If you haven’t come across or heard of SEND VCB before, it’s an acronym for ‘Special Educational Needs and Disabilities, Violent and Challenging Behaviour’.
There are sadly many families with children who have a neurodevelopmental condition that can present with violent and challenging behaviours, ourselves included. It is also not uncommon that these negative behaviours are directed, often, at the main care giver.
My daughter was initially diagnosed with ‘Autism with features consistent with PDA’ (aged 7), PDA being one of the known conditions that can present with violent and challenging behaviour. For us, personally, we have now been living with VCB for the past 5/6 years. Wow, that’s a very long time when I say it out loud! Whilst there have been and are varying levels of VCB, it’s the severity and frequency of these that impacts so massively on our lives (The Impact of SEND VCB).
So my daughter’s violence and aggression really hit an all-time high when she was just 6yrs old.
Talking about VCB can be very difficult. How do you begin to admit to others (family, friends, work colleagues, professionals) that the injuries they are witnessing were caused by your own child? In truth, the only way I was able to admit this to others, and stop hiding my injuries, was when I had personally accepted and understood that my daughter didn’t intentionally want to hurt me and this was purely a direct result of the conditions that she has.
Talking about it can also make you vulnerable, open to criticism and judgement. However, it NEEDS to be talked about as I know that we are far from alone in experiencing this. There are many many families experiencing similar. It’s a bit like the dilemma of talking about mental health, if we don’t talk about it it’s not there right? But it is and stigma needs to be broken down.
How it was/is for us
In school, by Year 1, my daughter was already regularly lashing out and pinching other children and stamping on their feet as well as destroying their work. The violence and aggression also included threatening staff with chairs, hitting and kicking the Head and lashing out at other senior members of staff! There were even times where the class had to be evacuated for their own safety and resulted in the whole classroom being trashed!
Whilst at the time, behaviours were worse in school, it wasn’t long before there was a marked increase at home.
My daughter had become so aggressive, volatile and hostile! She would regularly shout, scream, swear, hit and kick out as well as throwing things at myself and her older sisters. In fact no one was exempt, not friends or family, nor even the social worker!
There were, and still are, times where the violent behaviours are what I can only describe as ‘varying’. There are some occasions where she would/will be violent due to being in full blown meltdown and other times where she was/is extremely volatile and would/will just physically fly at me to attack. Whilst this is scary and difficult to comprehend, I think back now to when she was six, thinking how incredibly difficult I found it back then, but now 5yrs on, she is the same height and much heavier than me – now THIS is scary! I struggle with my own emotions around this of late, and I do put this down to her pure size compared to when she was six. It is now like a full grown adult, despite only just turning eleven, coming at me!
Despite the injuries I continue to sustain, I do recall that it was in 2015 when I received my worse injuries (to date then). I had been ‘holding’ my daughter, during meltdown, in the attempt to protect others and the environment from damage or injury, to reassure my daughter that she was indeed okay and that I was there and she was safe, in the hope of bringing the meltdown to an end. However, on this occasion there was no calming her from being held tightly; she was wild, thrashing about whilst I tried to keep a grip. No talking to her was calming her – something that I quite quickly learnt only fuelled the situation! She was definitely in ‘fight or flight’ mode and she managed to sink her teeth deep into my forearm and literally latch on! I didn’t know, at the time, how to release myself from her teeth and I did something which I later learnt had been ‘the worst thing I could have done’ and that was, I pulled my arm away from her! Oh my, the agony as the blood rushed to my injury! This agony and throbbing (in fact it was more like a pulsating feeling that happened every time I lowered my arm down by my side!) lasted for days and I was left with massive bruises on both for months!
Biting, unfortunately for me, was her ‘go to’ for many years and between 2014 and 2018 I was rarely bruise-free. I’m not just talking about one or two bruises occasionally, I talking about multiple bruises, at varying stages of colouration, covering both my forearms constantly for years.
These days, I’m pleased to say that my daughter rarely bites me, however we have a new ‘go to’ and this is by digging her nails into my arms and gauging out the skin!
So how often did/do we experience ‘meltdowns’? Well at worse we (I say ‘we’ as this isn’t just about injuries sustained) were experiencing 4-6 prolonged meltdowns per day! These could last literally for hours at a time! It was both emotionally and physically exhausting not only for myself but also for my daughter.
During these meltdowns she shouts and screams obscenities at me (I’d never been called a c*** by an adult but here I was with my own child, and no this is not a word I use!), throwing literally everything and anything in sight or to hand at me (with the intent to harm) as well as the physical attacks.
It was when PDA was first mentioned that I did my research and discovered that the management strategies were the polar opposite to that of Autism! Why had nobody told me? Why did I have to discover this for myself?
By implementing PDA strategies was a real turning point for us. Did the aggression, violence and challenging behaviours stop? No they didn’t, however what did change was the number of meltdowns we were experiencing per day. These where dramatically reduced and we went down from 4-6 a day to 4-6 a week! Whilst this was still very difficult to cope with and probably sounds intolerable even at the reduced frequency, at least there was some respite in between and they weren’t so relentless!
