Behaviour – a dirty word?

Around this time last year, I wrote this post – High School Visits – about our experiences of looking around high schools for BB, and how, although it wasn’t about him, I began to think about LB’s future needs and how they would be supported by the schools on offer. I drew the difficult conclusion that the boys may well end up at different secondary schools.

BB – my first born, my baby – is approaching teenage-hood fast. He’s officially in the final year of primary school and now we really do have to choose a high school for him despite this all having happened far too quickly (and me not being ready and wanting to weep into my cup of tea). We are re-visiting schools A and B from last year’s post as well as adding school C into the mix, to help us choose before the October deadline.

It’s looking like a choice between B and C for BB but in reality, he could go to any of them and I’m sure he’d be fine. Although we are going to have some worries about catchment areas and places filling up, the reality is that the world is BB’s oyster. All options are open to him and its largely going to come down to preference.

However, the more schools I view, the more concerned I become that LB will not have such a choice. The picture I’m getting is that schools are inclusive to a point, but not beyond. None of the schools we have visited are ‘selective’ though one is independent. They are all therefore, theoretically, inclusive. However, when you scratch even lightly at the surface, you soon realise that they are not. What they are is inclusive with exceptions, which is pretty weird when you start to consider it more deeply.

What I feel they’re really saying is that some special educational needs are more acceptable to them than others. That if your child has Dyslexia or Dyscalculia or Autism (certain presentations only), or a physical disability, perhaps a mild vision or hearing loss, they’re ok. They can come in. However, as soon as there’s a whiff of the unspeakable ‘b’ word, no thank you very much.

I touched on this in last year’s post – that some schools see behaviour issues as selfish, disruptive to others, and stemming from a flaw within the child displaying them. I can tell they do, from the way they lean forward conspiratorially when they mention it, lower their voice slightly, just automatically assume that you will agree with their view point that we don’t want Them in This School. It is always delivered in such a matter of fact way that you know the deliverer can’t possibly envisage a scenario where the child with ‘the behaviour’ is anything other than a huge problem, to be avoided at all costs.

Today, we presented smartly, we talked about BB with his good academics, his good social skills, his extracurricular activities, his all-round sunny disposition. We must have seemed a safe bet for the ‘not in our school’ behaviour chat. We evidently didn’t present as the sort of people who would have another child with behaviour challenges. But we do. That’s because there are many reasons for a child to struggle with their behaviour and generally it is not that they come ‘from a bad family’ or whatever it is people assume.

I get that schools want to cultivate a certain image and maintain certain standards. I get that if it is a fee-paying school, other parents will expect certain learning conditions for their children that perhaps don’t involve disruption from a classmate.

However, as a parent of a child with behaviour challenges – which, incidentally, he gained from having a really shitty start in life (very much not his fault) – it all feels pretty exclusionary. The reality is that neither school B, nor school C will be welcoming towards LB and his specific set of needs. Grizzly assures me it’s fine, because we will consider each boy individually and attempt to get them into the best school for them.

While this is all well and good, another part of me wonders why it is ok for BB to have three good options available to him but LB, so far, has one. It makes me feel that his background continues to limit him because as hard as we work to improve things for him, and as prepared as I am to fight for his needs to be met, he isn’t going to have the same choices. For me, a school that talks about behaviour like it’s a dirty word is never going to be appropriately understanding of it. Those schools may be inclusive on paper but they aren’t in reality. And if they’re not truly inclusive, they’re not truly an option.

Wouldn’t it be refreshing if you went to view a school and when they talked about behaviour they said something along the lines of being committed to understanding the underlying roots of it? Something about how they see the potential in every single child, no matter how they present? How they are committed to tailored approaches and working in partnership and thinking about the things children can excel in, rather than excluding them for the things they can’t help? What if they said every child is a success waiting to happen?

What if it wasn’t just the occasional school, but every school which had that opinion?

What if, and imagine this, children with any additional need could be supported to have an equal chance at life?

What if we ditched this weird concept of a hierarchy of acceptability of need? Stopped thinking that struggling with literacy was in some way more okay than struggling with emotional regulation. As a society we don’t appear to blame children who can’t read – it’s pretty obvious to most that it’s due to brain differences or lack of appropriate support. Why, then, do we think it acceptable to pin the blame for a children struggling to regulate their behaviour on the child themselves? Why don’t we think it’s due to brain differences or lack of appropriate support for them?

I suspect it’s just more convenient this way. Children who can’t read impact other people a lot less than children who struggle to regulate their behaviour. That’s an unpalatable but true fact. Children with behaviour challenges can disrupt classrooms, they can be hard work, they can hurt people, they can turn people grey, but do we really think that they are less deserving or worthy of the right support than a child with literacy difficulties? And if we do, what exactly is the justification for that stance?

Our recent visits to schools would suggest that the prevailing viewpoint is just this: that children with behaviour challenges are less deserving of a good education. As a society, we seem to think it’s acceptable to keep them away from others, to isolate them, to exclude them, to send them to schools where restraint is regularly used and when all that fails, lock them up in an Assessment and Treatment Centre (ATU).

I’d say we’re failing them.

We’re thinking of the majority and excluding those who don’t conform enough. Shouldn’t we be thinking of each child as an individual? The herd mentality is not really any good for anybody – just one approach is never going to work for all. But if we had many approaches that could be moulded and tweaked for individuals as needed – might that not be inclusive?

It’s really about a shift of attitude. These children with behaviour difficulties aren’t at fault – they have neurological or emotional or sensory or psychological reasons behind their behaviour. We are not affording them empathy. We are not getting things right for them. Schools are not getting things right for them. Inclusion is not including them.

These children are some of the most vulnerable in our society. They are already at risk of poor life outcomes so why do we think its ok to alienate them further?

I don’t know the solution but I know I’m pretty fucking mad about it.

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Behaviour – a dirty word?

My Father Has A Monobrow

Today’s post is a little bit different. It’s a piece of creative non-fiction I wrote for writing reasons but have now decided should have its home here. It is largely true (with some exaggeration for writing reasons) and permission to write about fatherly monobrows has been sought. I’m sure you’ll see its not really all about my eyebrows.

