Mental Strength and Emotional Resilience for Parents
Written by Yvonne Newbold
When you’re living with a child who has violent and challenging behaviour (VCB) due to a Special Educational Need or Disability (SEND), how do you get up every morning to face another day of living in fear, walking on eggshells, and constantly on edge, knowing that you or your other children might be physically attacked at any moment?
What can make it even worse is feeling that other people are judging you. If, instead of it being your own child, your attacker was a stranger in the street, or even your own partner behind closed doors, once you told other people you would be showered with compassion and practical and emotional support. People would rally around to help you recover, and it would be perfectly permissible to admit that you’re feeling wobbly, insecure and unsafe.
However, people can take a different view when it’s children who hurt their own parents. It is one of the last taboos, and it’s so far outside the experience of most people, that they often assume that if the parent was doing everything right, it wouldn’t be happening. The belief that good parents are always able to control their own children runs so deep in our culture that SEND VCB is often simply not recognised or acknowledged, even by most of the professionals who work with SEND families.
It’s a double whammy, you’re the one with the injuries, you’re the one with the broken heart and the total despair, and yet you’re also the one who people are pointing at with a judgemental finger of blame.
So how do you get up again, and carry on? Well, of course it’s a struggle, and on some days, it’s the hardest thing you’ll ever have had to do. You’d be superhuman if you didn’t feel desperately low, lost and broken sometimes with all that you’re coping with.
Somehow though, you have to dig deep and find resources you never knew you had. For no matter how tough this is for you, your child is facing an even harder time of it. They are looking to you to rescue them from those enormous, scary and confusing emotions that creates the fear and anxiety that causes those terrifying meltdowns.
Resilience is the ability to bounce back in adversity, to keep going no matter what. Some people are born lucky and blessed with a natural, in-built resilience. The rest of us have to learn how to develop ours, acquiring new skills and thinking-patterns that will protect our mental well-being. However, learning how to build resilience is essential if we are to rise above the SEND VCB and find ways to help our children overcome it.
16 resilience building approaches that may help.
- Your child is lashing out at you physically, and that is bound to also affect you emotionally. Try and be aware of how it is affecting your mental well-being, and how much of a negative effect it may be having on your self-esteem and your sense of self-worth. Physical injuries such as bruises are bad enough, but when those injuries damage the very essence of how you feel about yourself, that’s when we are at huge risk of giving up. Really try and work out how much it’s affecting you deep down, because a lot of resilience building is going to be about protecting your inner core, that integral sense of self. We have to recognise how it is being compromised before we can begin to protect it.
- People may judge you harshly due to your child’s behaviours, including people you really want to understand, such as friends, family members and professionals alike. Not only can that leave us feeling very let down, hurt and abandoned, it’s also never pleasant to know that other people have a negative opinion of us. If we’re not careful, we can allow that negativity to seep into our inner core, and start believing that what other people are thinking and saying must be true. Instead, we can develop a filter, so that we stop and question each new belief before we allow it to take root deep in our own hearts. To do this, we can ask ourselves questions like these:
“Have these people experienced this sort of childhood behaviour first hand like I have?”
“Have they had any training in the underlying causes, and the strategies that may help these behaviours?”
“What are they basing their opinions on?”
“How would I have felt, hearing about someone in this situation if I had never experienced it either?”
“Am I a good person?”
“Do I truly love my child?”
“Am I doing everything I can, with the knowledge and experience that I have at the moment, to support my child with his or her behaviour?”
“Just because they think it, is it true?”
There are dozens more questions you can ask yourself along these lines. The aim is to remember that you own your own belief structure, and you don’t have to absorb or believe everything anyone else thinks or says.
- However, try not to judge the people who have these opinions either. You need as strong a support network as you can build, and you also need as much goodwill and friendship around you and your family. Always remember that, even though their opinions might be unsound, they probably mean incredibly well.
- When someone hurts us, it is usually an act of hostility from someone who wishes to do us harm. This is how most of us perceived SEND VCB when our child first started this behaviour. However, SEND VCB isn’t an act of hostility at all, it’s a cry for help, generally directed at the person they love and trust the most in all the world. Please never start thinking that your child must hate you, or that they want to hurt you. Nothing could be further from the truth. They love you with all their hearts, but they hate the way they feel at the moment, and they are trying to let you know how much they are hurting too. If you start to absorb a belief that your own child hates you, this could eat away at your inner core and cause a lot of completely unnecessary hurt and negativity. It can also have a detrimental effect on the way you relate to your child which could inadvertently cause a further deterioration in the SEND VCB itself.
- Exactly the same applies to any verbal abuse a child directs at you. In that moment they are trying to conjure up every rude word, insult and jibe they can remember, in an effort to show you how terrible they feel inside themselves. Please never take those horrible words to heart and please know that they aren’t meant, they aren’t true, and they don’t apply to you. Remember that your child is exactly that – a child. They simply don’t have the maturity or the life experience or the insight to make any sort of meaningful judgement on you or on your integrity as a parent or as a human being. They are words they have heard in the past, and please know that they aren’t intended for you and let them wash over you without causing you any harm whatsoever.
- Sometimes, with the best will and all the strongest filters in the world, some of that hurt may still enter your heart and you need to let it out. Sometimes you may need to cry and vent and rage and give all your unhappiness some space and time to be processed. That’s fine, and probably very cathartic too if it’s done in the right way. However, it can help to time-limit it. You can set an alarm for half an hour when no one is around and let it all out safely until the alarm goes off, when it’s over and you can move on. Maybe take a few deep breaths and put the kettle on, while you assess if it’s helped, and if you feel ready to carry on again.
