Reflections on my daughter’s 18th year: COVID challenges and the importance of relationships.

By CALM Learning & Development Consultant, Alan Martin

The 10th  – 16th May marks Scottish Learning Disability Week 2021. The general theme this year is relationships, and the importance of having people in our lives. Each day (Monday – Sunday) covers a different topic. Yesterday’s topic was ‘challenges’ and today’s is ‘family’, and as the parent of a child with additional support needs, I wanted to share some personal reflections on both topics in relation to the trials of the last year. The past year has had many positive and negative impacts on my daughter, her relationship with me and her mum, her sister, her friends, and the wider world.

My daughter turned 18 on 25th February. Her 18th birthday should have been a time of massive celebration with family and friends but as we have all been in involuntary lockdown, celebrations were unfortunately muted and very limited. Her 18th year was certainly unlike any I ever imagined…

If you cast your mind back 15 months, we were all gripped with fear as the pandemic rolled across Europe before eventually washing up on the shores of the UK. As the scale of the pandemic in the UK grew, and the deaths started to mount, Governments began a process of gradually ramping up restrictions until on 15th March 2020 the ‘stay at home order’ was given and everyone went into total lockdown. Overnight, the life of an overwhelming number of citizens of the UK was put on hold. Only according to strict criteria could you leave your home, and that meant my daughter could not continue to go to the college she attended four days per week.

How do you explain the risk presented by something so small that you can’t see it to someone who struggles to perceive a world not in front of her eyes? How do you explain the need to wash your hands more frequently to someone who sees meeting her personal hygiene as a chore she would avoid if she could?

So we stayed at home, I was furloughed, my daughter had to stop going to college, couldn’t meet up with her friends, couldn’t go shopping (an activity she actually loves), and respite support ground to a halt.

I think initially, for everyone, the early stages of the lockdown was a bit like a holiday, and indeed my daughter saw it as such but as the weeks went from two to three and so on, the changes we had to accept and endure started to take their toll.

My daughter loves going to college, she has real friends and gets on well with her tutors – its absence left a big gap in her life.

My daughter loves going to college, she has real friends and gets on well with her tutors – its absence left a big gap in her life. College tried to help by sending work home to do online with online support. Whilst I understood the intention to continue with study, my daughter didn’t quite see it like that. As far as she was concerned college work should be done at college, not at home; this resulted in many an argument, with us sometimes reaching an impasse where nothing was being done. Also adding fuel to the fire was the lack of social contact with her friends.

As I’m sure many parents would argue, the availability of social media has at times been a curse. However, for my daughter this became her life line, enabling her to stay in touch with her friends in chat groups etc. Whilst being relieved that she had something else to occupy her, it very quickly morphed into another issue, as from early morning to late evening she was ‘online’ and any attempts to engage her in ordinary family activities became a problem.

I have to admit life was chaotic in the early months of lockdown for all of us. However, what was really noticeable was how distant we started to become from each other even in the house. Each of us following our own agenda, our own things to do, even to the extent we sat in different rooms.

So, for everyone’s peace, and to return to some semblance of normality and structure, we developed a timetable for the family. This included scheduled college time (Monday – Thursday) for my daughter, leisure time and family activities (including quizzes, movie nights, themed meals, local walks). This certainly helped and we settled into a reasonable life – arguments reduced, and tensions lessened.

For my daughter, adapting to the new normal was really difficult. Alongside the lack of social contact in a physical sense with friends and wider family, the fact that initially she couldn’t go anywhere except for short local walks was problematic. As I’m sure many parents of children with additional support needs would say, the social isolation experienced by their child was also reflected in their own lives, socially distancing from family and friends, distancing from work colleagues and the heavy reliance on Zoom, Teams or other online avenues for social contact was frustrating.

Overall, there were a lot of negatives, but one thing I have been grateful for was throughout this period of forced isolation is that I have had the opportunity to perhaps gain a different perspective and reconnect with my family. My job takes me away from home regularly sometimes for four days at a time which meant time at home was precious and tended to focus on things that needed to be done – often putting ‘connection time’ on the back burner. I’ve reconnected with my children and my wife and I can only hope that as we move back towards a more normal life that I don’t lose sight of the power of those connections and the importance of the relationships I perhaps took for granted.

As for my daughter, she is back at college and we plan (when appropriate) to re-celebrate her 18th birthday properly with all our family and friends – just as it should’ve been – with in-person hugs for all the people who make her life – and ours – rich and full and happy.

#LDWeekScot2021

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