Control

I have to admit that I have been dithering this morning. I knew I needed to blog but it’s dark, rain is pounding the window as though the world is weeping and I feel like getting wrapped in a blanket and hibernating. Part of the problem is that I haven’t been particularly kind to myself with my choice of topic this week. I have decided to write about control and controlling behaviour but it’s quite meaty and I’ve needed to hit the books first. It is always easier to write the kind of post that just flows out of my head but sometimes a topic comes to mind because I don’t understand it enough and because I need to use the blog as an opportunity to learn a bit more. So, mind over matter, here I am, semi-researched and ready to type.

Controlling behaviour is certainly apparent in our house and it always has been, ever since Little Bear arrived. Admittedly, it isn’t as present as it used to be but there are certainly times when it is and it can be pretty tricky to manage. Initially, Little Bear sought control in every interaction. If we said ‘do this’ he said, ‘no’. If we said, ‘don’t do that’, he would say, “I certainly will.” He went further than that. If somebody sat somewhere he didn’t like, he would threaten them until they moved. If we gave him food, he wouldn’t eat it. If we didn’t want him to eat something, he’d eat it. His need for control made him contrary and oppositional in pretty much every interaction.

It can be extremely difficult, when faced with this type of behaviour, not to go head to head with it; not to threaten and shout and vie to be in control yourself. As a parent of a non-traumatised child, we were used to being in charge; to him pretty much always doing what we asked of him so this new world where a three year was attempting to rule the roost was shocking to say the least.

In order to properly explain why he was behaving like this, I’ve done a bit of reading. Bruce Perry (my favourite guru), says, “Because youth who have been through trauma often come from homes in which chaos and unpredictability appear ‘normal’ to them, they may respond with fear to what is actually a calm and safe situation. Attempting to take control of what they believe is the inevitable return of chaos, they appear to “provoke” it in order to make things feel more comfortable and predictable”. This rings true. From what we know of Little Bear’s birth family, life was chaotic. There was little or perhaps sporadic adult supervision. There were older siblings who may or may not have tried to exercise control over the younger ones but in general I suspect everyone ran wild and free. Unfortunately, this pattern continued in foster care, where Little Bear also received little supervision and seemed to spend his days entertaining himself in dangerous and risky ways.

This isn’t okay. However, for Little Bear, it was all he had known. To him, chaos and lack of supervision was normal. When he arrived here, to an environment of constant supervision (we literally didn’t take our eyes off him for the first months because we didn’t know what he might do) things must have seemed totally upside down. I suppose it might have felt smothering and claustrophobic. To him, this was chaos. This was abnormal. It must have felt very unsafe, hence his need to regain control by refusing to comply etc.

This is where things get a little tricky. Obviously, I wouldn’t want my son to feel unsafe at home. However, it isn’t healthy to allow a three year to control everything. That could only lay down the foundations for far larger problems later. As scary as this was for him, Little Bear was going to have to get used to environments where adults are in charge and where demands are made of him because otherwise school and work were going to be impossible. Hopefully, over time, he would learn a new type of safety, where grown-ups, not children, are in charge.

It is hard to pick apart how we succeeded in that because we did a lot of things that tackled a lot of different issues. Sometimes we got it right and sometimes we got it wrong. Vera Fahlberg tells us about how it should work: “The supportive approach to control issues is twofold. First, the adult demonstrates to the child that the child does not lose when he complies with reasonable demands, but instead everyone wins. Second, the adult provides as many opportunities for the child to be autonomous as is appropriate, given the child’s age.”

I think we were lucky that Little Bear could tolerate praise and in fact lapped it up. It meant that we could praise good decision making and co-operation. We were careful to praise every single tiny step of positivity. We didn’t just assume that he should put his shoes on when we asked. If he did co-operate, we made a big fuss (in a good way). If he didn’t co-operate we got pretty practised at ignoring a lot of the less positive behaviour (throwing etc.) and waiting, silently, for him to co-operate. We would always praise the part where he did do what was asked and try not to comment too much on the more negative bits that had happened first. We tried not to feed the control monster.

