Confronting abusive parents

When I was a teenager, I’d often notice kids being shouted at by their parents, belittled in public, sworn at, smacked, nagged, grabbed and abused, and it never failed to ruin my whole day – partly because of my sympathy for the poor tyke, and partly because of my failure to do anything about it. I would roast myself for my cowardice, relive what I had witnessed over and over, wondering what I could, or should, have done.

These ruminations always ended the same way – with the reassurance that though I was currently unable to intervene, when I was older, bigger, more confident in myself, and packing both the muscles and bank balance equal to my ego, I’d never let a transgression go unpunished.

Trouble is, I never got much bigger. Nor did I develop the muscles, bank balance or confidence that would enable me to face down bad behaviour. In fact, following several breakdowns and a diagnosis of autism, I have an almost pathological aversion to confrontation, something I’ve covered in depth in Takers and the Took: Asperger’s and Confrontation. So when I say my evening out last night, the first without the kids for a year, was horribly ruined, you’ll understand where I’m coming from.

As we entered an all-you-can-eat Chinese restaurant, out burst a man with a shaved head, tattoos, tattered clothes and a scarred face, carrying a crying seven-year-old boy by the arm. He slammed this poor kid down on a low wall, shook him roughly, shouted and swore into his face and then dragged him back inside and threw him down into a chair. At the table, the mother, dolled up to the nines with bleach-blonde hair, black eye-liner and a top showing off her cleavage, said to the kid, ‘What you crying for?’ whereupon the man thrust his finger into the boy’s face and hissed, ‘He’s being a right [expletive deleted].’

All the while, the kid hid beneath his hoodie while his many brothers, sisters, cousins, aunts and uncles acted as though this was nothing out of the ordinary. And, judging by the speed with which this kid seemed to get over it and start mucking around with the others, perhaps he’s used to it. But it shocked the hell out of me.

I’ve always admired those maverick characters like Martin Riggs from Lethal Weapon and John McClane from Die Hard, the kind who if he saw something like that would step up and make them regret ever lifting a finger to their kid. Unfortunately, those people don’t exist outside the pages of fiction, or if they do, I’ve never met any.

So I sat there trying to enjoy my meal, watching this kid and his father, bathing in my own cowardice. I tried to look at it from all angles – maybe the kid was being a shit, maybe his dad was at the end of his tether, maybe they were out for a birthday and the kid was ruining it yet again and his dad just lost it. I know what that’s like – I planned this really special surprise day out for all of us on Boxing Day at Monkey World, only to have my three-year-old daughter bitch and moan the whole way round about how she’d rather be at the playpark and how monkeys are boring and how she wanted to go home, until I shouted at her and said she was ruining my enjoyment of the day, which made her cry. Who am I to judge another father’s parenting style? And what right do I have to stick my nose in where it’s not welcome? Am I really that arrogant and presumptuous to think that my way is best?

That was a good way to get me off the hook, but really it was making excuses for my inaction, because this dad’s behaviour was more than the normal, run-of-the-mill fed up parent stuff – it was uncomfortable to watch and it crossed a line. True, he didn’t assault the boy – not in a way that would stand up in court – but the way he mocked, manhandled and humiliated that kid in public just wasn’t right.

But what could I do? Go up to a table full of burly builder-type blokes and say to them, ‘Good day, sirs, I beg your pardon for interrupting your meal, but I thoroughly disapprove of the way you treat your child.’ I’d be lucky to get told to mind my own effing business. And would having my face rearranged really improve things for the boy? Knowing the way these things work, blood being thicker than water, and all, he’d probably have cheered his dad on.

I thought of interacting with the boy when he got up to replenish his plate, asking if he was okay and offering some reassurance, but I decided that was an even better way to get beaten up. And then I started thinking about the times that I’ve shouted at my kids, or grabbed them and dragged them to the naughty step, the times I’ve threatened to take away their toys if they don’t stop misbehaving, or simply snapped at them because I’m tired or unwell or overwhelmed, and I wondered: am I like that guy? Am I getting so upset because I recognise in him a trace of what exists in me? Is he what I could become if I don’t constantly keep myself in check? And is that how I appear to my kids – a hulking, angry monster with a shaved head and tattoos?

