Affirmation in Parenting

As usual I have a complex knot of thoughts in my brain that I am going to attempt to commit to my keyboard. My thoughts have come from a range of sources including a film, a meeting we had in school and some clumsy comments. It has taken me a while to figure it out but the theme running through them all is affirmation – the act of getting emotional support or encouragement.

More specifically, as parents, do we ever get any affirmation? What happens if we don’t and what difference does it make if we do?

I have written before about my lack of parenting confidence when I had Big Bear (see Goodbye Adoption Leave  ). I can remember those times well. Other parents can be very competitive and instead of taking a ‘we are all in it together’ attitude, they can make you wonder whether you really have made the right decision to feed your baby from a jar (from the shocked look on their face perhaps you really might be setting them on a straight course for Scurvy) or co-sleep with them (you might still be doing it when they are 18). Deciding not to use Controlled Crying caused many a shockwave and invited comments that suggested I was bringing my baby’s sleep problems on myself. Finding my own way was difficult. Whatever I did felt wrong and I rather suspected that every parent out there was doing the parenting thing better than I was (with the involvement of more organic butternut squash, more sleep, a tidier home and a brain that could actually think in a straight line).

Those suspicions continued into preschool and even the first years of school. Thankfully I have now stopped dragged around a heavy load of parenting doubt. I am by no means cocky or complacent about my parenting but I feel quietly comfortable with the way I’m going about things. I have Little Bear to thank for that. His constant development and flourishing have undeniably taken place since his arrival, not prior, so we must be doing something right somewhere.

Whilst I am no longer constantly self-flagellating for my inadequacies, I am not immune to self-doubt or being wounded by a careless comment. Neither, I suspect, is any parent. The thing is we are all just doing our best. We make the parenting decisions we think are right at the time. Crucially, we make the parenting decisions that feel right for our individual children. My own two children have very different needs and sometimes I make different decisions for each of them, because that is what I think will work best for them.

Most of the time I go about my day to day life, analysing, thinking and making decisions about how to parent my children without too much fuss. Grizzly and I might have a chat to decide whether x or y is better. We spend more time analysing and wondering over Little Bear because being adopted does add another layer of complexity. I suppose if I think hard about it we do put a lot of time and energy into trying our best for them but it is not onerous and I don’t think either of us feels we require praise for it. We just do what parents do, like everybody else.

However, there have been occasions recently when I have felt that my parenting is being judged and that the person doing the judging feels that Little Bear’s behaviour might be better were I to parent him differently. The examples I’m going to share are only little things, unfortunate comments, but they bother me, usually by implication.

One such comment was, “Are you going to send Little Bear to Beavers? You should get his name down!” (Made in the context of perhaps if Little Bear had something more exciting to look forward to, he would eat his dinner). It sounds innocuous enough but the implication that came with the comment was “I cannot believe you don’t send Little Bear to Beavers. EVERYONE who is ANYONE sends their child to Beavers. If you do not send him, he will have absolutely no future.” Clearly I exaggerate a little but this is exactly the kind of comment that really irks me because it is so passive aggressive and such a thinly veiled attempt at hiding the speaker’s real view that they are in fact a super-parent and if you don’t do what they think you should do, you are a rubbish parent.

No. Why does she think it is ok to do that? She doesn’t know my reasons for not sending him. She might want that for her children but why do I have to do it for mine? Little Bear is blooming exhausted after trying so hard at school all day and goes up to bed at 6pm. I can’t contemplate sending him to a club after tea yet. Also, I don’t know any of the staff at Beavers and I don’t feel comfortable sending him somewhere he doesn’t know anyone yet and where no one knows him and what he needs from them. I know that I don’t actually have to explain myself, what with my parenting being my business, but comments like that make you start to question yourself.

The same person has also made comments about the snacks I give the boys when I pick them up from school (it’s chocolate, shoot me), why I didn’t send Little Bear to football club earlier and how Little Bear always chooses a baked potato for lunch.

Grizzly says I should just ignore it but I can’t. I think what really pushes my buttons about it is the judgement and inference that I ought to listen to her because her parenting is in some way superior. It’s so unhelpful and a good job I am no longer lugging about my parenting doubts because I would now be feeling very bad about myself. I’m sure she does it to other people who are currently feeling like failures.

No. We are all parenting and doing our best. We should be supporting and affirming one another. People do things differently and that’s ok. Perhaps I should write her a Social Story!

I don’t think loads of gushing compliments are needed but certainly less of the judgment. I think you just need to know from time to time that you’ve got this. You’re doing ok. You are not breaking your children. People can see you are trying your best.

When we have meetings about Little Bear at school, I sometimes feel that there is a suggestion that it is something we are doing that makes him behave as he does in the classroom. There have been comments about him “coming in not ready to work” as though I’ve spun him around 50 times on the way in or laced his breakfast with sugar. As lovely as school are (and they genuinely are mostly lovely) I think there is something in the culture that leans towards blaming parents.

This week, someone from our post-adoption support service came to one of the meetings. It was surprising how good it was to have somebody there who not only values our opinions but made some positive affirmations about our parenting. She made sure school knew that adoptive parenting is hard and that we are putting a lot of effort into this. She made it clear that what will change things (and already has been changing things) for Little Bear is our therapeutic parenting (as well as a therapeutic approach from school). She affirmed our approach, our strategies and that these match Little Bear’s needs.

I think having those things affirmed by somebody who is so knowledgeable was really powerful for me and was something I didn’t know I needed until I got it. It made me feel more confident to fess up to some things I didn’t feel so sure about and to ask for help with them. I wouldn’t have felt comfortable to ask for help if I had felt judged. I came away from the meeting feeling a little lighter and with a little spring in my step.

I suspect the reason so many of us adopters like Twitter is because there is a very safe and supportive community of other adopters on there who don’t judge and are quick to give positive re-enforcement and affirmation. We are probably all very aware of how great a need our children have for affirmation and are therefore fairly natural at dishing it out in general.

During today’s chats I came across a blog by @mumdrah about the difficulties in getting affirmation as a single adopter and the impact this has on how your child views you. As well as making an eloquent point, it includes some pointers about how you can make positive statements to support your partner/ others in their parenting. You can read it here: http://www.mumdrah.co.uk/ducks-in-a-row/

The film that got me thinking (and laughing) was Bad Moms. It’s very far-fetched but illustrates perfectly how negative and harmful a lack of affirmation mixed with competitive parenting and one-up-man-ship can be.

