This post originally appeared on the Firefly Community blog.
Freddie is not keen on going back to school after the holidays, and I know that tomorrow he will not want to cooperate with the routine of getting up and getting ready. This can make for a very stressful start to the day.
One of the factors affecting the mental health of SEND parents is the behavioural profile of their child: parents who report that their child displays more difficult or ‘challenging’ behaviour typically exhibit poorer psychological well-being profiles than those who report that their child has fewer behavioural problems, or who perceive their child’s temperament to be ‘easy’. This is probably not surprising: coping with challenging behaviour is very stressful.
Freddie is capable of being very ‘challenging’, both literally and figuratively, and I am easily stressed and do not cope well under pressure. Obviously this is not a good mix. Chronic stress not only damages a person’s mental health, it damages their physical health, too. Often it also has a damaging effect on their relationships, just when they need those relationships the most. This is not the outcome I want for us. So the pressure is on to change his behaviour.
There, that’s more stress added to the situation right away – ‘the pressure is on the change his behaviour before he gets much bigger. Soon I won’t be able to pick him up/restrain him’. I’m starting to feel frazzled just typing it.
One particular flashpoint for us is the morning routine. It doesn’t make much difference whether it’s a school day or the weekend/holidays, he either simply refuses to co-operate, or randomly withdraws his co-operation at some point during the process, as though something has flicked a switch in his head. Oh, how I hate the sound of ‘NO!’ in the morning. And it always seems that the more of a hurry we are in, the worse he is; even if we’re getting ready for something nice that he really wants to do. It’s easy to end up an angry, screaming, palpitating mess, the outward signs of which are both exciting and disturbing to Freddie, so his negative behaviour just escalates.
The key, for me, to preserving my own wellbeing has been the realisation that what I need to do is not change Freddie’s behaviour in order to alleviate the stress, but to take as much stress as possible out of the situation while I work on his behaviour. But what can you do to take the stress out of this stressful situation? Here’s what I’ve found that helps Freddie and me to de-stress the morning rush:
Don’t be in a rush in the first place: this is easier said than done if you’ve got other children to care for, have to get off to work, or have been up half the night and desperately need to catch up on sleep, but I cannot overstate how helpful it is to me to allow more time than we really need for Freddie to complete his morning routine. Building in extra time not only allows for any delays or refusals that will inevitably take place some days, but also means that I can allow the extra processing time he needs, and it means that, on good days, I have time to reward him for co-operating or completing his routine promptly. If I know I have more than enough time, then not only am I not in a rush physically or logistically, but I’m not in a rush mentally either. In an atmosphere of tension Freddie doesn’t process what I want him to do, he just goes into fight-or-flight mode. But if I am relaxed, so is he; he is better able to process what he’s supposed to be doing, and I can allow him all the time he needs for that, and if he still decides he doesn’t want to co-operate, I have the time to walk away and plan what I’m going to do to change that. I can’t tell anyone else how to arrange it so that this extra time is possible – it will vary for each individual according to their circumstances.
Use visuals: we have found visual schedules and ‘Now and Next’ pictures useful in helping Freddie to understand what we want him to do, and what is going to happen next. Visual information helps him make sense of the verbal, and knowing what is coming next helps him feel secure. But, on their own, these visuals have not been enough to ensure his full co-operation.
Walk away from conflict: because even if I win the fight today, ultimately I’ll lose the battle. One day, in the not too distant future, Freddie will be as big as me. He’s already almost as strong. The day is coming when I won’t be able to pick him up and move him to where I need him to be, I won’t be able to tuck him under my arm and wash his face for him. So, now when he refuses to do something, if I can I walk away and go and do something else. This gives me time for calm reflection, to plan what I might do instead to get his co-operation. The very act of doing so means that Freddie is aware that I am not paying attention to him. It gives him time to process what is happening and decide what he is going to do about it. He likes my attention, so sometimes just walking away for a few minutes is enough to get him to come around, and he’ll either attempt to start the task I wanted him to complete, or come trotting after me to let me know he’s ready. If he does this I give him lots of enthusiastic praise, big smiles, hugs and high-fives. We have a bit of a laugh together as we go, if he’s pretending to be one of his favourite TV characters I’ll play along. If he’s been watching Waffle The Wonder Dog we’re onto a winner, he’s much more likely to be co-operative. If he’s clapped eyes on Peppa Pig, though, we’re in for merry hell. So much so that I’ve actually banned him from watching it, and nobbled his iPad so that he can’t. After I did that even his teacher said how much better his compliance was.
Sometimes, however, instead of coming around he decides to go off and get into mischief. In that case I ignore that too, if safe to do so, or wordlessly and without eye contact, remove the source of the mischief. I don’t see this ‘planned ignoring’ as doing nothing, or letting him get away with things. I see it as choosing not to give any of my precious attention to negative behaviour. If Freddie wants my attention he needs to be good.
Change the mood: some mornings, if I can see that we’re heading into a negative spiral, behaviour-wise, I attempt to change the direction of his mood by using either humour or affection. I might do something unexpected and silly – if he’s refusing to get dressed I offer to help, but put his pants on his head, and try to hang his socks on his ears, or I’ll get his toothbrush and say ‘it’s time to brush your feet, and make out that I’m actually going to start cleaning between his toes. Or something like that – you can’t try the same thing too often. But sometimes humour doesn’t work, sometimes it makes him more grumpy, so then I might try to persuade him to give me a big hug when he’s spoiling for a fight, or suggest a mini-bath instead of his usual wash and brush up – when he’s being beastly he often needs me to be extra nice (just when I least feel like it). Again, this is where having that extra time is so helpful, and, again, what someone else decides they can do to change the mood will depend on their individual circumstances.
Rewards: I always try to reward Freddie if he’s been co-operative because, although at the moment he isn’t always motivated by the promise of a reward, in the long run I want to build up the idea in his mind that good behaviour tends to lead to good things. The reward depends on how much time we have – it might be ten or fifteen minutes on the iPad, or some time to play basketball together outside, or to read a book together. Anything that allows him to have my undivided attention for a little while always goes down well. If we haven’t got much time I still make sure that I give him lots of praise, big smiles and hugs, and tell him how happy it makes me when he co-operates. I also put a sticker in his home-school book and a note to tell his teacher how good he’s been (but on the bad days I don’t put anything at all in the book, we just leave it unsaid).
Mornings still don’t always proceed completely smoothly, but they are less frustrating, less angry, less stressful. Even when things don’t go according to plan it doesn’t lead to the same negative emotions that it used to. Freddie and I have more positive interactions overall, and part company for the day on more positive terms. Most importantly of all, it helps to preserve, not only my wellbeing, but a close and upbeat relationship with Freddie.