What to Do When Your SEND Child Controls the Whole Family 

Written by Yvonne Newbold

Children with additional needs often become very anxious, distressed, confused or frustrated simply because they may not quite understand the world around and how it works. They may find other people confusing too and not to be able to always understand the way they are acting or what they are saying or meaning. Often this means that they have some real needs that aren’t being met, and they don’t always have the words to tell us what help they really need.

When this happens the world can become a very frightening place, and they may well feel threatened by things that we, as adults, wouldn’t give a second thought to. When any of us become frightened and distressed, our anxiety levels ramp right up, and that causes us to move towards a state of fight and flight.

As soon as we start feeling heightened levels of anxiety, we are unable to think clearly and our communication skills deteriorate as well. All our focus is on trying to feel safe and to protect us from whatever it is that we are feeling threatened by. It’s exactly the same for our children.

Is there anything that you’re frightened of? Lots of us are frightened of things like spiders, or wasps, or going on planes, needles or lifts. If that’s the case, others may tease us or laugh at us because to them it’s irrational, but to those of us who are frightened it’s very very real, and what we need in those moments is compassion, understanding and support to cope better.

When we are put into a situation where we have to face our fears, how do we cope? Some people might “control” the spider or wasp by either killing it or putting a glass over it until someone braver comes along who can sort it out properly. We may “control” the plane travel fear by ensuring we only holiday in the UK or take a ferry somewhere instead, and we can “control” needle-phobia by simply not turning up for the blood test and tuning it out completely.

Just think about anything you’re frightened of and try to remember how you felt last time you had to cope with it alone. Somehow, we get through it, but it’s not easy, we may not handle it in the best way, and until the perceived threat has disappeared, we are unlikely to be able to concentrate on doing anything else whatsoever.

If nobody else is around, or even if they are but they don’t understand how frightened we feel, we may have to find a way of problem-solving our own way out through our fears, so that we feel safe again.

Feeling safe is a basic human need and all of us strive to do whatever we can to remove any threats that frighten us, problem-solving at a time when our own thinking skills won’t be at their most effective. Our children are exactly the same.

When our children are feeling frightened, distressed, confused or threatened, their anxiety levels can quickly trigger their autonomic nervous system’s response of fight or flight, which can cause them to have a violent episode or to run away from what feels frightening. In that moment they feel so intensely threatened that they are either fighting as hard as they can for their very survival or they are running away from danger as fast as their legs will carry them.

To ensure that their muscles are pumped up and ready for a quick burst of energetic fight or flight, blood is diverted away from the brain, so their thinking and communication skills are beyond their reach. If only they could say “Please help me, I’m scared” it would make everything easier, but in that moment they just can’t. Instead we can try and remember to translate it for them.

However, what happens if, despite the fight and flight response, the fear is still there? Or if there are so many fears that they are completely overwhelming? Our children will try to find other ways to keep themselves feeling safe, and one of the most common ways of doing this is to become controlling.We all do it. Whenever we’re feeling unsafe, unsure or insecure, we all have a tendency to try and persuade other people to do what we want.

If the world feels unsafe and unpredictable, it’s human nature to do all whatever we can to control as many parts of that world as we possibly can. Controlling behaviour is a very common response to fear, feeling threatened and feeling out of control. When things don’t add up or make sense to our children in the world around them, sameness feels safer, and unpredictability can feel very risky indeed.

Other people are unpredictable; a child may well seek to control absolutely everything a family member does simply to make themselves feel safer and so that they are able to function a little bit better.

Other children, their own brothers and sisters, are particularly unpredictable, especially if they are much younger. Children jump, shout, sing, talk, laugh and play in completely random ways, which can feel extremely threatening and frightening to a sensitive child who is already struggling to make some sense of the world around them. No wonder a SEND VCB child might seek to control them.

However, we adults often see this controlling behaviour and assume it comes from a place of unkindness, spitefulness and malice. Once we start thinking along those lines, we often try to address it as if it’s a really unpleasant behaviour issue that needs to be quickly nipped in the bud.

Nearly always though, the child who is doing the controlling has very little concept of how their controlling behaviour is impacting on everyone else, and they are simply trying to find a way to make the world seem safer and easier to understand. They are just trying to protect themselves from what feels like real threats.

This controlling can start off very gradually, so slowly that you barely notice it escalating until you reach a point whereby the child is ruling the roost completely. By the time you realise how bad it’s become you may already have got to the stage where nobody in the family dares to step out of line. They all know how quickly things can get much worse and how violent the consequences of resisting control can be.

It’s incredibly easy to get into that situation; we did with Toby at the worst of our SEND VCB years in our family. However, it’s much less easy to reverse it, but it is possible. With lots of time, patience and understanding, you can help your child to move towards a much happier and more equal family dynamic.

Just think too how desperately sad this whole situation is for the child at the centre of it as well. They started using controlling behaviour because they felt so unsafe and frightened. As a result, it can end up with them being in charge of the whole house and everyone in it. Just think how frightening that must feel. They haven’t got the life-skills, the experience or the maturity to handle such a huge responsibility, and they can quickly become isolated from and feared by the rest of their family too. This will only increase their fears and distress, and add in a whole new sense of being unloved and lonely.

Here are some steps about how to help your child to become less controlling:

1. Understand that your child’s controlling behaviour comes from a place of intense fear and distress, it’s not that they want to be horrible.

2. This is true even if they say some horrible things or become violent if their family members don’t always comply with their demands. They are trying to feel safe, try not to think of it as “trying to get their own way”

3. Stay calm, with a softly calming, kind and non-judgemental tone of voice

4. Try to identify what their fears or unmet needs might be. This can be hard, but just keep looking, stay curious and write everything down because you may start to see patterns

5. Look towards sensory issues, communication difficulties and a need for sameness and routine, including transitions, to help you identify what might be behind this deep distress

6. Respond to the child’s distress rather than their behaviours

7. Don’t expect any quick-fixes or overnight solutions. This controlling behaviour is very complex and took a long time to become established. It’s likely to need a lot of unpicking and a very gradual return to how things should be.

8. Your child’s sense of safety and emotional well-being needs to set the pace of this “unpicking”. They may feel very alone and isolated, and as if they are apart from the rest of the family. Any change is likely to make them feel even more unsettled, even a very positive change in approach

9. Focus on building trust with your child. Your relationship with them may well need a lot of work to heal and recover

10. Never give up and always believe in your child, and your own ability to make things better. You’ve got this!