We are all in this together. Let’s stop with the judgement and pat each other on the back now and again. We’re doing our best but the doubt can creep in. Sometimes it’s hard and a little positive comment on those days can go a long way.

 

 

 

Cuddle Fairy
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Affirmation in Parenting

The Bears Talk Adoption

In November of last year I asked Big Bear if he would mind writing his thoughts on adoption down for me. He knew about my blog and was very excited about the idea of his words being published on the web. This was the result: Adoption by Big Bear

At the time he was 7. I have been wondering, now that another year has passed and he is a year older and we are that bit further into the adoption, how his views have changed. He was excited at the prospect of being famous (!) again so we agreed to try an interview this time. Here it is:

Me: What do you think adoption means?

Big Bear: Adoption’s like when um, when a family, a normal family, have loads of children who they can’t handle. They’re like naughty and stuff and they can’t handle them so they go to live with foster parents who try to look after them for a period of time so then, erm, so some very kind people who want to adopt the children, they go to visit the foster parents and have a little talk with them, like how well behaved the child is and gossip like that. Then they start having little time with the child, you know like to settle them in? They have a little journey to the adopter’s house then they, erm, they like settle down, look at their bedroom and see what toys they’ve got and then they think ‘I like it here, it’s not bad’. When that happens, it’s really like very kind to the foster family and the other family.

Me: Ok. Do you think there are any good things about adoption?

Big Bear: Yeah. Adoptions like thinking you’ll have a family forever and you’re not gonna move. It’s like staying in the same place.

Me: Do you think there are any bad things about adoption?

Big Bear: Well yes I do because the children that have been adopted will probably miss their foster parents and just say that they want to go and see their foster parents.

Me: If there are any people reading my blog, like another child who might be getting an adopted sibling, do you have any advice for them?

Big Bear: I’ve got a lot of advice. So just if you don’t wanna see them to start with you can just stay in your room for a bit but like then you need to start playing with them and they’ll start liking you more and they’ll just think you are a superhero to them. They’ll think you’re amazing if you start playing with them. You don’t really have to let them do anything with your stuff. You don’t have to let them in your room. You just have to make them happy. If you don’t want to play with them sometimes it’s absolutely fine but you’ve got to play with them sometimes because you might actually think it’s fun.

Me: So now you’ve had an adopted brother for 2 years, how are you finding that?

Big Bear: I’m finding it fine. But when we started having him it was a nightmare but now I think he’s quite good. I play with him a lot and it’s quite amazing really because his behaviour has come on a lot. He used to be a nightmare when he came but now he’s good as gold. Like really, just get playing with them and they’ll get better.

Me: So are you having fun with him now?

Big Bear: Yeah I have a lot of fun. They start doing sports that you like and yeah, you have a lot of fun.

Me: Does it make any difference that he is adopted?

Big Bear: No. It’s not an excuse for anything. No, he’s just a normal person.

Me: Is there anything I have missed? Is there anything else you would like to tell people?

Big Bear: Really, if you want to adopt somebody, you need to be kind people. If you are not kind people, don’t bother. Just settle them in.

Me: Do you have any advice for helping children settle better?

Big Bear: Yeah. Just get them stuff they can squeeze or punch. It calms them down. They can always like bring them into class if they’re struggling at school because it could just calm them down. It helps them a lot. Like a squeezy thing or a fidget spinner.

Grizzly (not wanting to be left out): How do you think it feels for a child to come to a new family?

Big Bear: Well, um, I think it’s pretty scary at the start. They have to get used to the house. When they’ve got used to their environment they’ll get used to their parents and when they’ve got used to them they’ll get used to their brothers or sisters and then they’ll get used to their friends and then to their school. Then they’ll get used to sports and doing spelling.

 

Bless him! This is the edited version as Big Bear was in his element and chatted for a good ten minutes. My initial thought is that I probably need to do more work with him about why children end up in Care in the first place! I certainly haven’t told him it is because they are naughty. It is a little scary how I can hear some of my own words coming out of his mouth though – like ‘just try playing with him you might actually think it’s fun’.

Overall I think it does reflect his chatty, thoughtful nature and the relationship he has with his brother. He is certainly less in denial about liking him now which I’m pleased about. I’m glad he can be honest though, we have worked hard at making sure his views are listened to and ensuring that he is comfortable to say how he really feels, whether positive or negative.

 

I have been really mindful this year that I would love to let Little Bear have a voice on my blog too. It is trickier with him because it is hard to make sure that he fully understands what I’m asking of him and what I’m going to do with the information. I explained that I write about adoption and that I’d like to interview him too. He was up for it and co-operated for a short time. Here are his thoughts:

 

Me: What do you think being adopted means?

Little Bear: You live in a different house and you come here.

Everybody in my class is adopted but not in Big Bears class.

It’s really nice.

Me: Being adopted is nice?

Little Bear: Yeah

Me: Why is it nice?

Little Bear: Because I just like it.

Me: Do you think there are any good things about being adopted?

Little Bear: Being good and being protected.

Me: Do you think there are any bad things?

Little Bear: No. (Gets distracted thinking up all the bad things he can like getting shot or murdered. I felt he’d had enough of my questions).

 

 I have to say I was pretty surprised by what Little Bear had to say. I’m amazed he said “being good and being protected”. It is typical of him though to be a man of few words, but to hit the nail squarely on the head. It was also one of those brief glimpses into his complex internal world: there is so much going on in there.

I was most surprised that he was so unswervingly positive about it. I genuinely thought he would have talked about missing his foster carers and perhaps he would on a different day. I’m not naïve enough to think he will always be this positive as there is still so much Life Story work to come but for now, what he has said has been lovely to hear.

The point he makes about everyone in his class being adopted is because he knows that there are 4 others in his class who are and that nobody in Big Bear’s class is adopted. This came about because recently he started listing people we know to find out if ‘they came out of their Mum’s tummies or not?’

 Hopefully, if both Bears are ok with it, we’ll have a similar chat in a year’s time and see how things have changed.

 As always, I’m extremely proud of them both and grateful that they humoured their Mum and answered my questions.