- A child with SEND VCB often feels that the world is unpredictable and frightening. When people feel like that, they are strongly motivated to create a sense of being in control of their environment as much as they can. Sometimes the child creates such tension and fear within the household that it does feel as if they are in charge, and that everyone else is doing what they can to keep out of their way and to pacify them. However, this level of control is too big a responsibility for a child who is already struggling to cope with day to day life. Once that line has been crossed and a child has that sort of control, it needs a careful and sensitive approach for the adults to get back in the driving seat, so to speak, but it is something that you need to be aware of, so you can start planning how to do it in a way that feels comfortable for the child concerned. One way of starting this is to separate how you feel deep down inside from what is actually happening in terms of VCB on a daily basis. Determine not to let your child’s behaviour to dictate how you feel, do not let their behaviour define you. Maintaining some personal happiness and emotional well-being is essential if you are going to remain mentally robust enough to cope with this long-term.
- Build a support network if you possibly can. If you have a partner, work together and support each other as much as you can. If you and your child’s other parent live apart, do all you can to work with them for your child’s benefit. Family and friends might not always “get it” but that doesn’t mean that they won’t be there for you, and that you can’t find a way to play to their strengths for some support, even if it’s not completely in the way you’d like it to be. Go online, find forums and Facebook groups to connect with other parents in a similar situation. if your child's difficult and dangerous behaviour includes hurting people, we have a Facebook Group that you'd be welcome to join called “Newbold Hope - Family Support Group”, which is a supportive, kind and completely non-judgemental group of people who all get it because they've been there too. If you would like to join, please answer the questions in as much detail as possible so that we can clearly see that you meet all four of our criteria. These are (1) that you are their parent or a very closely involved family member; (2) that the child you are joining about is under the age of 18; (3) that your child sometimes hurts others; and (4) that your child has a diagnosis of a disability or an additional need, or is already on the pathway towards diagnostic assessment.
- Always have something to look forward to, however small. Giving yourself permission to have treats and relaxation time is vitally important – you have to continually find ways to re-charge your own batteries whenever you can. It can be something like a glass of wine or your favourite biscuits on a Friday night, or ring-fencing an hour on the sofa to watch your favourite TV programme. Or making time to read a book, or to scroll down your Facebook newsfeed. It could be meeting an old friend for lunch or spending some time in a spa. Chocolate is always good. Whatever it is, make it something that you’ll enjoy and know that it’s your time to relax.
- Give yourself thinking time. In a VCB household, things can come at us thick and fast, and we need time to step back and process what’s happening. Quiet, alone time can be very important to help us make sense of the realities of what we are living with, and to enable us to eventually become more proactive rather than just reacting and fire-fighting whenever things are at their stressful worst.
- That’s one of the things you’re aiming for – to be back in control, and to be pre-empting situations and diverting them before they escalate. It won’t happen overnight, and there will be setbacks on the road to getting there, but hold onto that idea, and never give up that hope that you will turn things around completely, because you can do this. You owe it to both your child and yourself to find a way through this, and always maintain a solid belief in your child, and know that they will one day be able to move past this, towards a productive and happy future.
- Stay curious, open-minded and learn everything you can about SEND VCB. Watch your child’s pattern of behaviour for clues, and make notes if you can about every behaviour episode. There will be clues, all behaviour is communication, but sometimes reading those clues can seem cryptically hard to read. Writing things down means that you can go back over the previous few weeks and you may spot patterns or new behaviour styles emerging that you wouldn’t otherwise have linked up and spotted.
- Parenthood is supposed to be fun too. The best parenting moments are when we can enjoy our children and have good times with them. Sometimes when SEND VCB is present, it’s easy to forget the good times, but they will be there. Try and connect with your child and enjoy their company outside of the VCB episodes. Write down the good times too, they can often help to keep us going during the tougher times.
- How aware are you of your own emotions? Stop and feel them, and notice how they are affecting you, and what caused each new emotion to develop. Name them, and also work out how intense they are as they are happening. Practice talking about them in your head, find vocabulary to describe them, and to explain how they each make you feel. VCB is sometimes caused by your child being completely overwhelmed by their own emotions and not being able to recognise which one is which. If you can recognise your own emotions and be aware of them, not only will it help you build your own resilience, but it will also help you develop the skills that can help your child to become more aware of their own emotions over time too.
- Look after your own health and well-being needs too. It’s so easy to neglect ourselves when so much else is happening around us, and to always put the children first, and for us to stay right at the back of the queue. When we do this, we forget that our children completely depend on our long-term fitness and stamina, we have no choice but to remain well, both physically and emotionally, if we are going to be able work towards our long-term aim of helping them find different approaches to communicate their anxieties and frustrations. In the same way that, before planes take off, we are told to put our own oxygen masks on so that we can protect our children, we can’t let our own health fall off the radar. That means a well-balanced diet, enough sleep, regular exercise and fresh air – all the things our grannies told us, because they really did know best.
- It also means keeping an eye on our own stress levels, and there’s a very easy and quick way of doing that. Several times a day, just take a minute or two to stand up with your feet about 30cms apart, and breathe in, slowly and deeply, all the way to the pit of your stomach. Hold for a few seconds, and then breathe out through your mouth, again slowly and steadily. Do three deep breaths at a time, and as you breathe, visualise that you’re breathing in calm and peace, and that you’re breathing out negativity and sadness. This will lower your blood pressure and heart rate, and it will give your brain a boost of oxygen, making you more alert and able to problem solve and better able to cope with whatever life throws at you.