I can’t, hand on heart, say that we handled all situations as well as this. There certainly were times we went head to head with him and we learned the hard way that it is ineffective, as I suspect most new parents of traumatised children do. I can’t, hand on heart, say that there aren’t still occasions when I just want him to ‘do what he’s bloody asked’ and handle it less than therapeutically. We are human.

A lot of this is about relationships. As time went on and we were still there and we said sorry when we were out of order and we repaired things when it had gone awry and we talked and we wondered, Little Bear’s need for control itself gradually subsided.

Interestingly, Vera (I hope she doesn’t mind first name terms) also says, “Parents who know they can take charge whenever the situation warrants are not threatened when their children make decisions that don’t work out well. If a parent doesn’t know how to take charge when a child is out of control, the young person senses this and becomes frightened.” She goes on, “If the parent continues to be unable or unwilling to control the child in such a situation, the child’s inappropriate behaviours usually escalate.”

From the first day I met Little Bear, as well as being shocked by his behaviour (not mentioned in any paperwork, anywhere), I knew I should never show his behaviour any fear. I had met many families of children with complex needs through my work and many times seen parents so frightened of their children’s behaviour that their lives were ruled by it and it paralysed them from making changes which might ultimately help. From the onset, we reminded ourselves that Little Bear was a small child and we didn’t need to fear him. It did help us to remain calm when he was losing control. There were many times I held him and said, “I’m not going to let you hurt me” when he was lashing out. We did take control when he was losing control. We removed items he was too overstimulated to use. We stayed with him no matter what he did.

Again, I can’t pretend we always handled these situations appropriately. Tiredness, illness, hormones all impact your ability to stay calm no matter what. I know that sometimes it did feel like a battle for control and that Little Bear was trying to push and push to get a reaction because he felt out of control and he needed to check whether we were reliably in charge or not. Dealing with control issues is certainly not easy. I like to think we got it right enough of the time to make a difference.

In general, these days, I’d say we walk a line between encouraging Little Bear to co-operate (with reasonable demands) and giving him the autonomy Vera talks about. Depending on what else is going on, we make adjustments to keep us on the line. For example, if Little Bear is finding life a bit tricky, we reduce the demands we make of him. We might feed him his tea or help him get dressed so that he can manage the rest of the demands of his day.

Giving him autonomy is tricky because he may still exploit it. If we say he is in charge of a task, he would then think he was in charge of that task forever. He might also think that ‘being in charge’ of something means he can speak to people involved in a very bossy way. It can be hard to give him manageable autonomy that doesn’t lead to a spiralling need for more control. It tends to help if we give autonomy with very clear parameters. As an aside, we have always felt it important to put him in challenging situations with a high likelihood of success e.g. helping Grizzly with a job involving power tools or going canoeing or helping with cooking. They are often situations he can’t believe he’s been let into and in which he rises to the challenge. Being able to succeed in these highly supported but risky activities has many benefits, one of which is feeding his need for control safely.

We have noticed that Little Bear’s control issues come to the fore when he is anxious, frequently in the car. He makes irrational demands such as ‘take over that car’ or ‘drive into that field’ or he tries to control the songs we have on or which windows are open. I increasingly wonder whether journeys scare him and throw him back to a place where chaos ruled. I suppose that as a child, being put into a car and taken somewhere is totally beyond your control, especially if that place is a contact centre or a new home. As I write this I think there is more we could do to calm him at these points (visuals of where we are going, though we always tell him verbally, perhaps a task to be in charge of) but I have to admit this is a time we are firmly in charge and don’t tolerate his spiralling demands.