So, as you’ve probably already figured out, I did nothing. Nothing but watch them, excoriate myself for my faintheartedness, and then dwell on it all of last night and all day into this evening. The world’s children are not my responsibility, I tell myself. I do not possess the skills or authority to act in such a situation. Anything I did would probably have made things worse. In short, I’m a gutless, spineless, powerless coward.

My on!y consolation is that when it comes to my own kids, I’m able to overcome my natural aversion to confrontation. I learned this a couple of months ago when I discovered a family member had disciplined my child in a manner of which I did not approve, a person set in their ways who has always intimidated me. I’ve always clung to the belief that as a parent, your instincts take over and enable you to be a freaking tiger when you need to be, but it doesn’t work like that. It doesn’t make you any less afraid or any less alone, and nor do you look inside and find a strength you never knew you had. The truth is, you simply don’t have a choice – right is right, wrong is wrong, and as a parent, when you see a wrong being done your child, you have no option but to confront it, no matter how scary it is.

And so it was, legs shaking, palms sweating, heart beating out of my chest and my stomach doing cartwheels, every fibre of my being telling me to run away and hide, that I drove round this person’s house and told them in no uncertain terms never again to discipline my child in that way. I had psyched myself up for a fight, and you know what? They absolutely crumbled.

I guess that’s what matters – knowing that when push comes to shove, I can look after my kids and keep them safe.

I just wish someone could do the same for that kid.

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Child Protection Issues

Long term readers of this blog might have noticed that, up until Izzie’s first birthday, I regularly shared pictures on this site, but have not done so in the past year. This was a deliberate decision, and I shall explain why.

Putting photographs in an album or in a frame for display ensures that you retain control of them – who has access to them, what is done with them, and where they are seen. Putting pictures on the internet means that you have zero control over what is done with that image. As Izzie is too young to give informed consent over what is shared, that right passes to me as her father and legal guardian, and in this capacity I feel it is my duty to protect her image and prevent it being placed in the public domain until she is able to make that decision for herself.

I am not inflexible on this position – I do, for example, allow a few, carefully selected professional photos of my daughter to accompany magazine articles, etc. – but in general, sharing pictures of our day-to-day life is not something I feel comfortable doing.

I am sure that, without my having to explicitly state it, most readers will be able to infer which people I don’t want having access to my daughter’s photographs.

Whenever I have seen such issues raised – keeping photos of children away from the attention of people who might wish them harm – there is always somebody who pipes up with: ‘Most abuse goes on inside the home by family members or trusted friends and neighbours.’ And this is undoubtedly true. And then there are others who say: ‘We can’t censor everything just because there are some sickoes out there.’ Which I also agree with – hence I allow the aforementioned professional photos to illustrate magazine articles.

But the fact remains that, while the risk is low, there are predators out there. While I commend people for continuing to share photos because they won’t let the sickoes dictate their behaviour, as a dad I do not want some disturbed individual looking at pictures of my child, because I know that they are.

How do I know this? One of the interesting benefits of writing a blog is that you receive information about visitors to your site – anonymous, of course, but it records what country they’re from, what they’re clicking on, how they came to your site, and so forth. Every so often, you’ll even get to see the search terms they typed into a search engine – the very words they entered that brought up your page in the results.

I always think of myself as pretty unshockable, but the search terms somebody used to find and access this blog yesterday made me feel sick. I won’t repeat them here, but I will say that they contained the words ‘dad’ and ‘little girl’, and whoever typed them needs to be on a watch list somewhere. That such a person has visited my site makes me feel grubby by association and more than validates my caution about sharing pictures.

So, to all my fellow parents and bloggers who might read this: take a moment and think before you share something. Probably no harm will come from it; probably no sick weirdo pervert is ever going to see it; but no matter how small a chance, perhaps they might.

AS, Anxiety and Baby Safety

It is rare to meet someone with AS who doesn’t have some kind of anxiety problem, and yet anxiety is not part of Asperger’s Syndrome. Rather, it seems the symptoms of Asperger’s – the social confusion, difficulties with understanding, need for routine and inability to cope with change – often lead us into situations we can’t cope with and encourage others to tease us, humiliate us and bully us, and it is a lifetime of such occurrences, repeatedly falling on our arses, that causes the anxiety.

Even then, some of us can be bigger worriers than others.

