I suspect this blog is going to be hard to write without coming across badly. I know what I want to say, but it will require an honesty most people may not be comfortable with. You see, when you discover you have a child with SEMH (social, emotional or mental health) needs, you enter this weird dark underworld where reality shifts a little, standards become idiosyncratic and parenting as you thought it might be is turned on its head. You don’t just have a child with some needs; you become a family with needs. Each one of you now has SEMH needs to think about, contend with, manage. You might not have them inside of yourself and I’m not for one minute saying that those of you around the person with the needs suffer as they do, but you do all now experience life with SEMH needs in your pocket.
Some things go without saying (but I shall say them, for clarity): everyone loves the person with SEMH needs. They remain your child, brother or sister, grand-child, niece or nephew and you love them as such. They remain a fun, kind, clever, gorgeous human. Their SEMH needs do not define them and will always be a larger, heavier, more cumbersome sack for them to drag around than for any of you.
Nonetheless, those SEMH needs irrevocably affect all of your lives to one degree or another. This is the bit that people doubtless find hard to talk about because they fear the judgement of those who haven’t walked such a path. They fear them suggesting that the facts in the above paragraph can’t be true if you’re saying what you’re saying, or are directly disproven by your honesty. That if you say that living with a child with SEMH needs is hard work, you are making it about you, when it clearly should be about them. That if you say you are, at times, embarrassed by their behaviour, you are evidently a disloyal parent.
Why? Why isn’t ok to be honest about these things if they are true? Clearly nobody wants to disparage their child and writing or saying disrespectful things about them is never ok. But what about the need for better understanding of such children and such families? How can we expect the public or teachers or other parents to be more understanding if we don’t try to explain to them what this weird underworld we inhabit is like?
Recently, I’ve felt a few things that I suspect many parents of children with SEMH needs feel, but aren’t comfortable being honest about. I’ve felt as though I were being forced deeper into the underworld by these issues; even keener to hide. But my child with SEMH needs is just as entitled to his life experience as anyone else. I am just as entitled to my parenting experience as anyone else. BB is just as entitled to his own particular feelings about being a sibling as any other sibling. Our experience is different. It sets us apart. It complicates things. But it shouldn’t make us lesser. We shouldn’t have to cower in the underworld.
So, you know me, here comes some honesty.
One thing that people don’t talk about is that having a child with SEMH needs make you all individually and collectively more visible. If you’re all together, the noise and behaviour itself tend to draw attention. Everyone always knows you are there. You never melt into the background or pass through an event or situation unnoticed. You are certainly noticed and not necessarily in a good way.
It can be hard not to imagine that everyone in the vicinity is looking at you, observing you, scrutinising how you handle the behaviour. It is easy to feel judged. I know that all parenting involves an element of this but SEMH parenting is by definition more visible. SEMH parenting means that it’s your child drawing more attention than everyone else’s. It is your child breaking the rule, having the tantrum, shouting, throwing something.
It is quite a skill to remain calm in such circumstances and to actively filter out those around you. It takes balls to think that you do not care for their judgement, stares, tutting; that you care only for your child and their needs and you will proceed with supporting them in the way you know works best, despite that most likely being at odds with the ideas of the multiple eyes observing you. The act of forging forwards as you know best in such circumstances is far harder than it sounds. It can require a strength you don’t have and a don’t-give-a-fig-ness not naturally associated with your personality.
It is hard, while we’re at this honesty game, not to sometimes feel embarrassed. We’re British. It’s in our nature to stay calm, maintain a stiff upper lip, act politely and with reserve. Children with SEMH needs don’t tend to have got this memo. SEMH needs don’t discriminate for different audiences – they are what they are, wherever you are. Your child’s behaviour can all too often be completely at odds with the unspoken set of behaviours expected by all, but also by you, in a particular situation. There are times, frankly, when their behaviour is mortifying and you wish you had an invisibility cloak or teleportation device. It is incredibly difficult to parent in the best possible way for your child in these situations, because that way is probably not immediately compatible with the unwritten rules either and consequently you find yourself hissing ‘stop it or else’ type threats at them in a poorly disguised whisper. This isn’t useful, and you know it, but your face is glowing like you’ve overdone a sun bed and sweat is collecting in cold puddles in your arm pits.
Being in public, with your child with SEMH needs can be exquisitely uncomfortable. (And by saying this, no, it doesn’t mean that I’m not also extremely proud of him every single day.)
But at least in public you have relative anonymity – a fact you can cling to, when things go south. Not so, within school. SEMH needs make your child far more visible than other children. When your child is the one who gets sent to work in other classes, or has their card changed to red again or their face moved onto the sad cloud, or the one who gets suspended, or sent to the Head, or put on a behaviour chart, or taken out of class to work, or has their desk in a corridor, or gets into fights, or heckles the Head in assembly, or tries to escape, or stands in the urinal, or throws something, or hides under the teacher’s desk, or swears in class, everyone knows who they are. Everyone. When this is your child, you can easily guess that households around the vicinity hold teatime discussions about what your child has been up to now. They gain a certain infamy.
