For most couples, the arrival of a baby will always come with a mixture of excitement, fatigue of previously unknown proportions, and worry as they get to grips with the new role of being parents. Becoming a parent is always a monumental change, and one that ushers in decades of adjusting. Imagine, then, what it must feel like when your baby arrives and he or she doesn't behave like the 'other' kids, may not look like the 'other' kids, or doesn't learn like the 'other' kids. Imagine what it must feel like for it slowly to dawn on you that being a parent for you isn't going to be the 'mainstream' experience you had expected, and that the hopes and dreams you indulged in over the 9 months of waiting may never materialise for you or your child.
The above is the reality for the parents of children who attend The Ridgeway School in Farnham, Surrey. The Ridgeway is a Special School which caters for children, aged between 2 and 19, with severe, profound and complex needs. For example, many of the children at the school are diagnosed with autism, cerebral palsy and epilepsy to name but a few conditions the children and their parents have to learn to live with. These mums and dads are not just parents: they are around the clock carers for their children.
Back in March 2019, local hypnotherist, Vivienne Evans, and myself were asked to design and deliver a stress management workshop to a group of 10 parents from the school. Meeting with the head of the parents' committee, Ann-Marie, over coffee, it became evident just how difficult the lives of the parents were. Wanting to ensure we pitched the workshop as accurately as we could, we discussed the challenges and needs the parents had. Ann-Marie gave an insight into lives which were an on-going battle and which took a tremendous amount of energy to live. The challenges Ann-Marie outlined were:
* Lack of sleep, as some children need constant supervision or don't sleep well
* Financial pressures
* Hypervigilence and being 'on alert' - especially in regards to epileptic children
* The guilt of not spending enough time with their other children
* Isolation from spouses, because one of them is always 'on duty', and from
'mainstream' parents due to a lack of understanding or shared experience
* The loss and grief from the life you and your child won't live
* Coming to terms with your child attending a 'special school' and how this changes the way your child's success will be measured
* The impact on confidence and self-esteem - both of the parents and the children
* Not getting time to yourself just to switch off
Using our insights from Ann-Marie, Vivienne and I collaborated to design a workshop that focused on the main needs that had been flagged up. We sought to use hypnotherapy to help delegates to relax and counselling techniques to help them explore their situation and forge new ways of coping. We ran two taster workshops in total and the success of the workshops was evident in the 'before' and 'after' feedback taken from the second set of delegates. which you can see below. Evaluating our work, the techniques that made the biggest impact were Vivienne's mindfulness exercise and relaxation script and my explanation of the movement the parents could make from 'The Dreaded Drama Triangle' to 'The Creator Orientation'. The message we wanted to give them was that they could change something in their lives to ensure that they were meeting their own needs.
Turns out that we got this message across loud and clear and they all shifted into a powerful creative orientation there and then, realising that what they really needed was sustained external support: the parents wanted us to deliver a course of workshops to help them maintain their wellbeing.
A short series of four ninety minute workshops was planned for July 2019, and these were focused around the biggest need the parents had: the need to switch off....but I wanted to challenge them further: I didn't just want it to be 90 minutes of bliss only to send them back to exhaustion, stress and isolation afterwards. No. I was passionate that they be encouraged to maintain their stress management well beyond the workshop itself. To me, it was important to empower these parents. Ann-Marie chose the most wonderful of settings for our workshops at Farnham Potteries, Wrecclesham, and, armed with a cappachino, the short-course began ... ok, there was cake, too...
In the first workshop, we focused on calming the delegates' brains and nervous systems by teaching them methods they could use to 'switch off' the sympathetic nervous system, allowing them to spend more time in 'neutral'. Put simply, the sympathetic nervous system is your flight-or-flight circuit: when a threat is perceived, it leaps into action, sending chemicals throughout your body which will help you to act quickly. Ideally, the threat should be dealt with quickly and be over quickly, too, allowing the system to switch back to neutral. However, in the case of our delegates, they are 'on alert' all of the time, so their anxiety response circuits were stuck on for longer than was healthy or useful.
To help them achieve this, we concentrated on practising breathing techniques with them that acted as a 'natural tranquiliser' for the nervous system. We also taught them self-hypnosis, with many of them demonstrating a natural talent for it.
Importantly, at the end of the session, homework was set for them to practise breathing and self-hypnosis exercises throughout the following week, ready to discuss any changes they'd noticed in the next workshop. I confess that I readied myself for excuses, but I was blown away by their efforts ...
Very deliberately, the beginning of each successive workshop was designed to evaluate and discuss what the delegates had managed to achieve since the last session. This process was faciliatated through the use of mini-workbooks. The idea was to motivate the delegates to monitor results and plot their progress, so that they could see they were making changes, no matter how small the steps.
The power of this approach was evident in the second session when delegates fed back on the triumphs of the week: some had made huge leaps and had noticed major changes to their sense of calm. I was impressed by their determination and commitment. To cement the change, they planned improvements to their relaxation regimes for the following week.
Following on from feedback on progress, we started looking at emotions and how these could be better regulated and expressed. Taking inspiration from Susan Davids' work TED talk on what she calls 'emotional agility', we tested the range of the delegates' emotional vocabulary. This had some very powerful outcomes, as some delegates realised they'd been holding on to some emotions for a long time, and they experienced a release of that emotion during this exercise.
Homework from this session was designed to help the delegates slowly build up their stress management skills, so they were to continue practising their breathing and self-hypnosis, instigating the improvements they'd identified, but also to keep a feelings journal.
Once again, we started the workshop with feedback on the week's progress which was, again, incredibly up-lifting. They were able to share the methods that were working as well as the ways in which they had adapted techniques so they were more effective for them. There was a real sense of them personalising the techniques.
This workshop developed on the theme of the previous session, and the delegates were encouraged to explore the needs behind the emotions they were experiencing so that they could put in place a plan on how those needs could be met. This activity gave way to a powerful discussion, whereby delegates reached a new clarification of their feelings, their needs and the actions that needed to follow to see them met.
The session was brought to an electrifying close by Vivienne who took the delegates through an Inner Child visualisation in order to help them release stuck emotions and heal exiled parts of themsleves.
Workshop 4 will take place after the summer holidays. The delegates identified the summer break as a massive challenge because they don't have the respite the school day offers. We agreed it would be a good idea to monitor their progress with the techniques they'd learned over the holidays so we could come together afterwards and discuss triumphs and improvements. I very much look forward to some more of the delicious homemade cake at the potteries, but also to seeing how the delegates got on over the summer holidays. I'll up-date this case-study in September.