School Trauma: Tuning into the language of behaviour.
Jul 07, 2021
For many of us, when we withdraw our children from school after prolonged challenges within that system, we expect that our children will begin to do better at home.
Our children do the best they can, in survival mode.
Survival mode can look like a child who smiles through each day, who wants to be at school because they love being with their friends (many children with a PDA autistic profile are socially motivated) and who reports that the incidents the teacher has called us about "aren't that bad".
As parents, we hang in there.
We take our cues from our children and what they convey about their experience.
And, when for whatever reason that compels us, we withdraw our babies and bring them home; we begin to see changes we weren't prepared for, we often begin to sink into profound guilt and self-blame.
When a person is no longer in survival mode and the ability to relax is available to them, change takes place. That change can often be the processing of distressing experiences and the emotions that our brains and bodies have stored away while in survival mode.
There will be times in our parenting lives where we CAN NOT KNOW what we know until we know it.
We should ask ourselves: "Am I expecting something unrealistic of myself? Have I done my best? Have I nurtured and respected my child?"
"Did I do my best to advocate given what I had, and my capacity as a limited human being at the time?"
Our children need us. They need our softness, our kindness and our energy to be grounded.
They need us to be a solid foundation for them to land upon when they fall apart.
As a Mum, I was put in the awful predicament of having to make the decision to bring my child home, even when they were smiling through it all.
Many might be asking why I'd do such a thing when she was wanting to be there.
When we tune into the other signs that something is not right, there is an entirely different language available to us.
1. Toileting. Changes in a child's toileting are one of the first indications that there is an escalation in anxiety. Not wanting to go, holding on, needing us with them, bedwetting, going in places other than the toilet or needing to return to pull-ups can all be very important signs that something has changed within the inner life of our child. Holding on or refusing to go can be a neurobiological response for children, particularly related to a need for increased control.
2. Increased aggression. An escalation in a child's voice, physical exertion, lashing out, and anything else related to what appears to be anger in our little one is really reflective of a decreased capacity to cope. This means that they are already handling as much as they can.
Often, where our children have had to carry stress and/or anxiety for prolonged periods, there will be no extra space for them to take on anything extra. Yelling, fighting and anger in children can demonstrate a serious need for protection. It is, more often than not, an unconscious tool for withdrawal.
3. Resistance. "Your child is fine at school. They do everything we ask without any problem. Maybe you just need more structure/boundaries/rules at home." Nope. Trust your gut. If the home is a child's safe space, we should expect to see the true nature of the load a child is carrying reflected in their demeanour when they are in the company of their safe people.
There will be exceptions to this of course. Perhaps where one parent is inflexible and has different expectations or there is family tension. The most important behaviour to note is that which we see at home. If our children are more resistant to activities they normally enjoy, resistant to basics such as showering where previously it has not been an issue, it's important to assess whether these are new behaviours and where they may be stemming from.
Behaviour is always a clue. A communication that bypasses the child's thought out and prepared communication.
4. Needing us close, always. This indicates an escalation of anxiety. Sleeping in our bed more often, accompanying us everywhere we go, relying on us to make all the decisions for them and we never getting it right, being extremely impatient with us, these are all cues that our child is desperate for a closer connection.
They are trying to plug into our energy even more so than usual. Where they interrupt us when we're engaged with others, where they attempt to prevent us from being connected with our own autonomy, these are clear indications of their need for uncompromised and 100% uninterrupted access to us.
5. Nightmares. All children, all people experience nightmares. But where our children have an escalation of nightmares and it interferes with their ability to fall asleep, this is important to pay attention to.
The contents of the nightmares aren't always important. Nightmares can at times be the brain's attempts at processing experiences that are far too difficult and painful for a person to process consciously.
6. Changes to sense of self and neurodivergent identity. "I don't want to be autistic anymore." "I hate being a PDAer, nobody understands me and I just want to be like everyone else so I can have friends."
When our neurodivergent children (autistic, ADHD, PDA, etc) are in an environment where most of their peers and educators are neurotypical, their difference can often be highlighted in a negative way.
Imagine if our child was in a school setting where there were only autistic children. The sentence would be reframed. "I wish I had more friends" or similar and not so much centred around their neurobiological difference.
When there are indications of our children turning on themselves, this can often be the beginning of the decline into poor self-esteem, self-loathing and even internalised ableism (discrimination against oneself).
Many of our children with a PDA autistic profile will say things such as "I want to die", "Why did you have me, I didn't want to be born" (indicating a loss of control and compromise to autonomy) and/or other varying expressions around not wanting to exist.
These are all reflective of intensity and depth of emotional experience that feels far too much for them to cope with.
7. Harm to oneself or others. An introduction or increase in self-harm (head banging, hitting, scratching, head butting, biting, etc) indicates distress. When autistic people self-harm, it is often due to (again), a depth and intensity of experience in distress that requires immediate relief and profound frustration.
Harming others shows a lack of capacity for being able to cope with additional stress, which shows there is already significant stress within.
Whilst what I've outlined above is not an exhaustive list, they are some of the more common indicators of behavioural communication.
Behaviour, particularly neurodivergent behaviour should NEVER, EVER be the focus of our attention. Where we seek to modify or correct behaviour without moving beyond the core experience driving the behaviour, we are almost guaranteeing to tip over into trauma. Behaviour is a clue. Communication. An expression.
The above points can also be the beginnings of trauma.
Many of our children will smile through it all, tell us they're okay, and even express frustration with us where we push the issue.
This may be due to masking and/or fawning. Masking is common for autistic people, as we are taught to FOLLOW from early childhood in the education system, beginning with various forms of early "intervention" rather than early supports.
Fawning can be a tool used by PDA autistic people in order to maintain a form of control whilst appearing to be compliant; however fawning can also be a trauma response for those who have learnt that adapting and complying is safer than autonomy or self-realisation and actualisation.
Parents, please be kind to yourselves.
It is easy to blame ourselves when we withdraw our children from school and wonder how we didn't notice their struggle.
We are all learners. We are often doing the very best we can.
It is important for us to extend to ourselves the same compassion and love we extend to our children.
We are all conditioned in some form.
But please, hear this: If you have had to bring your child home from school, they are NOT inherently flawed.
There will be times where even with the best supports, all the accommodations and the most skilled and informed educators and professionals, the school will still just not be the right fit for our child.
Like many of you, I have had to nurture little people through the heartbreak of not being neurobiologically able to attend school, when they really, really wanted to.
This really highlights the importance of the need for society to understand disability in all its forms as a natural variation of human.
Whilst our children may "look fine", their disability is invisible to many; and school is often to them what a set of stairs is to a wheelchair user.
Hang in there, community.
We're all in this together x