About eighteen months ago, Youngest was taken over by anxiety and confusion in addition to his fairly traumatic co-existence with the medical profession and some learning difficulties. This complex combination of factors led to something which is far more common and prevalent in the SEND world, but has to date been a source of deep shame and isolation for families like mine: SEND (special education needs and disabilities) VCB (violent and challenging behaviour.
When our children are overwhelmed or overcome by the world around them, their levels of anxiety rise to incomprehensible levels. At this point, their brain is programmed to do only one thing: run or fight. All the blood supply is redirected to the large muscles of the legs and arms, and two things shut down completely: the pre-frontal cortex, which allows you to think and communicate; and the digestion. Many people in this high state of anxiety will vomit precisely because of this shut down. More commonly, children who already have difficulties processing their surroundings got into “fight” mode. And they become violent, most often with those they love the most.
I suppose unsurprisingly, there is enormous judgement about this behaviour if spotted in public. However, it most frequently occurs behind closed doors, and parents are left desperate and convinced they are doing something wrong. Worse, if and when they talk about the situation, professionals point to their parenting skills, and add blame to the shame that both parent and child already feel about this.
I have experienced SEND VCB with all three of my children at one time or another. I can without exception point to a period of intense and overwhelming remorse for their actions once the storm had passed. And then the remorse and shame they felt caused such self-hatred that they would turn that violence inwards. I have to ask those professionals that may have advised me in the past, and those that advise families today: how does adding blame and guilt benefit anyone in this situation?
Slowly, there is a growing movement to raise awareness about this, especially within the NHS, thanks to my wonderful friend, Yvonne Newbold.
My experience has led me to change my parenting style quite dramatically, and many would disagree. I suppose the only thing I can point to is the calm and quiet in my house, the happy dynamics between three very different siblings, and the increasing empathy and willingness they have to help out.
- We do not limit screen time. At all.
- We do not impose any consequences or punishments for “bad behaviour”. And actually, since doing that, I can honestly say that they have NEVER behaved badly. We have had periods of deep anxiety and distress, but they do not lie, they are not rude, they do not cheat, they help out.
- We do not reward good behaviour either.
- We talk. A lot.
And we consider the children equal in value to the adults. Which means some difficult conversations at times… why should Mum and Dad watch TV in the sitting room at night rather than a child play on the PS4 (at the moment, because I say so… but there is scope and maybe need for more change and compromise).
For Youngest, we needed something additional, something that simply won’t be possible for many families. We needed a dog.
This was a huge decision for me. I am not a “dog” person, and I was well aware that all the work would be done by me. I thought about it for a long time, knowing absolutely that it would be hugely beneficial for him, but really concerned at the impact on me and the rest of the family. Girl loved the idea, Eldest hated it. Husband was not keen on the change and additional work.
I had looked into assistance dogs, but this clearly was impossible for all sorts of reasons. So I reasoned that if we got a puppy, we could train him or her to manage Youngest’s needs.
Serendipity stepped in, and we found ourselves meeting an amazing family who were expecting their first litter of labradors. Shadow was born on the 2nd of January, 2017, and we met him only days later. Then weekly until he was able to come home. Youngest was speechless with joy, which is no mean feat given his seemingly endless capacity for chitter chatter.
Puppy training has been hard work, and I am incredibly happy to see him grow up and settle down. I do find the relentlessness of dog walking and dog company tiring, but I also know that those walks have done me a lot of good, and it turns out that I can be (sort of) a dog person.
Because Shadow has changed our lives. Since coming home in March 2017, Shadow has been Youngest’s best friend. And Youngest has experienced only two meltdowns in all that time. Shadow comforts him when he is sad, provides a comfortable cushion when he is ill or exhausted, and his mere presence seems to be enough to avoid those levels of anxiety that trigger VCB.
If you are affected by SEND VCB.. as a parent, family member, sibling, professional, go and look around Yvonne’s site. There is crucially important information there that will change the way you work and live with our young people.