely and was in the hospital for a very long time. So it was a traumatic couple of years. We've always known that Jet had challenges because he was always hyperactive, and he would get in trouble in school. Jet would get very overwhelmed and overstimulated and really had trouble with his behavior. We noticed it when we were ever since he was born. When Joe was nine years old, he was diagnosed with ADHD and high anxiety, and we started seeing a therapist and medication. And with help from the therapist, he did fairly well all through middle school. But when he went to High School it was just overwhelming. It's a very large school and he didn't have that same intimacy. And his behavior problems really started to unravel. He was having so much social anxiety, he was starting to be almost a hermit, he wasn't leaving the house. He'd always done exceptionally well in school, he had strong grades. But his freshman year he just unraveled and his grades were just very difficult for him to manage. He seemed to be able to cope less and less with life. And we were sort of getting to be a wit's end, there was lots of fighting in the house, horrible screaming matches, and things being thrown at us. There was a consistent emotional explosion. You felt like you were walking on eggshells because you didn't know what was going to happen next. And finally, we went away for that Christmas and when we returned halfway through ninth grade, he just unraveled. Jet went from having a pretty decent AB average to failing all of his classes. We were recommended to speak to an educational advisor who spoke to his therapist and the school, and they agreed that he needed to go to either a therapeutic high school or a residential treatment center. And it was recommended that he goes to the wilderness. Remember, he was 15 so he was of an age where that would be reasonable. Our fear for him was self-harm. He was in Utah for 12 weeks before he was discharged. And we found the right therapeutic High School residential treatment center near Salt Lake City. And he really turned it around. He finished ninth grade, he completed 10th of all there, and he graduated from there. And we decided that bringing him back here wasn't a great option. He applied to college and ended up going to the University of Denver where he’s studying psychology. So he’s really a success story, but that didn’t come without great challenges witnessed by himself and by his family.


Could you please tell me about Jet and Cayden’s relationship and how it's evolved?


Yeah, they have five year age difference, which is a pretty big gap. So when Jet was really unraveling, he was 15 and Cayden was 10. We had years of battles and fights and it wasn't like it just happened that year. So I think Caden got used to having a very reactive and unpredictable brother. And so he tends to be a bit more quiet and he’s a pretty good student. And when he was little Jet would be all over the place. I have my own office with a TV and Cayden would go to have dinner with us and then come up and be in this office by himself watching TV. He removed himself from the forum and all the drama in the house because there was a lot of drama, a lot of emotions, and a lot of screaming. And I found that for a long time, he just sort of went into his own shell. He's always been a very different child, he was always easier. He's very grounded. He doesn't suffer from the same challenges of ADHD or ADD or anxiety there's brother does. So I think from his experience, Jet was just this whirlwind of a human being that kind of consumed our family. And I don't know if my husband and I were even conscious of the impact on Cayden because he just seemed to be very even keen and quiet until we said Jet away. I remember consciously recognizing that he stopped going into my office and instead would be downstairs every night watching TV or playing a game with my husband and I. And that had not been true for most of his life, he had always removed himself. I think Cayden didn't quite know how to react to Jet and his emotional reactions that were all over the place. Jet would be loving and wonderful one moment and then screaming the next. So I think for Cayden, he was protective of himself.  I would say the relationship has really changed. Cayden participated in the therapy when Jeff was in the residential treatment center. It also made me very conscious of educating Cayden about what was going on and not sheltering him so much from it. We made sure that he understood what was happening through discussions with him. Now Kayden is 16 and Jet is 21 so I think their relationship is really now coming into its own and they have more in common now. But I'm very thankful that we sent Jet away because I think it would have had a longer negative impact on Cayden. I think having all that drama at the house for a kid who really was looking for a much more normal balanced and calm household was damaging. I think it really was as important for Jet to go as it was for Cayden to have him go. 


Have you noticed any long-term strengths or traits that Caden has gained as a result of these experiences? 


I think he's much more attuned to that stuff. I think when you don't have a sibling who's gone through some of this really tough emotional stuff, you can be oblivious. So Cayden tends to be a lot more empathetic and sympathetic. He's very aware that not everyone's family goes through what he went through. I think he has a real empathy for understanding others. He's very accepting of others. He's not one of those kids to quickly judge someone. You know, high school can be brutal, you're not tall enough or thin enough or fat enough, or smart enough. And Cayden doesn't tend to have a lot of biases against people, he tends to be much more accepting of them, having seen Jet’s transformation. I do think that he is more cautious when making friends. Honestly, my view of him is that he’s careful. There is a bit of shame and embarrassment about not having this picture-perfect family.  So I think for a while there, he was cautious about who his friends were and about how much he shared with them. But I think that now, especially with his brother doing so well I think all that's really behind us. I used to say jet took all the air out of the room, there was no room for Cayden. 


Are there any other specific things that you did to support Cayden and feel were effective?


I think making sure that I didn’t lose track of him. It's easy when you have a kid who’s struggling to minimize the other kid's needs and wants. So it was really important that we didn't let Jet consume us. We tried to balance the time we spent with the kids and made sure that they both felt loved, focused on, and cared about. But I’ll be honest, it was hard when things were really bad to be focused on Cayden because he was a very easy kid. He would go into his room and would read a book and play with a toy. And we would be dealing with all this craziness with our other kid and it was easy to forget. So I think that the critical thing that we had to do was make sure he had one on one time with each of us. We would compensate for those times that things were really bad at home, making sure that he had someplace to talk and have a voice because it's easy to disappear. When you have someone who's taking up everyone's attention. He still tends to be much quieter than his brother. He's not very outgoing, very engaging. He is still to this day a little bit more on the quiet side, a little bit more introspective. I don't know if he would have been like that, regardless of Jet. I really don't know. But I'm aware that he doesn't come out the gate the way his brother does. 

When I realized Kyden was coming up to the office a lot to be out of the family fray, I was feeling bad, like I should try to get him to come downstairs. And the therapist said to me, no, he needs to have a safe space. And he was completely happy. And so creating a safe space for your child, making sure they have one on one time with you. It's not all about the child who requires more attention than you need to understand what they want to do or what they need. Their concerns and issues are just as important as their brothers or sisters. It’s hard when you have someone who's really struggling and having all these problems, it's sometimes hard to feel balanced. 

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