 

 

 

The Bears Talk Adoption

Alleviating School Worries

A couple of weeks ago I blogged about how Little Bear was doing at school (School Worries), the apparent desire to keep us at arm’s length and my concerns about the school’s ability to support and educate him. Little Bear’s behaviour was spiralling and his teacher was tearing her hair out. It was going badly and I was very worried. Since then I have had several conversations with his teacher, parent’s evening and we finally had the big meeting we had been asking for.

The landscape now is very different. I think they are getting more right than they are getting wrong and Little Bear is starting to thrive. I thought it might be helpful to share some of the things we/they have done that have made the difference:

A Timetable

Don’t ask me why but when Little Bear started Year 1 there was no set timetable of what he would be doing each day; sometimes it could be Maths then literacy, at other times Phonics then Maths etc. His teacher realised after a few weeks that he might cope better if the expectations were clearer and his day was more predictable. They created a timetable for him but things were still going awry. I wondered aloud one day whether Little Bear was able to see the timetable himself. It turned out they were showing him the black and white typed adult version which was of course entirely meaningless to him.

Little Bear now has a timetable made up of digital photos of him doing all the different tasks. This is working fabulously

He knows the routine and seems much happier to get on with what he is meant to be doing. Plus he actually likes the timetable because he is in it and is therefore much more motivated to engage with it

Choose time

As Little Bear finds it difficult to concentrate for any length of time we agreed that he would do a short work task and then a fun task then a work task, then a fun task to keep him on track. The fun task would be used as a carrot in a NOW work, THEN fun task kind of way. The fun task might also involve moving about to give him a physical/sensory break from sitting still. The fun tasks have been chosen carefully so they are still educational (they might involve developing his play skills or turn-taking or creativity etc.) and are actually motivating to Little Bear, not just perceived to be motivating by an adult.

The choices are presented to Little Bear in photo form (with him in the pictures) and he picks in advance of each work activity.

This is also working brilliantly to the point where some mornings he is now able to complete all the work tasks on his timetable and doesn’t need any fun tasks at all.

A consistent approach

None of the above would be working if it wasn’t for this. The teacher and TA have now figured out their strategy and are being much clearer with Little Bear. There is no shouting one minute then letting him off with something the next any more. I think they have settled on a calm, firm approach much like we use at home. They have realised that the rules need to be clear and they can’t change from one day to the next.

They have also realised that Little Bear benefits from some extra rules where other children wouldn’t. For example, if he is tired one day and therefore allowed to read just one page, instead of 3, he will expect that he can do the same thing the next day. If he can find a chink in the armour he will exploit it. However, if there is a blanket rule e.g. every day we read 3 pages Little Bear knows where he is at and is much happier to adhere to it.

I think his TA was feeling mean but has found out the hard way that Little Bear actually feels a lot safer when he knows exactly what is expected and adults around him are consistent with their boundaries. If he doesn’t and they are not, his anxiety will spike and his behaviour will become increasingly challenging. Now that he feels safer, he is much more open to learning.

A discipline re-think

I have to say that whatever errors school have made I am extremely grateful for their willingness to listen (in the end) and to try something different. A little willingness goes along way for our children.

The school as a whole were using the Good To Be Green behaviour system, which involves children getting an amber warning card when they do something they shouldn’t and then a red card if they do something else or do something violent. Thankfully they did see early on that this didn’t work for Little Bear. There are the immediate issues with public shaming but for us the main problem was that once you get an amber or red card you can’t work your way back to green that day. Once you’ve got in bother and already had a red card, what is the point of trying to control yourself for the rest of the day? You might as well just go for it and do whatever you like. It is a very negative system.  Also, Little Bear was getting upset by the card changes because he isn’t naughty, he just finds controlling himself really difficult. He was frequently very annoyed with himself for seemingly having failed, which impacted his mood for the rest of the day.

Thankfully school recognised that they couldn’t continue with that system for him so came up with Magic 1,2,3 to use instead. They didn’t want to single Little Bear out with his peers so have changed the system for the whole of his class, a very sensitive gesture I felt.

I’m not sure that I love Magic 1,2,3 per se but it has an accidental benefit which is crucial for Little Bear. Basically the teacher counts each time you do something you shouldn’t so you get 3 chances to make amends or make a different choice. If after 3 chances you still haven’t co-operated or you have had 3 separate misdemeanours, you have to sit on the thinking chair.

Now, I know a lot of parents won’t like it because it is basically sitting in the corner. However, for Little Bear it gives him the calm down time he desperately needs.

I have struggled to get school to understand that when Little Bear is thoroughly pissed off the last thing he needs is someone lecturing him, talking at him and verbally chastising him. He needs to sit somewhere quietly until he is ready to talk. At home, we just ask him to sit wherever he is. He sits on the floor and we stay nearby and usually he’ll say “I’m ready Mummy” after about 3 seconds (a ‘time in’). However, it turns out that school weren’t ever allowing him this time so it wasn’t any wonder he was nearly blowing a gasket sometimes and going straight from one incident to another.

Sitting on the thinking chair gives him just the de-compression he needs. Also, it is in the classroom so he is not isolated or left alone.

I don’t think this would be the right thing for every child but it is suiting Little Bear much better and his behaviour has calmed enormously.

Praise & positive re-enforcement

Little Bear’s behaviour was becoming such an issue in school that I felt all the positives were getting lost. They had pretty much got to the point of thinking there weren’t any.Other than me pointing this out I don’t really know what changed but the teacher and TA have certainly got better at looking for the positives and making a big fuss about them.

Again this wouldn’t work for children who can’t handle praise but Little Bear really thrives off it. School have cottoned on to this and whenever Little Bear tries hard or produces something good, they encourage him to share it with the class. He absolutely loves this and I think it helps his peers to see him as someone who is successful, not just someone they think is naughty.

Working as a Team   

I do feel that school have recognised that they had cut us out of the loop and are now keen to include us more. I think they can see the benefits and that when there are meetings it is not because we want to tell them off or be difficult it is because we genuinely want to work in partnership. We have 2 further meetings arranged before Christmas which has allayed a lot of my concerns.

We have agreed common goals e.g. to extend Little Bear’s reading from 3 pages to 4 in one sitting and to encourage him to work independently for 2 minutes instead of 1. The goals are achievable and measurable which is exactly as they should be and because we are working on them at home and at school I’m sure they will be met more quickly.

