Notice the title of this article isn’t: “how to love your autistic child,” or “how to love your SEN child?” That’s because a challenging child can happen to anyone. Additional needs or not.

Cards on the table: I’m going to come right out and say that parenting my own challenging child is the hardest thing I’ve ever done.

It pushes me to my very limits, whilst simultaneously making me feel like an absolute failure. I have never felt so torn in my life. Every tiny decision I make has to be carefully considered. All options weighed up, to ensure it doesn’t end in complete catastrophe.

The seemingly smallest thing can have the biggest knock on effect. We can be having a lovely time one minute, and the playing field can dramatically shift thirty seconds later.

All emotions are felt. Every. Single. Day!

I have to be on my game, one step ahead, the entire time. Otherwise it’s meltdown central. I probably don’t need to tell you how exhausting it is, especially on such broken sleep.

So I thought I’d write down some of the things I’ve learnt on my journey of loving my challenging child. It’s more to remind me than anything else, but I figured someone somewhere might also find it useful.

In the heat of the moment, it’s best to say nothing

Zip your lips and throw away the key. Honestly, in the midst of sparks flying, it is best for all concerned to keep your mouth shut. I’m not ashamed to admit that this is my own biggest challenge, especially during certain times of the month. It’s crucial though. Which brings me nicely onto my next point.

Don’t be afraid to self-reflect

We absolutely must be kind to ourselves, because we ALL mess up. Me usually on a daily basis. However we must also be willing to look in the mirror and admit when something is our fault, so we can find ways to do it differently (and better) next time. Having a challenging child on your hands will test your patience, strength and faith in life. It’s vital to work as a team though, and find solutions to your troubles together.

Offer comfort, but be prepared to give it on their terms

In parenting fantasies, before I had any of my own children, I used to think that spats with kids would be easily rectified. A few hugs, a few sorry’s and voila, everyone has made up. In reality, it simply does not work like this with a challenging child.

They can be spiky beyond belief, and even when they’ve been the root cause of the destruction, they will more than likely think they are the victim. I always offer comfort, but I’ve learnt that it often isn’t taken up when I think it will be. But when they are ready to accept the love, they will come and ask for it.      

Do not, ever, compare your children to each other or to anyone else’s kids

It would be easy for me to get into the mindset that my high functioning autistic eldest daughter Polly is always the most challenging child, but this isn’t actually true. All three of my kids have their moments. 

If 3yo Freddy has had a particularly fitful night, and is running on four hours of broken shut eye, he can be exceptionally challenging. If 5yo Clara is unwell or not sleeping great it has a massive effect over her ability to communicate without screaming in faces. They are so different from each other and other kids we know, that it would be deeply unfair on all parties to compare them.         

Kindness rules

This is obvious, but when tempers are lost and fury is in the air, kindness can all be but forgotten. As the adults however, we need to summon the strength from somewhere, somehow, to rise above it (which I know, is so much easier said than done). If we aren’t being kind to our kids, how can we expect them to be kind to each other?   

Start the day with a clean slate

No matter what happened yesterday, or last week, we absolutely must start each day with amnesia. I wouldn’t be able to get out of bed in the morning if I was holding grudges for the things that have gone on inside these four walls. My husband has a great mantra:

“Only love today”

It’s a good one to hold close.   

Respite is utterly essential

Not just for the primary caregiver, but a break from the challenging behaviour is super important for the whole family. We’re only too aware that Clara and Freddy suffer when times are super tough, so it’s essential to give them a break from the doom and misery. A few hours love bombing, going to the cinema or being taken swimming on their own with just hubby or I is a real treat for them. It goes a long way to repair the hurt that they’ve endured. 

As for us parents, life cannot be 100% about the children 100% of the time. We all need a break from the norm now and then, and especially when we’ve got a challenging child on our hands. I also don’t think it’s a bad thing for our kids to see that we have a bit of a life outside of them. 

Are you parenting a challenging child? What have you learnt on your own journey? I’d love to hear from you! 

A story of mental health #mhaw17When I found myself pregnant with Polly in 2008, the state of my mental health had never been better. At the ripe old age of 29 I’d already been on a remarkable journey.

Extraordinary even

I had survived a dysfunctional childhood, and self-destructive young adulthood. I’d dragged myself through two mental breakdowns, and experienced the highest highs and lowest lows.

