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

A Thursday with Little Bear (aged 6 and a half)

Back in May of 2016, when Little Bear was just over 4, I wrote an account of a day we had spent together (you can read it here: A Friday with Little Bear ). Today I was struck by the idea that it might be interesting to do it again – to reflect the progress he has made as well as the types of challenges we experience now he’s a bit older. I’m not 100% sure of the wisdom of this but here we go:

I was woken at about 8am by Grizzly’s alarm and a throbbing headache. The rest of the house was silent. When Grizzly got up (he was working at home) I could hear him speaking to Little Bear who had been up a while but had entertained himself with his I pad. We had a slow start because its half term.

When the boys had had quite enough screen time, I attempted to complete Little Bear’s holiday homework with him. Apparently he is supposed to write a whole side of A4 about what he’s been up to in the break, being sure to include conjunctions, adverbs and expanded noun phrases. In order to make the task slightly less ridiculous for him, I first read him his new social story about making mistakes and then we had a chat and I drew some pictures/ wrote some key words to make the task more visual. It looked like this:

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 We began the writing task using the visual to support us. Little Bear did well for the first sentence then quickly lost concentration during the second. He wasn’t keen to say the sentences out loud first which meant he wrote things that didn’t make sense. He quickly became annoyed and threw his pencil across the room. He was able to using a breathing technique when I pointed at his social story and we did manage to complete the second sentence. After that, it seemed wise to take a break.

Little Bear got himself a snack and lay down on the sofa and put the TV on. He stayed there quite a long time while I got ready and did a few jobs. I explained we were going out soon and gave a ten minute then five minute then every minute for about five minutes warnings. When it was time to go, Little Bear refused to turn off the TV or get off the sofa. After some persuasion/ negotiation he switched it off but refused to go for a wee or put on his shoes. I helped him with the shoe part so that we might actually leave the house today.

When he finally got outside, he didn’t want to get into the car.

In the car, Little Bear tried to tell us which songs we were and were not allowed to listen to. I made sure we took turns to choose a song.

When we arrived in town, we met my parents. Little Bear ran over to greet them and measured himself against my mum who has not been blessed with tallness. “I’m bigger than your mum’s boobs now!” he yelled, loud enough for half the town to hear. I don’t even bother to blush or check if anyone is looking any more.

We went into a clothes shop because the boys needed some tracky bottoms and they quite like looking at clothes for themselves sometimes. Little Bear chose some tops with those sequin designs that brush forwards and backwards which kept him busy for a couple of minutes. He was soon running around the store and trying to engage one of us in hide and seek. My Dad took him to the toilet while we paid. We met them at a restaurant but Little Bear had found a piano and my Dad was having some difficulty getting him to come away from it. When he did manage to extricate him, Little Bear found a triangle of landscaping to run up and down and round and round. I said he could have one more circuit then we’d go into the restaurant. He had one more then tried to negotiate for 5 more. He would only come when I started to go into the restaurant.

I had brought an activity book which kept Little Bear fairly busy while we waited for food though he mainly stuck stickers to himself, not the pages. He sat and ate surprisingly well but as soon as the last bite was in his mouth he was up out of his seat and heading for the door. He wasn’t pleased when I asked him to come back and explained not everyone had finished yet. Little Bear began hanging on the back of his chair and jumping around. I took him to the loo for a change of scenery and little walk. On the way back to the table he tried to push me then tried to jump onto me while we were close to people’s tables. I had to crouch down and explain to him (again) how we should/shouldn’t behave in a restaurant. He told me he hated me rather loudly. He sat on me while I was crouching which nearly knocked us both over backwards. I managed to persuade him to wait until we got to the table and then he could sit on my knee. He did and I asked him if he wanted a squeeze. He did and this calmed him a little. We also did some pushing with his hands pushing down on mine. I do try to use a bit of calming sensory input when we’re out and about – sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. This time it bought us a few more minutes for the others to finish their drinks/ pay the bill.

Little Bear didn’t want to put on his coat and shouted at me again. When we got outside, he ran around his triangle again and seemed much happier.

Next stop was the shoe shop. Little Bear loves going there, but only if it ends in new shoes. I kept explaining that it would depend what the lady said and his feet might not have grown –forewarned is sort of forearmed but I rather suspected there would be some fallout if shoes were not needed. Thankfully, they were. Little Bear told the lady he is a year older than his is (purposefully) and did try to control the situation by taking hold of her tablet/moving her seat around/ not letting her put the shoes on his feet. I had to remind him that it was her shop and she was in charge. He tolerated this and did say please and thank you. There was a time when he wouldn’t have spoken to her at all so overall, I was pleased with how it had gone.

