Blog#20: One Piece of Advice?

I’m getting to the point where, sometimes, I get asked for my advice by parents of PDAers.

I still find this strange and think to myself ‘why are they asking me?!’

If you could have seen me and my family at the start of lockdown, you may not recognise us as the same people. It’s really hard to think about now, so painful, but nonetheless so important to remember how we got where we are today.

March 2020. Chaos reigned in our home. Not only because suddenly we were all out of routine and thrust together indefinitely, with a scary virus ruining lives outside our front door, but because we did not know what was happening with JJ.

He was completely adrift. Permanently in a heightened state of anxiety, he rejected all my attempts to jump on board the ‘home-school’ wagon like the rest of the world. Nothing worked, nothing made him happy. He was deeply, deeply sad, angry and confused.

He cried, he screamed, he hit. He was in visible emotional pain and nothing seemed to make it any better.

JJ had been building towards ‘something’ during the final months of school in early 2019. His dad and I had noticed an increase in his ‘unexplainable’ emotional outbursts which were akin to a small tornado, whipping around the house, sucking everything in – and throwing out pain, anxiety and distress.

At his gentle, nurturing Steiner school he was becoming more and more ‘other’. He had stopped joining in with activities and was regularly causing huge disruption within his small class, and rarely could a trigger be identified. For all their genuine kindness and efforts, they just didn’t know how to manage him anymore.

Lockdown caused a crystallisation of all of these behaviours. It was as if the mask was off, and the JJ before us was in his purest, most terrified form. No longer did he hold anything in. He overflowed with emotion from the moment he woke up until the moment he fell asleep. It was relentless, exhausting, heartbreaking and totally confusing.

It was around this time I read about PDA (a short paragraph in a book ‘Gentle Parenting’ by the wonderful Sarah Ockwell Smith) and had my own trademark Lightbulb Moment.

I think my lowest point was when I shut myself in the cupboard under the stairs and cried hot, angry, desperate and self-pitying tears. I was so low I had no idea where to go or what to do. My husband and I were in the stage where we constantly disagreed about what to do for the best with JJ, and we felt distanced from each-other.

One day he gave me the best advice I’ve ever had. He was the person who, despite not being in agreement with me, literally and figuratively scraped me up off the floor and held me up.

He told me to stop.

Stop trying. Stop worrying. Stop everything. Stop with the attempts to make JJ learn. Stop with the screen-time limits. Stop with bedtime. Just…STOP.

So, with no other options available apart from a further decline in my fragile mental health, I complied. Fully.

This wasn’t part of PDA friendly, low demand parenting strategy. This was pure instinct. Nothing was working. All our interventions were having the opposite effect. So gradually, we backed off and we did stop.

When I look back and try and make sense of those lockdown months, I see that point – me in the cupboard under the stairs, and JJ’s dad telling me to stop – as a massive turning point. From there, everything started moving in a different direction. It wasn’t quick, it was an undertaking like no other. The hardest thing we’ve ever had to do in our lives. But just stopping, stepping back, and letting JJ just BE was the best thing we ever did as parents.

That was the day the healing began. We didn’t know that of course. We were all still living in anxiety, confusion and trauma for a long time afterwards. But a shift had occurred, and once that decision had been made, gradually (oh-so-slowly), there was less wind in JJ’s ‘tornado’. He started to be able to find some solid ground underneath his feet. And then, we moved forward.

If I was able to give someone in a similar situation one piece of advice (which is hard for me because I talk a LOT!), that advice would be to stop. Just stop. Press pause on the things you can, and let the dust settle. See things begin to reset.

Give your child the chance to BE, without any intervention, and let them find that solid ground under their feet.

Believe and respect that when they’re ready, they will come to you. But knowing when to stop has been the greatest and most powerful lesson I’ve ever learned.

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