'you stink and your mum's a baghead'!
“You stink and your mum’s a bag head”!
“School kids, addicted families”
When I began teaching I would never have imagined that I would witness children arriving at school unfed, unwashed, uniforms covered in stains and reeking of urine. Worst of all, their empty eyes and disillusioned demeanour.
Over the years I have been shocked and saddened by stories and first hand experiences of children having their childhoods ripped away by families addicted to drugs and alcohol.
Children whose families have “known” illnesses such as cancer, heart disease or have suffered a stroke receive huge amounts of sympathy from staff and pupils alike. But children affected by addictive behaviour can be stigmatised for their condition without their abusers having any idea why.
More than one million children are affected by parental alcohol and drug misuse. This makes them increasingly vulnerable to abuse and neglect and more likely to develop addiction problems of their own due to their frequent exposure to such substances.
I saw children arriving to school on a daily basis, hungry, dirty and having dealt regularly with sights and behaviour that would leave most of us speechless. They would regularly confide in me about their numerous problems. Tragic issues for anyone to deal with, let alone those who should be enjoying their childhoods.
“Kids arriving at school having witnessed behaviour that would horrify most of us”
Should they have to observe parents injecting heroin into their groin? Should they have to change their parents urine soaked sheets? Should they come to school covered in bruises and chronic feelings of low self worth?
“Children whose loved ones have mental illness are often targeted by bullies because of a lack of understanding.”
This also occurs with children dealing with addicted families. They are often victim to name calling by other pupils. Eg “your mums a bag head” or “your dads a tramp” which often, understandably, causes a negative reaction from the child concerned.
This then attracts negative attention from peers, teachers, parents and social workers. Negative attention though is better than none. If a child is sent out of the classroom for example, it is highly likely that a teaching assistant or another teacher will talk to the child on a one to one basis. Sadly, a luxury many children never get at home from their parents.
“Conflicting pressures for children of addicted families”
Every child is entitled to a good education. Every child has the right to learn in a calm and safe learning environment. Every child has a designated amount of homework they need to complete as part of the curriculum, without which they will fall behind and struggle to catch up.
This could be down to lack of motivation and peer pressure. What if children through no fault of their own are practically bringing themselves up whilst dealing with parents and relatives with addictions?
“Kids having to put drunken family members to bed in the early hours”
Children that have had to put drunken family members to bed in the early hours should be applauded for making it to school at all. They arrive hungry, tired and depressed. Although generally frowned upon, both I and a number of colleagues would make or buy them tea and toast.
How are they meant to concentrate with empty stomachs never mind their anxieties and fear of going home?
They may have to put up with taunts from other pupils saying they“stink” as many of these troubled youngsters suffer from the humiliation of bed-wetting. There is no loving family member at home to make sure their bedding and uniform is clean and ironed.
Admittedly, there are children disrupting classes with challenging behaviour, which hinders the learning experience of other pupils. Is it any wonder that many of these burdened pupil’s exhibit bad behaviour in the classroom? At least it allows them attention.
It is natural for all children to crave attention and to be entitled to it; after all, they don’t receive any at home. Home in an ideal world should be a safe haven, not a war zone.
“Attention seeking behaviour or withdrawing into isolation”?
Ideally, school should provide a safe and nurturing environment. The role of the teacher is as much pastoral as one of facilitating learning. Pupils need to feel they can confide in us. Often, we are the only ones they can trust. I consider it a privilege that children have felt they can trust and confide in me despite what I have heard still haunting me to this day.
Some pupils do the opposite and rather than attention seeking, withdraw into isolation, bottling up their problems. Other pupils turn to addictive substances to numb the pain and temporarily forget their troubles. They’ve observed their families use or drink on a regular basis and see that for a small amount of time, oblivion can be found and reality temporarily melts away.
Inevitably, some pupils will turn to crime for the ‘buzz’ they crave and the respect and fear it creates in their peers. It may also be the only way to get a reaction from the addicts they live with.
Some parents may even encourage their children to steal or even deal for them or send them to the off-licence to support their addiction.
Living in a chaotic world is the norm for these children. They have never known any difference. The lack of role models, stability, and the consistency of a secure family unit has been a normal part of their young lives.
In addition to this, today’s society puts so much emphasis on wearing the “right” clothes or having the latest gadget, be it a mobile phone, laptop or computer game, can lead to children from dysfunctional families stealing these items in a quest for peer group acceptance.
It is a fact that individuals can be known to misuse substances by the authorities, yet their children are NOT automatically removed and taken into care. There has to be provable child cruelty before the authorities intervene. This leads us to the questions; ‘Are children better off being left to live with their dysfunctional families or put into care?’ ‘Is trying to keep the family unit together causing more harm than good?’
School children have one lesson each week of Personal and social health care education (PSHCE).
‘Issues of drug and alcohol misuse should be taught in a non-judgemental manner, impressing upon children the dangers but also pointing out that these are illnesses, like any other, that require support and understanding rather than judging’
The problem being that many children never attend these lessons for a number of reasons. They may be subjected to bullying, feel ashamed; blame themselves or even be truanting as they have been brought up by adults who had not attended school at their age.
They have never had working role models around them. They see using the benefits system as the acceptable and normal way to live. What have they had to compare their way of life with? They have never seen motivated adults and can be trapped in a cycle of worthlessness.
“Some simple solutions”?
So, what is the UK government’s response to this tragic situation? ‘Every Child matters’ or ECM, which was an initiative, launched in 2003 and led to ‘the children’s act’ 2004. ‘Every child matters’ is repeated like a mantra in school halls around the country. However, if every child did matter so much, why do they have to put up with physical and verbal abuse from their families? Their childhoods are virtually non-existent.
‘ECM’s main aims for each child regardless of their background are:
●enjoy and achieve
●make a positive contribution
●achieve economic well being
There is evidence ‘for’ and ‘against’ that ‘Every child matters’ is an effective concept on paper and ‘ticks all the right boxes’ but needs addressing and refining.
“Every child could be fed, showered and clothed”
There are shower facilities at school, which could be used by children in the morning. The school could organize a ‘uniform recycling club’ where children hand in their uniforms when they grow out of them. Designated volunteers could wash and iron them.
With funding and a rota of staff and pupil volunteers, a breakfast club could be organised. A local bakery or supermarket could sponsor the school. Bread at its sell by date could be donated or bought cheaply. It is a social responsibility to ensure children are fed, washed and clean before we begin to think about educating them.
How can the psychological health of children be addressed when their basic human needs are not catered for?
Tara Carbery © October 2010
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