Alone Parenting

I’ve written plenty before about the challenges of adoptive parenting or parenting a child with SEMH needs (Social, Emotional or Mental Health needs) and the different ways it can impact you. I’ve written about the need we have, as parents, for affirmation – for someone to tell us now and again that we’re doing a good job. I’ve written about CCVAB (Childhood challenging, violent or aggressive behaviour) – the taboos around this, the terror of it, the ways it can keep you awake at night. I’ve written about external factors like the impact of school and professionals who come on the journey with you, and even how you can feel judged by random members of the public. There are times when I have written pretty frankly about the hard bits of our parenting journey, my anxieties, our messier moments.

This morning I have been reminded that I have revealed and discussed all of this from within the comfort of my supportive marriage. My marriage in which I can be brutally honest with my husband, and him with me. My marriage in which I have a place to off load, to discuss, to compare notes, to problem-solve, to rant, to moan, to cry, to celebrate the tiniest success, to despair, to have a hug. In my marriage, I have a co-pilot who I can switch with and who helps me navigate and make this journey.

Outside of my marriage, I have parents and a parent-in-law and a brother and soon to be sister-in-law who are all there, supporting our journey.

Outside of that, I have good friends who I can talk freely to, who bring their own knowledge to the table, who listen, counsel, support.

I’m very lucky.

This morning, I realised that even cocooned within all those layers of support, there have been times when I have felt desperate and despairing. I don’t think I’ve experienced those things too much on a prolonged basis but there have been times that I’ve felt them. I think all parents do, sometimes.

Then, I thought, what if all those cocooning layers were stripped away? What if a person didn’t have friends who understood their challenges or their child’s challenges? What if their family – their parents, their siblings, their cousins – whoever they have – didn’t understand their challenges? What if – even worse – their partner wasn’t supportive? How desperate and despairing would that be?

What if their partner not only wouldn’t work in partnership but actively avoided things that might help (such as engaging with any external support offered or reading helpful books)? What if their partner were critical or didn’t offer affirmation or a shoulder to cry on or a listening ear? What if their partner refused to co-parent or use therapeutic strategies or just didn’t bother to get their hands dirty with the business of parenting at all?

What if a person had to walk this journey truly alone?

I suspect many of us are guilty of seeing that a person has a partner or spouse and assuming they provide them with the support I talked about above. But what if they don’t? What if their relationship is a lonely place? What if they have polarising view points on parenting or discipline or how to manage CCVAB? What if they can’t even talk about how to parent anymore? What if every chat ends in an argument? What if one of them mentally (or even physically) checks out, leaving the other to deal with everything alone? What if their differences lead to inconsistencies and unpredictable boundaries? What if the children feel this and it further discombobulates them? What if the CCVAB becomes directed to one parent only? What if the other turns a blind eye? What if one is made to feel it’s their fault? That it’s their bad parenting doing it. What if that person’s confidence has become so eroded they think it’s their fault too?

I know you can adopt as a single person. I think the hope would be that the next layers of support – the wider family, the close friends – would step closer, ensuring you are still well cocooned. And this can work as beautifully as a good partnership. But what if it doesn’t? What if they don’t step forward? What if a parent is left with an empty moat where the support should be? What if they experience external judgement and criticism to such a level their confidence is eroded to nothing?

How desperate and despairing would they be then?

I guess it’s hard to speak out about it if you’re trapped in it. You think it’s your fault or just what you deserve anyway. You fear what the speaking out or the being honest could do.

This post is for you. I see you. I see how hard you’re trying. How you’re giving parenting everything but you’re exhausted. And worn down. How you think everyone must be doing it better than you are. How scary the future is. How alone you feel. How difficult it must be to have the courage of your convictions or to make choices about which way to manage challenging situations for the best. Alone.

You do deserve to be heard. You do deserve support. This parenting alone thing – its fucking rock solid, not just hard. It’s hard enough with the support but without it? I don’t know, but I’m upsetting myself imagining it. Please believe that what you are doing is a great achievement, in the most trying of circumstances. You’re doing it. You’re persevering. You’re getting up every day and doing it again and again and again.

Don’t look at the rest of us and imagine we have everything sewn up and tickety-boo. We don’t. We lose our shit, our houses are messy, we cut parenting corners. I mean it’s winter – if you can’t be bothered to iron a school shirt, it’ll hide very nicely under a sweatshirt. Not managed to bath them today? So what? Give them a quick wet wipe.

Sometimes survival is enough, for all of us. It has to be.

I could have a separate rant about the standards we set ourselves and the random demands we think society expects of us, especially in the run up to Christmas – the mountains of presents, the outfits, the bloody elves on the shelves – but I’ll try to resist. Ignore it, if you can. Set your standards, stick to those. You’re doing your level best and at the end of the day, it’s all you can do and it’s all that matters.

I think what I’m trying to say is, if you are truly alone in this, I am truly sorry. Please look after yourself. It shouldn’t be this way, but if it is, be your own warrior. Don’t stop fighting to be heard. Don’t stop standing up for what you believe in. Don’t stop trying.

Twitter used to be an amazing place to connect and get virtual support but it is sadly not as safe as it once was. However, there are still those of us whose direct messages are always open and are more than happy to talk without judgment (@adoptionblogfox). We are all in this together, cocooned or not.

 

 

If you’re a person who sits in judgement, thinking how well you are doing and how good your parenting is and how lacking others’ is in comparison – stop it. Most of the time we have not a clue what does or does not go on behind people’s doors. Until you’ve walked a mile and all that…

 

If you’re the partner who has mentally checked out or withdrawn because it’s easier or because you don’t know what else to do, please talk to your co-parent. This sort of parenting isn’t easy for anybody. But it so much easier if you can find a way to do it together.

 

Apologies for my slightly bossy tone but I’m reaching the end of my third decade, my hormones are pretty fierce and I just cannot be doing with people being shit to one another. Life is hard enough, parenting is hard enough. SEMH parenting or adoptive parenting is next level hard. Doing that alone? Hideously difficult. Let’s have some compassion and look after each other.

Please reach out to someone if you can.

Virtual hugs,

xx

 

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Alone Parenting

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Being an SEMH-needs family