Dreading home time!
Around a year ago I started to really struggle with my (then 5) child’s behaviour after school. He was on the pathway for diagnosis for autism and I was fairly sure he had some processing and sensory issues (he does!) He was just 5 and had not long started reception. Progressively he seemed to be really struggling to control his behaviours and over the following months I grew more and more upset.
Although I had started to make progress understanding his ASD and he’d started settling in school, he continued to be extremely emotional and often aggressive when I picked him up. I was told he’d had “a great day” but then he was being a nightmare for me! It was heartbreaking. What was I doing wrong? I was very self conscious of his unpredictable behaviour and began to withdraw from taking him anywhere other than home after school. Previously I would often take him to walk around the shops, a park or soft play, believing this was a good way to “let off steam.” He’d often cry, shout/ hit me, hide or run away. No amount of calling him would make him return to me.
Bad mum alert!
The looks I’d get were awful and it was just getting more and more upsetting for both of us. If I’m honest, I was embarrassed of his behaviour. I’m a teacher yet I couldn’t control him – my own kid ran rings around me. I really was starting to lose hope and becoming “that mum” that I hated – the shouting, snappy, impatient and hassled woman always yelling at her kid. The shame that comes with not being able to control how your child’s behaviour triggers you is debilitating.
Time to make a change!
I’d reached my breaking point and knew something had to change. First, I reached out for Early help* from our local authority. They helped me to make sense of all the different pathways and appointments he had. Next they did a little in school work with him on his emotions and unpicked them a little (he said he felt scared and worried every day. 😭) They also found some groups we could attend together which was fab. (Lego robotics! Amazing! Google it!)
Talk to school. They have to help you!
In addition to this, school were great as they put a few more things in place for him to try and minimise his anxiety. Now he goes to a little nurture group, skips music lessons and has time in their sensory room! Thank god for good schools that get Kids with additional needs!! So with these things in place I just needed to understand what was going on with us after school. I know I’m lucky to have a super relationship with his school. If you’re unhappy with the help offered then keep asking. They are there to support you.
Next came the hours of trawling the Internet looking for ideas and clues into what was going on inside his little head. I also needed to understand what I was doing that was impacting on his inability to control his behaviour. So often as parents we forget that to change your child’s behaviour you have to change yours first!
Finally I came across a condition called “After School Restraint Collapse.” I’ll pop a link at the end of the blog to a good article to read more on this! In a nutshell this condition affects children (usually but not always, who have ASD or sensory processing disorder) who try to contain their anxieties and emotions all day in school in order to conform and fit in. They bottle up worries, anger, questions and when they see you at the end of the day, it all comes pouring out. Their anxiety and disregulation levels are peaking after hours in the classroom and it’s time to let them out.
Questions can make them feel attacked
Unfortunately for us, this coincides with you seeing them after being apart for so long! Usually you want to hear all about their day. So what do we do as parents? We ask questions!! We talk! “How was your day? Who did you play with? What did you learn? Did you change your reading book? Did you get your new spellings?” The list of questions we have is huge! Meanwhile the little brain that has been battered all day by sensory overload is now in fight or flight mode. This leads to them feeling massively attacked. So the tantrums, tears and crying begin.
Where are you taking them?
Maybe you take them to a shop next where it’s bright, loud, smells strange, is full of chocolate? They want it alllll and they want nothing. They want to run and be free. (Did you know they don’t just let you run around and be free in the classroom? So unfair isn’t it!) But hang on there’s glass everywhere and strangers everywhere and people whose opinions I care about and I can’t just let my kid run around. “Stop running!!” We yell. Or we bribe or we threaten. Meanwhile you feel out of control and they feel more and more angry and scared.
So what is happening to them?
If a child with ASD or sensory processing disorders is taken into a shop it’s often extremely difficult for mum and for child. When children with these issues go into a shop a few things happen inside them – they feel dysregulated and anxious and search for ways to feel better. For many children this presents its self in touching, rubbing, grabbing and stomping. When you have SPD you seek vestibular feedback within your body to try and remind your body and brain that they’re connected. Think about the hype around weighted blankets (they really work!!) this is because deep pressure and touch soothes us.
When your little one is rubbing themselves along a wall, jumping, climbing or touching things, this is what they’re doing. Usually we tell them to stop and this is where the meltdowns begin. Maybe they’re a runner? After feeling contained all day they need to stretch their muscles after all. A busy shop or park is not the place for wild running, so again you tell them to stop. Maybe they don’t want to feel touch but they’re at soft play where they’re being bumped into and grabbed – so what do they do? They hit or push. Yep, they’re yelled at again. It’s a tough situation for everyone and anyone on the outside usually just sees poor behaviour.
Helping them and helping YOU
After learning all of this and spotting so many of the signs and triggers within my child I slowly started to put some new routines and practices in place. I discussed with school how I was feeling and the problems we were having after school and they put in place a little home/ school book so that I had a little insight into his day as he was physically incapable of telling me what had gone on sometimes. Usually he’s had a great day and I have nice positive things to chat to him about later in the evening. But there may have been a lesson or situation he found tricky (if this happens he usually wears ear defenders) so it’s good to know this too as I know he’ll be feeling worried about that at bedtime. I can chat to him about it and reassure him that it’s ok to not be able to handle everything.
