Friday, 27 July 2012

The Anxiety of Separation

I was listening yesterday to someone offering advice around 'separation anxiety' for young children and how to address it.  In many respects what was being said sounded sensible but it still made me inwardly scream at my computer.  Why?  Mainly because I have firmly come to the belief that children always do things for a reason and that generally these are reasons which are logical given what life  has taught them thus far.  Children are born wired for survival and to let the main source of comfort and getting their needs met go can seem devastating.

For children who have lived through domestic violence and abuse, or for those going through a family break up, either from a relationship break down, or by being taken into the care system, the thought of being separated from their main carer can be too traumatic.  If a child has had to leave their home, go into a refuge or stay in a strange place, has seen their Dad or Mum leave the family home, or has been removed from their own home and placed with strangers then this will have a profound effect on how they view their World.

Adults often wrongly assume that because a child is now free from the tensions and fears which come from living with any kind of abuse or violence that they will be so relieved and grateful that they will be more able to relax and get on with the important task of being a child.  However, this takes time and one of the most important elements to adjusting post trauma and abuse is the relationship and availability of a the main carer.. 

If we consider that our brains are all about helping us survive and that our behaviour throughout life is dominated by this inbuilt response in a variety of ways to getting our basic needs met.  A baby is already wired pre-birth to tune in its mother, or in their absence, the main carer, as its source of food, comfort, safety and care, if this is not readily available then this will create anxiety around getting basic needs met which will often continue through life.

When a child grows up in a home where things are unpredictable, tense and chaotic they will not experience the reassurance of a regular routine and a readily available carer.  They will experience stress and ongoing anxiety without comfort and containment so that levels will remain high and the child will grow up with few certainties to draw upon in later life.  When it comes time for a child to then be separated from the only person who has been available to them in some capacity, however erratically, they will experience high levels of stress and anxiety but without the ability to understand or regulate these strong physical and psychological reactions.

In my experience extra time and a great deal of patience, support and planning is needed if a child has to be apart from their main carer.  This can be hard for parents/carers and professionals as there are often conversations around the child 'controlling' everyone and being manipulative.  Behaviour may appear like this but given that they may feel that their carer might not be safe with out them, or they might not come back for them or the abuser may find either of them whilst they are apart and take one of them.  If the child had an abrupt departure from their home they may wonder if a social worker will just tum up at school today and take them away from their new foster carer.

There are many complex thoughts and feelings which may run through a child's head just before and at the point of separation and there has been research to show that the stress hormone cortisol, which stimulates the body for fight/flight/freeze, is at a high level during this process and with out someone in the Nursery or school who understands this and tries to help lower it by encouraging self soothing activities and techniques then the child will remain in this uncomfortable physical and mental state for the rest of the day.

Of course, there comes a point where children do have to be separated but as I said it needs careful, gentle handling and is a much longer process requiring investment, patience, compassion and understanding by all parties prior to attempting it.  Seek advice and support whether you are a professional or the child's carer and steer clear of thinking it's just got to be done now as it may have to wait and be done very slowly to build confidence and trust and that takes time.

Saturday, 14 July 2012

Leaving - a child's view

What's Mum doing at school, it's not home time.  She says I have to come now and won't even let me change out of my PE kit.  Why is there a taxi full of bags waiting outside?  Mum says we are going on a kind of holiday but Dad's not coming, nor is Bengy, my dog.  Mum won't answer my questions about where we are actually going, she just does a tight face smile but not with her eyes.  Maybe she really is crazy, Dad always calls her the "Crazy Bitch", never "your Mum".  The Crazy Bitch forgot my fags, the Crazy Bitch cooks crap, the Crazy Bitch........ on an on.  I just used to want to shout, "CALL HER MUM, SHE'S MY MUM" but was too afraid.

How will Miss Clark know where I am, what will she tell everyone in class?  What about Raj, I'm going to his for tea tonight, wonder if he will wait for me after school?  Ben's still got my Rooney shinny as well, will I get that back now, it's my best one?  What about Amy, she said I could have some of her apple at last break?  Mum seems jumpy, talking too much and squeezing my hand too hard.

Finally, we are here, where's here, somewhere but where, Mum won't say.  So many bags to bring in, heavy too, I'll help, have too as Dad's not around but then he would have called us "lazy" anyway and probably kicked the bags before dragging them in.  It's like a big house with loads of bedrooms, big kitchens, a play room, garden, all kind of weird.  Some woman's been talking with Mum for ages, Mum starts crying, I want to go home, Bengy will have missed his walk and won't know where I am.  I wonder what Dad's doing?  Going mental 'cos Mum's not there to cook his tea, hope he feeds Bengy though.