Another big challenge has been getting school – a place that is institutionally controlling – to understand and manage Little Bear’s controlling behaviour appropriately. There have definitely been times when they haven’t listened and they have tried to use a very authoritarian approach which has backfired spectacularly. Earlier this term, I noticed that Little Bear’s behaviour was spiralling at home and school. He was less co-operative and getting him to comply with any requests was becoming a battle ground again. Sometimes, when you’ve had a good period, a period of relative compliance, a change can put you on the back foot and you forget for a while that you have much better strategies up your sleeve than the ones you are reflexively using. Guilty of slipping into traditional parenting ways, I tried to step back and think. Why was Little Bear seeking control left, right and centre again? There was only one logical explanation: he felt out of control somewhere in his life. Coupled with school refusal I could only assume that place was school.

I continued to speak with school but wondered whether there was anything that could be done at home to keep us on the line I talked about. Little Bear’s bedtime routine had become difficult again, with refusal to comply with each part of the now very familiar routine. To try to reduce the demands, I tried a visual timetable. I explained to him that as he finds us asking him to do things difficult, he could be in charge of the tick list and hence the whole of getting ready for bed. In theory, it would be possible for him to do all the stages without me making any verbal demands at all (i.e. autonomously). I should really have anticipated that his need for control is such that he would have to test the parameters of the new system, rather than just using it. So far, he has tried adding more boxes, demanding things that are not on the list, rubbing out all the ticks half way through, using crosses instead, refusing to give the list back and writing on himself with the felt pen. This is a good example of him seeing what the parameters are. Rather than ditching the timetable, I am trying to be very clear about what is and is not part of the timetable process. If he can’t manage to stick within it, I guess it will show me he isn’t ready for this level of autonomy. However, I think he is. The other night, he had a wee, washed his hands, brushed his teeth, put his night things on, added a box which was ‘put clothes in the washing basket’, actioned that box and got his reading book all without me speaking. I was there though – I don’t want him to think he gets less attention for being independent – and gave lots of praise at the end.

Similarly, in the mornings, I used to give out commands, one at a time, until the routine was done. It worked for a while but then we started falling at the final hurdle. We’d get to going out the door and Little Bear would refuse to put his shoes on. I’m not quite sure how it happened, but somehow Little Bear figured out (maybe with some help) that if he just did all the jobs that needed doing, one after the other, I wouldn’t need to ask him to do anything and he would get a longer period of uninterrupted I pad time (“the child does not lose when he complies with reasonable demands, instead everyone wins”). By some miracle he now does that and is fully ready, by 8:10am or so, teeth brushed, shoes on and can go on his iPad for 20 whole minutes without interruption.

At the moment, I make very few verbal demands of Little Bear at home but the expectations are the same. I’m still in charge but he has autonomy in how he meets the expectations. I suspect this could be the key to managing his need for control going forwards.

Right, sorry for that massive thought-vomit. Better out than in as they say. I’m off to ponder managing car journeys…

 

 

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Control

Football: A Yardstick for Progress?

Back in the summer of ’15 (no, I am not re-inventing a song) Little Bear had just arrived. It was both a blessing and a curse that this momentous event had taken place during the summer holidays. It was great because it answered the question of how we were going to possibly manage meeting our youngest son a couple of hundred miles away whilst also managing the needs of our elder school-age child.

However, once we were back, the days stretched out interminably ahead of us. Grizzly and I were both on leave and there was no school or pre-school to give some much-needed structure to our days. There was just us and a very unruly seeming energetic mass of a child who at the very minimum needed to be kept out of immediate danger all the livelong day. With the benefit of hindsight I can say that he was traumatised and emotionally at sea. At the time I don’t think we quite knew what had hit us and I’m pretty sure we had barely a second to think about it.

We discovered, within the first hour of his arrival, that being inside the house with Little Bear was kind of difficult. He could not be contained in one room and wandered, nay prowled about, seemingly looking for the most dangerous or unwanted (by adults) tasks to engage in. He was everywhere: up shelves, in cupboards, under furniture. Little Bear was not in any way tuned into language so didn’t respond to any verbal means of trying to shape his behaviour. We spent the first weeks trailing after him, like a Police dog trailing a criminal, trying to anticipate what he might do next, trying to keep up with him, trying to offer distraction. We had to physically remove him from dangerous situations, which triggered his fight response and we were often bitten, scratched, hit or kicked.