Another behaviours that we experience when in ‘fight or flight’ mode include: spitting (yes, this is far from pleasant!), head butting (causing a black eye and even bruised inside my ear – I didn’t even know this was possible!), biting, punching, kicking (one time, despite being barefooted it caused a hematoma on my shin which lasted 6 months!), pinching, scratching, hair pulling, grabbing of my face and breasts, pulling and ripping my clothes, house being totally trashed/smashed (including anything in sight being upturned/pulled over and/or launched, including chairs and tables, grandmother clock, wardrobes, fish tank etc), precious/personal items being deliberately destroyed, holes in walls, obscenities being etched into woodwork, doors kicked through, threats of harm with dangerous implements (scissors, knives, loft hatch hook, glass etc) and even strangulation attempts on myself and sibling!
One of the most heart breaking things though about SEND VCB for us, is that after the event, my daughter often becomes incredibly remorseful! Believing she is a ‘monster’, ‘psycho, crazy’, not worthy of being loved and that she is a ‘horrible’ person! On several occasions that remorse is so extreme that she wants to kill herself and on one occasion she even has pleaded with me to ‘suffocate’ her. Can you imagine what that feels like as a parent? Your child wants you to end their life…
If you have never experienced SEND VCB, it is a very difficult concept to understand or get your head around. Why don’t you just stop her? Why do you ‘let’ her hurt you? ‘I’d never let my child hurt me’ etc. I heard all these over the years and some. However, I don’t LET her, I work hard on reducing risks for everyone and there is no STOPPING a meltdown. Yes, there are sometimes ways of avoiding or de-escalating a situation before a full meltdown ensues, however, sometimes inevitably a meltdown has to just run it’s course and it’s my job to ride this out whilst trying to keep damage to a minimum. My daughter doesn’t CHOOSE to have a meltdown, these ARE NOT within her control!
So alongside the aggression, volatility and hostility, there is the flip side! This side is as equally difficult to deal with. This is a side that consists of my daughter self-harming: biting, scratching, pinching and digging objects into herself. It also includes ripping her own hair out and at worse deliberately stepping out into the path of a car to ‘kill’ herself. How did our life become this? How could my child not want to live anymore? Not something the average family have to contend with is it? But this is our life. This is sadly our reality.
VCB is a shocking reality for thousands of parents/carers and goes on behind many a closed door! However, it is really important to remember that it is NOT the parent’s fault and it definitely isn’t the child’s! These behaviours are triggered by the conditions they have and not because they are being ‘naughty’ or require better parenting and stiffer boundaries!
Further information and advice on SEND VCB
Yvonne Newbold is an amazing inspirational lady, who I’ve had the privilege to have known for approximately two years. She is the founder of ‘The SEND VCB Project’ and is working tirelessly to campaign to get this very real issue on the map with the objective of re-shaping services in the future for families who experience violent and challenging behaviour from their children.
With permission, here are some extracts from an article Yvonne wrote, titled ‘Violent and Challenging Behaviours – the basics’ which gives you an eloquent insight into what can cause SEND VCB and what this can mean for the individual:
“When a child has a neurodevelopmental condition, violent and challenging behaviour is very common. Around one in four of all children with a diagnosis of autism or a learning disability, will develop behaviour which is both violent and challenging, also called VCB. Children with other conditions such as ADHD and PDA can also present with these behaviours.
Although it looks like extremely bad behaviour, it is not. VCB stems from a place of extreme anxiety and can be triggered by a number of issues such as sensory processing differences, transition difficulties, school issues, communication difficulties and many others.
All behaviour is a form of communication. VCB is no different.
When children are in the middle of a violent meltdown it means that they are in the middle of huge and overwhelming distress. Their “fight or flight” mechanism has kicked in, and they are literally either fighting, or in some cases attempting to run away, because they feel their very survival is at risk.
The “fight or flight” mechanism is a perfectly normal response to fear, stress and anxiety. It evolved to save our lives thousands of years ago. Although society has changed so that 21st century causes of fear, stress and anxiety rarely need such a physical response, the human body in all of us is still wired to react this way when we feel under pressure.
In this heightened emotional state, a child is extremely frightened, very confused and unable to process thoughts or ideas clearly. If they hear a parent shouting at them, or if they pick up panic, tension or judgement in someone else’s voice, their own sense of being in danger may increase, and this can escalate the violent meltdown. At this stage, the child has lost self-control completely and cannot respond rationally to other people. Any verbal instructions, requests or displays of emotion from others will only confuse them further and may make things worse.
This means that, in the middle of a VCB episode, it is essential to stay as calm, as quiet and as non-threatening as possible. Now is not the time to get cross with them, tell them off or even to show your own emotions if at all possible. This is very hard, because a child in the middle of a violent meltdown will have a detrimental emotional effect on everyone in the vicinity, particularly family members. It takes lots of practice and effort to remain calm and to maintain a neutral tone of voice, but it is probably the one single most important thing to do in the middle of an extreme meltdown.
To read the full article, please visit: http://yvonnenewbold.com/resources-on-send-vcb/violent-challenging-behaviour-the-basics/?fbclid=IwAR0KvkenKIZX4alBAV5M9qTMMuGts7ZgeUHhk8MoztXbr09NHG_JISArsO0
You can check out the rest of Yvonne’s amazing work on Facebook via @TheSENDVCBProject.
Please also check out, if you haven’t already, the video on my Facebook page: (https://www.facebook.com/NoMagicWandUK/videos/1454217748048061/). My family were part of a small team, from THE SEND VCB Project, that were filmed and interviewed by the Victoria Derbyshire Show, BBC 2, in November 2018. The reason I chose to be involved and put my head above the parapet was to raise awareness of VCB and to help reduce the stigma attached to these issues.
If you are experiencing violence, aggression and challenging behaviour from your child, please be reassured that you are definitely not alone!