The First Steps in Turning Around your Child's Behaviour

Written by Yvonne Newbold

Whenever I talk to parents who have managed to start to successfully turn around their child’s SEND VCB behaviour, they can often look back and remember a particular moment when their whole focus shifted, and from then their whole parenting approach changed too. In that moment they moved away from the traditional parenting strategies which are based on parental authority, sanctions, consequences and admonishments. (SEND VCB stands for Special Educational Needs and Disabilities, Violent and Challenging Behaviour).

We had lived through some truly terrifying times before I was able to access expert behavioural help after 10 long years of violence at home. Back then there was very little information available and the internet was not the sophisticated vehicle that it is today. So by the time the specialist arrived I really thought I had done absolutely everything I possibly could, but looking back, all I had done was to shout louder, attempt to physically stop him hitting for longer and be more authoritarian than ever. I’d had years of people telling me that that was what I must do, and that I was a rubbish parent because I obviously wasn’t doing it properly.

Then this amazing chap arrived one afternoon an hour or so before Toby was due home from school. I was so relieved, and really hopeful that he would show Toby that his behaviour was unacceptable. We sat down over a cuppa and my first question was “So how do we get Toby to change then?”. This lovely man put his cup down, looked me straight in the eye, and very softly said “We can’t get Toby to change. Instead I’ll be showing you how to change”. In that moment I was really cross! I was fuming to be honest, thinking “what a stupid man, I’m doing everything right, I can’t tell him off any more firmly or hold him back any harder, and now this person has turned up just to blame me like everyone else does”. In my stubborn pig-headedness I was tempted to show him the door and slam it behind him!!! Thank goodness I didn’t.

Thank goodness I stayed in the moment and listened, really listened, and less than an hour later when Toby got home from school I was finally beginning to understand. Toby didn’t hate me, and he wasn’t doing this deliberately.  He wasn’t vindictive or evil and he didn’t enjoy hurting the rest of the family or trashing the house every evening. He was a hurting, sad, bewildered young man who didn’t understand how the world worked, and didn’t realise that we were all on his side wanting the very best for him too. This kind man gently explained anxiety and what it looks like, and how it can trigger the fight and flight mechanism, He showed me how to change the way I viewed it all, so I began to understand how, when Toby was lashing out, it was because he was incredibly frightened and was trying to ask for help. That day I heard those words for the first time that have since become a bit of a mantra for me “All behaviour is a form of communication”.

It took months of painstaking work, and there were times when I nearly threw in the towel and gave up because I didn’t think we were getting anywhere. Our behaviour specialist was always there, supporting me, listening and believing in both Toby and me. We got there in the end, and seven years later Toby is calm, happy, content and lives life to the absolute full. He copes with life and he is surrounded by love and understanding. SEND VCB is virtually a distant memory, something that is now hard to reconcile with the funny, boisterous, active, engaging and wonderful young man that Toby has become. I am extraordinarily proud of him, and it’s wonderful to see how the distress has melted away, allowing him to engage fully with the world around him on his own terms.

Changing the way I parented him was the hardest thing I’ve ever done but it has paid off again and again. We are so conditioned to parent in a traditional way that swimming against the tide and doing it differently is incredibly hard particularly when friends, family and professionals are all telling us we’re being too soft. It’s not soft, it’s actually the hardest version of parenting I know. As I changed though, so did Toby, because he responded to my changed approach in a different way.

It was all about working with Toby, working out what distressed him and why, looking underneath the behaviour for clues as to what might be causing it. My new parenting toolbox focused on love, kindness, quiet calmness and learning everything i could about the effect of sensory issues, transitions and routines on Toby’s well-being. It was a gentle, quiet and collaborative parenting style, with relationship building taking a far greater importance than imposing my parental authority. It was about reducing demands and letting things go, rather than insisting that things were done in a certain way and by a certain time. It takes lots of forward thinking, formulating exit strategies and Plan B’s, flexibility, re-direction and military-precision planning. There was lots of going back to the drawing-board and thinking all over again. It also never ever included showing any disapproval or disappointment in his behaviour, nor any consequences or sanctions whatsoever.  Letting it go wasn’t always easy, but it was essential. 

Of course we have to teach our children right from wrong and that violence is unacceptable, but mostly they already know that. Until we have removed several layers of their fear and anxieties they won’t be able to learn anything anyway or to take anything on board. They also often feel deeply ashamed of their behaviour afterwards and are full of self-blame and giving themselves a really hard time internally. Life lessons can wait until things have changed and shifted, and the chances are that by then, things will be so good that you won’t need any heavy chats about acceptable behaviour anyway, because it will organically have happened.

Toby is now 24 years old, with a profound learning disability that means his comprehension is around the same level as an 18 month old toddler. He is also non-verbal and autistic. If he can turn his behaviour around when we were unable to explain things in a way he understood, I firmly believe that almost any child or young person can do the same.

Looking back on those dreadful eight years, I wish with all my heart that someone had been able to show me how to do this much sooner. My children will never be able to recapture those years of their childhood, and if only I’d had the knowledge and the skills so much earlier Toby could have been spared those years of deep distress.

Here we are, several years later, and parents in this situation are still unable to access help. There is no training for front line professionals, there are virtually no services in place for our children, and I now know dozens of primary school age boys and girls who are already on a trajectory which is likely to lead directly to entering our criminal justice system or a locked mental health unit unless someone steps in and helps. Help isn’t on its way, nobody is coming to rescue our children and support their families.

That’s why I’m doing whatever I can to help parents acquire the skills that I eventually gained to empower them to help their own children.

I've written extensively on this issue, and I’m also writing a book about it too. NHS England invited me to do a Webinar for them as well, you’ll find the links to some of the articles and the Webinar below.

However, what I’m most proud of is the research project that has just been completed, working with a research team from Northumbria University. Parents from the closed Facebook Group were invited to take part, and over 100 of them volunteered, and between them they have produced an enormous and very powerful narrative. Their generosity in sharing their stories, giving their time and reliving some very difficult memories is humbling. Altogether we have collected over 220,000 words, which would fill three paperbacks from end to end. We’re currently making sense of the collective contributions, looking for commonalities and themes, with the first findings due to be presented at the IASSIDD Congress 2018 in Athens during July.  This is the first evidence-based qualitative study on the impact of SEND VCB in families, research that is essential if we are to acknowledge that this is an issue, and then train staff and develop services to respond to the enormous need.

Together we’re building a community, coming together to help each other and to share our successes and setbacks. When I first started focusing on this area, I felt that If we could prevent one child from facing a bleak and hopeless adulthood it would be wonderful, but only 18 months later and already there are more children than I can count who have managed to start to turn around their behaviour. Each one of these children has an amazing parent right behind them, believing that they can do it, and never giving up hope. If you know one of these families, please be on their side too, this isn’t easy and they need all the help they can get.