I had travelled the world, and met my awesome husband along the way. I’d made the most wonderful friends a person could wish for. Which is just as well, because at 25 I estranged myself from every single member of my family. 

I’d also learnt (the hard way) that the answers to life’s problems could not be found at the bottom of a bottle.

Believe me, I’d searched every external crevice for happiness, and realised that it comes from within.

I learnt that to be happy, I would need to look in the mirror and like what I saw

I had to distinguish between my wants and my needs, and get to know who I really was. I’d need to forgive myself for the things that I wasn’t proud of. I’d need to truly let go of the past so I could make peace with it.

I was in such a good place when Polly came along. Even a traumatic birth didn’t stop me from loving her fiercely from the second she came out. To be honest I didn’t properly recognise it as traumatic until I was giving birth to Clara two and a half years later. That’s a whole blog in itself though.  

I walked everywhere that summer, staring at my beautiful baby in wonder. Had I really made her? Could I really be that lucky?

By the time I became a mum I had overcome so much, that I honestly thought the hardest bits were over.

Surviving: A Story of Mental Health #MHAW17Oh how naive I was

I never, in my wildest dreams, imagined that my own children could push me to the edge of my sanity. That I would watch my mental health deteriorate and feel powerless to do anything about it.  

Friends with kids had somberly warned me about newborn sleep deprivation. They’d said to watch out for pesky teeth, and strange changes that occur when babies are going through growth spurts.

A good friend, who’d had two kids very close together, had said to expect one seriously tough day a week. A day so bad I’d be reaching for the gin before the witching hour was over. One that I’d want to completely forget about as soon as the kids were asleep.

That’s not going to happen to me, I thought, no way. I’d leave a sensible age gap between my kids, having them super close sounds like a nightmare.

My girls are 2y 7m apart, and take it from me, the age gap is the least of our troubles

At seven months pregnant with Clara I found myself sobbing to my ex boss.

“I’m so exhausted, I don’t think I can last another three weeks until my maternity leave is due to start.”

Fortunately he’s a family man himself, and one of life’s good eggs. He let me tie up my loose ends and finish that day. If only all work managers were like him.

Back then I had a toddler who would get up ten times a night as standard, have huge meltdowns at 3am, and refuse to go to her daddy. As well as that we had a very noisy neighbour on our hands, who would be up all hours. 

We managed to muddle through though, and cope. Somehow.

Surviving: A Story of Mental Health #MHAW17When Clara was born I did everything I could to enjoy her baby days. Knowing how fast they’d go, I drunk up every delicious drop of that gorgeous girl. 

Polly was jealous of her sister, beyond what felt normal, and it was heartbreaking watching her regress. Nursery was more of a hindrance than a help, but we thought we were doing her good by letting her socialise. She was diagnosed with an allergy list as long as my arm, and so began years of exclusion diets. More frustration. More difficulty. 

Fast forward fifteen months, and a prosecco fuelled evening lead to Freddy being conceived. (Hubby has never touched the stuff since!)

By then I was back to work, and the girls were both at nursery. Clara slept through from ten weeks old, which was just as well, because Polly was still up all night. Challenging behaviour was the order of the day.

I found myself wondering on an hourly basis how I’d cope with three children when two already seemed like too many

Freddy’s pregnancy was the toughest, but with two kids to keep me busy it went fast. Two maternity leaves in three years.

Polly started school and struggled massively from day one. 

“She’s fine when she’s here.”

Oh how I loathed those words, and the patronising delivery of them. The inference being that we must be doing something wrong at home. Clearly the meltdowns and night time antics were either exaggerated or our fault.

Polly’s allergies weren’t getting better, so we had her tested for every gastrointestinal disease under the sun. Nothing. When a leading gastro paediatrician told me the tests had come back in normal range I knew what was coming next.

Autism. Diagnosed a year later

Surviving: A Story of Mental Health #MHAW17By then it felt like we were a broken family, and we desperately needed help being put back together. No such luck. When you live in London under the Tories, you’re on your own. 

Polly was on a clear cycle by then. Sleep and post-school meltdowns would get worse as we neared the end of term. Then we’d plough all our energy into making her happier over the holidays only to watch our hard work unravel when she went back.

My poor baby girl was severely overwhelmed by school, and they were doing precisely nothing to help her.

