Friday, 23 July 2021

A difficult conversation

I recall a friend sharing the difficult experiences they were facing with their child who's behaviour was increasingly difficult. The police and social services were involved and moments of parental self defence and defence of younger children had slid into allegations against a parent. Thats a well worn narrative with issues of perception, language and recall often being at the centre of many allegations within adoptive and SEN families.  

I raise this story because it highlights the impact of adverse parenting and parenting in adversity on adults. My friend shared with an investigating social worker that they had been drinking more than they normally would over the last few months as things were getting really difficult at home. They were never drunk or out of control, just drinking more than was probably healthy all in the light of an increasingly difficult home situation. The tone and direction of the investigation changed, a moment of honesty shifted the conversation to the parents issues, their inability to cope and to 'take to the drink'. Their maladaption to the difficult situation had become the difficult situation. 

How parents and carers respond to adversity in their role and challenging behaviour in children can slide easily into behaviour that is too easily just seen as poor parenting when it's often a maladaption to the environment. It can manifest in a whole range of behaviours or strategies that, at best, don't help or at worst make the situation worst. 

If I can be candid I can recall my own maladaptive behaviour play out, a slow, but determined and purposeful self isolation. Things were bad at home, as bad as they can get. I shut down, turned off feelings and slipped in a self preserving and palatable version of 'blocked care', the nemesis of the 'therapeutic parent'. Not good but it worked, I kept going, one step in front of another. I don't drink but I can find my own version of maladaption. I withdrew at the very moment when everyone needed me to be present I couldn't be present and continue to meet the basic and essential needs. It was bloody awful and two years on we're in a new place.

Now, I can articulate what was going on. I've read the literature and understand my own response. Time and time again a come across parents who are slipping into strategies to cope that aren't great. 

I'm not writing this to shame or blame but point out what I've seen.  

These strategies can be the usual parental dysregulation or often I see parent slip into maladaptive parenting, authoritarian attempts to regain control or permissive parenting a giving up to find a safe way through the challenges.  It can be staying up way too late or disappearing physically or emotionally. It can be a myriad of things. 

These behaviours can compound the complexity of what professionals have to consider when are invited or are have to come into the situation. They immediately see parental behaviour, maladaptive behaviour, and perhaps identify that as the root cause of the challenges in the home. The parents are the problem and the children are responding accordingly. 

It's a well worn path. Listen to adoptive parent Nicola's podcast, after years of immeasurable stress culminating in a high stress incident inappropriate words slipped out of her mouth, a maladaptive but understandable response to stress. She was then assaulted by her child to the point of serious physical injury and hospitalisation but the investigation was focused on her words. Not seeing them as maladaption, an inappropriate but understandable release of tension, but rather a justification for a child's behaviour. 

Go listen here, you decide. That's an extreme example but speaks of the challenge many parents face, official systems meant to support not supporting or remain unavailable, children's challenging and violent behaviour continuing over long periods of time, family and friends withdrawing. Then isolation, adversity, vicarious trauma and trauma consuming all. 

Parents repeatedly ask to not be judged and to be believed, that still holds true. Professionals need empathy and compassion, they need to work with parents to reflect on their parenting amidst supporting them to parent. It's not easy but certainly not impossible, a difficult but necessary conversation. 


  1. Painfully honest and straight to the core of the matter as always. Your words remind me of Barbara Cottrell's observation that parenting issues are as likely a result of abuse by a child as they are the cause. Keep safe. x

    1. Thank you, it's a really complex system to unpick. I'm optimistic that we can get better at it.

  2. Thank you for writing this. After years of violence I feel psychologically I am no longer the person I used to be and I wonder if I will ever function well again. Luckily I can't drink because I have to be vigilant and switched on at all times in case violence blows up; many times I've ended up driving to or from the police station in the middle of the night and I don't think they'd be too impressed if I had been drinking. I often wish I could relax with a drink though. I recognise the feelings of blocked care and isolation, I cope by using those strategies. People say to live life to the full now, not put it off and plan to do it years in the future, but how do you when you are mired in stress and whatever you plan to do is always subject to last moment derailment? Finally social workers are talking about my child moving on to supported independent accommodation, it will benefit all of us if this materialises and isn't terrible quality. I feel guilty that our child may not be with us until 18, but I have given 17 years to parenting this child, and I couldn't have given any more of myself in that time. My younger child deserves a mum who is present and attuned, not a shell of who she ought to be.

    1. Thank you for commenting, your experience is so common and so often hidden from the view of others. Its a slow corrosion of self and as you say 17 years where you had anticipated a different sort of parenting. Hold fast.