 

My Father Has a Monobrow

In the nineties, when I was growing up, no one had eyebrows. I assumed they did once, at birth at least, but somewhere between childhood and maturity they’d mislaid them, leaving in their place a narrow suggestion of an arc, maybe made of hair, maybe just a drawn-on pencil line. I’ve concluded they tweezed them aggressively or, the likes of Kate Moss and the Supers, employed minions dedicated to eradicating them, rather than just naturally acquiring hairless faces through superior genes. A stray hair could kill a career, probably.

It’s funny how, as a child, your parents just look like your parents – amorphous faces signifying safety and familiarity. You don’t tend to appraise the relative merits of that eye shape or jawline. You don’t consider whether those faces are beautiful or handsome or otherwise. They just exist and you fully accept them, like there being a sun in the sky or water in the tap.

I don’t know when I noticed the monobrow. Or maybe when I noticed that others didn’t have one. This was my father – his face as familiar as home – how had I missed the bristly caterpillar lurking above his aviators?

A teenager now, with a knowledge of heritability and a desire to be desirable, I became well acquainted with my tweezers. I squinted into the slightly too far away bathroom mirror, worrying at the place my nose met my forehead. There was, thankfully, a sizeable glabrous patch but the hairs at each inner edge of my brows grew wild and haphazard. Would they encroach with time, I wondered, like grass that sidles into flowerbeds and between paving stones? Was this the start of my very own monobrow? Certain this would only further my social challenges – brought on by an extremely uncool and insatiable desire to get only A grades – I plucked them aggressively away.

As the noughties approached and society demanded ever increasing levels of pre-pubescent smoothness, before people thought of Frida Kahlo as an icon and before Cara Delevingne made hirsute brows de rigueur, I cursed the blasted monobrow.

Eyebrow husbandry, it turns out, is a little tedious. You have the energy for it in youth but less so in the fullness time with a house to run and babies to tend to. Left mostly untamed, it turned out I was less lupine than anticipated – a happy accident coinciding with the trend for a fuller brow. I felt a little smug that I had not over plucked and could still grow a fulsome pair, unlike some of my friends who would be drawing them on forever. The monobrow got little thought, if a small nod of appreciation.

Then we adopted our youngest son and I gave the genetics of our faces a whole new level of consideration. Does he, I wondered, stare at my husband’s face, asking himself impossible questions about his future self? Does he know that he can’t inherit that distinctive nose, those hazel eyes, that mass of copper curls?

At least I knew about the monobrow. I suspected there was a comfort in seeing those eyebrows, those high cheekbones, that prominent nose, that triangle of moles, mirrored in the faces around you, anchoring you to your tribe.

I wonder what fears creep into the gaps left by not staring at your genetic brethren over the dinner table. Is our son concerned about his future appearance? Does he fear a particular feature – one he has concocted in his imagination – such as a bulbous chin or patchy beard? Does he wonder whose eyes he has or where he got his freckles? Does the lack of genetic sameness leave him untethered and lost? Or does it free him to not even wonder?

My father has a monobrow and I love a son I didn’t conceive. I don’t know if genetics are everything, or nothing at all.

 

 

 

 

 

My Father Has A Monobrow

Social Life?

I think I might be turning into a hermit. Or we might be.

It’s weird because although I do tend more towards the introvert, I do love people. I’m pretty intrigued by others and love to chat and hear people’s stories. I’ll chat to anybody. I am a sociable person. Well, I think I was, some time ago.

We never have people over. I don’t mean our families – they do come over – I mean friends. We never entertain. We haven’t had a single barbeque this summer, which is unusual, because we do usually have those, for family at least. We haven’t had a games night or shared a takeaway or even drinks and nibbles. We’ve shut the door, battened down the hatches, closed ranks.

I know why it is. There are a few reasons really. One is that I have never been a huge fan of cooking for people (though I happily cook for my family) – I find it onerous and stressful; as though people are going to expect cordon bleu and find themselves disappointed. I can just imagine guests travelling home in the back of a taxi like they do on Come Dine With Me, flashing up cardboard 2s or 3s and tutting about the consistency of the rice. Of course I know that our actual friends won’t care what we serve up; that a takeaway would be perfectly fine if we got to spend some time together and in the olden days I would have got over myself and rustled something up anyway. I would have made an effort.

Because having people over, no matter how much you adore them, does require some effort, doesn’t it? I would clean up, I would think about the menu, I would make the table look nice, I would buy alcohol or other things that I wouldn’t usually. I’d make an effort so that the overall experience for them and us would be enjoyable and a bit special.

Recently, that effort required has felt like too much effort. I know that’s awful because we still love our friends and we still want to see them but we’re knackered. And that’s the honest truth.

I think everyone’s lives are hard these days. People work long hours, the planet is falling apart, politics has gone to shit and parenting is energy sapping for all. I suspect it is no coincidence that it is this year, the trickiest year we’ve had as a family for a while, that I’m noticing the decline in our social life. Having a child with SEMH needs is especially exhausting and we are aware that once work has had its share of our energy and we have given pretty much everything else and more to parenting, there isn’t really anything left. I just don’t have the je ne sais quoi to make the house look nice or rustle up some dinner or, if I’m honest, even speak to anyone. And Grizzly is the same, if not worse than me, as his job takes so much from him.

And it isn’t just that. There’s the fear over how any social event might go, if we could actually summon up the energy to organise it. What if LB is in one of Those moods? What if there is spitting and hitting and throwing while people are here? How will he get on with any additional children involved? Will we be required to referee the whole time? Will there be a Scene? If there are no other children, what’s the likelihood of him coping with our diverted attention while we try to chat with other adults? Sometimes the very idea of the possible scenarios makes it all too much to even contemplate. We’d rather just keep it small, keep to the formulas we know work, keep it to the four of us.

