We must focus on developing the social, emotional and physical skills of our most vulnerable charges, says Andi Turner…
I’m not as naïve as I used to be. You see, quite apart from caring for children while mums and dads work or study or cope with illness, I work voluntarily with a charity that supports broken families and children living in local authority care. I don’t mean broken in the sense that parents have fallen out of love and gone their separate ways: I mean broken in the sense that lives and families have been completely smashed apart, through death, prison, abuse and neglect – that kind of broken.
Now, I thought that gas and glue sniffing were a thing of the past but I was wrong. For I’m supporting a child living in foster care who happens to be the youngest registered substance abuser in my area. He’s been known to ingest up to nine aerosols in a row for a mere two-minute high. Did I mention that he’s eight years old and he’s been doing this regularly since he was seven? He’s had just about the worst start in life you can possibly imagine. From birth, he’s seen and experienced things you’d think were far-fetched even in a Die Hard movie. His infancy was spent in a chaotic home rolling joints and cutting lines for his parents and their friends, stealing vans with the big boys and being used by adults to thieve. His attendance at nursery was extremely haphazard and even if his social worker did manage to get him there, it was another thing altogether trying to keep him there since he could scale the perimeter fences with the agility of a monkey, so I’m told. If any crime had been committed in his area he was the go-to kid, and this was his early years education.
“From birth, he’s seen and experienced things you’d think were far-fetched even in a Die Hard movie.”
It’s hardly surprising then that he came across misusing aerosols, especially when they’re so easily accessible. You see, children can simply pop into any shop to buy just one or a whole basket full. They are limited only by how much pocket money they have or how many they can carry. So while it’s illegal for somebody under the age of 16 to buy an aerosol paint container – and this is to combat graffiti mind, not to prevent ingestion – it’s not illegal for children to buy nail polish remover, cooking spray, spot stain removers, computer cleaners, sharpies or correction fluid.
But gas sniffing is no longer the preserve of the disenfranchised youth of the 70s and 80s. ‘Huffing’ (the new word for inhalant abuse) has gone mainstream and it’s hanging out in our kids’ bedrooms – girls and boys alike – where they’re getting high on deodorant, whipped cream and hairspray and sharing their brief euphoria with their followers on Snapchat, Instagram and Vine: where coolness is measured by how many ‘likes’ they get. Parents and carers largely haven’t a clue it’s even going on because they don’t know what to look for, nor how to respond if they find their child lying unconscious on their bed. Do they mistake them for sleeping, pull up their duvet, switch off their lamp and go to bed?
So how can we address this growing problem? Well, rather than pushing children to hold a pen and sit still we need to be helping them develop the social, emotional and physical skills that will lift them out of disadvantage. Skills like learning to respect themselves; keeping themselves healthy; expressing their feelings; building healthy relationships; and managing their behaviour when days seem hard, cruel or unfair. Writing their names and reading independently will come at the developmentally appropriate time but feeling loved, valued and capable is appropriate all of the time.
Andi Turner is an early years mentor, provider and blogger.