Choose your words very carefully.
I’m very careful with my language after years of teaching and battling though being a mum to an SEN kid – I know that validating their feelings and agreeing with them are really important. If he says he doesn’t want to go to school or do a certain activity I never dismiss it. Instead, I say things like, “I know you don’t want to go, sometimes I don’t.” “It would be good if today was a snow day and we could build snowmen wouldn’t it!!” “It sounds like you’re really scared. Maybe we could let your teacher know. Maybe we could pop a little teddy in your bag to sneak a look at at break time? Often they feel angry because you won’t be there with them. To quell this I pop a picture of us together in his book bag or draw kisses on his hand. I try to give him ways to handle his emotions next time too.
These days, I never ask questions after school. I collect him, give him a snack and water and we walk quietly to the car holding hands or side by side. (The snack gives him something to concentrate on and means he can’t run off. He knows the snack will go away if he runs.) Sometimes I bring his scooter or bike and he can ride through the park on the way home. This gives him a little down time and quietness with his own thoughts. If he’s having a particularly wobbly week, I bring his weighted teddy in a backpack for him to wear as we walk. This gives vestibular feedback to his brain and body and makes his feel soothed (think about how nice it feels to get a strong hug when you’re feeling anxious!) We are quiet in the car and just listen to music or sit in silence. No screen time for at least an hour helps him come down too. I’ll put a link to the weighted teddy at the bottom. It’s brilliant and stops the climbing and rubbing along the walls!
Home is always best!
We very rarely go anywhere but home now. It’s just what he needs so I’ve accepted it and it’s made an amazing difference to our lives. Yes there’s still times when he runs around or has meltdowns because he’s had a rough day. Sometimes I bump into someone and need to stop and chat (my nightmare!!) and then he can’t cope and shouts or hits. I’m still mortified but I’ve learnt to accept it and no longer just run away in embarrassment. I remind him it’s not acceptable to hit me but acknowledge he’s feeling tired / sensory and has tummy wobbles (his version of anxiety) and remind him he can always do his breathing or counting or he can squeeze my hand to let me know he’s feeling worried. Up-skilling him in ways to self soothe and self regulate in times like this is a big help but a slow learning curve for him.
It’s utterly exhausting some days trying to predict what might affect him and coming up with ways to help him. But this is the hand we’ve been dealt and I have to try and make life easier for us all as a family. He has a little sister and I’m determined she doesn’t get lost in all of this. Usually she can join in with whatever activity or routine he has in place too and she loves them.
You are NOT alone.
Parenting a child with ASD or other processing disorders can be lonely and confusing. The more you ask for help the more new people and friends you’ll make along the way. Avoiding things they find stressful is hard but not impossible and learning ways to help them cope takes time. It’s taken me months and I’m still constantly learning. What works some weeks doesn’t the next so I’m always looking out for new ideas and ways to distract him or help him feel regulated. The biggest thing I’ve learnt so far is that questions can really cause him a lot of anxiety. His anxiety comes out in crying and anger and the best way I can help him regulate these emotions is a cuddle. Ironically when he is very stressed I find he asks a huge amount of questions. I find this hard work but do my best to answer them. He also loves deep pressure and massages, so I’ve learnt to do this when I spot him starting to struggle. Spotting early warning signs are vital too. Often Noah starts tapping, climbing, laughing awkwardly or asking LOTS of questions. If I spot it in time I can give him a cuddle or talk to him and explain what’s happening now and next – usually that’s the root of his anxiety so it stops it in its tracks.
Above everything else in our journey, as a family with a child with additional needs, is our desire to just be happy. I want a happy child – of course I do, who doesn’t? I want to enjoy my time with him and honestly, I often don’t. It’s exhausting some days and I’ve learnt to forgive myself for these feelings. I used to feel like such a terrible person for not always enjoying my kids but I’m human and I know it’s part of life. I enjoy my time with him SO much more now that I understand him and I’ve implemented some changes to our routines. And finally, I’ve stopped wishing for “normal.” What is normal anyway?
As i was reading this I thought about our terrible few hours between 4 and 6 at the moment. I realised he’s sort of having his own lockdown version of after school restraint collapse. Noah is exhausted from trying to regulate himself all day, being out of routine, coping with the anxiety of missing his friends and from being cooped up. I am going to be more mindful of this time period and give him lots of extra support. I tend to ask him to do things such as help me set the table, tidy up, put shoes on to go for a bike ride and these “normal” activities can make him have complete meltdowns. He’s tired and emotional and I will try and ask less of him at the end of the day and see if this helps! Let me know what you think in the comments or get in touch on facebook – I’d love to hear from parents in the same boat as me!
Holly, LL Southport & Preston xx
After school restraint collapse: https://www.todaysparent.com/kids/school-age/after-school-restraint-collapse-is-a-real-thing-heres-how-to-deal-with-it/
Hefty hugs weighted teddy: https://calmingblankets.co.uk/products/weighted-toy-koala
Read about Noahs story mapping here: https://littlelearnersuk.com/blog/reducing-stress-in-anxious-kids/
*Early help can be accessed via school – go and talk to your school senco. If you’d rather refer yourself you can talk to your GP too.