The Oxford Learner’s Dictionary defines risk in this way:
- the possibility of something bad happening at some time in the future
- a situation that could be dangerous or have a bad result
As parents of children with additional needs, we live with “risk” all the time. Bad things happen to us and our children rather more frequently than they do in more average families for a number of reasons including:
- Our children may have medical conditions that cause pain, loss of function, or require treatments that have side effects and can be traumatic.
- Our interactions with the systems in place to help us often do not go the way we hope, and that can have devastating implications for our children.
- Some of our children have a different experience of the world and can put themselves or others at risk of danger or harm.
So in today’s world, parent carers can be or appear to be risk-averse. Which is seen as a bad thing. Risk is important for growth, we are told. Don’t be over-protective, over-anxious…
Parent carers are also, regularly, told that they are not being careful enough, that there may be “safeguarding” issues, that such and such a situation is not safe. Don’t be neglectful, don’t risk your child’s safety…
Hang on, back up a moment…. How many of you have noticed the dreadful contradiction?
It’s a legitimate question. I’ve spent the last twenty years living with these messages and simply accepting the fact that I might well be both over-protective and in some way neglectful of my children. Many of us do. But if we are able to take a breath, pause and reflect, we will quickly understand that there is something quite wrong here.
Overprotective parents show guarding behavior that is excessive considering the child’s developmental stage and the actual risk level in their environment.
Uninvolved [or neglectful] parenting is a parenting style characterized by low responsiveness and low demandingness.
The missing link for me in this conversation is the circumstances of a family. If your child has additional needs, your parenting is likely to be extreme, because your child’s needs are not straightforward, because you now have to develop “carer” relationships with outside agencies as well as “parent” relationships with your wider family. You have to juggle emotions, physical realities and systems that most families never encounter.
And yet, everyone around you will try to simplify your parenting to fit those simpler families. Even the best professionals find it difficult to fully understand the complexities you are dealing with every single day.
If you are a professional…
Take the time to get to know the family, or to understand the immediate situation. Let me give you an example:
Miss B is a reception teacher. She has created a fun, nurturing classroom and is passionate about inclusion. She loves all the children in her class and has a particular fondness for those who are a little different. When the children are in class without their parents, all seems fine. Some children may be quieter, but she is providing a tolerant and inclusive space that allows different forms of expression.
J’s mother is frequently very distressed when bringing him into school. She talks about J not feeling safe, she does not agree that he is “fine” in school because he is very sad, upset or angry after school.
Both Miss B and J’s mother have his best interests at heart. But Miss B sees J’s mother as over-protective because her classroom is a safe space and J does not have any behaviour issues at school and gets on with his work. In her eyes, school does not pose any risk.
J’s mother’s day is far, far longer than Miss B realises. J did not sleep, again, because he was so scared to go to school. He may have been unable to eat because his tummy hurts so much. He may have run away into the road on the way to school. When he comes home, he may be hurting himself or his siblings as his anxiety turns to anger and lashing out in the safe space of home. J’s mother has noticed over time that J is much calmer during holidays, but his anxiety escalates in the days leading up to school. In her eyes, school is a highly risky environment.
This post isn’t so much about finding solutions. Today, just try and notice the different perspectives of those you are trying to help. Try and understand that risk is to some extent about perception, and if a parent carer feels that a situation is risky, then it must be considered this way to make progress.
If you are a parent…
I know that you are aware of risk. You live with it all day, every day, and you are doing an AMAZING job. Because the overwhelming majority of you are absolutely not over-protective. Your are protecting your child, because that is your role as a parent.
That said, I’d like to give you a little something to ponder, to think about in the rare moments that you have time to allow your brain to pause and consider the future (even if the future is only tomorrow, or next weekend).
Risk is also opportunity. Risk is the gateway to growth. And risk does not have to be taken alone.
School may well feel incredibly risky to your little one. And it’s important to acknowledge that, understand why and do your best to reduce whatever is making them feel unsafe. At the same time, you know that Miss B is a good teacher who cares. So how can you lead your child into a situation that you know to be safe, but they feel to be dangerous? Can you lead them into risk so as to make it accessible?
A number of years ago, my youngest was due to go on a school trip for a few days. His medical conditions were complex but the key issue for me was that he was tube fed. He needed regularly tube feeding, and he was fed by pump overnight. I raised the following risks with school:
1. He tended to get tangled up in tubing during the night, sometimes around his neck. I managed that risk as best I could at home, but if he was going away with school, they needed to be aware of potentially fatal risks – how would they manage it?
2. If his “button” (feeding tube) came out, he needed to be within 20 minutes of a hospital. The holiday centre was not, and I realised that the only option in this scenario was a medical helicopter…. quite the thing!!
My son was very anxious about the trip for these reasons but I felt it important that he have the same opportunities as the others (putting my own anxiety aside!!). The next few months became a long effort to help him take risk “safely” and to help school understand that the risk was real and needed serious management.
My solution was to offer my time. I was willing and able to join the group to manage these risks. Sadly, this was initially seen as “overprotective parenting”, but when no other option was put forward, my solution was the one we all agreed to.
It’s important to note. I didn’t join any of the day excursions. I was simply on call in case his button fell out, and I had responsibility for him overnight. Did it go perfectly? No. Were there problems? Yes – but they were small and I allowed school staff to take those risks, make mistakes because life is messy. The important thing is that his life was not at risk.
And then they start growing up…
Every teenager and young adult takes risks. Stupid risks. They make bad decisions and there are consequences – sometimes very serious ones. It’s an important and necessary part of growing up and I think that often it’s a step we or our children try to bypass.
Despite disability, our children will never be able to move into adulthood if they have not had a period of adolescence, of which risk-taking is a crucial part.
Our job as parents is to find the balance. What is the risk they are taking? How can we support them to understand the possible consequences? What responsibility can they have for themselves and what part do we have to retain?
These are incredibly difficult questions and for some young people, there will need to be discussions about their mental capacity to take risk and make decisions. But for the majority, we dance to a much more subtle tune that is fraught with fear for our young people. My experience is that teenagers respond incredibly well to trust and gentle “backseat” support. They want to lead their own lives. To some extent, our job is to allow them to do that and be prepared to help them pick up the pieces if things go wrong.
I’d love to hear your experiences, thoughts, hopes and fears about risk when it comes to children and young adults with additional needs… Comment below!