It turns out that I have a reputation amongst the NCT crowd of being something of a worrier and rather overprotective (shocking, I know!). As I’ve said before, in order to cope with our anxieties, people with Asperger’s plan their lives to avoid risk and the unpredictable. Having a baby means that you don’t just have to plan to keep yourself safe – you have to think of the baby too. And your anxieties about yourself pale into insignificance alongside your need to protect your baby.

Now eight-and-a-half months old, Izzie has reached that stage where she wants to be involved with everything. And by everything, I mean EVERYTHING. She wants to know what you’re doing, what your partner’s doing, what the dog’s doing, what the cat’s doing, what the people out the window are doing, what’s behind that sofa, what’s in that cupboard, can I open this drawer, why can’t I wear that hat, your glasses would look better if I bent them, what happens if I empty out your bag, and everything in between. And keeping her safe has become a nightmare.

The house is starting to resemble a fortress. There are barred gates across every doorway, a wooden fence blocking access to the TV, a hexagonal playpen that looks like a cage-fighting arena taking up half the lounge, and foam corner protectors uglying up most of the furniture. We’ve put down a soft mat as the floor was (probably) too hard, and I’ve even relented about bumpers and put protectors around each slat of the cot because she keeps falling and cracking her head against the bars. Every single night.

But it’s all to no avail. She’s determined to stand and walk before she’s ready, which means she falls often and falls hard. Worse, she doesn’t seem to care – if she’s standing up against the sofa and wants to get to the other, she throws herself down like an unemployed stuntman so she can crawl; if she has a toy, she thrashes it about until she’s knocked herself almost senseless; and within a few seconds of putting her in her cot you’ll hear an awful, heavy thud as she drives her head into the wood, deliberately and repeatedly, as if that’s how the cool kids get to sleep these days.

I’ve had to come to the conclusion that it’s impossible to safeguard her entirely. I can chase her around the room as she waddles about, and catch her if she falls backwards – I can’t stop those face-planting forward falls that squish her nose and knock her teeth back into her gums. Nor can I stop her crawling over her wooden blocks, getting her fingers caught when she bashes two toys together, headbutting my knees or suddenly slamming her face into my forehead – no matter what precautions you take, she’s got you.

I was sitting on the sofa the other day when the lamp started sliding across the sideboard all by itself. Did we have a ghost? I jumped up to find Izzie had pulled herself to her feet, squeezed into the gap down the side of the dresser, reached up to the top and, even though it was out of sight, found the lead with her fingertips and was slowly preparing to pull the whole, heavy ceramic base of the lamp down on her head. This is just one example out of a hundred. Unless we have no phones, lights, chairs, sideboards, tables, floors, people in the room – anything, in fact – we will never eliminate risk.

All of this means the bruise above her eye the size and shape of a thumbprint has been joined by two on her temple the size of peanuts and one right in the middle of her forehead as big as an egg. And she’s into scratching herself too. We take her out in public, all black and blue and red, I’m terrified we’re going to get arrested for using her as a football. ‘It happened when she fell,’ I tell family and friends, and even I think I sound guilty.

The same is true of weaning. I freaking hate feeding her these days. Before, it was milk – pure, wholesome, liquidy milk. Now, it’s all kinds of food, food with bits, with lumps, with chunks. It’s bread, it’s meat, it’s pasta, it’s fruit. So at least once a meal she’ll laugh, or try to talk, or simply swallow something too big, and she’ll start to choke. Totally normal, apparently, totally natural, since she’s learning new textures and tastes, but as her face turns purple and her eyes bulge and tears spurt out of them, I have to fight down the panic because I don’t want to alarm her any more than she already is. So I’m a nervous wreck before we even begin, waiting for that unexpected moment she’ll suddenly start choking, and – something particularly hard for me – there is nothing I can do to prevent it. We can’t keep her on yoghurt and soup all her life, but good gosh I wish we could!

It’s a hard reality to accept but one that I guess all parents eventually have to – we cannot protect our children from the world or from themselves. We can try our best to ensure they’re kept safe, in a protected environment that minimises the risk factors, and be there to pick them back up, but ultimately they’re going to get bumps and bruises, fall out of trees, start dating that boy you don’t like just to piss you off – the trick is not to make a big deal out of it and hope that the damage is never too great. Otherwise you’ll make them neurotic and yourself a basket case, or worse – you’ll turn them into you.