Some of this is with good reason. We don’t get much time as a four and the time we do have is precious. Grizzly works long hours and sometimes he travels, taking him away from home for a night or two or three. When he comes back, it is imperative he and LB have time to re-connect. That won’t happen if we bring others into the mix.

Some of it is about us being tuned into LB and matching our activities to what he can cope with – what’s the point of putting him in social situations which we know will challenge him when he’s in a state of survival and can’t cope with the most basic of situations?

Some of it is with good reason.

But some of it is because we are knackered.

I know that I actively avoid having children over to play because it makes life about a gazillion times harder to manage. BB is now at the stage where he’d have people over all the time but then he’d be in his room and LB wouldn’t so he’d be banging incessantly on the door annoying them and I’d have to try to distract him but that would be hard because he’d just want his brother and he’d be feeling rejected that his brother has chosen to play with someone who isn’t him and that rejection would come out as anger and that would be directed at me, the only other person in the scenario and the person he feels most comfortable expressing his difficult emotions to. And honestly, if I could have that or I could have a peaceful evening where they entertain each other, it feels like a no brainer.

I struggle with inviting children for LB to play with because all the children he’s attracted to are loud, boisterous and want to fight. So they will fight and it’ll go too far and I will lose my mind and we may all end up in A and E.

A possible solution is to let them both bring a friend over at the same time but then there’s four and do I actually want to lose my sanity? And clear up the inevitable chaos afterwards? Do I?

We get round some of the play dates thing by doing it on days when Grizzly is around so he can take BB and a friend out and I can have a 1:1 day with LB. That’s much easier.

There are other options I’ve mulled over such as meeting one of LB’s friends in a park and asking their parent to be there too but I have to confess that I have not yet taken the deep breath I need to and followed through on this. It would involve speaking to other parents of children in his class, something I do kind of avoid (see The Other Parents ).

I know I must dig deeper.

The other day, some friends brought BB back from a day out and came in for a bit. The house was a bomb site from a day of being in with a clingy LB – the dishes weren’t washed, there was stuff everywhere, some of which I had to move for them to even sit. LB was in bed but not really settled and still shouting and I had to go back and to a few times. I was a bit discombobulated to begin with but then he went quiet and I made cups of tea and we got playing and chatting and it was lovely. I had a moment of realisation where people saw my dirty plates but the world didn’t end. Nothing imploded. They didn’t run away screaming. I was just about capable of coherent conversation.

Instead of feeling ashamed at the state of the place, I just really enjoyed their company. It left me feeling that despite being knackered and all the potential challenges, it is worth making the effort to have people over. We are not natural hermits and I mustn’t start thinking we are. Admittedly our circumstances make being sociable as a family more difficult – I tend to spend quality time with my friends while the boys are at school but rarely bring our families together – but it isn’t impossible.

We accidentally bumped into some children we know from school today and both boys played happily with them without issue. It assuaged my guilt a little – they do get to play with others – but I’m keen to do more. We’ve become those people who aren’t even reliable when a date is in the diary – sometimes an event gets close and we just don’t feel we can anymore; like the effort of it will be the straw that breaks the camel’s back.

I don’t want to be socially flaky. I don’t want to be the parent who can’t be bothered to support our children’s friendships. Or the friend who never invites you in.

I’m going to have to eat my Weetabix, lower my standards and just get on with it. So, feel free to come visit but expect mess and a takeaway. Ok?

 

 

Social Life?

Reflections on Adoption 4 Years In

Every year since LB came home, I have written a reflective blog post to mark the anniversary of his arrival in our lives:

Reflections on Adoption One Year In

Reflections on Adoption 2 Years In

Reflections on Adoption Three Years In

It’s time for this year’s so I have just looked back at the previous three. In year 1, I reckon I played down the true horror of our experience. I probably wasn’t that comfortable sharing on social media yet and still very conscious of what others might have thought.

In year 2, I was analytical. It’s clear I had already come on quite a journey in terms of my knowledge of attachment, trauma, ACE’s etc., how it all fitted together and what it meant for LB. I was well into my constant quest to fathom his behaviour.

I don’t know what happened to me in year 3. I’ve just read it back and sneered to myself – and not in a good way. It’s lovely that I was so positive and all glowing about how ‘normal’ our life was but had I lost touch with reality?

I do think year 3 was a good year for us. I do remember struggling for blog-fodder because everything was ticking along and being quite unremarkable. Ha. What a fool. I should never have tempted fate with my glib positivity because in contrast, year 4 has been significantly more difficult. Last year, I seemed to have lulled myself into a weird false sense of security that we were following an upward trajectory and the only way to go was further up.

That was not the case. It’s not that things have been awful – they haven’t – but they’ve been hard enough that I know without a shadow of a doubt that our ‘normal’ is not normal.

I suppose in our third year as a family, LB was settled in his second year with his very favourite, gentle-natured teacher. Once he had formed bonds with his TA, there were no significant upheavals for him. Our fourth year has seen him have a difficult transition into year 2 and we’ve had the most trying time yet attempting to get his teacher on-board. Though we did eventually achieve significant progress and breakthroughs, it felt as though the entirety of the academic year was punctuated by mini-crises, every few weeks or so. This was exhausting, stressful and highly frustrating. I think I came the nearest I have come to having some type of school-based meltdown.

It follows that a tricky school year would equate to a tricky behaviour year and boy, have we known about that. I think the most concerning thing is that behaviours we hoped were long gone, such as Childhood Challenging, Violent & Aggressive Behaviour (CCVAB)  have returned. I don’t know if I would say they are worse than before but the experience now that LB is 7, instead of 3 or 4, certainly feels different. Thankfully he still can’t really hurt me but where I used to dither over whether his lashing out really could be classed as CCVAB when he was smaller, I know it would be now. He’s bigger, he tries to be intimidating and we have to work hard to de-escalate situations at times. Thankfully, CCVAB is not our everyday experience but it has become more frequent of late, making us feel as though we are regressing and as though we are re-living that challenging first year when we should be forging forwards with confidence into our fifth.

