One of the biggest problems, I find, with attempting to get other people to understand the emotional and behavioural needs of your child with SEMH issues is getting your points across without those people drawing the conclusion you are hysterical. I’m pretty sure I’m not being paranoid about this – I have read it frequently in people’s body language, facial expression and even in their choice of words. Here she goes again, being all over-anxious and fretting unnecessarily, they think. When I say people, I mainly mean teachers, though this isn’t exclusive to them.
When you do have a child with SEMH issues, you become adept at predicting their triggers. You know the sorts of situations that may challenge them and, in an attempt to parent them the best you can, you try to anticipate potential problems in advance so that tweaks or alternatives or supportive measures can be implemented to minimise their stress. For me, that just makes good sense. Why leave a child to flail and panic and worry, when you could prevent that with a bit of forward planning or heightened awareness? Obviously you can’t predict everything, but where you can mitigate potential problems, why wouldn’t you?
It’s this attitude that brings me to teachers, raising possible problems with them in advance of them happening. Unfortunately, what I see as a wise anticipation of issues is more often than not interpreted by them as over-anxious parenting. I’m pretty sure they have conversations about how I’m creating a self-fulfilling prophecy and bringing LB problems where he didn’t have any before. “Her anxiety will be rubbing off on him,” I can imagine them whispering, “It’s not him, it’s her”.
This has come to the fore because next week LB is going on his first residential. I do not feel it is excessive to say this is a big deal for him. Staying away from home without any of your family would be a big deal for most 7 year olds but is even more so when your early life has involved moving from place to place: staying away might trigger all sorts of difficult feelings and anxieties, not least whether you will actually return home again. This is compounded by embarrassment that you wear pull-ups at night when your friends don’t and the trip will involve you staying up way beyond your bedtime; a time that you already struggle to stay regulated for in your own home.
So yes, I think there are some very real concerns about the trip and in an attempt to help LB as much as possible, I have been pro-active in discussing my concerns with his teachers. I wanted them to be aware of his continence issues so they could help him subtly. I wanted them to know his bedtime is early so that when he starts to spiral they will be able to recognise it as dysregulation due to tiredness, not bad behaviour. I wanted them to be aware of the reasons why a trip away from home might trigger feelings from his past. I wanted them to be aware of all this so they could support him through it.
I thought this was all tickety-boo. They had seemed to listen and had been reassuring about how they would deal with it all.
However, as the time draws closer, LB’s behaviour is beginning to spiral. I have noted it at home. They have noted poorer listening, poorer compliance and an increase in fidgety behaviour at school. LB has started saying he doesn’t want to go on the trip. To me, it is obvious he is anxious about it. This anxiety is being expressed through the changes in his behaviour.
School, on the other hand, are scratching their heads about this change of mood. Why is he all of a sudden throwing things and threatening to kill his TA, they wonder. To help them out, I’ve tried to make the link between the two things for them. This has involved me having to elaborate on why exactly the trip might be anxiety-provoking now, before it has even happened. The problem is that I don’t think they’re really getting it, so I find myself harping on more than I’d really like. The more times I even reference the trip, the more convinced they become that I am a hysterical, over-reactive mother.
This morning, as a small part of the coherent explanation I was trying to weave on the spot, I mentioned that LB has only ever stayed with us or his grandparents (I thought the ‘since he’s been here’ part was obvious) so staying somewhere else might be quite triggering. “He won’t be alone in that,” his TA says, “many of the children won’t have slept anywhere else”, as if I am being quite unreasonable by making a point out of something common to all the children. What I want to say is something along the lines of, “Yeah, but, before these other children moved to their forever home, did they live with foster carers who randomly took them to other houses for respite, with people who were not always registered as carers? Did they get left there without explanation for inordinate periods of time? When they came to their forever home, were they just dropped off by people they had lived with for several years who would then just disappear never to be seen again? Before that, were they suddenly removed one unpredictable day from the family who conceived and gave birth to them? Where they? No? THEN IT REALLY ISN’T THE SAME!”
Obviously I said no such thing, smiled sweetly, took a deep breath, and attempted again to explain things in a calm manner that might actually get my message across. That’s how it was from my point of view anyway. I suspect that from theirs, they thought, “Oh, she’s still going. I’ve covered off that point so she’s trying to concoct more. Definitely hysterical.”
What’s infuriating is that when you don’t feel heard, there aren’t many options. I don’t believe in shouting or being rude (it’s all about the long game and building relationships) so I’m really left with repeating myself or trying to find other words or other arrangements of words to get the ideas to strike home. I often find myself reaching for more extreme or more shocking examples when the tamer ones don’t resonate. It is as though I have to escalate the severity of what I’m saying to get my messages heard. The thing is that if they are still not heard, I am surely seen as increasingly hysterical.
I suggested today that we must monitor LB. Yes, some anxiety is to be expected. But as he is already at threatening to kill people levels, perhaps we don’t want him to escalate much more. Perhaps, if he does seem to be spiralling out of control, we might need to come up with a plan to soothe his nerves. Perhaps, and I was just throwing things out there, we could reassure him that we would not make him stay somewhere he doesn’t want to (trust and all that) and we could offer to pick him up from the day-time part so he can sleep where he feels safe: at home. Though, to me, this makes perfect sense, I can see that school find it an outrageous suggestion – the kind that would only be made by a mother struggling to loosen her apron strings. “She doesn’t even want to let him out of her sight for one night, for goodness sake,” I can imagine them commenting. The response from the TA only confirmed my feeling they had been talking about me in this way – “Mr Teacher doesn’t want you to do that,” she said, when I suggested it.
It really is quite a challenge to remain dignified in these situations. It is a constant balance between persisting in getting messages across and presenting like a non-hysterical, credible source of information. I do a lot of internal swearing.
I understand that they have taken hundreds of children on trips and that every parent gets a bit worried about it and that they will do their best to look after LB and that if he gets upset, they will deal with it. I know they haven’t had to call anyone’s parents before, but, if we’re honest, that’s more of a gauntlet than a reassurance. When they say, “he’ll be fine,” I hear, “we’re not taking this seriously enough”. If only they could acknowledge this is a huge deal for him, we’d be grand.
Obviously we are doing all the prep stuff and giving reassurance at home. LB does seem to be coping better now he’s realised they aren’t camping outside (you really can’t anticipate all the issues) but I am typing this outside of his door as we have another tricky bedtime. I intend to monitor him/ his behaviour over the weekend and should things have worsened, I shall be back at the classroom door, making myself look hysterical again. And I don’t really care what Mr Teacher thinks about it – should LB be crying and hanging from my leg when I drop him off for the trip, I will be picking him up at bedtime.
As tempting as it is to just pack LB off with them, with little instruction, to let them deal with whatever happens themselves, I can’t shrug my shoulders of all responsibility. He’s our son and it’s our job to meet his needs as best we can. If that means occasionally having to overrule school and to lose street cred over being anxious parents then so be it. LB’s needs are paramount and if that makes me hysterical, then I guess I am.
*The irony of me writing last week about how much I love the school is not lost on me. I should have known that singing their praises would nudge the universe into trying to prove me wrong
**The word ‘hysteria’ derives from the Greek word for ‘uterus’, suggesting that to be a women is to be hysterical; that being overly emotional is an intrinsic failing of having a womb. Marvellous. I wonder whether any of the dads out there experience a similar thing when they have worries or if this shrugging off of concerns is more prevalent when they are raised by mothers?
I’m not really trying to make a feminist point, I’m genuinely wondering.