There's other kids here, some little, one big girl and Kate and Ty the same age as me.  Mum says we can all be friends but I want Amy, Raj and Ben not new friends.  I get to share a bedroom with Mum, I miss my things but want to be near her as it feels scary here with all these strangers.  Mum says I can sleep in her bed if I want - I do, then I can keep us safe.

I don't want to leave our room, Mum says I need to go out and play but what if the other kids are mean or think I'm strange because I came here in my PE kit and my Mum keeps crying all the time.  I want to ask Mum but she's on the phone the whole time to Auntie Liz and Nan and Jaz.  I'm hungry, when is tea, how will we get any, can I just take something from the kitchen?  Mum keeps saying, "in a minute, in a minute".  Downstairs now, Kate's given me a biscuit, her Mum seems kind, she's cooking me some tea, Kate says let's go play, she likes footie and might have a Rooney shinny to swop later.

Bedtime Mum says, she puts me in the bath, not our bath, no toys but she sits and chats, she says we will be OK.  We can't go home 'cos Dad is too angry right now and might hurt us but Auntie Liz has Bengy so he's safe, I start to cry then,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,

Monday, 9 July 2012

Starting Over.

One of the main practical barriers to leaving an abusive relationship is the thought of becoming homeless.  Where will I go with my children, they don't deserve to loose everything, they will be scared, they will miss their friends, their school, what if I can't find anywhere?  What about the dog, they love the dog, I just decorated the lounge it took me hours, he'll trash all our stuff, how will I get anything new, how will I pay the bills, who will help me?  Where do I go for help, how do I get another house, do I need a deposit, I've got no money what will I do?  Better to sit tight for now he might change and the children don't seem to notice too much, it'll be OK.

Imagine leaving your home, all of your things and everyone you know and then being told you have to go to a hostel. Imagine leaving your home, all of your things and everyone you know and then being told you have to go to a refuge.  It may be that it has come to the point where you feel that anywhere is preferable to the abuse and violence but in reality it will be frightening and full of uncertainty. 

At the refuge they help with the housing forms, your benefits will be put in your name, they have loaned you some cash and are kind and supportive.  You must go to the housing office today and start the ball rolling, the staff are kind but you don't fully understand what they are telling you, its all so new, you've never had to do it before.  Not many 3 bedroom houses around, private renting would be the quickest way to get rehoused but you are scared.  At least with a local authority house you will be able to settle and not have to worry about a 6 month lease and moving everyone again, that just seems impossible, too much stress, upheaval, uncertainty, just what you don't need or the children.

"Refuge life is hectic, 5 of us in one bedroom, not much sleep, Jess still wets herself at night, Josh has nightmares, Anna can't get to sleep and Jake gets grumpy when everyone keeps him awake.  The children ask everyday if they you can go home to get some of their stuff, interestingly they don't ask to go back their to live, they know he is still there.  Today I found Josh and Anna tearing up some magazines which are there for everyone to share, I got angry and told them off, then I saw they were pictures of houses and different types of bedrooms, they were just dreaming, I felt so bad and sad.  Was it really so terrible with him?  At least we had our own bedrooms, own things, a clean, tidy home and didn't have to share with strangers.  On Facebook Cassie said he had been in touch with her and said he wants us back and that we'll all go on that family holiday to Disney World he always promised the children.

Bidding number it through now so I can start to actively bid on a house, the children seem excited and want to join in but how do I know which is a good one?  I don't know the areas they are in, are the schools good, how safe is it, will there be a nursery for Jess, will there be any work round there, will he be able to find us easily, are there any shops, are the buses good, is there a doctors nearby, how will I meet anyone?  How to choose, its such a huge decision, what if I get it wrong and we don't like it? What if we have to move again because he does find us?

We've chosen two houses to bid on and are 2nd in line for the one we think we really want, we find out tomorrow, I can hardly sleep tonight, what if , what if, what if?  We got it, the children are so excited and are planning their bedroom schemes as we speak, the trouble is we have NOTHING, no fridge, no cooker, no washing machine, no beds, no bedding, no curtains, no cutlery, no plates, no glasses, no cups, nothing.  Refuge staff are helping a grant and charity applications which is great but so humiliating, I worked hard for all our lovely things, the Police say they went to see him and its all gone, so is he.

So after nearly 5 months of waiting, bidding and living in the refuge, we have to pack up and be in the new house by Monday so we'll be 'camping' at first!  Some one donated some mattresses so that will do, we just want to be in there now and even Jake is looking forward to being back at school.  Oh God, they will all need new uniforms, another form to beg for help just to buy something so necessary, so basic, will I ever get used to it?