A key part of the meeting we had was to share information about Little Bear’s history with his new TA. She didn’t know how long he had been with us, what his developmental starting point was etc. I have pointed out it would have been much more helpful for her to know all this at the start because then she could have adjusted her expectations accordingly from the outset. However, we can’t undo the past and at least she is now armed with all the facts.

Communication

To help school to communicate with us in a way that works for us, they invited us to have a frank discussion and be clear about what we actually want to know. We have agreed that they will comment on Little Bear’s behaviour each day and how he has got on with his independent working, hopefully in a one thing that went well and perhaps a thing that didn’t go so well sort of a way.

I can’t honestly say how well this is working yet but I’m hopeful.

Lateral Thinking  

School have been great about being open to different ideas and ways of doing things. Sometimes they still struggle to get Little Bear to have a go at things; he might flatly refuse or say he hates whatever it is. They have agreed to try things like offering Little Bear the opportunity to go and show his brother his work if he tries hard at it. I think he will be extremely motivated to do that and Big Bear is happy to be involved and relishes the added responsibility.

As the TA directly asked us for some advice on how to manage this, we were also able to talk about wondering and empathising e.g. “It must be hard to get your work done if you hate English. I wonder if that’s because you find it tricky” rather than a dismissive, “You don’t hate it”.

 

It meant more than they probably realised to be asked and to be considered a source of knowledge about our child. The Head teacher also apologised to us and admitted they had got the transition badly wrong. He asked what could be done differently next time.

We left the meeting feeling reassured, listened to and that Little Bear is in safe hands. They might not get it right all the time but at least they know that and are not afraid to admit it and ask for help.

I feel hopeful now.

 

Alleviating School Worries

Contact

The subject of contact has been prominent in our house this week for a few reasons. My involvement in it has got me thinking about the importance of contact in general and how it is of multi-faceted benefit. There are benefits not just to the child in the centre of it all but to those around him and those on the receiving end of the contact too.

The first thing that happened was that we decided that Little Bear had asked us enough times now if he could see his Foster Carers and we needed to listen. It has always been in a casual way – mentioned one day then not for weeks and usually mentioned in passing.

Initially, when Little Bear first moved in, it was an active decision on our part that he wouldn’t speak to them for a while. The transition had been quite rushed and Little Bear hadn’t seemed to miss his Foster Carers Karen and Bob at all. If he did it wasn’t in a way that he could verbalise or even that he shed tears over. It felt odd.

It was only after about 6 months that Little Bear started to mention them and then it was usually when he was displeased with us.

During the first months my own feelings about Karen and Bob were very confused. They had been lovely to us – very friendly and welcoming and they had gone out of their way to include Big Bear and ease his distress when Introductions proved very hard on him. However, I also felt angry about various aspects of Little Bear’s development that clearly hadn’t been nurtured or developed in their care. I was upset that he should have been further ahead than he was after such a long time with them. I knew he had the potential to be further on because he was literally flourishing in front of my eyes. I was upset that his tongue was cracked from dehydration; he didn’t know what fruits or vegetables were and was having to take laxatives for his sluggish digestion. He hadn’t learned to do basic things like walk holding hands and was used to playing in his room with the light on in the middle of the night. I was upset that we had to start parenting from scratch, down to teaching him his own name and getting him to follow even a basic instruction.

We had our work cut out and I honestly didn’t know if I could speak to Karen and Bob or what I would say to them if I did.

I suppose if I’m really honest I was also worried about our attachments at that point. I genuinely think speaking to them or seeing them could have broken the fragile bond that we were gradually forming with Little Bear. I guess some of my motivations for not having contact were selfish.

However, I always intended that in the longer term we would have some sort of contact for Little Bear’s sake. I do think children should be able to stay in touch with their Foster Carers but I also think this should very much be taken on a case by case basis and directed by the child. I sent occasional messages and Christmas cards etc. I thought Karen and Bob might have sent Little Bear a birthday or Christmas card but they didn’t. Perhaps they weren’t bothered about him anymore?

More recently I have known that the time was coming when instead of just allowing Little Bear to talk about Karen and Bob and affirming that it really is ok for him to miss them, I would need to go one step further. I would need to facilitate him speaking with them and possibly seeing them. All of a sudden I felt ok to make this happen. I didn’t think it would threaten our bond at all. And moreover I wanted him to have the opportunity.

So recently I contacted them to see how they felt about it. I was surprised by how keen they were and how happy my text had made them. The phone call took place and I was surprised by how nice it was to hear their voices. An adopters relationship with foster carers is unique I think and can’t really be likened to any other type of relationship. After all, you don’t usually move into a stranger’s house for a week or so and then take away the child they have been caring for. It is a very unusual dynamic.

For us, it turns out, it is a dynamic in which despite not speaking to them for 2 years and having very mixed feelings about the care they provided our son (though I know they didn’t do any of it purposefully) we are still able to have an easy and comfortable conversation. It was lovely to hear how they and their family are doing and also their genuine joy in hearing about Little Bear. It seems as though they do think about him and wonder about him but don’t want to intrude into our lives by getting in touch to ask us about him. I have made it clear that we would not see that type of contact as an intrusion and would welcome it.

I think the phone call was important for them. They needed the contact.

Little Bear needed the contact and wanted it but was quite discombobulated by it. When Grizzly asked him why he wanted to speak to Karen and Bob he said, “Because they used to love me”, which really hit the nail on the head in the brilliantly simple way that Little Bear does. It also meant we were able to explain that they haven’t stopped loving him and I’m sure the phone call helped with proving that.

Little Bear didn’t talk to Karen and Bob for long though he did tell them he would like to see them. Although he was a bit all over the place whilst I was on the phone, the behavioural fall-out that we expected afterwards didn’t materialise. I think for him, the wait was the right thing to do.

I was also surprised that Big Bear was really keen to talk to Karen and Bob and he too got a lot from the conversation. I suppose that Bob and Karen are a part of his brother’s past that he is a part of too, in a way that Little Bear’s birth family are not. He remembers being in their home and the kindness they showed him.

All in all, I think our first foray into making contact with Bob and Karen was really positive and I genuinely hope it will lead to more chats and possibly even a meet up. The whole thing has just served to illustrate that in adoption nothing is black and white; nothing is purely bad or purely good. Most things are a weird swirl of greys – a very complex mix of positives and negatives that cannot be separated into neat piles. Once you embrace the grey swirl, rather than being upset by the negatives or viewing the positives through a rose-tinted lens, things seem much easier to navigate.

