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…