How a lack of understanding of parental stress responses can create barriers to supporting our young people.

The fight-or-flight response (also called hyperarousal, or the acute stress response) is a physiological reaction that occurs in response to a perceived harmful eventattack, or threat to survival.[1]

man in blue and brown plaid dress shirt touching his hair

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It has occurred to me on several occasions recently, that where communications have broken down between parents/families and other professionals this has usually been seen as a lack of engagement (usually by parents) or a case of blaming parenting for causing behavioural issues in children or young people.

It is therefore extremely important to point out, as a parent of a child/children with SEMH issues that the levels of stress and anxiety which we are put under can frequently lead us to go into “survival mode” when faced with questions doubting our experience or our judgement on when we feel our child is too anxious (as one example) to attend school.  Imagine being called to a meeting which you perceive will be yourself and a member of teaching staff to discuss the wellbeing and support for your child, but upon entering the meeting you are faced with a number of strangers around a table possibly from the senior leadership team, an EWO (education welfare officer), maybe a representative from social services, and even a local authority representative….

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Now I don’t know about you but that would make me feel slightly threatened to say the least, wondering why I wasn’t part of the “team” which had made the decision to set up this meeting, to decide why it was important or needed.  I immediately feel excluded and seen as an outsider rather than working with these people, which is what I would have preferred of course.

Now imagine being shown the attendance register statistics (means nothing to me really, I don’t understand the language so again feel excluded), asked to produce evidence to back up my “claim” of my child being unable to attend school every day, especially as they have seen no such evidence as my child is always “fine when they are in school” *sigh*.  Of course they have seen small “behavioural issues” such as disturbances in class or asking to go to the bathroom “too often”, or distracting other children, but this is always dealt with as poor behaviour such as being kept in or made to write about why it is inappropriate behaviour.  You are then asked whether you have “appropriate and firm boundaries” at home.  Has something changed at home?  Does your child have access to technology inappropriately?  Do they have a good bedtime routine? I could go on….

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I can feel my anxiety levels rising even as I’m typing this.  In my own situation I used to go into “freeze” mode as my instinctive response.  I would sit and listen blankly, trying to process what they were insinuating about me/our parenting, working out what response they were looking for.  Not knowing much about mental health and SEND back then I had no knowledge of how to explain how this low level disruptive behaviour was actually my child showing they weren’t coping at that particular time.  I had no skills to advocate for him or talk about how anxiety can actually be classed as a disability if prolonged and how, if treated as misbehaviour for long enough can deteriorate that child’s mental health to an incomprehensibly low level and lead to trauma and shutdown.  So my “freeze” response could be taken as agreement of what they were stating and therefore being complicit in their judgements of both me and my child.  It could also have been taken as “lack of engagement” as I felt unable to vocalise in such a meeting having had no time to prepare any information or gain any evidence to support my claims (having said that I know how difficult it is to gain “evidence” at the level many schools are seeking now – actually against Dept of Health guidance but that’s for another time).

Nowadays, having researched, supported my own child/ren in their mental health journeys and battled for health and education support my response is much more challenging and pro-active.  If I feel threatened now (legitimately or not) I will use my knowledge as a tool and turn questions back around to try and demonstrate the lack of support for my child/ren, rather than freeze.  This can have it’s own issues too as having too much knowledge or understanding of your child’s issues or disabilities can lead professionals to question your motives or even question whether you may be guilty of FII (fabricated or induced illness) which used to be knows as Munchausen’s by Proxy.  Yes, the cases of this being raised by professionals are on the rise.

Others I know will have a natural response to “fight” and this can also be seen as somehow proving the professionals judgement that they are somehow deficient in parenting skills or not willing to communicate in a calm or effective manner.  Often I’ve heard of parents being banned from coming onto school property because of being provoked into a “fight response” whilst trying to find support and help for their child/ren in that school.  Some parents will recognise a “flight response” in themselves whereby they cannot face more (perceived) judements, threats, accusatory tones, lack of understanding and will cancel meetings or just appear to “hide”.  This is not a choice either.  It’s a self-preservation for the present time until they feel they have gathered what strength is needed to continue the ongoing battle.  It’s quite often a lose lose situation.

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Photo by Juan Pablo Arenas on

It’s therefore key for professionals of all areas and levels to really look at perceived “behaviour” being caused by something (in the same way that we wish a child’s behaviour was also understood) and quite often this is the fear/stress anxiety which only a SEND parent will understand, quite often over a prolonged period of time, I’m not talking weeks here but quite often YEARS of extreme stress and anxiety.  Please look behind the anxiety responses of parents/carers and see us for who we are… exhausted, frustrated and scared BUT always trying to find ways of seeking appropriate help and support for our young people which isn’t anywhere as easy as you’d imagine sadly.

[1] Taken from Cannon, Walter (1932) Wisdom of the Body. United States; W.W.Norton & Company.

This entry was posted in children, family life, mental health, parenting, school refusal and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

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