And when it comes to complex grey swirls, nothing is more complex or swirly than our relationship with the other people we need to maintain contact with: Little Bear’s Birth Parents. It is Letterbox time so I have been thinking a lot about Sian and Joseph too. When I last wrote about this it was to say that we had requested an update that I didn’t think we would ever get. Miraculously we did get an update (to which Sian and Joseph had to consent) and it gave us the clearest picture we’ve had of them to date. The update also included information about Little Bear’s birth siblings.

What was brilliant about it was the insight it gave us into how they are all coping with Little Bear’s adoption and what some of their worries and preoccupations are. This has made writing Letterbox letters so much easier and has allowed me to tailor the letters to address their anxieties. Last year (our first experience of Letterbox) I think I felt quite vulnerable in my relationship with Little Bear and the thought of Sian and Joseph alone was enough to jiggle my confidence, let alone having to write to them.

This year I feel very different. This time I feel the responsibility of playing my part in helping them to cope with the loss of their son. That is not something I thought I would ever feel or say. I feel the same about supporting Little Bear’s birth siblings. Luckily they have sent us some specific questions and we have answered those. The letter to Sian and Joseph has been harder but I have tried to anticipate their concerns and address them as best I can. I have made sure they know Little Bear knows he is adopted and that we talk about them.

It is suddenly very obvious to me how important the contact is for them. At this stage I would say it is more important for them than it is for Little Bear, though I anticipate his need for it to grow as he does.

I think our role in it all is quite different to how I used to think of it. The contact is not about us. First and foremost it is about Little Bear and trying to future-proof as much as possible. Secondary to that, we might actually be able to make a difference in Sian and Joseph and the siblings’ lives if we can put our own feelings aside and think carefully about what they need from us. This is where good social work is crucial and why I really feel that allowing us updates is so vital. It is a road that has to be walked with caution but one that I am hopeful about travelling.

A crucial part of our update was that it would be okay for us to meet Sian and Joseph (we had previously been told we couldn’t) so now we need to think long and hard about whether to go ahead and do it. I rather suspect we will but therein lays a massive grey swirly mire to wade through.

I would say that adoption has about fifty shades of grey but that would conjure up the wrong image entirely. It’s grey and swirly and the black and white is inextricably tangled. Lets stick with that.

 

Contact

The Little Things

This week is National Adoption Week. Last year, my first year of blogging, I was all keen and wrote a blog post for each day of National Adoption Week. I’m not doing that again because it nearly killed me, and also because my feelings on the subject have grown more complicated. Last year I was happy to use any small influence I might have as a blogger to raise awareness and potentially encourage others to consider adoption.

I say ‘potentially’ and ‘consider’ on purpose because although I was less knowledgeable then I still wasn’t naïve enough to think that everyone should be happily hopping out to round up some children.

The theme last year was ‘support’ and I did take the opportunity to point out some support needs adopted children and their families may have – specifically around blending birth and adopted children and speech and language therapy ( Speech and Language Therapy Support for Adopted Children, Ways to support your child through adopting a sibling)

In the year since then I have continued to read voraciously around the topic of adoption. I read lots of blogs. If there is a new article or TV programme I am keen to have a gander. I read the Adoption UK magazine and order books that pique my interest. I have met many adopters through my workshops and always love to hear their stories. The more I learn and the more I reflect the more complex the adoption landscape seems.

Are we considering adoptee’s voices enough (or at all)? What exactly is the birth parents role in all this? Do they get any support? How should I feel about them? Are there alternatives that could be better? Do we really need alternatives? How would they work? Should we consider more direct contact with birth families? How would we keep it safe for our children? Why is post adoption support so variable? How come I am able to access excellent support but Twitter friends are left to fend for themselves? Why don’t schools get it? How could more people get the speech and language training and support they need?

I could fill this post with questions. I don’t know the answers by the way, but it makes National Adoption Week more complicated. I can’t really just say “do it! Adopt! It’s brilliant!” It is brilliant (for us) but while I have all these questions floating round it would seem a bit disingenuous to encourage others to be doing it.

Which leads me on to wondering what role I should be playing in promoting adoption anyway as an adoption blogger?

For some, National Adoption Week gets a bad rap: it is accused of using perfect-world pictures and stories to ‘trap’ would-be adopters; to lure them in, naïve and unawares, into an imperfect, tumultuous and unsupported world. I am aware of the responsibility incumbent upon me, as a blogger, to be balanced. I do think it is important to be honest and to get real stories into the public domain, so potential adopters know about the realities and risks. I certainly try to be frank when I’m writing.

Then there is the other side of the coin: if we are too honest and too vocal about the difficulties, are we going to cause some serious publicity damage? Are we going to terrify the pants off prospective adopters to the point where no one wants to adopt anymore? And what then?

I feel a real affinity with prospective adopters as it is not so long since I was one. I have never had as many sleepless nights as when we were engaged in the Matching process. It is a worrying enough time without hearing all the scary stories too.

As a blogger I certainly don’t want to frighten anybody. While I feel my responsibility to inform, share and wear my heart on my blogging sleeve, I hope I do it in an accessible way that allows others to see that whatever the challenges are, I love my son, I am 100% happy with our decision to adopt him and that he completes our family.

The thing is that for us adopters there are many big things to fill our thought-spaces: developmental trauma and how it is manifesting in our homes; any additional needs our children may have and how they are being met; whether our children’s educational establishments truly understand them and can meet their needs appropriately; any sibling issues or family dynamics that might be going on; any contact arrangements we might have with our child’s birth family, to name but a few. It is no surprise that adoption bloggers spend most of their time writing about the Big Things. Perhaps, when I think about balance, we can be guilty of omitting the Little Things.

Any respect you did have for me is about to evaporate as I turn to One Direction to illustrate my point. They sing about the Little Things and I could easily steal their words for Little Bear:

 

Your hand fits in mine like it’s made just for me

But bear this in mind it was meant to be

And I’m joining up the dots with the freckles on your cheeks

And it all makes sense to me.

 

You never love yourself half as much as I love you

You’ll never treat yourself right darling but I want you to

If I let you know, I’m here for you

Maybe you’ll love yourself like I love you oh

 

I’ve just let these little things slip out of my mouth

Because it’s you, oh it’s you, it’s you they add up to

And I’m in love with you (and all these little things).