The house is OK, schools are walking distance and the family next door are friendly and have children too, we all slept together on 2 mattresses last night, not ideal but we were all a bit nervous, our first night ever without him.  Not much sleep but we are all full of energy to day, the grant came through so its off to Asda to start getting the children's duvets, curtains, bedding, they are so excited, maybe it will be alright now?"

Thursday, 5 July 2012

Parenting Beyond the Violence and Abuse

So can the non-abusive parent, usually but not always a Mum but I will refer to them this way as its shorter than non-abusive parent, turn things around post abuse for the family?  In practical terms it is always an uphill struggle, they may have moved into a refuge, escaping the abuse but losing everything they had and everyone they knew.  Children may be very confused, yet relieved but may also miss the abuser and have mixed feelings about wanting to see him again.  There is a great sense of loss and upheaval and getting a new home, an income and the children's schools sorted take priority over everything else so parenting can be a bit ad hoc as they get through to the next stage of finding a home.

The whole family is reeling from the abuse and loss and may be living communally in the refuge with other families in a similar state and this does not always unite them as, in some cases, women and children are so traumatised and reactive that they clash and replicate the chaos and aggression they are used too.  Families who get to stay in their own home, and I have not known many for whom that has worked out well, often have a 'honeymoon' period where they can live with out 'his' rules and constant stress and fear which is wonderful for them.  However, the children's trauma would then gradually come out in behaviour which was hard to parent, especially as the Mum would be trying to deal with her own trauma, the loss of her partner and keeping the family afloat.

Children's trauma can be expressed in a range of ways and this can often be challenging and alarming and hard work to understand and to parent.  It may be, as is very common, that they struggle to go to bed, to get to sleep and to stay in their own beds.  This can lead to busy, hectic nights where limited sleep is had by everyone.  They may have anxieties around food and eating, they may start soiling themselves or behaving like a much younger child, the list goes on but most of all they may be aggressive, explosive and out of control.  Of course, children who have not lived with domestic violence and abuse can also go through periods of any of these behaviours but they are usually a transition and if handled well will soon pass.

For families where there has long been the threat of or actual violence or severe control or daily abuse and ridicule the effects have become ingrained in both the parent and the children so it will take time to come out the other side and a specific parenting approach, which needs to be replicated in school and preschool and by everyone in close contact with them.  The training and parenting programme I have developed teach this approach and my hope is that they will be widely taken up by practitioners, parents and carers and close family members.  I have known several families that fully embraced the programme and the outcomes have been amazing for all of them but it is ongoing and not just a family 'diet' but more a change in attitudes and thinking for life.
 For more information on my training in Bristol in September for practitioners -, places still available, contact me directly for a booking form

Sunday, 1 July 2012

Time Out on Time Out

When you send me to my room, put me on the 'naughty step', thinking cushion, calm down zone, out of the classroom, down from the table how do you think I feel? 

At that moment when I have hit my brother, snatched the toy, knocked my tea on the floor, shouted "no" in your face, ignored you for the nth time, refused to do what you tell me, I have pushed you too far.  To make you angry with me was not my intention, I wanted your attention, I wasn't concentrating, I had switched off, I was being a child and just wanted the toy, was frustrated with my brother but now I am in trouble.

Sitting on this stair, standing in this corridor, sitting away from you, from everyone, how do I feel?  How do you want me to feel?  Sorry, ashamed, like I want to be good now, full of regret, upset, embarassed.   Are you angry, don't you like me, don't you want me around you right now, are you frustrated with me, do I make you despair of me, do you keep hoping I will start behaving better soon, are you disappointed with me?

Sitting here, standing here, I feel rage, despair, rubbish, sad, lonely, not good enough, like I messed up again, stupid, embarassed, confused, like I got it wrong again, cold, bored, worried, like I just want to be near you.  Now I can't remember what I did, just how I feel, I can see you are upset with me and have shut off from me, sorry, say sorry you say.  I'll whisper it but can't look into your face as I might see how upset you are with me and that might hurt me too much.

Can I only be around you then if I get things right?  How do I know what is right?  Time out shows me what you don't want but then I forget.  What I really would like is time with you when I get things wrong, your guidance and teaching will help me understand why its not OK to snatch something, hurt another, shout at some one.  Time with you will help me unpick the strong feelings I had and the feelings I have caused in others.  Time with you and your acceptance that sometimes I do get things wrong, try your patience, make you feel upset, angry, frustrated, not because I want to but because I'm learning and to do that well I need acceptance, reassurance and understanding not stairs, steps and isolation.