15 Resilience Tips for Parents of Children with SEND VCB

Written by Yvonne Newbold

“Worthless”, “Helpless”, “Broken”, “Lost”, “Ashamed”, “Failure”, “Hopeless”, “Crushed”,

“Despairing”, “Lonely”, “Drained”, “Useless”

These are just some of the words that parents have used to describe how they feel when their SEND child is hurting them regularly at home. VCB (Violent and Challenging Behaviour) in SEND children is something that thousands of families are coping with behind closed doors, often with no one to tell because it is such a taboo issue. 

How do you pick yourself up and carry on when you feel like this? When your child’s behaviour is unpredictable, frightening and happening on a daily basis? You know in your heart that your child doesn’t want to be doing this either, you know that they are in such inner turmoil that they can’t help their actions, and you so desperately want to help them, but you just don’t know how to start.
You know that somehow you have to stay strong if you’re ever going to help your child find a way through their difficult times, but how can you stay strong when you feel like this?
It’s not easy, but looking after yourself and finding your own way to a sense of mental well-being is essential. Here are some ideas about how to do it.
  1.  Remember this is not your fault. These behaviours have a neurological basis, they are not to do with anything you might have done or might not have done in terms of parenting. VCB is not caused by parenting skills or a lack of them.
  2.  It’s not your child’s fault either, they genuinely can’t control what they are doing when they are hurling abuse at you, breaking things or hurting you
  3.  If you’d like proof that none of this is either your fault or the fault of your child, please read this – it’s research which indicates that somewhere between 10% and 60% of all children with either a learning disability or autism will present with aggressive behaviour
  4. It’s the “Big Feelings” that are overwhelming your child that are generally underlying all these behaviours, including the verbally aggressive ones.  When your child says that they hate you and worse, they really don’t mean it. They are hurting so much and they can’t find the words to explain how they are really feeling, and how all of these tough, negative emotions are making them feel lousy inside. So they try to use words to make you feel as bad as they do right now. It’s their way of attempting to share with you how much it hurts to be them at the moment. They are communicating those “Big Feelings” that they simply can’t deal with – they are so overwhelming, and scary and strong, and what you are hearing is actually their pain. When we’re overloaded and distressed, all of us struggle to communicate effectively – the more upset we become the harder it is to find the right words and to convey them in the right way. Imagine you’re a child, who may have a communication impairment as well, and then think how hard it must be to express how they are feeling in a meaningful and calm way. Instead, we often get a torrent of abuse. They don’t really mean it, they are trying to replicate those horribly strong feelings to you in any way that they can. 
  5.  When life hits a really bad day, it can help if you can tackle the day in five minute chunks. Just stay in the moment and get through each five minute section of the day one at a time. Five minutes is doable, whereas acknowledging that you, say, have another seven and a half hours until bedtime is not. So instead, break up the day into lots of five minute chunks and mentally tick them off as the day goes by. Every one of them that you survive relatively intact, congratulate yourself.  We can all cope with five minutes of awfulness and mostly get out the other side OK, so keep going, five minutes at a time, and you’ll get through it more easily.  
  6. Always know that it’s not that your child is being naughty, disobedient, or badly behaved. This is their way of telling you that they are deeply unhappy, and that they have needs that are not being met. All behaviour is a form of communication, it’s just that we don’t always understand what our child is trying to tell us.
  7. It’s actually anxiety that’s nearly always behind these outbursts. Yet anxiety is a funny word, and it doesn’t really describe what we see well at all. When we think of anxiety, we think of someone behaving in a passive, withdrawn, quiet, biting-fingernails-sort-of-a-way, not the tirade of abuse and the aggression that VCB brings. However, if we substitute the word “fear” for “anxiety” it’s easier to see it for what it really is.  It is not an attack on us, it is a child screaming out and lashing out in fear. 
  8. When people are really frightened, they fight, they scream, they lash out, they feel threatened and they try to protect themselves. Our autonomic nervous systems are designed to deal with fear in the way that our caveman ancestors had to deal with it. When they were frightened, it was normally because their life was being threatened by a big grizzly bear or something similar who wanted to kill them to eat them. The autonomic nervous system was cleverly designed to deal with this sort of immediate and very real fear, and in this situation, instinctively, people had three options – to fight, to flight, or to freeze. Basically, to fight with every last ounce of strength, to run away as fast as they’d ever run before, or to freeze and hope that the grizzly bear wouldn’t notice them, or think that they were already dead. Here we are, thousands of years later, living in a very different type of civilisation, yet our autonomic nervous system hasn’t caught up with our societal changes. When we become fearful we still respond by instinctively wanting to Fight, Flight or Freeze. That’s what we’re seeing in our children too. In that moment when they are lashing out with all their might they are acting instinctively because they are so overwhelmed with big and negative feelings such as fear. In their hearts at those moments they aren’t hitting you, they are fighting for their very survival. 