Home education wasn’t a last resort, but I wasn’t going to sit back and let it get that bad. Eighteen months later, and here we are.

Yes we’ve made progress, but the set backs can send us to square one in a heartbeat

We’re now the noisy neighbours. Our kids are loud. They have meltdowns and tantrums multiple times a day. Individually they’re awesome, collectively they make me want to cry.

I have good days and bad, but just lately there haven’t been many good ones. The challenges have been never ending, and keep on coming.

My previously rock solid marriage can feel as shaky as a dingy in the middle of the ocean on a stormy night. Most days I want to punch my husband in the face when he leaves the house to go to work, because he gets a break from it all.

Sleep is better than it’s ever been, but it’s still rubbish. Freddy’s in our bed every night. Polly’s often up. And although Clara sleeps, getting her to bed can be a tiresome task. She’s not getting enough Zzzzz’s and unlike her brother and sister, who are used to running on empty, she can’t handle it.

Home education often means being a prisoner in my own home. If Polly is anxious and exhausted and I can’t convince her to leave the house. Most days I have fun things planned for us to do, but usually we do none of them because we get caught up in Polly’s rage. She’s taken to using me as her punching bag. At least she isn’t being so violent with the younger two.

Surviving: A Story of Mental Health #MHAW17Eight years ago, when I was nearing the end of Polly’s pregnancy, I thought I had it all sussed out

Surely motherhood was like everything else? The harder you worked, the more rewards you would reap? I’d just work my butt off, and give my absolute all to my kids. Surely that would equate to happiness?

To be completely honest, even if it was possible to go back in time and tell my thirty year old self how it would actually be, I probably wouldn’t have listened anyway.

My plan was fail safe. I’d just love my kids more than everyone else loved theirs, and not make ridiculously stupid decisions that would mess them up in later life.

Once again, I’m learning the hardest way that it’s not that simple though. So here I am, eight years later, feeling more clueless now than ever before. The game is constantly changing, and I have no frigging idea what the rules are.

People warn you about maternal and post-natal depression. Nobody tells you about surviving chronic stress due to challenging children. 

The emptiness you can feel when you give everything to your kids and get treated like the enemy

The cycle of self-loathing that’s created from having toxic thoughts about the little people you created. 

The loneliness you can feel, even though you can’t take a pee in private. 

All any of us can do is try our best, and hope that when all is said and done, it was enough

**sharing for world mental health awareness week**

“I hate you, and wish you weren’t part of our family.”

Screamed 3yo Freddy, in another one of his rages. It was fuelled by me insisting that he went to the toilet when he got up this morning. I know, what a terrible mama right? Anyone who has lived with a threenager will know how tricky they are. Super sweet, caring and loving one minute. The next all hell has broken loose for suggesting something that should only be worthy of a nod. 

I do hope it’s just a phase, I find myself thinking multiple times every day. I can’t spend too much time contemplating the other option. That there’s a whole load of learnt behaviour going on here.   

“I hate school, why do I have to go when Polly and Freddy don’t?”

Screamed 5yo Clara on Friday night. In fairness she has point. Why does she get forced to do something that’s causing her so much anguish when I’m already home educating the rest of the family?

With each month that passes, Clara becomes more difficult. It’s hard to witness her meltdowns, which are getting more and more violent.

“You’re so stupid!”

Screamed 7yo Polly, before she threw the hairbrush directly at me. It landed on my arm and bloody hurt. The violence on display from this child frightens me. I find my mind drifting off five, ten years, and wondering what she’ll be doing by then. Polly’s challenging behaviour is here to stay, and we simply have to adapt our own accordingly. Which is easier said than done. 

we must never lose hope When you give everything you have to your kids, and they treat you as if you’re the enemy. Well, it hurts doesn’t it?

To say that April was tough going would be a monumental understatement. It can be hard holding on to hope when the chips are down, and the knocks keep coming. I tell myself that we’ve been in dark places before, and have made progress, but my positivity is waning.   

This year, I’ve had days that terrify me. The behaviour displayed by these three has upset me, worried me, shocked me and disgusted me in equal measure. Watching them treat each other like crap is beyond difficult.

The abuse hurled at me is easier to cope with, but some times the only option I have is to lock myself in the bathroom for five minutes. To try and talk sense into myself. To try and quieten down my internal monologue so it doesn’t drive me insane.