 

The song (as most songs are) is really about a bloke singing to a girl about how he loves her with all her perceived imperfections but the words really resonate with me. There is nothing lovelier than Little Bear’s warm hand in mine; than his drainpipe laugh (that is no longer restrained by self-imposed limitations); than his huge brown eyes wide with mesmerisation. And there are all the Little Things Little Bear does that fill me with such pride and happiness. It is the Little Things that show me his progress.

Little Bear has always favoured the colour black and would only draw or paint with black. He has recently started using “mix-y colours” and making things look “bootiful”. It’s a Little Thing but it’s a lovely thing.

IMG_9174

Little Bear, despite having Developmental Language Disorder, has started having spelling tests at school. He has achieved full marks 3 weeks in a row. It’s a Little Thing but it feels HUGE.

I have tried to up the therapeutic part of my parenting recently. I have been wondering more. When I get my wondering right Little Bear often bursts into tears. I know this sounds like a bad thing but it’s good because previously he would have hidden his real feelings behind anger. Now he lets it hang out. We couldn’t have verbalised his feelings before but now we can. Little Bear might say “I still feel upset mummy” and let me comfort him a bit. It’s Little Things but these sorts of Little Things can really help with the Big Things.

Big Bear was feeling unwell recently so he lay on the floor on the landing. Little Bear went to him and sat beside him, gently stroking his hair. It is a Little Thing but it shows me what a lovely little human he is.

Last night Little Bear said, “You know Van Gogh Mum? He painted Starry Night and The Potato Eaters”. It sounds like a Little Thing but this is a boy who used to struggle to talk about the here and now. He didn’t know his own name or a word for TV but now he can tell me about a famous artist and name 2 of his paintings. It’s phenomenal.

A few days ago Little Bear told me about Venus Fly Traps. He couldn’t quite remember the name but he gave such a good description and gesture that I knew exactly what he meant. It’s a Little Thing.

Everyday there are Little Things.

If I’m thinking about whether others should adopt I can’t lie about the Big Things. There are Big Things in adoption and you need to know about them and be as ready as you can be. You need an Agency that will be there for the long haul and that will truly support you with the Big Things as and when you need them to. The variation in post-adoption support is, frankly, criminal. Do your homework about any adoption agency, choose carefully, they are not all the same.

I would say that if you feel you can handle the Big Things (bearing in mind living it is not the same as imagining it) then know you will get the Little Things too.

The Little Things are amazing. For me, the Little Things make everything worth it.

I guess there have been times when the Big Things have taken over but a Little Thing will always have popped up from nowhere and made me smile.

Adoption is complicated. There are no straight answers with good reason. There are many viewpoints and voices to consider. Personally, I will always be grateful to adoption because it has brought me my second son and all his Little Things.

There is an unparalleled joy in having a heart full of Little Things, even if your head is full of Big Ones.

 

PS. I’m very sorry, One Direction, if you happen to read this and notice that I’ve wantonly quoted bits of your song to suit myself.

PPS. I do wonder how Little Bear is going to feel if he reads my blog when he is bigger and sees that I talk all about him and his life. I hope that he won’t see it as a misappropriation of his story. I hope he sees that he has a Mum who loves him very much indeed and spends an awful lot of time thinking about the best ways to help him.

PPPS. I fully appreciate the need to hear adoptees voices and I can’t wait to be able to include Little Bear’s once he is able to contribute.

 

The Little Things

School Worries

Last week in Adoptive Parent: Behaviour Detective, I wrote about my growing concern for Little Bear. Although I was struggling to narrow down the possible reasons for the changes in his behaviour, I was seeing warning signs that school could be at the root of it.

I was pinning my hopes of resolving the whole thing on a meeting with them which we had scheduled in for Tuesday. Hopefully a good chat and picking through the issues together would help us get back on track.

On Monday I got called in again. Would it be ok if we cancelled the meeting? They just felt that the things they have recently put in place (a timetable) need more time to bed in and they don’t have any updates for us.

I wasn’t really ok with this because Grizzly had re-jigged his ridiculously busy work diary so that he could attend. Although school don’t feel they have any information to share with us, we certainly feel we have many unanswered questions and do not yet have a clear picture of what is actually happening in the classroom.

We feel in need of a meeting.

However, I have always liked Little Bear’s teacher and feel I have to try to trust her. Although I tried to suggest the meeting would still be beneficial she was immovable. Mrs C, the TA, had already been told it was cancelled. She really felt it would be better to wait – its parents evening next week anyway. This didn’t reassure me much as Grizzly will be in America then and I’ll only have a ten minute slot…

It would be useful if Grizzly could be there because I’m pretty sure school have me down as a neurotic mother.

Not wanting to be completely fobbed off I asked about Little Bear’s behaviour as I stood there in the classroom door. It isn’t good. He is frequently refusing to do any work or anything he is told. In the whole class group he is silly and disruptive. He keeps getting himself sent out of class.

It sounds as though the TA has a lot of training needs. She is currently vacillating between getting cross with Little Bear and letting him do whatever he wants. Her management of him sounds inconsistent.

Evidently Little Bear doesn’t know where he is at with her. Unsurprisingly this is leading to a spike in his anxiety. He is pushing the boundaries because he needs to feel them there, sure and sturdy. Without clear boundaries Little Bear is anxious and out of control. He tries to claw control back in other ways like refusing to comply. When he pushes against a boundary it is because he needs it to stand firm. Predictable, consistent boundaries make him feel safe. If the boundary keeps moving or is there sometimes but at others not life is very confusing and unsafe. Life is how it used to be before he was truly parented: when he was in charge of his own survival.

We know this because we have lived with and parented Little Bear for 2 years now. We have introduced boundaries into his life (because we had to for everyone’s safety) and we have stood firm and united against the full onslaught of his behaviour, day in, day out, until he began to trust us and feel safe. Consequently he is unrecognisable from the out of control firework of a child who first swept us, quite literally, off our feet. At home he is now usually co-operative, able to listen and to engage appropriately in family life.

I don’t mean to sound full of my own self-importance when I say this but we are the experts at managing Little Bear. No one else understands his challenges or has as many strategies that work as we do.

I don’t think school know this or believe this.

I haven’t spelled it out in as many words but I have offered countless times to help. Perhaps we could meet? Perhaps we could problem solve together? Perhaps we could share ideas and agree a common strategy?