We are finding this an emotionally challenging parenting situation – one that is almost impossible to navigate without anxiety taking hold. How is it possible to be back here? If we are back here and we stay here, what on earth does the future hold?

Over recent weeks and months we have worked harder than perhaps ever to maintain equilibrium in our little family. Grizzly and I have had many despairing chats. We know our world has got smaller – we have said ‘no’ to more things because we know LB won’t cope, or, sometimes, that there is a high likelihood that LB will kick off which will make a situation a nightmare and we won’t cope. We are acutely aware that there are times when four people are ruled by one person and he’s the smallest.

I think one of our strengths as a couple has always been our ability to keep on keeping on – to brush off incidents quickly, to move on, to not let them mar our days or hang over into our tomorrows. Grizzly, in particular, has never stopped doing things because of fearing what LB might do – he’d pretty much do anything with him and if an incident occurred he’d deal with it. I’m naturally less like that but once that first year was over, I have never gone to bed worried about the next day. I might pick and choose activities carefully but I’d never overly concern myself with what LB might do somewhere or how I might cope with it. I suppose we have, in the main part, been pretty confident in our ability to parent him.

That sort of sounds like a happy accident but I think it has been a lot more actively cultivated than that – it has been born out of us being well-read and researched, having a clear priority list (think NVR baskets though we had actually not heard of them when we started doing it) and purposefully using a highly joined up approach. We have actively refused to fear the more challenging aspects of LB’s behaviour from the outset and always made sure we’ve had plenty of tools in our parenting toolbox. We have had a clear vision of how to handle things so it has almost been like we’ve had a set of pre-planned instructions we could just follow in any given scenario.

I have to be honest and say that confidence has taken a knock in both of us of late. I think it’s because of the aggression and LB’s increased size and his increased ability to cook up a major scene. I think it’s because we have found ourselves in parenting situations that have been, frankly, pretty scary and in which we’ve had no Scooby of what to do. I mean what exactly are you supposed to do when your 7 year old spits on you in public or threatens to punch you if don’t do x or y and then does punch you when you stand firm? Even when you read a book about Non-Violent Resistance you don’t really get an answer.

This last year has seen us have to re-think our strategies and employ different approaches. I think when children are smaller, it is an accepted part of parenting that occasionally your child might have a meltdown or refuse to leave somewhere and you can simply bundle them up like a sack of spuds and transport them out of there. Although we still see that type of behaviour, that response is no longer appropriate now that LB is large and extra-specially fighty. Verbal ways of managing such situations are tricky when your child is hyper-aroused and anything that comes out of your mouth will be seen by them as provocation. We have had to further hone our skills of staying calm, literally in the face of flailing fist and attempts to damage things. I very rarely raise my voice because there is now a clear correlation between that and escalation. Where once we would have stayed with LB no matter what he was doing (for the relationship and so as to show the behaviour no fear), we now sometimes find ourselves in situations where he appears purposefully provocative and ignoring or walking away are far more effective (and safer) strategies. One day, he seemed intent on damaging the house but when he realised no one was even there to see, he got bored and switched on the TV. Had we have followed him around, trying to coach him out of it, or even worse, used a traditional telling-off method, I know someone would have been hit or kicked. It was far wiser to make ourselves scarce.

I’m finding that a chameleon-like parenting ability is required so we can alter our approaches to match the ever-changing circumstances we find ourselves in. I have also reflected a lot on this, as I’m sure you have come to expect, and a controversial part of me is whispering that since we’ve upped our therapeutic approach to parenting, LB has potentially started to view us as weaker and easier to dominate. I’m a huge believer in the power of relationships and I’m sure that is the way to lasting change but I need him to get the message that threatening people is not the way to get what you want. And that violence is never ok. Though we will of course be persevering with all things therapeutic, I am increasingly of the point of view that LB also needs logical consequences to really underline serious messages.

Anyway, since we’ve agreed on this plan, I feel stronger in my interactions with LB. This sort of parenting certainly requires a plan, in a way which ordinary parenting doesn’t. Once you have a plan, you are much less likely to find yourself off balance, flailing for a solution in a challenging situation. You still find yourself in that situation but you have half a clue how to handle it.

This sort of out of the ordinary parenting (I prefer this term to ‘extraordinary’ because that sounds like we’re fabulous at this and as you can see, we’re just feeling our way through the swamp) requires an incredible amount of strength – to get up again; to do it again; to go there again; to get in the line of fire again; to do it cheerfully; to not let that incident haunt the next minute, next hour, next day; to not be quaked by it; to love unconditionally. Unconditionally: despite it all; including it all.

Sometimes I don’t know how we’ve got this far. Sometimes it’s easy. Sometimes it really isn’t.

I suspect this is another trough in the typical peak and trough pattern of life with a trauma-experienced child. I talked last year about higher peaks and shallower troughs. Year 4 has involved many more oscillations and a more frequent swinging from peak to trough. Some troughs have been pretty deep but we haven’t languished in them for long. The weeks, and even months of relative calm I talked about last year have all but vanished. I don’t think we’ve managed more than a calm (ish) week or two before something has happened. And it has been harder than ever to pinpoint triggers. There have been some obvious things like a school residential, specific incidents in school, moments of poorly thought-through parenting etc. but at other times it has felt like a general malaise. LB certainly continues to struggle with his Interoception skills and feeling under the weather is generally expressed through increased fightiness only – he still doesn’t know he’s ill and we often don’t until several days later when someone else catches it. He has grown a lot too – I don’t know whether that could impact.

There is always a trigger. I know that. It is tricky when you are a person who over-thinks a lot yet you still can’t figure out what it is. I feel quite sure that LB rarely knows what’s behind his own behaviour at the moment – not in a way he can express in words anyway.