We went in two more shops. Little Bear wanted something in each one. He didn’t tolerate me saying ‘no’ too well and told me he hated me a few more times. Outside he saw a balloon on a stick someone had stuck into a flower bed. I asked him not to touch it. He pulled it out of the soil and waved it about. I explained it was dirty and not to touch it. He waved it about some more. I told him to put it back. He waved it about. I got a bit cross and told him off. Little Bear tried to run off. As I took hold of his hand to stop him, he hit me then pressed his nails into my hand as hard as he could.

We went into the library because there was supposed to be an activity on. There wasn’t. Little Bear found a lion statue and sat on it. I explained it wasn’t for sitting on and asked him to get off. He did but shortly got back on. I asked him to get off. He said, “But that baby over there is sitting on one.” I explained the baby was small and he was big and needed to get off. He got off then three seconds later got back on again. I re-iterated the need for good listening and asked him to get off. He did but the next thing I knew he was sitting on it again and a librarian was telling him off.

I told him we were going because the activity wasn’t on so we’d go for some pudding instead. Little Bear didn’t want to leave. There were negotiations. When we were finally going in the right direction, Little Bear saw the security barrier and began climbing it. Every time we are there he does that and every time I explain why I don’t want him to do that. I got a bit stern. Little Bear hit me.

We went past the pet shop and I had to stop Little Bear getting inside a rabbit hutch. Then he fell into step with Big Bear and suddenly hollered, “King Kong’s got massive balls” at the top of his lungs. My patience was really beginning to wear thin at this point.

We went for a drink in a café that has toys. Little Bear was entertained for a while and the grown-ups managed some civilised conversation. After a while, Little Bear announced he wanted to play the piano again. I told him the piano was finished and we were going home. He didn’t want to go home. He began jumping and swinging on the back of his chair. I suggested we go for a wee then home. Little Bear hit me and ran off. When I found him he wouldn’t come. He told me he hated me and it was the worst day ever and I was the worst mum in the whole world. I took him to the loo then when I got back from going myself, my Dad was having a word with him about not kicking the café wall. There were issues leaving the café/ getting his coat on etc.

We finally got into the car. My parents decided they would come to our house for a short time so we both left the same car park to go to the same place but they were slightly ahead of us. “Take over them,” Little Bear demanded. “I can’t,” I said, explaining it wasn’t the right kind of road. He continued asking me to do this and when I wouldn’t got quite upset. “But they will get there before us,” he said, “if you don’t want me to be upset, take over them!” The tears were coming now so I had to calmly explain that it didn’t matter who got there first and that it was my main job as the driver to keep us safe, which meant no overtaking on little roads. I tried to distract him with some singing. Little Bear evidently began to reflect on his behaviour in town and started saying I shouldn’t have bought him any shoes. I tried to empathise that it must be hard if he felt he didn’t deserve them but that even though he hadn’t been totally sensible in town, that could have been because he was tired and despite any behaviour, I still felt he deserved to have new shoes which fitted his feet and I was glad I had bought them for him.

“I bet Grandpa doesn’t even know the way to our house anyway!” he said.

At home, Little Bear asked me if he was allowed to go on his I pad. “Yes”, I said. “Phew,” he said, “That was close, I think I nearly wasn’t.” He sat down with his brother and peace was restored.

At tea time he couldn’t sit still and did everything other than eat.

After tea he played Lego at the table, a game with his Dad and brother and then we played a game altogether. It was lovely. Little Bear understood all the rules and was really sensible. He didn’t mind when he didn’t win.

Little Bear was not especially co-operative for bedtime – I could hear Grizzly having to repeat instructions and giving warnings but when he finally got into bed, he read the whole of his school book because he wanted to, all 20 pages. He shouted for Big Bear and I and we made a big fuss.

Grizzly settled him and came down. We could hear kicking the bed noises and intermittent shouting noises but then he quietened down.

*

In the two years since I last wrote out a day, everything has changed yet nothing has changed. Being out is still harder than being in (in some ways). There are still times when my patience is sorely tested (and surely anybody’s would be?). We are still more visible/ louder/ more inappropriately behaved than other families. There is progress though: regulation is better on the whole and self-regulation is creeping in. There is heaps more verbal communication. Little Bear’s interaction with strangers is more appropriate and his situational understanding is generally good now. He does know what the expectations are, even if he can’t quite manage to stick to them. Little Bear’s anxiety is more obvious because he can express it verbally now – it is less likely to get misinterpreted as bad behaviour. Little Bear can reflect on situations afterwards and can feel very remorseful, in a way that he didn’t used to.

There are good bits and there are bad bits. I don’t worry too much about the less than good bits – they’re par for the course and we’ve got pretty good at taking most things in our stride.*

No matter the behaviour, he’s still gorgeous, just as he is.

 

 

 

*Just off to lie in a darkened room

 

 

 

 

 

A Thursday with Little Bear (aged 6 and a half)