Some days I’m so livid that I can’t stop myself from reacting. Even as the words are tumbling out of my mouth I know I’d be much better off keeping it closed. We’ll never be able to take these words back, I think to myself once it’s too late. When the tempers have been lost, and crisis plans have been chucked out the window.

Same old crap, different week, different month, different year. Only the kids are bigger now. They’re going to remember these days.

Most of my own childhood was so miserable I have no memories before I was eight years old. I’ve blocked them out – clearly a defense mechanism I learnt at a very young age. It kills me to think my own children will be doing the same. That their own sadness will come back to haunt them the way mine does.

I do so desperately hope not. 

They say kids are resilient, but mine aren’t.

They feel every teeny tiny knock, and take it personally. They don’t forget a single detail, and will hold you to account on everything you say. Again, this isn’t a bad thing as a parent, but it’s devastating when friends say they’ll do something and don’t. Try explaining to an autistic child that sometimes people say things they don’t mean.

“But why did they invite me for a playdate/sleepover/party when they didn’t want me to come?”

Cue meltdown central, and an hour long fallout. 

In the last two years, I’ve witnessed from near and afar, ten relationship breakdowns. Only two have survived and are coming out the other end. Mostly they’ve led to divorce – bitter, twisted, horrible divorce. Almost every story is the same. Irreconcilable differences between the grown ups, but the kids are just fine.

Those kids fly the flag for the phrase ‘children are resilient’. The fact is they enjoy the company of their parents much more now that they aren’t living under the same roof. They get better quality time, and benefit from a happier mum and dad. When my friends were ready to move on, they found new Beau’s who are nothing like their former partners. They themselves are worlds happier, and their only regret is clinging onto their dying relationships for as long as they did.

I know it’s not been easy for them. Every one has been to hell and back, but oh how I’ve envied their fresh starts.

The separation time they get from their kids helps to make them better mums. The mistakes they made with their exes has led to wonderful relationships this time around. Those who aren’t ready to settle down are having the most amount of fun.  

Living life to the max. The way I used to.

Before autism, chronic stress, sibling in-fighting and sleep deprivation so severe that my body doesn’t know what to do with itself if it gets more than five straight hours.  

No Matter How Dark Our Days Get We Must Never Lose Hope There’s a romantic idea of autism that litters the internet. Of how it creates special bonds between brothers and sisters. I’m sure in some family’s this is true. Once the neuro typical siblings get their heads around the autism, and start to understand that their brother or sister is different. They can become another advocate, and help other kids understand autism too. How wonderful this dynamic would be.

Perhaps it’s simply a case of my kids being too young to understand. Or perhaps, the option I’m leaning towards, all three are on the spectrum. Another can of worms waiting to pop open.

So much time has been, and continues to be, invested in our diagnosed eldest daughter. Meanwhile the other two aren’t always getting what they need. To help them become resilient and fully functioning.

And happy.

We can only do our best, and when all is said and done, we can only hope that it was enough.

I can’t tell you how much it breaks my heart to hear Freddy say that he’s sad but doesn’t know why. Or to watch Clara’s hands flare back up with stress eczema the week after the Easter holidays.

I honestly don’t know what the future holds for my little family, but I do know that I’m some times part of the problem. Happiness begins by taking control over the situation in front of me, and some days I don’t seem capable of doing that. Some days I lose hope that there are brighter days around the corner. 

When the chips are continuously down, it’s hard to imagine a happier time. Maybe I expect too much, and should just feel grateful to get through the days? Trouble is, I’m fed up with merely surviving. I want to thrive, and flourish. More importantly I want my children to.

It’s not all doom and gloom, one look at my one line a day diary confirms that. There are some wonderful memory-making moments thrown in. There just aren’t enough of them to get me through the exceptionally challenging days without feeling like an epic failure.

“I wish I never saw the sunshine, then maybe I wouldn’t mind the rain.” the fabulous Beth Orton sings in one of her many beautiful songs.

So this is for anyone else living in perpetual limbo. Not knowing how they’re going to cope with the next set back that comes their way.

What will be will be, right?

I’m sure you’re doing a marvellous job, even if you can’t see it.

Take care of you, and make sure you put your own oxygen mask on first.

Above all else, don’t lose hope. Brighter days absolutely must be around the corner.

