Violent Children - Should Parents Ever Restrain?

Written by Yvonne Newbold

Parents of children who have an additional need and who also can be violent at home often ask me how to best restrain their child, or if I know of any training providers who could train them in restraint methods. Restraining  children is such a difficult issue and everyone understandably has very strong views on it.

Broadly speaking, there are two opposing points of view among parents of children with SEND VCB (Special Educational Needs and Disability, Violent and Challenging Behaviour). One set believe that their child’s violence and self-injurious behaviour is so extreme that restraint is, at times, an absolute necessity. The other group of parents believe that restraint should never ever be used, and if it is used, it should only ever be as an absolute last resort when there is imminent and significant danger to life.

The two viewpoints can seem so diametrically opposed that there is no or very little common ground and this can lead to disagreements, conflicts and heated debate which is always sad. Parents can find these disagreements very hurtful and divisive, when ideally we should all be pulling together in the same direction and supporting each other.

However, “restraint” as a word is very emotive and can conjure up images of big burly blokes pinning a child to the ground and sometimes by using that word parents are giving completely the wrong impression of what they are actually doing. Sometimes it’s a parent’s role to prevent our children doing something and most parents have physically held on tightly to a small child near traffic to keep them safe. If by “restraint” what you really mean is “I had to hold him back to stop him kicking his brother” it’s probably better if you explain exactly what you did and why and don’t actually use the word “restraint” in case it wrongly rings alarm bells in others.

Restraint training is now increasingly called “Safe Handling” and training is generally only available to staff members from organisations such as schools, local authorities, play schemes, respite centres or similar facilities. It is very difficult for parents to access this sort of training and there are some very good reasons for this. Here are just some of them.

1. When children are in the midst of a SEND VCB episode, they are not misbehaving, they are in the deepest distress possible. Their behaviour is a direct result of their “Fight and Flight” response being triggered by extreme anxiety and fear. At that moment, they are not aware that they are lashing out at those they love the most, instead, they believe that they are fighting for their very survival. To restrain a child who is already in the deepest of distress will only escalate their fears and anxieties and is more likely to escalate the situation rather than to calm it down.

2. A good way to think of it is to compare a child in the middle of a SEND VCB episode with an injured wild animal, who will also have had their “fight or flight” response activated. The wild animal is hurt and scared and you only want to help, but if you approach and try to “restrain” them to take them to the vet for help, they will panic even more and kick and bite and scratch all the more, trying to escape.

3. When staff restrain a child, they are working as part of a team. They would be unlikely to restrain alone, or to take a decision to restrain on their own either. During the act of restraining, there are likely to be colleagues in the vicinity who will witness what is happening and who can corroborate that such actions were justified, that they were carried out according to policy and that undue force was not used. Every incident that restraint is used is recorded. Organisations also have robust insurance policies which are likely to include legal cover for staff members who are accused of wrong-doing in relation to restraining. Parents have none of these safeguards, checks and balances.

4. A family home is a completely different environment which makes it a very different situation regarding restraint. Often during SEND VCB episodes, there is only one adult present, which means there are no witnesses to corroborate that it was done fairly, with no undue force being used. Acting alone makes parents incredibly vulnerable to accusations of abuse. How can a parent defend themselves if a bruise is noticed on a child a few days later and the child tells their teacher that “mummy did it”? Sadly though, it may not just be a bruise. Restraint injuries can be much more serious, including broken bones or dislocated joints and tragically, sometimes, even death. Restraint can and does go wrong, with catastrophic results sometimes, even when it’s being carried out by members of staff who have been highly trained in safe methods of restraint or safe handling.

5. We are emotionally involved with our children and our relationship with them is entirely different. This means that restraining an already highly distressed child risks breaking down their trust in us, or their belief that we love them. It also means that when our children are in the middle of a SEND VCB episode, we are likely to also be triggering our own “Fight and Flight” responses. When that happens, we are unable to access the frontal lobe part of our brain which is responsible for our judgement, problem solving, self-control and rational thinking. Basically, if we restrain a child in this “heat of the moment” situation when we are unable to use these essential skills or to think on our feet, we inadvertently put both ourselves and our child at risk of physical injury.

6. A child may be able to accept a staff member restraining them, but they may never fully understand why their parent did it to them, and this can have a long term and detrimental effect on the parent/child relationship, when it is of paramount importance to strengthen this bond and relationship as part of being able to support them to overcome their violent behaviours. A child will not have the maturity to understand that a parent restrained them to protect them from harm, they are likely to remember the incident in terms of that mummy or daddy “tried to hurt me”.