It quickly became apparent that we might fair slightly better outside. Wide open spaces were good because there weren’t many things you couldn’t touch and Little Bear could be freer. Obviously the not responding to language thing was tricky, especially when you wanted him to come back. There was many an occasion when Grizzly had to sprint after him but notwithstanding that, things were easier.

You cannot actually live your life in a field though so we did have to try to make do with our small-ish back garden some of the time.

Left to his own devices, Little Bear would have spent the whole day watering the garden with the hose until a flood came and we would have needed Noah on speed-dial. We did of course allow Little Bear some hose time but it was essential we introduced some parameters if we were ever going to gain a modicum of order. As an aside, on one occasion of supervised hosing, Little Bear accidentally caught the sunlight at just the perfect angle to create a rainbow. It was one of the first times he responded to my communication to “look” and together we shared the same reference point and together marvelled at the amazing rainbow. I remember feeling more happy than you might think about that because I had actually reached him. After that we often tried to make a rainbow collaboratively and he began to see the point of me in an interaction. He also learned the word “rainbow” which was a big deal in his otherwise depleted vocabulary.

While the rainbow moment was a mini-turning point, I still did not want a flooded garden and knew that Little Bear needed help to engage with other outdoor activities too. Big Bear was 6 at this point and had recently got very into football. He was keen to be outdoors and was never far from a ball. Little Bear was also interested in the ball and generally ran straight though the middle of a kick-about with the sole purpose of nicking said ball. This was incredibly annoying from Big Bear’s point of view.

We tried to explain that Little Bear was little and didn’t understand games yet or that there were rules and he was really just trying to play. Big Bear could entertain this type of reasoning and would try to follow Little Bear’s lead. Little Bear would pick up the ball and run off, saying ‘catch me’ and looking for you to chase him. Big Bear or one of us would oblige. As he was shouting ‘catch me, catch me’ that’s what we tried to do. Only, when we did catch him, all hell would break loose. I guess because when the catching actually happened he decided he didn’t want it after all. I suppose being grabbed by people you aren’t sure if you trust yet is pretty frightening.

Little Bear would cry, we would be scratched. We would try some reasoning but Little Bear couldn’t process it. Five minutes later Little Bear would be running off with the ball shouting ‘catch me, catch me’ and the whole merry-go-round would begin again.

It was very difficult to manage or to see how to manage it a different way. All we knew was, it was a very inauspicious start to a footballing career and we probably had not just adopted the future David Beckham.

In the summer of 2016, things had developed a little. Big Bear was now getting good at football and wanted to practice properly. Little Bear had fallen totally in love with his brother and wanted to do whatever he was doing. If Big Bear was playing football, Little Bear was close by. Unfortunately he still had a penchant for ball-snatching and though Big Bear is extremely patient with him, it really did push his patience to breaking point. Most football games ended in one or the other or both in tears or storming off.

By this point Big Bear was pretty knowledgeable about the rules of the beautiful game and both he and Grizzly did their utmost to teach the basics to Little Bear. There were a few problems. One was that Little Bear could be (and still can be at times) rather oppositional so rules were like a red rag to a bull. If you told him he wasn’t allowed to pick up the ball, his first urge was to pick up the ball. Another problem is that Little Bear had very poor resilience then and the smallest knock or comment or his own perception that he had done something bad would be enough to cause him to purposefully kick the ball out of play or boot it at someone or call someone a name or hit them. Football continued to be a source of stress, distress and very little enjoyment for anyone involved.