 

#tbt to four years ago, and one of my very favorite photos of Miss. Polly. 💖 Back to a much simpler time, which I remember thinking was super hard work, but in hindsight wasn’t a patch on now. 💖 Back then I had a hunch that there was more than met the eye when it came to my strong willed challenging child. 💖 Two years, many sleepless nights and a lot of heartache later, Polly was diagnosed with high functioning #autism. 💖 Fast forward another two years, and I find myself wondering when the magic turning point will be. It felt like it was in sight a couple of months ago, but a series of unfortunate events have triggered off possibly our worst ever cycle. 💖 Violence, verbal abuse, refusal to learn, not listening to a word I say. I know she’s hurting, but my word it’s hard to rise above it some days. 💖 I’m the adult, and should have full control over my emotions. But on days like today I look in the mirror and see the person I’ve tried so desperately not to become. 💖 And it breaks my heart. Teeny tiny piece, by teeny tiny piece. Let’s just hope tomorrow is a better day.

A post shared by Reneé Davis (@mummytries) on

changing my attitudeHow changing my attitude was vital for turning family life around

December last year was a dark time for me. My little family were on a constant loop of illness, both the baby and the 5yo’s sleep were in dire straights, and our girl’s behaviour was at an all time low. After a disastrous Xmas Eve Hubby and I read the fantastic book 10 Days to a Less Defiant Child.

We spent the entire Xmas holiday doing everything in our power to eradicate our own negative parenting behaviours, which were without a doubt having a massive effect on the kids. After a week of being super calm and not shouting, it became the norm to be calm and not shout, and now three months later I very rarely find myself shouting.

Good Friends

At some point before all this I was with a wise friend, who told me that her daughter’s challenging behaviour has been the making of her as a mum. Her son was really placid and a super easy kid from the off, and had her girl been the same she said she wouldn’t have had an incentive to be a better mum.

Nowadays she’s as much of a self-help junkie as I am, constantly on the lookout to be better than the person she was yesterday. She is one of my main sources of inspiration, and I am truly privileged to have her in my life.

It brings tears to my eyes to think of this conversation, because my friend said to me that I must feel the same. My reply was that no I didn’t, I felt that I was at breaking point and was worried my marriage wouldn’t be strong enough to take the strain our daughter was putting on us for much longer. You’ll be fine she tried to reassure me, but I wasn’t comforted by her words.

I was in such a bad place in my own head that I wasn’t able to look at it from a different perspective. I desperately needed to start changing my attitude, and realising that I was part of the problem, but I wasn’t ready to at that point. Thankfully reading the book over Xmas opened my eyes to how damaging my own negative behaviour was to our children, and since then there
has been much positive change in our house. I feel as though we weathered a particularly bad storm, and I’m now able to look at it in a less emotionally raw way.

changing my attitudeWe still have a long way to go

Things still aren’t as rosy as you might imagine though. Our girl is a terrible sleeper, which I believe drives a lot of her poor behaviour – she is prone to over reacting and throwing strops rather than articulating her feelings. She shouts and screams in her 3yo sister’s face and often gets physical with her but cannot cope at all if littlest lady throws a punch back. All she wants is to be a big girl, but if she isn’t asleep by 6:30pm all hell breaks loose.

I don’t want to demonise her, because she has some utterly incredible qualities too. She can demonstrate such fierce love for her family that it would melt the heart of an ice queen. She will sit for hours and create intricate drawings for us, and completely under her own steam, she made and wrote Easter cards for all the neighbourhood kids.

She is a fabulous kitchen helper, and can crack eggs all by herself. Don’t get me wrong she enjoys licking the cake mixture bowl, but will also help me make savoury dishes. I could go on and on and on here, but don’t want to bore you.

Facing up to reality

I think it’s time for me to face up to reality: my girl is not like most other five and six year olds I know. As I wrote a while back over on my other blog, I truly believe that her super clean diet is the only thing saving her from an ASD diagnosis. Reprobate Mum wrote this eye opening piece for Autism Awareness Week, which has been making me think that I’ve been looking at it all wrong.

I’m starting to feel that I’ll be doing my daughter a dis-service by not seeking a diagnosis if there is one to be had, because if she is going to stay in main stream education, she is going to need all the help she can get.

Have you been down the long and treacherous road of obtaining an ASD diagnosis for your own child/ren? I’d love to hear from you with any words of wisdom!