I woke early – as was usual. Nowadays I’m always late to bed and early to rise, with the result that my days pass in a stupor of drowsy anxious tension. I have one problem that is keeping me awake: my little girl. So shy and fearful of groups of others. Her age-peers regularly attend groups (cubs or scouts, after-school clubs), but Bethany doesn’t. Bethany won’t. I’m lucky if I can get her to school.
She does possess an uncanny ability to make friends, but it doesn’t last long. Within a week or two of meeting ‘best person in the world’ this new friend will reveal a single character flaw and is speedily outlawed and only (very) occasionally allowed back into Bethany’s clique of one.
The whole friends thing is therefore fraught. She doesn’t feel it, but I do, and it’s making me reluctant to allow her to become involved with other children, on the few occasions she requests for it to happen. I lie in bed considering what will happen when Bethany’s inevitable friendship meltdown occurs? And then what will happen to me? I’ve often become friendly with the mothers of her friends, and feel it is my responsibility to smooth things over? But I can’t always manage it, and friends are lost.
At any second even the most beautiful friendship could fail. At any second she could switch a label from ‘best mate’ to ‘acquaintance’. Does this come after long periods of simmering? I don’t know, but suspect that sometimes there is not even a period of irritation beforehand – things just happen, just like that.
For instance, it happened with her best friend – her ex-best friend. Ben’s a sweet boy, a few months younger than Bethany, and they were thrown together in their small school. The relationship grew gradually and gently over months till it was decided that they were ‘best friends’ and that they would play together regularly at each other’s houses. Suddenly, after a number of months of seemingly innocent and sweet getting-on-with-each-other, a time where they seemed as close as could possibly be imaginable, my daughter suddenly piped up with ‘I can’t stand his face’. What was I, as her mum, supposed to do or say? I asked questions in the attempt to discover if she was experiencing physical dislike or perhaps a dislike of one of Ben’s particular expressions.
But irrational feelings can’t and aren’t explained away by anything that either parent or child can put a label on. So, as a loving parent, you ask and you delve a little further. You try to discover the reasons so you can help to put things right. Or more right.
The conversation probably went something like this:
Bethany: I don’t want to see him anymore. I can’t stand his face.
Me: That was unexpected, Bethie, and it isn’t a good thing to say about a friend. What do you mean?
Bethany: I hate his face.
Me: Hate and can’t stand are two ways of saying practically the same thing. Can you tell me why you hate his face?
Bethany: Because it is horrible.
Me: In what way?
Me: Is it something to do with his features, or the shape of his face, or the colour of his eyes? Or is it more to do with how he uses his face and puts it into different expressions?
Bethany: How am I supposed to know that?
Me: You’ve probably got a better idea than I have.
Bethany: No I haven’t.
Me: When did you notice that you don’t like his face?
Bethany: I hate his face.
Bethany: When what?
Me: When did you first notice that you hate his face?
Me: Do you know why?
Me: Can you tell me?
Bethany: Because it is horrible.
And so on and so on and so on. In fact, we had a similar conversation over a number of days while I simultaneously tried to comfort poor Ben and explain things as best I could (without telling him the ‘face’ thing), and then to try and placate his mum, and to go about the every day events of normal life.
Ben was devastated. From full-on-mate to Beth-can-barely-look-at-you – all in the space of a day. Poor kid. How on earth was he supposed to accept it speedily and get on with life. Especially as there had been no falling out and no obvious conflict.
Some weeks later, we’d given up discussing the situation and Bethany volunteered the following information. ‘I don’t like his face, mum, but I do like him.’ OK. Progress, of sorts. Then, the following day – ‘I think I don’t like that expression. Do you know the one I mean? The expression that says he’s not happy or bored or something’. I didn’t know the expression he meant. After all, unhappy, bored or ‘something’ presumably all had their own facial expression. But I was getting something, and Beth was getting somewhere too. She had massively analysed her own response and had eventually narrowed down the response to the undeniable fact that she didn’t like some of her friend’s more negative expressions. It was a start.
I tried to take photographs of people’s expressions, including my own. I asked her how she felt about the people and the shape their faces took on. It was becoming clearer that the expressions she could not accept were many. Patronising faces from adults. Angry face in the mirror. Disapproving faces from teachers. Overly eager faces from peers in the playground, determined to get her to participate in some hated sporting activity. Disappointed faces from spurned kids.
And it became clear to me that the problem existed because things were not clear to her. Beth appeared to see all the faces in the same way. Unless a person was actively smiling at her, the said person’s expression was perceived as negative and critical. And, this led to further realisations – the fact that smile=good and non-smile=bad, meant that all variations of the smile were open to extreme misinterpretation too.