It is essential in my eyes that we work as a team – the consistency shouldn’t just be within our home or within school but across both settings too. This will undoubtedly help Little Bear to feel safer and less confused about what is expected of him.

School do not seem to want us to engage with Mrs C in this way though. In fact I feel they are actively keeping us apart. I’m quite confused as to why. Yes, I ask a lot of questions and I e-mail and I pop my head in. I guess I take up their time but I have never been cross or anything less than pleasant.

I can’t help feeling that they don’t value the contribution we could make. Perhaps they’d rather do things their way.

I reassured Little Bear’s teacher that no matter how well Mrs C is or isn’t coping with Little Bear, we appreciate that she is keen and willing and we completely empathise with the challenge he is providing her with and how this might be making her feel. Because we have lived this and we have felt those feelings. We get it.

We could help her.

In the meantime we are becoming increasingly frustrated and concerned. Each week that passes is another week of Little Bear being the class clown or naughty boy. It is another week of wasted potential.

I wish I could say with confidence that it is one week closer to a breakthrough but what if it isn’t? What if it is one week closer to not coping with mainstream education?

Sometimes it doesn’t do to have too much knowledge. Sometimes knowledge feeds fear. I keep abreast of adoption in the media. It hasn’t pass me by that one of the biggest stressors for adopters where things have gone wrong is navigating the education system for their child.

Ironically this week I’ve also visited a new school in my professional capacity. It is billing itself as a last chance saloon for children who haven’t coped in any other school. It is going to be the one place that won’t give up and that provides children with all the therapeutic input they need as part and parcel of their education. It sounds brilliant. I don’t think I can work there though because every time I drove up to the building a deep seated fear would be awoken: would this be Little Bear’s future? Is he going to become one of these children who is misunderstood, mismanaged and ultimately failed by our mainstream school system?

I told Little Bear’s teacher that I am worried, that the situation is worrying. Yes, she confirmed, it is worrying. Even Grizzly is worried and he usually says everything will be fine.

The worrying is tiring. I have a virus I can’t get rid of and two cold sores. It is not surprising.

The not knowing and the not being given updates and the being kept in the dark about what is happening day to day is only fuelling my anxiety. I would feel much better if had more information. I have mentioned several times that unless the teacher or TA tells me about things that have happened I won’t know about them. Little Bear does not come home and tell me. I am not psychic. We can’t talk things through with Little Bear and help with understanding what might be going wrong or what strategies could be put in place if we don’t know what the problems are.

Neither Grizzly nor I are any good at sitting around and just waiting to see what happens. We are both naturally pro-active. Just waiting and seeing does not seem a good plan when things are evidently going tits up.

I worry.

Post script:

Since I drafted the above, there has been a development: I got a phone call from the Head Teacher. He informed me that, on Tuesday, instead of the meeting we had asked for, they had had an internal meeting about Little Bear. Yes, a meeting without us. They had concluded that things were not going well and they would require some external support to help them.

He sounded very pleased with himself as he announced that he had done some research and found a great organisation that would be able to help us, had I heard of them? Err, well, yes, as a matter of fact I had because they are our post-adoption support service and I work for them sometimes! He went on to apologise that it had taken them a while to sort this: they needed to figure out what the right sources of support where.

It took me all my strength not to scream “why didn’t you just ask me?!” It’s so incredibly frustrating because once again we have been passed over and dismissed. I could give him a detailed account of the organisation in question and their offering. I provide part of their offering. We could have had a free consultation from the service, which I had mentioned several times but evidently this fell on deaf ears as a referral has now been made for costly assessment/training instead.

The Head also mentioned that they feel Little Bear is presenting with ADHD and that his behaviour in Year 1 “has taken them by surprise”. I’m baffled about how they are surprised. We are not surprised. We have described several times his behaviour at home and how his behaviour has changed over time. What they are now seeing is probably about a tenth of the behaviour we dealt with for the first 6 months or so of having Little Bear. We warned them before he started school what they might encounter.

In fairness, Little Bear surprised us all in Reception by taking the start of school pretty much in his stride. Looking back, I suspect very few demands were made of him in Reception whereas now the demands are constant throughout the day. It is obvious (to those of us who know him well) that this would lead to increased challenges.

Whilst I had to rant quite a lot yesterday and steam was coming from my ears, I have to focus on the salient points. An organisation which I have deep faith and trust in is now in Little Bear’s corner. I know they will help us. I am confident they will help school to see that we do know actually rather a lot about our son.

I was direct with the Head Teacher about some of our concerns: crucially that we need them to recognise us as part of the team. He was placatory but I fear still dismissive.

I am quite disappointed in myself that I have somehow come across as irrelevant. As a professional person working in the field of adoption and being an adopter, you’d think I might have a voice. I dread to think how other parents are made to feel.

I still worry.

 

School Worries

Adoptive Parent: Behaviour Detective

There are times, as an adopter, that I feel as though I am conducting an investigation or trying to solve a mystery. Whilst I’m not an actual Detective I am constantly looking for clues, analysing and weighing up evidence. I suspect a lot of adopters are at it – we could probably form our own (highly efficient) private investigators.

I’m pretty good at collecting the evidence and coming up with possible theories but solving the mystery often eludes me.

I’m particularly hampered by Little Bear’s highly unreliable witness accounts. A simple question like, “Where did you do P.E today?” can lead to fanciful tales like “on the roof”. When I enquire casually about how the class has been behaving, Little Bear will usually regale me with an elaborate story of how he punched someone in the face and got a red card. When I ask his teacher later, I’ll find out that no such thing happened and he hasn’t in fact had a card every single day as he has made out. I will doubtless also find out that some other misbehaviour did occur that he has ‘forgotten’ to tell me about. There are a lot of smoke and mirrors in my investigations.

I can’t rely on asking Little Bear to find out how he is. I have to rely on my instincts and observation skills. I look for clues. The take-home book seems a good place to start.

Last week I learned the following:

Monday: Bad day. Disruptive in class and downright refusal to do any work.

I got called in that day so I was able to ask a few more probing questions. The evidence was fairly inconclusive. Little Bear could have been feeling unwell (we have ANOTHER virus lurking about the house); he could have been struggling with the transition from the weekend to the school week; it could have been an aftershock of me having been away for the weekend (a very unusual occurrence); it could have been because he is still putting his TA through her paces because this is a new relationship and that’s pretty scary; or maybe it was just a bad day. Everybody has bad days.