In the process of writing this, I’ve thought and re-thought and scrolled back through my Twitter feed looking for clues. I think I can trace the latest regression back to the blasted school residential. It wasn’t even two months ago yet LB has had three different bugs since then and just hasn’t been himself. As I say, at times it has been like stepping back three years. I wonder whether it has essentially re-traumatised him, re-awakening all those feelings he felt when he was uprooted and brought here. I think he had a taste of the wild abandon he used to experience in foster care (due to being in a large dormitory full of boys without constant supervision) and that has re-awoken his need to be in charge of his own survival. Certainly we have been able to soothe him by staying around the house, with a high level of nurture – the kind of thing we would have done when he first arrived – but as soon as we try to spread our wings a little, we are rapidly back to a tricky place. My conclusion, now I have some possible insight, is that he needs more of his world being kept small and the close nurture and the bonding. I don’t think there’s going to be much excitement for the remainder of the holidays. I hope it’s going to be enough because LB in school, trying to learn, when he’s in this survival state isn’t going to be pretty.

*

I’m sorry that I have been more negative than usual this year. I have always been mindful of frightening people but the further into this we get the more important it feels to tell the truth. In some ways it has got harder to do that – this year has also seen a rise in people questioning the very concept of modern adoption. There are many who see deep flaws in the current system – who view the permanent separation of children from their birth families as morally corrupt; who see all adopters as wrong-doers. There is a very strange juxtaposition between having an awareness of that and living this. I suspect a hard year has felt harder within a hostile climate.

All of that said there have of course been positives. Yesterday was lovely and it has never been more important to stop and acknowledge and enjoy these moments.

I am hopeful of a better school year. I was wondering aloud the other day whether the next teacher would heed any of the plans we made in our transition meetings when lo and behold we arrived home yesterday to a package she had hand-dropped off with a post card for both boys and a book for LB and an offer to meet in the holidays if it would help him. I’m so grateful and feel she understands things on an instinctive level Mr. Previous Teacher, though he was lovely in the end, just didn’t have.

Despite our wobbles, we remain positive and resolute. I remain optimistic. Here’s to some of that mystical normality I once knew making a re-appearance in year 5.

Reflections on Adoption 4 Years In

I’m in Charge. No, I’m in charge.

This sounds like the start of a slapstick comedy scene – to me, to you etc. But, to be honest, the constant need LB has to try to dominate others is not that funny. I’ve been pondering this behaviour and I can’t decide whether it is another form of the control I wrote about here: Control or something slightly different.

We have always had to be firm and consistent on boundaries. I have always assumed this was to do with making LB feel safe and that his thorough testing of them was to ensure they would remain immovable. I explored the theory behind that in the post mentioned above. But, recently, I’ve found myself wondering if there is more to it – a desire to actually be in charge perhaps?

This week we have been decorating LB’s bedroom. We have never done that before, not even prior to him first arriving because, due to various pressures from social services, his adoption happened much faster than expected and there wasn’t time. BB’s nursery was still nicely decorated and so we added some pictures and things we knew LB would like and he has been sleeping in there ever since. Anyway, he’s seven now and definitely outgrown the elephant and giraffe wallpaper. I have really wanted to make his room his own for him for a while now, but have to admit that things like him damaging his bed have made me drag my feet, as well as knowing that he would want to ‘help’ me.

Anyway, we’ve had a relatively more settled period of behaviour and Grizzly has been off this week so it seemed like the best time. Which is how I ended up shut in a small room with LB, a large tin of blue paint, a roller and some paint brushes for three hours (not to mention considerable PMS). Having anticipated the potential issues, I had got organised in advance and was clear on the boundaries from the outset: painting apprentices must listen and follow painting instructions; should painting apprentices not do so, painting must cease. I was clear that I was the painting boss and this was necessary so as not to paint anything we shouldn’t and also, because, well, grown-ups are kind of meant to be in charge.

Initially, things went well. LB stopped wielding the large screwdriver for opening the tin when asked to do so and proceeded painting in a sensible manner. Things went pretty well. However, as time went on, LB made more attempts to bend the rules, or explore the boundaries, I’m not sure which. He had full use of a paint tray, roller and brush that were just for him. I had one triangle shaped brush for painting edges. A couple of times he asked for my brush and I explained it was just for me – he had everything he needed already. He found this hard to accept and soon, the lure of my brush became more tempting than the painting itself. I decided to use that lure to my advantage – the online shop was arriving during said painting episode and I thought if I let him care-take my brush while I sorted the shopping, there’d be less chance of him doing anything opportunistic or plain ridiculous while I wasn’t supervising. This worked well but because I’d slightly changed the rule and allowed him to borrow the brush, instead of being pleased and getting back to work, he escalated his attempts to get my brush. Perhaps I should have kept an immovable brush-boundary in place so he knew where he was but that seemed a bit ridiculous and petty. I’m not so precious about my nice triangular brush that I can’t let a child borrow it. However, evidently in doing so, I had either made him feel vulnerable that I might not have been quite as in charge as he first thought or given him a glimpse of becoming top-painter. Who knows. Soon the requests to borrow the brush again were coming thick and fast. I allowed it because I had to roller too and we were both working to the same end. Then he became unwilling to return the brush to me when I needed it, which was swiftly followed by him claiming the brush was his, had always been his, had been purchased with money he’d earned himself and I could not have it back because he was now, in fact, in charge. That’s how quickly and easily a task like painting can spiral out of control.

Used as I am to these situations, I calmly reminded him I was chief painter, painting apprentices have to do what they’re told or painting ends. He rather glumly admitted defeat and returned the brush.

This did not end the battle though, oh no. It just made him wilier in his attempts to gain control. It led to this:

LB: Mum, can we play a game while we’re painting?

Me: Of course. What would you like to play?

LB: Ok, pretend I’m the Captain…

Ha! Clearly he thinks I was born yesterday. I knew full-well where this was going.

Me: Well, we can pretend you’re the Captain if you like, but I’m still in charge of the painting because in real life, I’m the grown up and it’s my job to be in charge of big jobs like painting.

LB: *Groans, momentarily thwarted*

LB: Ok, I’ll be the Captain but you can be the Boss.

Me: Okey-doke.

We pretend play for a bit.

Me: Could you pass me the roller for a minute please?

LB: Call me Captain

Me: What?