Thankfully for Big Bear, he played football at an after-school club and he joined a club outside of school so he could get his fix somewhere. Interestingly, he had had a rough time because he didn’t like football when he was younger and it had really impacted on his ability to be accepted by the other boys. We had been reluctant about allowing him to join a club as it can be so competitive and the last thing we wanted was for his confidence to take a further knock, for example by being kept on the bench if he wasn’t perceived to be good enough.

Grizzly researched all the options and found a club with an inclusive ethos where all children get an equal go, irrespective of how good they are. Despite our reservations, it was a fantastic experience for Big Bear and did wonders for his confidence, both inside and outside of school. He continues to play for them now and apart from a recent appearance of nerves (a whole other tale, there is always something!) he loves it.

By the summer of 2017 a glimmer of football-related hope began to appear. Little Bear was beginning to tolerate the rules. He accepted they were there but was often in conflict with himself over sticking to them. He was still easily upset and something like the other team scoring a goal could be enough to cause a bit of a situation. However, the situation was generally less dramatic than before and mostly involved him stropping off to a corner of the garden for five minutes.

Alongside this, Little Bear’s language skills had now developed unrecognisably. We could start to talk about how he was feeling and what might be causing his behaviour. We could say things like “I think you are feeling a bit frustrated because the other team scored. That’s ok. Sit there for five minutes then join in again when you’re ready”. We generally didn’t make too much of a fuss and often if we ignored the outburst he would just join in again a few seconds later by himself. We always praised the good decision he had made to come back. We also tried some other techniques like bringing a squidgy stress toy outside with us and Little Bear would go and squeeze that if he was getting annoyed, rather than shouting at somebody or running off with the ball.

Football still had its moments but as the summer wore on I realised that the boys were starting to have a kick-about on their own after tea, while I did the washing up (handily positioned in front of the back window where I could keep a watchful eye). More often than not, the game would go without hitch and I would silently count my blessings when they came back in. They even started to set each other up for specific bits of play e.g. Little Bear would throw the ball so Big Bear could volley it in. Maybe football could be fun in the Bear household after all?

Not long after term started again, Little Bear began asking to join the after school football club that Big Bear attended. I had a lot of concerns. He is extremely tired after school, making listening harder than usual. We were having a very rough phase in the classroom and Little Bear was frequently in trouble for being disruptive. The guy who runs the football is lovely but not especially firm and I’d always rather suspected the children ran amok. Little Bear is not a child who should be allowed to run amok. It is not wise. It could be extremely detrimental.

Little Bear clearly wanted to go though and I had to listen. I decided this was a rare time that a sticker chart might work. I was clear with Little Bear that I couldn’t let him go to the club if he wasn’t going to listen to what he was told because that could be dangerous. The rules would be there to keep him and his friends safe. He gained stickers by doing what he was asked in school, at home and if he was with others like his grandparents. If he didn’t manage to do as he was asked, nothing happened. If he did manage to, a big fuss was made about his ability to make good decisions and he got a sticker.

By October half term the chart was full and I kept to my word and signed him up. I did speak with the football coach about Little Bear’s needs; that rules need to be clear and consistent for him and that he needs to know that the coach and I will talk and if things are not going well, the coach will tell me.

I knew I had to let him try but I was worried.

Last week, out of the blue, I received this message:

Just a quick one, I know you were unsure about signing Little Bear up for football but he has been amazing! I love coaching him, football or PE, just wanted to drop you a message to let you know. And then Big Bear is something else, great kid that doesn’t get the credit he deserves, he’s fantastic.

And my heart melted.

How lovely of the coach to take the time to send me that? I wonder if he really knows how much that means?

I couldn’t possibly have predicted, back in 2005, mid back garden flood, that my little dude would be able to overcome so many hurdles that he would be able to not just cope but flourish in a football club only 2 years later. He’s a phenomenon.

Maybe we did adopt the future David Beckham after all?!

 

And as for Big Bear, he is an extremely patient and lovely big brother and I hope that I at least give him the credit he deserves.

Football: A Yardstick for Progress?