7. In that moment of restraining our own child, we are teaching them that physical force is legitimate and can be used to get our own way. This is exactly the lesson we do not wish to teach a child who has SEND VCB.

8. To attend a course on restraint or on “safe handling” normalises and legitimises doing this to our children. With the best intentions in the world, it changes the landscape so that restraint is often no longer seen as the absolute last resort. It can start to feel that it’s OK to use it as the first resort, or perhaps the only resort.

9. Most reputable safe handling training providers won’t accept parents onto their courses because they know that there can be no on-going workplace support nor a team approach or implemented policies and procedures to be followed. They can’t take the risk of an unsupervised lone parent restraining a child and it could also have an impact on their insurance.

10. A small child of perhaps seven years old or under can be relatively easy to restrain. However, children grow up and get bigger and stronger. Ideally, we should be working with our children when they are still small on strategies, techniques, emotional regulation and lots of other life skills that can help them find other ways to express their unmet needs besides resorting to violence. If we concentrate on restraint as a primary method of controlling them when they are small, what happens when they are sixteen years old, bigger and stronger than we are and restraint is no longer an option?

11. When we restrain, we are actively seeking to solve the situation from an adult perspective, instead of imparting the essential tools and practice time that a child needs to be able to find their own solutions to self-regulate their emotions.

12. Would you ever restrain an adult stranger in the street? If so, what set of circumstances would there have to be for you to actively seek to stop an adult moving around of their free will? Perhaps they are wielding a knife, or threatening to push someone under traffic? It would have to be extreme circumstances for you to even consider intervening to restrain a fellow-adult. It would also help to have witnesses to speak up for why you did it and you would also need to have enough of a reason to hold up in a court of law if the person you were restraining accused you of assault. It would be a one-off, once in a lifetime event, and something that you would wish you hadn’t had to get involved in. When you are considering restraining a child, it can be a good idea to use the same set of criteria that you would use before making a decision to be a “have-a-go-hero” in the street. Is anybody’s life in imminent danger? Is there any other way I could solve this crisis? Are there witnesses who can stand up for me? What can I say to a judge in court to absolutely prove to him or her without a shadow of doubt that I had no choice? With our children, and in our own homes, there is nearly always a choice, although when our brains are not functioning correctly due to the fight and flight instinct, those choices are not always obvious. In the same way that I can’t tell you that you must never restrain a stranger in the street under any circumstances, it would be equally irresponsible of me to say “never” in relation to a child. However, please be aware that you are making yourself very vulnerable to child protection proceedings and please be sure that there really is no other choice. I would also strongly advise that you write down everything that happened and sign and date it so that you have a clear record of the incident from your perspective.

The reality is that there are many parents who may read this who are using restraint with their children and if that’s you, the last thing I want is that you feel blamed or judged for using restraint. When our children first develop violent behaviours at home it is so bewildering and shocking that we will instinctively do whatever we can to stop it happening and that often means that restraint becomes an established pattern and response. When SEND VCB first starts happening very few parents understand that it is due to anxiety, distress and fear and so it gets treated as a “behaviour” issue, with traditional “carrot and stick” parenting techniques used to try to curtail it. It can be years before parents understand that it’s about anxiety rather than naughtiness and then a parent has to make a huge adjustment in their parenting approaches to be able to implement the sort of strategies that can work well to turn children’s behaviour around.

At the start of a family’s journey with SEND VCB, restraint can seem like the only thing that can stop the violence in its tracks. It takes time to learn about different approaches and to learn new skills that we can use instead. So many families will feel they may need a lot of time while they learn and then implement other strategies before they feel able to move away from restraining. If that’s where you and your family are now, it would be great if you can aspire towards a time when restraint is no longer used at home, as much to protect you as to protect your child.

It’s also easy for some parents in the thick of things with SEND VCB as a daily occurrence to think that maybe other parents don’t need to use restraint. They may think that maybe other people’s children aren’t as extreme, or as frighteningly violent as their own are, but I promise you that isn’t the case. It takes time, there are no easy solutions or overnight quick fixes, but you can turn things around for your child. There are now numerous families I know who have successfully made huge progress with their children’s SEND VCB. Some of them a year ago were using restraint methods every day or even several times a day and now they simply don’t need to at all. It has taken enormous effort, tenacity and gritty determination and there are some days, or even weeks, when nothing seems to work and things seem to be going backwards. Yet they have persevered and there are now a significant number of families who have moved on from restraint and are leading their children into calmer, happier and safer futures. This time last year they didn’t believe it was possible either.

If you want to do it too we’re all here to help. See below for links to other resources, join our closed Facebook support group for parents or come to one of our Workshops. You aren’t alone and things can and do get better.