LB: I’m only doing it if you call me Captain.

Me, internally rolling my eyes: Could you pass me the roller please, Captain?

LB: No, I’m in charge of the roller, its mine. I’m the Captain.

If I could roll my eyes on screen I would. The whole thing went fine because I didn’t allow any of these scenarios to escalate but it was a case of constantly managing the situation and constantly having to re-iterate my authority. I’m pretty sure this isn’t ‘normal’ parenting. It feels a bit mad and unnecessary to be locked in battle over painting some walls but I feel I can’t renege all control because what would happen then? It’d be Lord of The Flies all over again but with a triangular paint brush instead of a conch. As it was, he’d already asked me if paint was edible so goodness knows what he’d get up to if left in charge.

It’s possible to argue this was a new bedroom specific scenario – that as LB hadn’t had a new room before it was raising all sorts of memories for him about previous different rooms and moving homes and wobbling his sense of permanency. It’s possible to argue it was an unusual/different scenario which was throwing him out of his comfort zone.

But…

I’m not sure. We have these mini-power battles all the time. Yesterday, LB moved back into his bedroom and, I’m assuming because he likes it so much, decided people couldn’t enter unless they paid him a fee. When I say people, I mean me, the person who facilitated the whole thing. And I don’t mean pretend-play pay, I mean actually pay with actual money. Obviously that isn’t something one can get into but rather than accept this, LB starts to escalate the situation by threatening people with what he’ll do if they don’t pay or taking money from their purse/wallet. “It’s my bedroom. I’m in charge. I decide who comes in. I decide how much they pay.”

Gary came to babysit and he let her in, with only a minor fee skirmish but tried to control where she sat, commanding her to “sit” on the floor, rather like you would a badly behaved dog and banished her from the bed.

Perhaps some of it is a social skills/empathy thing – he can’t quite connect the fact of him being rude to people making them want to stay out, not in.

I guess it’s fair enough that he wants to be in charge of his bedroom, as he’s proud of it and it is his. But these type of scenarios tend to escalate – he’d be ‘in charge’ of the bathroom next as its next door and, given a week, he’d be running the whole upstairs and charging people to sleep in their own rooms.

I guess we are still struggling a bit with the balance between appropriate autonomy and him accepting that as parents, we are in charge. I hope our calm but firm reminders are the right way of managing this. I certainly don’t feel that allowing him to command adults onto the floor is appropriate, nor allowing bedroom entrance fees, nor over-throwing of painting bosses. Conversely, it doesn’t feel right to ban him from new rooms or helping with painting either. I like to think we’re guiding him through these scenarios within appropriately slightly rubberised boundaries – he can deviate a little but if he deviates too far, the boundaries ping him back into place again. There has to be some deviation, surely? A blanket rule for not using other people’s brushes seems a bit extreme, yet I’m quite convinced that without boundaries, there’d be a rapid spiralling into chaos.

I don’t really know whether this is a trauma thing or an LB thing – I’d love to know if you experience similar. I do know that it keeps us on our toes and adds an extra layer to the most seemingly-benign of scenarios.

As for the thought of the teenage years when authority is naturally challenged…

Eek.

I’m in Charge. No, I’m in charge.

More Summer Holiday Activities

A couple of years ago I wrote this blog post about some activities we had road-tested for keeping the boys busy during the long summer holiday: Summer Holiday Activities . At the time they were 5 and 8. Two years on, they are now 7 and 10 and I am having to be increasingly inventive to keep them engaged. Although we do go out and about quite a bit, I also like to do some calm activities with them at home. LB needs as much encouragement as he can get to sit down and concentrate on something; I think creativity and STEM activities are of huge benefit and tend to be neglected at school and it’s nice to have a bit of time where the three of us do something together (this all usually happens while Grizzly is at work). So, here are some of our recent favourites:

Excavating

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We have had a few of these sets but the one pictured that I picked up in The Entertainer is by far the best in terms of value for money and the amount of time it kept the boys busy for. You can do it inside the box so it isn’t too messy and who doesn’t love a destructive task? Both boys have loved donning their protective glasses and getting stuck in with ‘real tools’. Pretty good for channelling some pent up aggression too, I reckon. Just mind those fingers.

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Black and neon

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I’ve bought canvases for the boys to paint on a few times now (you can pick them up really cheaply in The Works) and they have enjoyed painting on a more ‘grown-up’ surface than plain old paper. This time, I happened on some black ones in Sostrene Grene (I LOVE this shop – its brilliant for crafty bits and bobs as well as just generally lovely) and as we already had some neon paints from there we were away. I found some black card in the cupboard too which proved handy – LB doesn’t spend long on his paintings and without fail wants another canvas. I didn’t have one but the black card extended the activity for another ten minutes or so. A fun twist on a classic.

 

Glowing Eggs

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I found this experiment on Pinterest and swiftly nicked it because we have eggs from our hens and anything science-y tends to grab the boys’ attention. You fill a jar with half vinegar and half tonic water. You put as many eggs as you want in (leave them raw), close the lid and leave for 48 hours.

When we opened the jars up again, we were amazed to see that the vinegar had dissolved the egg shells and the quinine in the tonic water had caused them to glow. The glowing isn’t immediately obvious on a sunny day but it’s pretty impressive when backlit by a torch. Miraculously, the eggs don’t fall apart without their shell – the membrane holding them together remains intact – and they feel really strange and rubbery. The boys enjoyed poking and prodding them and eventually popping them just as much as the experiment itself.

 

The picture on the left shows a normal egg with one we’ve experimented on. We are holding a torch to it but when you do that to the normal one, nothing happens – there is no ‘glow’ at all.

I think this one gains you good parenting points because my two couldn’t predict what would happen and were genuinely impressed I knew how to make an egg glow. Thank you Pinterest.

 

Block Printing

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Of all the activities we have done, the set for this one is the most expensive. I decided to invest because it had enough stuff for all three of us to have a go and with a bit of investment in ink and polystyrene you could give it real longevity. Also, we have done almost every form of craft known to humanity and who doesn’t like something different?