We’d have to see how the rest of the week went in order to figure it out.

Tuesday: OK

Wednesday: New TA came with us to Speech and Language Therapy appointment. It went OK. I’m not sure they have properly bonded yet as Little Bear did ignore her quite a lot and I wasn’t sure she had adjusted her expectations of him enough but its early days.

Thursday: Disruptive again and some refusal to join in.

There wasn’t any information about when in the school day this had happened, what lesson or any other possible precipitating factors. Although this was more evidence to suggest an unsettled Little Bear, it also gave more questions than answers. I now felt as though there was a mystery to solve but the evidence was all over the place.

Friday: The book said that Little Bear had been upset in school and missed home. He had been hitting himself in the head and had not allowed his TA to stop him.

Grizzly and I were (unusually) out on Friday evening so my parents had picked the boys up from school and put them to bed and consequently I didn’t see the message until we got home. In the meantime Little Bear had not been especially compliant for my parents and had bitten my Dad.

I was surprised to read he had been upset in school. That is certainly out of character. It was also distressing to read he had been hitting himself but with no indication of what could have triggered it. Again, this is no longer Little Bear’s typical behaviour.

I discussed the week’s evidence with my fellow Detective, Grizzly. There wasn’t enough information we concurred – we would need to further question school on Monday. We also had the obligatory long, hard look at ourselves and our parenting – had we done something to cause his distress? Had we missed something critical? Could it be my fault because I went away at the weekend AND out on Friday night? As I’m usually always here like a piece of the furniture, disappearing twice in a week was kind of unfortunate. What was even more unfortunate was that next weekend is our 10 year wedding anniversary and we were planning to go away for the night. What daft planning! All the going away in one 3 week period! Perhaps we oughtn’t to go? Perhaps he needs us here.

On Saturday, Little Bear went to his swimming lesson. On his return he changed into his pyjamas, got his dummy and comfort blanket, wrapped himself in a cocoon on the sofa and silently stared at the TV for 3 hours, which I felt told us everything we needed to know about how he was feeling.

We reduced all the demands and gave him all the love.

By Sunday, Little Bear was back to his usual energetic self.

On Monday I asked his teacher how he was. “Fine” she said, looking confused.

“It’s just he seemed to have an unsettled week last week”, I explained. “Did he?” she said, still looking confused. “Err yeah, I thought so, that was the impression I got from the take-home book”. “Oh! The book! I haven’t seen it”, she said, “Mrs. C writes in it. Is it extremely negative?” The last part seemed odd, was something going on behind the scenes?

We talked some more, though I knew she was busy and I can’t help feeling sorry every time that I’m adding to her load. The thing is I have a nagging doubt. It is about the TA, Mrs C. I’ve had the doubt since she was first appointed. I wish the school had involved us in the recruitment process so I could at least have some influence over who was going to be responsible for making or breaking my child’s education but alas, they did not. Hard though it is, I am trying to keep an open mind and remember that this must be a steep learning curve for her. I get the feeling from the teacher that she too has some doubts. We agreed to arrange a meeting – we need to ensure that everyone is approaching Little Bear and his challenges in the same way, otherwise we risk him feeling unsafe and his behaviour escalating. Could this already be happening?

I read the take home book on my return. His day had been OK. Apparently he frequently chooses a baked potato for lunch though, perhaps I could speak with him about other options?

Perhaps we could consider our priorities I wondered.

I then glanced at his spelling book. Anyone who has followed our journey will know what a big deal it is that Little Bear even has a spelling book. When I first saw it I nearly had a fit – how on earth were we going to manage to learn spellings on top of reading and phonics and sight words? Were they bonkers? Yet here we were only 3 weeks later and you could have knocked me down with a feather because my read of the spelling book revealed that not only had Little Bear co-operated with the test but he had achieved full marks! The book should have been releasing fireworks and shooting confetti everywhere! Little Bear should have been plastered in stickers and weighed down by the amount of Numicon he had been awarded for his efforts.

The comment in the book actually read “remember to make your handwriting neater”.

Honestly.

What is going on here? I haven’t solved the mystery but I do have all sorts of concerns about the expectations placed on Little Bear at school. Are they realistic? Are they taking into account his starting point? Do we care if he is forming his numbers in the traditional fashion when actually it’s a miracle that he’s putting pen to paper?

I’m worried that all the positives and achievements and successes are getting lost amongst the ‘he was disruptive’s and the ‘he wouldn’t co-operate’s. Is he being praised? Is he being made to feel that he’s succeeding? Or that he is failing?

I keep writing things in the take-home book that I can imagine make the TA’s eyes roll when she reads them. I’m sure she thinks I’m making excuses for him when I point out that school takes all of his energy and that he’s exhausted afterwards and that the ‘even 10 minutes’ of work each night that she has prescribed is actually really hard for him to manage or when I say that he might well be disruptive in singing because singing is extraordinarily difficult when you have DLD and you can’t process the words when they are all mixed in so fast and hidden in the music.

I am getting a little neurotic about it all which is probably why my eyes are so peeled for clues and evidence. I am all too aware that this needs to go well. Little Bear’s experiences this year could literally make or break his education. He has so much to catch up on that time cannot be wasted getting it wrong. If we want his trauma to heal and him to progress, he needs the right support and handling. Now.

I found a fabulous document yesterday on the Beacon House website (www.beaconhouse.org.uk) called What Survival Looks Like in School. I have printed it and taken it to the TA. I cannot get stuck thinking that she is the wrong person. Maybe she could be the right person with a bit more knowledge.

This week has been fairly unremarkable compared to last but this morning Little Bear was not coping well. He was resistant to pretty much every demand and was tipped over the edge by me saying that we did have to drop his brother off first (because Little Bear gets to go first most days). Consequently he was angry and upset at drop off and resistant to my attempts to repair things before I left him. The TA was pretty sensitive and gave us some space before coming to distract him. He let her stroke his cheek yesterday so he must like her quite a bit.

Little Bear has not had a good day at all at home today so I still feel something is afoot. I don’t know what though. Perhaps the meeting with school next week will reveal all. As usual I have all my theories but no clear solution (though better communication with school would certainly help).

 

 

 

Adoptive Parent: Behaviour Detective