  9. You are their parent. They trust you more than anyone. Of course you are the one who is going to get the brunt of the abusive language and the bruises because they know that you love them unconditionally. They are also dependent on you to sort out their problems, and when we know that all communication is a form of behaviour, it stands to reason that they will be communicating the loudest with you in whatever form that takes, such as physical violence or verbal abuse. Believe it or not, they are focusing on you because they trust you and rely on you the most. 
  10. When a child’s behaviour is difficult, parents can feel that they are being judged if they don’t go into “strict parent” mode. There is an expectation from society that if our children shout, we shout louder, that if they misbehave, we impose sanctions, and if they are rude, we take a zero tolerance approach. None of is likely to work with SEND VCB, and in fact it’s more likely to escalate things further. Shouting or talking in a harsh voice will increase their sense of being overloaded. Withdrawing privileges such as confiscating an ipad or a mobile phone will only make their distress worse, particularly if this is the very thing that helps them self-regulate and feel safe in a world that doesn’t always make sense to them. When our child is struggling with the big feelings, they need calm, reassurance and comfort – so doing the opposite of what we are expected to do is often the best way forward. SEND VCB is not something to punish or reprimand, this is their way of telling us that they aren’t coping right now. So instead of getting cross, it sometimes helps if we try to do the opposite of what society expects us to do. So, for instance, when your child is shouting, it helps if your voice is as calm and as gentle as possible. If your child is lashing out, it can help if you can use body language that appears gentle and non-threatening. You aren’t being soft, you’re being appropriate. 
  11. Remember that your child is not like this every waking moment – they have good times and they can be adorable too. Write down the adorable moments to capture them and to pull out and read on the awful days so that you remember that their behaviour doesn’t define them – they need help in understanding their big feelings and managing them, but they aren’t bad people.
  12. When they are in this state, they are already overwhelmed and overloaded with too many big feelings of their own. Try not to offload your own big feelings onto them too because they can’t manage them. Sometimes parents think that if their child sees that they are crying or upset it may help the child to understand that they are hurting their parents badly and that that might motivate them to stop. It doesn’t work like that with SEND VCB, because it’s not a bad behaviour issue, it’s an anxiety issue, and the child can’t help it. In those moments, they can’t handle all of their own feelings, so adding yours on top will only make them feel more overloaded. Sometimes, seeing a parent’s distress can escalate the child’s distress and make the situation worse. 
  13. Now this is a very difficult one, but if you can achieve it, even only sometimes, it can really help. Just because your child is desperately unhappy, you don’t have to be unhappy as well. Try to keep a perspective and a distance between who you are and how their behaviour makes you feel. In the same way that their behaviour doesn’t define them, don’t let it define you either. Keep hold of the belief that it won’t always be like this, and that, as time goes on and you begin to understand more and more of what’s behind their behaviour you’ll be able to help them reduce their anxiety and help them to learn how to self-regulate their own emotions more successfully. Read everything on this topic that you can find, go to any events, training or talks where it is being openly discussed. At the end of every day count your blessings – find something that was good about the day somewhere – even if it was just that it didn’t rain on the washing today. There is always something, however small. Promise yourself that you will do all can not to become a victim in all of this – instead, believe in your own resourcefulness and resilience. Stay as strong as you can be, because your child is looking to you to find a way to rescue them from these awful feelings, and to help them develop ways to self-regulate their own emotions and to cope better with day to day living. You will be able to do that, you just don’t quite know how to yet, but you’re getting there. You will rescue your child and your whole family from this in time.  Read this too – I wrote it for parents like us a few months ago, it’s about the Basics of VCB and may help you to help your child. 
  14. Self care is essential, and it’s possible to fit little calming strategies in during the day that only take a minute or two each. You can stand by the front door or an open window, and take three long and slow deep breaths. Imagine that you’re breathing out all that stress and upset, and that you’re breathing in strength and calmness. This can help you in two ways. Firstly it brings more oxygen on board very quickly so your brain and thinking skills are more efficient, which means that your problem solving abilities will improve almost instantly.  Deep breathing also has a physical calming effect too, and helps to reduce the adrenaline that races around our bodies when life gets stressful. 
  15. Talk about your family situation and your child’s behaviour – find someone you trust to confide in. This is too big to keep to yourself, you need the help and support of other people. For too long families have tried to contain it themselves and not tell anyone, and that’s part of the reason that there are very few services, very little training for professionals throughout healthcare, education or social services, and that nobody knows that this happens. Silence maintains the stigma, and isolates all our families. Bringing it out into the open is the only way we can get robust support and specialist intervention in place for our children, and it’s the only way we’ll get the help, information and support that we need too. If you have no one to talk to, please ask to  join the closed Facebook Group I run especially for parents in this situation.  It’s called “The SEND VCB Project – Support Group for Families”.