When Puberty Comes to Call...

Over the past 6 months or so it's become more and more clear that Pip is coming into puberty.  He's 11 now so it's not unexpected but I suspect no parent is ever ready for when it arrives.  It sneaks in, seemingly under an invisibility cloak suddenly appearing in unexpected moments with a growling sort of "ta daaaa!".

I started preparing Pip a while ago for the changes he would experience in his body.  Because he's not currently attending school I wanted to ensure that he didn't miss any key information on this subject.  It helps a bit that I taught sex and relationships in schools and colleges as part of the UK PSHE programme for many years before adopting Katie.  There have been raised concerns about the curriculum over recent years particularly relating to some more intimate topics areas.  Because the children aren't currently in school I have ensured I have given as much information as has been requested or that I felt was age appropriate.  

Pip and I have had some very important but often amusing conversations at times about what is happening to his body; the changes that are already happening and preparing for what will come next.  He has learned the stages of puberty and what will happen and we often check in about what he is experiencing.  I am very aware that he doesn't have his dad around any more to talk to him about all the blokey stuff so I'm trying to make sure I can answer his questions as much as possible. I find repetition helps him to process the information more effectively and we also discuss things from different perspectives.  I keep my language simple as much as possible and give more information as he asks for it.  I am being mindful to teach him the proper words for body parts as well as all the other words we use to describe them.  As I used to say when I was teaching, we need to be able to describe our bodies to various different people and we need to right words for each occasion.  It's important to be able to tell a doctor using medical terminology but, lets face it, there are a myriad of other words that are used on TV, in music and in general conversation.  I will say watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer has given plenty of opportunity to discuss changing bodies and also sex.  Side by side conversations can be very productive because they induce less embarrassment.  Conversations watching TV or a movie or even in the car can really help our young people open up.  I sometimes choose something specific to watch if I know it contains a subject that I feel could be beneficial.

I was feeling quite pleased the other morning when Pip came to me and asked me to go over some information I had given him recently.  I won't embarrass him by saying what it was but I was really proud of him for asking.  This shows that he feels comfortable asking me questions and knows that whilst we may joked about at times about hair growing in places and things getting bigger etc, I will take it all very seriously if he needs to ask me something.

Whilst I am managing that side of things what is less easy to manage is the mood swings and meltdowns especially when factoring in FASD/ADHD and ASD.  Having already received my t-shirt for sort of navigating Katie through early puberty - something that has left me with significantly more grey hairs and some elements of CPTSD for us both.  Regular readers of this blog which remember some of the complexities we experienced at that time.  Navigating probably isn't the right word really.  She ran ahead and I attempted to keep up with her.  It was disastrous in places because her neurodiverse brain could not keep up with what was happening for her and what she thought her friends were doing.  As a result I'll be honest and say I'm not in a particular hurry to do early puberty again.  At 16 however Katie has come along in leaps and bounds and has become more reflective and happier to talk to me about her life.  I would have preferred to have reached that point without all the social workers and police involvement but we're in a much better place now.

I keep reminding myself that Pip isn't Katie and he will do things in his own way, mostly so I won't know how to prepare!  He has a very different personality than Katie.  He is much more playful in how he approaches life.  He is better able to recognise when he is behaved in a way that is inappropriate and more likely to apologise.  It's all such an unknown comodity with puberty though and I am definitely feeling some anxiety, particularly as I am travelling this road as a solo parent.  

With Pip I always have to keep in mind though that he feels shame more acutely than Katie and his responses can often be shame driven.  When he is feeling angry and then shame joins in, he will need time to himself to regulate.  During that time he will not want to speak to me and he will take himself off to his room until he feels more able to re-engage.  His ability to re-engage is a relationship saver for me.  He lets things go quickly and moves on.  The downside of this though is that, once he has moved on, he isn't keen to revisit it and discuss what happened and why.  He will shut down emotionally and refuse to talk or he will experience the shame all over again and this can lead to dysregulation.  NVR techniques suggest using a "strike when the iron is cold" approach but timing with Pip is everything.

Since he was small, whenever Pip has gone through a growing phase he has become more emotionally heightened and had bigger meltdowns.  Over the past 6 months he has been growing like the preverbial weed. I think he will be taller than me within a year at this rate.  Every morning it looks like he has grown again.  He is now all angular arms and legs and needing new shoes and clothes at a rate of knots.  A toddler having a meltdown is one thing.  By the time he was 8 it was becoming more problematic.  An 11 year old Pip having a meltdown is even tougher for me to manage.  He is on medication from CAMHS which has been helping minimise his bigger emotional reactions a bit but over the past few weeks there have been a few bigger blowups that have left me feeling concerned about what is coming and how much worse it might get.  As many of us know, when our children become dysregulated we can use all the strategies we have learned to de-escalate but when someone is in the reptilian part of their brain it can be massively challenging to help bring them back to regulation.