I guess everyone handles this differently, but I handle it by trying my best to remain invisible myself. I don’t talk to other parents, I don’t go to parties. I keep away from situations that will further alert me to his infamy. I suppose I do my best to pretend it is happening – what I don’t know can’t hurt me. It helps me to focus on my child, and what he needs and not to care what anyone else thinks, whether indeed they think anything. It’s like I go around with a protective shroud between me and the rest of the parents and as long as I don’t interact with anybody, the shroud does its thing.
Then, a situation or conversation will arise, as one did recently, that will remind me that I am not paranoid, people really are discussing him at their dinner tables. It’s a very weird feeling, knowing this is the case. It’s a mixture of defensiveness (back off, you don’t know him, you don’t understand him), acute discomfort and a realisation that when you walk across the playground being purposefully aloof, that people know exactly who you are and what your child has been up to. It makes you infamous by association. I don’t want to be infamous, or even famous; I want to be invisible, but SEMH needs have eradicated even the possibility of that. It is not a great leap to imagine that we, the parents of the infamous one, are also subject to dinner time debate. Perhaps they thrash out the myriad ways we’ve clearly failed him, for him to be behaving this way.
I think most parents questions themselves frequently and wonder if they’re doing a good enough job. But when your child is swinging from the lampshades and ignoring every request you make, it is far too easy to descend into self-doubt, especially if your patience starts to fray and you find yourself losing your temper. I find it is shockingly easy to make the leap from thinking I know what I’m doing to berating myself for my evident parenting failures, along with the rest of society. It is far easier to imagine we’re parenting well when our children are behaving well. And instead of explaining the transgressions with their actual cause – the SEMH needs – we are more likely, as parents, to think we should have been more therapeutic or calmer or somehow better at this parenting lark.
This is partly why I think we ought to be honest about the realities of SEMH parenting. It’s really bloody hard. It’s hard on a cellular level and many of us expect superhuman levels of self-control and parenting wizardry from ourselves on a daily basis when actually, it’s pretty unobtainable, for the key reason that caring for a child with SEMH needs is a big, difficult, complex task. A task which I think should be better understood and supported by society as a whole.
Perhaps if discussions around dinner tables focussed on what our child’s behaviour might mean about the life challenges they’ve had or what they need their friends to do differently to support them, attitudes might be different. Perhaps if people didn’t approach SEMH presentations with an urge to blame, us parents may not feel so isolated. Perhaps if onlookers were telepathising supportive vibes instead of judgement, we might not be so stressed in public places. I think it’s fair enough that the general public don’t really understand what it’s like or why our children behave as they do, because there aren’t many means of becoming informed, unless they have personal experience of SEMH issues. So, to some extent, it is incumbent upon those of us living it to share those experiences and help people to become better informed. Hence, you know, this blog.
I also want to talk about the fact that it is not just parents of children with SEMH needs who feel scrutinised, but siblings too. If you happen to attend the same school as your brother or sister who has gained infamy through their SEMH based behaviours; you are also infamous by association. No doubt you get kids coming to you in the playground, informing you of what your sibling has done now. Perhaps sometimes they are unkind or judgemental or ill-informed. Perhaps they laugh. Perhaps they find it a sport. Perhaps you witness others handling your sibling and their behaviour in ways you don’t think are fair or appropriate or commensurate with what happened. You don’t want to be associated negatively with their high jinks and rule-breaking – you don’t want people to think you are like that too – but you love them, and you can’t stand to see them mistreated either. You are willing to compromise your own reputation to defend them, if necessary. You love them but they embarrass you and draw unwanted attention to you and sometimes, you wish they didn’t and you like them a little less but you feel guilty for it, because they’re still your sibling and they can’t help it and you know that really. Your feelings towards them can be very complicated and overwhelming.
I think being an SEMH family can be a lot for siblings. It requires an emotional maturity beyond their years. Those skills we struggle with as adults – of trying to be Teflon-coated to repel the judgement of others – are challenging and often unachievable for us, despite years of practise. Siblings of children with SEMH needs have to employ those same skills in childhood. It’s an ask which I suspect is routinely underestimated.
As parents, this is another element we have to be aware of – are the siblings of our child with SEMH needs ok? Are we appropriately supporting them to wander around with SEMH needs also weighing in their pocket?
To conclude, life as an SEMH needs family has all these extra layers to it, over and above supporting the child who has SEMH needs, as though those needs radiate out from the child, creating ripples far beyond them. There is a visibility to it which has us trying to hide in the shadows. It can lead to uncomfortable and unwanted feelings such as embarrassment, misplaced anger, guilt. It can be isolating and vulnerable. It makes you grow a thicker skin, bundle yourself in a protective shroud, but beneath that, you can’t help but be wounded by the judgement, blame and insensitivity of others.
I don’t want to end on a negative, because being an SEMH needs family is not all doom and gloom. I want all the above to be better understood, but I also want people to know that our family is pretty cool. Yes, we’re different, we’re loud, we struggle with rules, we can be a little shocking to behold but we have a lot of fun. We all work incredibly hard to overcome the challenges we’ve been dealt. We are grafters, survivors, persevere-ers, overcome-ers. We are out and about doing things despite the SEMH needs. Wouldn’t it be amazing if that were cause for celebration? If we could all focus on what our son can do and all the brilliant things he achieves, instead of feeling we have to apologise for his challenges.