Sarcastic smiles were missed and so were cheeky smiles, smug smiles, apprehensive smiles, questioning smiles, enthusiastic smiles… the list goes on.
So, we got to the crux of the matter. She was unhappy about spending time with Ben, not because of Ben’s actions, but because she was getting confused and upset by Ben’s facial expressions. Perhaps his expressions belied his friend’s actions or words, and the complexity of this constructed facade was simply too much for Beth. She preferred the conflict of moving away from the situation and being on her own. That was preferable to being with someone he was skill-less to interpret.
So, that’s one way that Beth deals with conflict, by heading it off, quietly and without explanation, before it has even started. However, the other side is far harder to deal with.
We’re not talking about violence, not yet, and not extreme violence, but we are talking about frustrated aggression, and I think there’s a difference.
I’ve seen her lash out many times – on herself and others. One day she came up the path from school with two equal sized scratches down the sides of her face, in the temple area. On investigation I found out that her own overly long nails had created then. In frustration regarding her annoying classmate, she’d sat and gouged out two long scratches in her head. They’re still there now – scarred for life, and she says she doesn’t care. Does she? Is this self-harm side of her nature as scary and as out of control as it seems? She will regularly hurt herself to ‘relieve’ frustration, and will very often say that she feels no pain from physical hurts – only from emotional ones.
The frustration is sometimes from her relationships with others but quite often about frustration with herself. It isn’t that she can’t deal with conflict, it is more that the conflict gets her out of her usual routines and patterns, and that’s what she doesn’t like.
For example, in the summer term at junior school, they do a lot of non-curriculum based activities, ranging from sports day to cookery day, dress in a uniform day, bike skills etc. It’s true to say that most kids love this. Most of the kids have a ball and delight in being released from normal lessons. But Beth would far prefer keep to routine and to the predictability of lessons in numeracy and literacy. That suits her. Sitting around in a field for sports day in which she refuses to participate, does not. Getting lines following sitting round in a field and subsequently ‘misbehaving’, also does not suit her – and leads to enormous amounts of anger. She’s a little kid but is also quite deep and feels injustices deeply. She feels them angrily too, but rarely expresses them properly, and on the few occasions she manages to say what she feels, is told off.
Here’s one example. It is a normal school play time. Beth likes climbing and makes use of the facilities within the school, of which there are very few. She also likes the idea of free running and the like, and will regularly jump onto things, climb around, and jump off, all very elegantly. On this one occasion she jumped onto the school’s grit bin. It is strong enough to take the weight of even the largest child at the school and she is a long way off being that, being of quite slender build, though tall. Basically, she was doing no harm, but was told, when she was perched on top of the grit bin, that being on the bin was against school rules. She was told to get down and told the teacher she would jump off in a minute. The teacher insisted she get down straight away. Beth said no I want to jump, so the teacher pulled her down and told her off for being cheeky. Later, after the tears and sullenness had subsided, the teacher reappeared to Beth, by now shrivelled on her own in a hidden corner of the playground, to reiterate her ‘lesson’. That was the worst thing anyone could have done to her then. As I’ve probably already said, she’s a child who requires recovery time, and only after that are you able to deal with the issue.
She reiterated her ‘lesson’ and said, ‘You’ve learnt your lesson haven’t you? You’re not going to jump on the grit bin any more, are you?’ She stared at her with her pale, blank, absent-looking face and said, ‘I don’t know. I like climbing on it. I don’t know if I will jump on it but I will probably climb on it. Who can say what I will do in the future?’ To Beth, this was honesty tied up with sadness and upset. To the teacher this was cheek of the most extreme nature.
Poor kid was in even more trouble for that one, and she didn’t deal with the conflict at all well. In fact, she dealt with it extremely badly. She refused to work for this teacher for a number of days afterwards, despite her teaching assistants using all available tools in their repertoire to encourage her application. She’s an intelligent and articulate kid who is regularly reduced to a zombie by her inability to deal with conflict and by her teacher’s inability to deal with pragmatic and pedantic honesty.
Other forms of conflict are more straightforward. Like when Beth lashes out at other children who use humour and teasing in a way that she doesn’t understand, or when another child’s facial expression doesn’t tally with her words or actions, and Beth’s confusion makes everything twisted. She’s been known to hit, pull hair, and lash out verbally.
But her main way of dealing with conflict is via the duvet. She will sit in front of the television, wrapped in a duvet in all weathers. She will take it into the car when allowed, she will sit, completely naked apart from the duvet, in the garden on a summer day, and she will also use it as a form of expression. She will hide under it when unhappy and feel safe only when talking from underneath its feathery layers.
And, though it’s very much like burying one’s head in the sand, I find myself understanding. Why not? Why not bury and try to escape? When the alternative is aggression and pain, I totally understand.