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Sunday, December 26, 2010

Not feeling the love: when we can't connect with a child

One of the unwritten rules of both teaching and parenthood is that we mustn't have favourites. Now, that's what I call idealism! In every other relationship of our life, we think it quite normal to prefer some human beings over others- we have best friends, a favourite aunt, a husband or wife for whom we might promise to 'forsake all others'- yet when it comes to children, whether our own offspring or our pupils, we are expected to miraculously feel the same about all of them.

What nonsense! Let's stop pretending right now, and deal with the fact that we often DON'T feel the same about all our kids.

I'm not talking here about the sort of numb non-bonding that's associated with post-natal depression. That's a medical, hormonal issue and requires help from a doctor (and possibly a therapist) to deal with a very real and difficult situation. But most teachers and carers, and quite a few parents and step-parents too, have to deal daily with at least one child whom they simply don't much like, and that has its own problems.

Of course we bond more easily with some children than others. Some will be like us, or like someone we love dearly. Others will charm us with their personality. And yet others will drive us crazy, challenging us to the point of hair-tearing or simply seeming to have come from some other planet where the ground rules are totally different. It becomes even more complicated if they're not your child but you have to live with them without feeling connected to them- step-parenting can be a nightmare in those circumstances.

I might be giving the advice here, but I'm not perfect either, I assure you! I find it easy to connect with naughty kids- always have, always will; I love working out how to get inside their heads- but I can't abide kids who whine endlessly when they don't get their own way. Similarly, I connect very easily with very bright children, even the ones who answer back and seem to have no respect for anyone in authority- but I tend to have trouble connecting with kids with developmental delays. Not good enough, Annie!

So- we may not feel equally connected to all children in our care, and that's normal, but it's important that we fulfil the needs of all our children equally. What can we do to level the playing field?

I was watching 'Sleek Geeks' on ABC TV last week, when they were talking about rainbows. It turns out that when a group of people think they're looking at a rainbow together, they're actually all looking at a slightly different rainbow. The coloured light is hitting each person's eyes at a slightly different angle, depending on where they stand. It occurred to me that children are much the same; we're all looking at the same child, yet each of us actually sees a different child, depending on our mental angle. Here's an example.

One year I had two very difficult little boys in my class. One had Spectrum Disorder (autism) and ADHD, and the other had Oppositional Defiant Disorder (which can be loosely described as violent over-reaction to anything he didn't want to do, 'anything' being most things we had to ask him).

I had no problem whatsoever loving the little chap with ODD, though he was by far the most difficult; I saw him as an affectionate, clever fellow who was terrified by his own loss of control when the 'monster inside him' (his words) took over. The rest of the staff thought he was a demon from hell (probably due to the obscenities, spit, scratches and bruises he showered on them at regular intervals), and wouldn't (or couldn't?) even try to connect to him emotionally.

On the other hand, I had all the trouble in the world connecting to the little boy with ASD. He never hurt me physically as badly as the boy with ODD, but because he couldn't communicate with me the way the other boy could, I couldn't get inside his head and work out what he was feeling. I didn't have much experience back then, or much knowledge. I was all at sea.

I was very fortunate to have an assistant who had a child of her own with the same condition, and one day when I was having a bit of a whine about how hard I found it to deal with the child with ASD, she just smiled quietly and said, 'But he's adorable!'

Adorable? That child swinging from the top of the shelving with my very fragile egg timer in his hand? We were definitely looking at different rainbows. There was no doubt about the affection in my assistant's voice when she talked about this (to me) problem child.

The 'different rainbows' theory applies to all children. If we ask someone else what they see when they look at the child we can't love, we might get a new perspective- and that can change our own way of seeing, if we let it. (And if we ask others' opinion of our 'favourite' child, the one we find it easiest to love, we might get a shock- but that's another story!)

You need to talk to someone who seems to get on better with the child than you do. Warning: this approach requires a change of thinking before you open your mouth. You aren't looking for someone to reinforce what you already see, so keep your opinion of this child's faults to yourself for a second. You don't necessarily even have to admit that you're having trouble connecting to him or her (though it'll be easier if you do). Just ask the person to talk to you about this child- let's call her 'Zara' for now. 

Here are some things you could ask.

What is it about Zara that you like? Tell me some good stuff about her. I'm having a bit of a rough time with her at the moment.

What do you think Zara's good at? What's her best feature? (That's a good start if you're talking to the child's parent!)

How do you handle it when Zara won't do what you want her to do?Why do you think she behaves like that?

You seem to be getting really good things out of Zara- what's your secret? I'm trying to rethink the way I handle her.

So in short, you're trying to have a positive conversation about this child (who you can't feel anything positive for), without colouring it at all with your negative thoughts.

After that, you need to put on the other person's glasses when you look at this child. My assistant was able to tell me that my little chap with ASD was SOOOO affectionate, loved cuddles and really responded to some VERY firm boundaries in VERY simple language. She also told me he was noise-sensitive and 'went off' when the room got too loud.

So instead of looking at him swinging from the top of the shelves and complaining about his behaviour, I needed to listen to the noise level in the room and do something about it when it got too loud, because he simply wasn't coping with that. (Already I was looking at the 'rainbow' from a different position, and so seeing a different child.)

I also started thinking about how hard it must be to have all these cranky people giving you instructions that you couldn't even understand, and focussed more attention on simplifying my communication with him. Once I'd managed to find some empathy for him, it was easy to give him cuddles. Once I started giving him cuddles, he started to be as adorable to me as he was to my assistant (in between climbing the walls).

Oh no, it wasn't a magic cure- he still behaved outrageously, and often!- but I felt more positive about dealing with it, because I genuinely cared about him. When he left the centre I admit I was relieved, but I was also sad. I still miss those big cuddles.

If you're thinking this is a bit simplistic, rest assured that I have no illusions! This approach won't cure every personality clash, of course. But positive thinking will always get you further than grumbling will, where children are concerned.

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