Pip's brain needs specific information in order to regulate.  He needs to know when something will happen; how long it will take; and what will happen before and afterwards.  If a task feels too much then he will immediately disengage.  Over the past 18 months since he has been out of full-time education I have been working with him to slowly build up his emotional resilience.  Doing any school work was a huge trigger for Pip. His anxiety would rise up very quickly.  His fear was obvious and dysregulation would follow quickly.  Over the past 12 months between his Tutor and myself we have been slowly building in adult-led activities.  He now goes to swimming, bouldering and tennis lessons either on a 1:1 or 1:2 basis.  Swimming has recently become 1:4 which is a huge achievement for Pip.  He has started to do some more structured learning with me. This is all on his terms and not regularly timetabled.  I created a jobs list for earning extra pocket money and the higher earning tasks involve him doing learning with me.  Initially his resistance and anxiety made me question whether it was a good idea but little by little he has started to see he is able to do things and his confidence has built up.  Today he did the handwriting he has been practicing with me, with his Tutor for the first time and he self pride was plain for us both to see.  One of those moments when things start to fall into place.  One major difference between Pip and Katie at the age of 11 is that Pip is much more innocent in terms of what he is interested in.  Many of the difficulties with Katie were her awareness of what she thought other people were doing and wanting to copy them.  Pip isn't the same. He's happy with his tech and being with friends.  At the current time, the darker elements of the world are above his head.  I hope it stays that way for some time to come.  It will be interesting to see what happens when he returns to education.

The word "NO" has always been a huge trigger for Pip so I am mindful how I present an outcome that isn't the answer he wants  Sometimes my response will be a "not right at this moment" or a "we can absolutely do this tomorrow" but sometimes it has to be a "no".  Pip will use every argument in his reperatoire to get me to change my mind and then he will dysregulate. Both my children are excellent at emotional blackmail.  Their current favourite ploy is to tell me I favour the other.  Considering both Katie and Pip try the same argument with me I suspect there is a flaw in this plan.  I try and show empathy to their feelings in those moments but I suspect me and the children all know that this is a learned response that they both know will hit their mum, who tries to be very fair, right in the heart.  Fairness is such a huge trigger generally in our family.  It's an impossible aim because both Katie and Pip are individuals with separate needs so I cannot treat them both exactly the same.  When it comes to money though boy do they keep score!

Boundaries around money have become a huge flashpoint in our household with both Katie and Pip.  They receive weekly pocket money and I meet their needs for specific items and favourite foods most of the time.  After TCM passed away I relaxed boundaries a little and bought extra treats and gave extra money for gaming because emotional resilience was incredibly low in the house and giving little lifts helped everyone's mood.  The problem with this is then reining in the boundaries again with young people who think something will happen all the time even if we've only done it once.  I try and maintain the rule that pocket money is on a Friday.  Pip has a certain amount extra he can earn during the week but once that limit is reached he had to wait until Friday.  The problem with Pip (and I have no doubt he's not alone in this) is that games like to introduce ways to achieve more in the game or have a certain skin or pet by spending money.  Often there is a time limit on how long this will be available.  This is obviously deliberate by the developers because they want to keep the pennies flowing in.  By creating a FOMO effect, children and young people with underdeveloped brains can struggle with having to wait for the items and anxiety can rear its head, especially if the deadline to buy the item is before pocket money day.  The other obvious issue many experience is that young people rarely ever understand the value of money in terms of cost of living and think, as I was often reminded when I was a child, that money "grows on trees".  Over the past few years there have been times when I have given pocket money early for one of these occasions but more recently it's a weekly request.

It is precisely this issue that is causing the flashpoints and meltdowns at home.  One day this week both Katie and Pip was in full meltdown because they gambled on a better pet in Roblox Toilet Tower Defence which didn't yeild what they hoped.  Katie optimistically thought that I would give her £200 to resolve her issue and Pip's a mere £20. Sadly both remained disappointed when I tried to explain that sometimes it's really important to sit in the feeling of disappointment and regret to help them understand that their decisions have consequences.  The frustration all round really is that linking actions with consequences isn't always conducive to developmental trauma and neurodiversity.  Katie blocked my way in the dining room for an hour whilst she attempted to negotiate (alternatively known as bully) with me to get the momey.  She was unsuccessful and eventually very huffily gave up. I even received a very unusual apology the next day from her.  A sign that she is actually maturing a little more.  

Holding boundaries can be really tough for parents with children with neurodiversity.  They can be tough for parents of children who are neurotypical too but neurodiversity brings more challenges to navigate and often need to be managed in a more visual way.  Add in puberty with a brain that is flooded with hormones and it can lead to incredibly challenging reactions.  Let's just say that my refusal to give pocket money early today because I have made it very clear that pocket money is Fridays, led to my 50 litre kitchen bin being thrown, not once but twice across the kitchen.  I'm not sure I will get the squished blueberries fully out of the mat. I joke but it was quite alarming.  I am used to meltdowns and have learned to stand firm in the eye of the tornado but it's been very hard over the years and I have emotional battle scars.  As Pip grows ever taller, my ability to feel some element of control in the situation becomes more of a challenge. 

In some ways this is why I'm really sticking to boundaries at this point because I have no doubt that this could get worse as Pip gets older.  I am trying hard to help him learn that money is not infinite and that if we choose to buy one thing, we might not be able to buy the other.  I am hoping that over the coming weeks I can ride the storm, stand firm, and enable this boundary to be established fully.  He has just been to see me to apologise again which gives me a smidgen of hope.  

A friend of mine often tells me that nothing good ever comes of me being nice.  I've learned that in several areas of my life this is indeed true.  It was so hard when TCM died and giving those little treats and extra money helped make a really tough time a little easier.  Payback however is (as they say) a you know what and now I am getting that payback along with a dose of puberty.

Live and learn.....


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