The boys found it easy to create their design with a sharp pencil on their polystyrene tile and this kept them focussed for quite a while. LB in particular loved the roller and the ink and had a great time rolling ink onto his tile. I don’t think the results are spectacular but these activities are more about enjoying the process. I do think they would make nice cards though and had the set have included more ink colours, I think we could have got even more creative. That said, we’ve washed the tiles and they can be re-used. We also have 3 more spare ones so I’ll be putting this away for a while (long enough for them to forget about it) and whipping it out again in a future holiday when we need entertaining again.

 

Creepy Crawly Clings and other sets

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Towards the end of the summer term, I often have a mini-panic about how I’ll keep the boys entertained for 6 long weeks so keep my eye out for any unusual sets or activities that we haven’t tried. I find The Works has good ones and occasionally there are things to be found in Quality Save, B&M or even the supermarkets. This one involved mixing various potions together and leaving them to set over night. The result was sticky insects which caused a high level of hilarity when I let the boys stick them to the patio door. I have to admit that this led to over-stimulation as the ‘sticking’ turned to throwing which turned to pelting and insects hanging from the ceiling and falling on people’s heads. That was probably inevitable. Anyway, if your child can manage such things without said fallout, this one is fun.

We have also tried crystal growing, erupting volcanoes, make your own bouncy balls, grow your own pet, hatch a dinosaur egg, paint your own gnome/birdhouse/money box/ dinosaur etc. They all have their merits.

 

Slime

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I have been avoiding slime kits because many of them have high levels of Boron or Borax in them which has been linked to burns as well as irritability, digestive problems and even infertility. However, LB was bought this Elmer’s set for his birthday and I didn’t want to waste it. The set says its non-toxic and my Googlings suggest it contains only trace levels of Borax, compared to some sets which have been found to have five times the safe levels. I also knew we wouldn’t play with it repeatedly – just spending a fun hour or so with it one afternoon.

BB didn’t get involved with this one – he was out having fun with a friend – but it was good to have up my sleeve as something exciting for LB. Again he loved the scientific nature of the measuring and mixing and wondering about what might happen. The results were as gross and as sticky as you’d imagine and LB loved it. I do recommend this but with caution – don’t buy a dodgy set and do your research – no slime is worth chemical poisoning!

 

I hope you like our ideas – do let us know if you try any. I have to end by confessing that not all our activities have been successful. We tried chromatography first with white carnations and then with sturdy lettuce leaves but neither was successful. Everything died before it changed colour, so, err, maybe don’t try that one?! We might have one last ditch attempt with celery but I think it has to have leaves at the top which is quite hard to come by. Any advice for getting things to successfully change colour would be very much welcomed.

 

More Summer Holiday Activities

Highs & Lows

I have written about the contradictions and rollercoaster nature of adoption before – see 3 in 1 , Adoption’s a rollercoaster, just gotta ride it , Adoption is a dodecahedron. It isn’t something which has gone away (yet) and we have very much felt it over the last few days. There are those who strongly advocate against writing about it but, for many, this sharp upping and downing is their lived reality. I don’t believe my truth is any more or less relevant than anyone else’s and I also don’t want these tricky realities to get shut behind too-shamed-to-open-doors, so I am going to write.

The highs are high and the lows are low – that’s our truth. Take a ‘normal’ scale of what you conceive to be challenging through to amazing, with everything in between, and push those minimum and maximum limits as hard as you feasibly can. Push them until they fall away. That’s the adoption scale of ups and downs.

I don’t know if it should be the adoption scale or the trauma scale or the parenting a child with SEMH difficulties scale. Pick whichever you want – it’s one or all of them in our case.

At the up end of the scale, you go to a Friday night football presentation evening for BB. You want everyone to go but you’re worried about it because it starts after LB’s bedtime and you usually keep that static with good reason. You can also reel off various other similar scenarios that have gone worse than badly so you feel pretty justified in having some doubts about the wisdom of it all. You try to anticipate the issues by taking two cars so you can take LB out of the situation if it gets too much for him, without impacting on BB’s ability to enjoy his night. You worry about balancing the needs of both boys and can’t help thinking the balance usually falls in favour of LB because he can cope with less and needs more. You don’t want to do BB a disservice when you’re already aware he makes compromises and deals with things other siblings do not have to. So you go.

When you see LB joining in with the other children without a bother and staying where you’ve asked him to stay and sticking within the rules of social convention, you are extremely relieved. You are helping with the setting up of the event and realise that you have felt comfortable trusting LB to be out of eyeshot while you do so and he has behaved impeccably. As the night draws on, you are filled with pride at what he’s managing. You watch him sit still on a chair while the other boys and BB receive their trophies. You don’t need to sit next to him and you don’t need to rush over to intervene with any type of unwanted behaviour. He’s got this. You watch as he chooses to join in with Musical Bumps and Musical Chairs and a teamwork balloon game and you marvel at how he’s coping. He gets out early on in the game and you tense, wondering if he’ll blow. He doesn’t. He’s very calm. He takes the whole thing in his stride and helps the leader with running the game. You feel your eyes well as you remember how parties used to be – how you dreaded organised games because LB hated them, couldn’t understand the rules of them, didn’t want to join in with them, fought against them and was prone to embarrassing outbursts during them. You remember that like it was yesterday and you can’t honestly believe how much he’s managing now.

You observe as he plays with the same boy all night. The game is boisterous but it doesn’t get out of control. You watch LB giving the boy a balloon when he hasn’t got one and you think what a kind and considerate young man he’s becoming. When you decide at 9:45pm that BB looks like he’s flagging, you tell LB you’re leaving and he comes straight away. He doesn’t argue. At home, he goes straight upstairs as agreed and gets ready for bed. He settles to sleep without a problem.

You chat with your husband about how proud you both are of him; about the things he can do now; about how he has surpassed all expectations again. You re-arrange the upper end of the ups and downs scale, knowing he has just smashed through the barrier you thought was there. You wonder how far he could go; what he’s really capable of. You know it is far more than anyone would have believed. Your heart swells with deep pride.

