Being an SEMH-needs family

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Being an SEMH-needs family

Parenting in Public

The actual title of this post should be ‘Parenting a Child with Behavioural Difficulties in Public’ but it’s kind of unwieldy and somewhat lacking in zing. It is what I mean though as ordinary parenting in the public eye is not especially challenging, in my experience.

As we are now coming to the end of week 6 of the summer holidays I have been spending more time than usual out and about with Little Bear in public. We have been to all sorts of places: shops, museums, LEGOLAND, the beach, restaurants, the zoo, parks. Sometimes it all goes swimmingly and there is nothing significant to report but at other times I end up feeling more conspicuous than I would really like.

I think it is partly because Little Bear’s behaviour is at a developmentally lower level than his chronological age. Whilst this is common amongst children who have experienced developmental trauma it can nevertheless look incongruous to the untrained eye. I’m wondering if it has become more pronounced because Little Bear has had a growth spurt and for the first time since he has been with us he is requiring clothes larger than his age. He is a tall 5 and half year old who frequently engages in behaviour more typical of a pre-schooler. Today, for example, we went to the garden centre and he spent a happy 10 minutes going from water feature to water feature putting his hands in and splashing about in them. I can remember Big Bear doing exactly the same thing but he was probably a couple of years younger.

Ditto pointing obviously at people who look different and/ or commenting loudly within their earshot: Look he’s got a bald patch!

Why’s your tooth broken? (Whilst staring at close range into an elderly lady’s mouth when sharing a hand dryer. Thank goodness for unclear speech).

Why does that lady have her belly out mummy?” (Bellowing and blatantly pointing at someone about 3 feet away).

I don’t know son, but perhaps she should ask herself that.

While these developmentally younger behaviours do draw some attention and can be mildly embarrassing, it is the more unusual or more unexpected behaviours that I usually find harder to style out.

Sometimes a waitress or passer-by might be friendly towards Little Bear. They might comment on his outfit or try to chat to him about something and, one assumes due to his attachment difficulties and mistrust of strangers, he can be downright rude. He might not answer them or he might scowl or he might say something like “go away”. I find myself being extra friendly or making some sort of excuse for him.

Little Bear can behave similarly with other children and sometimes he seems to square up to them or tries to stare them out.

Conversely he can be over friendly and will approach people and even lean on them or touch them despite not knowing them. He frequently approaches people if they have babies with them and will try to push the pram. Today he somehow got another Mum whom we didn’t know to push him on the swing (I had turned for a couple of seconds to greet our actual friend).

Little Bear is also quite hyperactive and inquisitive. This tends to lead to a lot of touching of things he shouldn’t, climbing on things he shouldn’t and general wildness. Today I have had to coax him out of a dog basket that he had pulled off the shelf and curled into in the middle of a thoroughfare and also lift him down from a wire gazebo which he had scaled and was hanging from the top of. He hangs off counters in restaurants and cafes and if there is any sort of railing he will be doing roly-polies on it (there is one inside Asda that he is particularly attracted to).

Though he tries his best to stay seated when we go out for meals it is very difficult for him and he does get up and move about. Sometimes he gets under the table. On one occasion he commando crawled under a public toilet door – Big Bear thought it was brilliant and all I could think about was how many germs he had touched en route.

During our holiday we stopped at Services that had a quiet Starbucks and he spent the first ten minutes crawling laps around a long bench seat in there while we tried to maintain a sense of decorum (and tried to pretend he wasn’t with us).

He often runs inside shops and restaurants and might try to pick something up that he shouldn’t e.g. in Sainsbury’s he might start kicking a ball around the aisles if he sees one for sale.

Sometimes Little Bear has public outbursts. Today, whilst in a busy queue at the ice cream kiosk at the park, Little Bear lost his temper because they had run out of the ice cream he wanted. He wouldn’t choose anything different and purposefully ran over his brother’s foot with his bike. When I told him to get off the bike, he kicked it, the wall and attempted to kick me. I could practically feel the anticipation and judgement of the other parents around me, tense with wonder at how I would surely punish him. I guess they were probably quite disappointed when I didn’t (you try juggling a cup of tea, an ice cream, a balance bike and a dysregulated child. Also, I could have lectured them in the pointlessness of punishing a dysregulated child but my hands were quite full).

Now, here is the crucial bit, clearly I do not think that any of this is acceptable behaviour. I was brought up to be polite and well-mannered and try to instil that in my children too. Of course I would prefer it if they would both sit still, be quiet, react politely and not draw excessive attention to us.

If I’m being really honest, when Little Bear first arrived and his behaviour was at the more extreme end of things, I frequently felt like stopping members of the public to say “don’t judge me, he’s adopted. I didn’t make him like this!” (Don’t worry, I never did and I do know it isn’t an appropriate way to handle things!).

In an ideal world my child wouldn’t pelt up and down pubs, make loads of noise or throw things. However, in an ideal world, my little boy wouldn’t have been neglected. He wouldn’t have an uphill struggle ahead of him and his development would not have been adversely affected by his start in life.

I can’t set ideal parenting standards for Little Bear (at the moment) because good parenting does not involve setting your child up to fail. I cannot ask him to sit still throughout a meal, be friendly and polite at all times, always walk and never run and never touch anything. I can’t ask that of him because I know that he is already trying his best and he can’t do it.

I have had to re-evaluate what is absolutely essential behaviour-wise and what is less so. I have had to decide which things I can turn a blind eye to and which things I will tackle. I can’t tackle everything at once because I would be telling him off every minute of the day and that is no good for anybody. For now I have a zero tolerance approach to violence and we try our best to follow instructions the majority of the time. Other issues are for later.

My parenting style with Little Bear can be summed up by “don’t sweat the small stuff” and “pick your battles”.

The only problem is that Mr and Mrs Public are not versed in this approach and actually often do want to sweat the small stuff. Last week, Little Bear got told off twice by strangers. The first time it was because he had lifted a glass lid in a café to show me which donut he wanted. The waitress walked past and sharply said “that is made of glass! It is not for you to touch!” The second time was because he was climbing on a wooden railing inside a family pub and the waiter sternly told him to get down from there.

As I was present on both of these occasions and the person in question saw fit to tell Little Bear off anyway, I can only assume that they felt my parenting was lacking. Were I to have the time or inclination to concern myself with this, I would probably be quite offended. However, thanks to Little Bear, I don’t bother sweating the small stuff either.

I can feel a bubble of something brewing though. One or two interventions from strangers I can take. A stare or glare here or there I can ignore. Maybe even a tut could be disregarded. I know that people are judging Little Bear against their standards of behaviour and finding him lacking. I know that consequently they see my parenting as lacking. I have grown a thicker skin and am mostly adept at shrugging it off. I am confident on the path I am taking and I have the benefit of understanding his behaviour, what could be causing it and also seeing the incredible progress Little Bear has made.

However, I know there is a line when it comes to strangers telling off my children and should someone see fit to cross it, I would not be able to hold back. Don’t be so bloody judgemental, I would want to say, you don’t know his background; you don’t know what he has been through. Don’t judge my parenting. Try walking a few steps in my shoes and then see how you feel.

My inner momma bear is poised, ears pricked up. Ready. Little Bear is my cub. He is my noisy, energetic, curious, infuriating mischief of a cub but he’s my cub and he’s trying his best and I will not hesitate to leap to his defence if provoked.

Consider yourselves warned Mr and Mrs Public. Consider yourselves warned.

Parenting in Public