You are extremely proud of BB and his trophies and his behaviour, as always, but the difference is that the top limit of the ups and downs scale for him is pretty consistent. There is far less traversing up and down the scale and the range of the scale itself is narrower. It is also more fixed. LB’s scale, in comparison, has far wider parameters and is much less predictable. LB’s scale is more likely to surprise you, one way or another.

You are also dimly aware that a high as high as this will have cost LB in energy and this, along with the late night, will more than likely come back to bite. You know from experience this will probably not be the next day, but the one after. The one when you are holding BB’s birthday party. Unfortunately for LB, it’ll be another event that is not about him and that will test very similar skills to the football night.

There is a meltdown before the party and LB refuses to leave the car and there are a couple of flash points while you’re there but LB does very well, all things considered. Everybody has fun, nothing major goes awry, nobody gets broken.

That night, after the party, however, LB will not rest when you ask him to. He will not eat when you know he’s hungry. He will not stop over-stimulating himself on his gym. You know an almighty blow out is building but you cannot succeed in cajoling him into doing any of the things you know could prevent it. Inevitably you are eventually punched, kicked, bitten, head-butted. It doesn’t hurt but it does hurt. The rage is incredible and it hurts somewhere deep within to see your lovely boy so distraught and so intent on attacking you. You use all your skills to remain calm and to soothe, whilst trying to avoid injury or damage to the house. Whilst trying to slow your own heart rate and ignore the butterflies.

It takes quite a while and you worry about BB who understandably gets upset to see you getting battered and upset to see his brother so out of control. You know it would likely upset the hardest of people to see a child so incandescent with rage.

Eventually, after vacillating between hysterical laughter and flailing punches, pausing for long slugs of milk in-between, it is finally over. The behaviour is nothing if not baffling at times.

It feels like a pretty low place – getting set upon by your child, in your home – but you have shizzle to do. You have ironing and birthday presents to wrap and a house to decorate. The show must go on. You pick yourself up and you get on with it. What else is there to do?

Sleep doesn’t arrive as you’d hope it would and even when it does, something wakes him in the night. You very much fear the next day but it’s BB’s birthday. You can’t minimise it or pretend it isn’t happening the way you do when it’s your own – to make things easier for LB – because BB has the right to a proper birthday. He’s your child too.

You start to feel quite anxious that a huge fighty situation could oh so easily arise again and that BB would always remember his tenth birthday for all the wrong reasons. You try to keep things within perspective and not let the fear of the potential behaviour take hold. You do not want to become scared of your own life; of your own child. You do not want to start fearing up-coming situations in a paralysing way, knowing how easily that could become your reality.

You do what you can, within the parameters of it being someone’s birthday, to minimise the demands for LB. You know it isn’t ideal to take him on a day out but this is what BB has chosen and when it is LB’s birthday, everyone does what he chooses without complaint or issue. You try to pre-empt the inevitable difficulties. You chat with LB about him being tired and about how listening will be hard for him and how you are aware of this. You re-iterate the basic rules of ‘please come back when we ask you’ and ‘stay where we can see you’. You re-inforce this is because you need/want to keep him safe because that’s what parents should do.

Things initially go well.

Every followed instruction is acknowledged; every sensible decision praised. The boys decide to go on a bouncy pillow. This looks fun and you sit and watch with your husband, who has brought you a cup of tea. You relax a little. You sit there quite a while. The play seems alright; it doesn’t seem to be spiralling. You keep a close eye. Husband goes to get something from the car.

You notice LB throw some sand so you call him over and ask him not to. Three seconds later you see him do it again. You call him over and ask him to sit down for a minute, to calm and to think about the throwing of the sand. You explain he can go back on the pillow, when he’s ready to be sensible again.

He turns and spits on your arm. Just like that.

You are a little taken aback and suggest that spitting is not sensible and will not lead to getting back on the pillow. You perhaps shouldn’t have reacted but you aren’t sure in which world being spat on is okay. LB spits on you again and onto the ground. You sense people are watching. Your brain chugs into action as you wonder how exactly you should manage this situation which you can quickly sense getting out of control. He moves away and you think this might be good. Then he comes back and kicks and hits at you. You are acutely aware that people will see. You attempt to keep him at arm’s length while wondering what exactly is the therapeutic way of dealing with this. You will not allow yourself to accept being kicked and hit; you don’t know how that would benefit either of you. But you aren’t entirely comfortable with ‘restraining’ him either.

You use the most minimal touch you can, to keep the onslaught at bay, whilst getting showered in more saliva and you know that when you thought last night’s epic meltdown was the lowest you could get, it wasn’t. It’s this, being spat on in public by your seven year old son.

Being spat on is surprisingly demeaning and difficult to bounce back from. You do, because husband has swapped places with you and the change of face has diffused the situation. They have talked about it and LB has apologised to you. Also, it’s still BB’s birthday and you don’t want to make any bigger deal out of the situation than absolutely necessary for him.

But it’s a new low and you do need to decompress afterwards. You need to be alone and you need to write about it – that’s your outlet. Because it happened and you know that you can’t just keep absorbing these lows like they’re normal. And you need to move on. You need to be ready for the next thing and the next thing, so you can handle it the best possible way for LB. And you don’t want to pretend it didn’t happen either, because it did and it does in houses, and public places, up and down the land. I don’t see why it has to be a dirty little secret I’m not allowed to talk about.

This isn’t ordinary parenting, yet I’m an ordinary parent. There are lots of ordinary parents out there dealing with extraordinary things and we need each other. We need to talk about this shit that we struggle to deal with; that anybody would struggle to deal with. This stuff that’s hard.

I cannot, and will not, accept the punches and the kicks and the great globules of spittle. I’ll do my damnedest to look beyond them; to understand and to support; to respond with kindness and compassion. But in silence? Why should I?

This is our truth – neither greater nor lesser than anyone else’s – and the lows are low and the highs are high.

 

 

Highs & Lows