One year ago I wrote Reflections on Adoption One Year In. Somehow or other an entire annum has passed since and here I am again on the second anniversary of meeting my littlest bear, looking back, reflecting, analysing and considering what has changed.
I have been ruminating on this post for a while and knew that I wanted to somehow break adoption down into specific areas so that I could comment on each bit. I recently happened upon an article which has helped me to do just that. It was an article by Beacon House explaining the Neuro Sequential Model of Therapeutics as devised by Bruce Perry. It tells us that thinking solely about attachment is too narrow: it doesn’t reflect all the aspects of a child that are impacted by having a traumatic start in life. In fact there are 7 key areas and they develop sequentially (giving parents and therapists a structure and order for working on trauma). I have decided to take those 7 areas of Developmental Trauma and use them as a basis for talking about Little Bear and how things have changed for him (and consequently us) over time.
In my weeks and weeks as a blogger I haven’t ever written about Little Bear being ‘traumatised’. He hasn’t been physically abused or subjected to awful experiences. He hasn’t moved about much compared to some care-experienced children. As such I have always felt a bit unsure about the use of the word ‘trauma’ in reference to him, especially in comparison to other adopted children’s horrific backgrounds. However, what I have now come to understand is that being removed from your birth parents, whatever the circumstances that led to it, is traumatic. Equally, being removed from the Foster Carers that you have come to know and love (irrespective of the rights or wrongs of how well they did or did not care for you) is traumatic. Importantly, being neglected is in itself a significant developmental trauma.
For this week, the second anniversary of Little Bear’s arrival in our lives, I am going to consider his progress against trauma.
This is the place where extremely traumatised children reside: a constant state of fight or flight. Some children cannot move beyond this without appropriate therapy.
We were lucky that Little Bear never solely functioned at this level. He could certainly be triggered into this place easily and always reacted with fight mode. That has undoubtedly changed over time: Little Bear is generally happy, settled and not fearful now. He can still be triggered into fight/flight though and I can’t help feeling there is a close link with his communication difficulties here. If you cannot defend yourself verbally and if others exploit that, it would be easy to become anxious, defensive and consequently triggered. Therefore it is usually with his peers that fight mode arises.
Little Bear did have impaired sleep patterns (I didn’t know this was a sign of trauma at the time) which I’m very happy to say have fully resolved.
Impulsivity is another sign of needs in this area. Little Bear was certainly extremely impulsive when he first arrived. Overall I would say he has made excellent progress with this. He can control himself much better now and tends to tell me if he’s tempted to do something he knows he shouldn’t. I do find that his ability to stop himself from doing it varies depending on how he is feeling. If he is dysregulated he is far more likely to go with the impulse. Little Bear’s awareness of danger has improved hugely though and I think that has helped him to have fewer inappropriate urges e.g. to touch something sharp/ hot/ unsanitary etc.
Little Bear also has an active conscience and is now (sometimes) tuned in to how his behaviour might impact on others e.g. his brother and is able to stop himself from doing something if he thinks it might upset Big Bear, even if he really wants to do it. This is probably one of the biggest signs that he is generally functioning in his ‘thinking brain’.
Last year I wrote about how our attachment could still feel brittle at times and that we would take a few steps backwards if I didn’t spend enough time with Little Bear. I would now describe us as having a consistently close and loving relationship. I haven’t noticed the regression feeling recently, perhaps because I am available to him most of the time (I only work during school hours) and if anything Little Bear can be quite clingy to me now. He hasn’t been well recently and at those points he is all about keeping me close. I sometimes feel as though he is trying to make up for the fact that we never had an actual umbilical cord!
I have to do far less acting and do genuinely enjoy spending as much time as I do with him. He is quite the comedic little buddy.
The dynamic within our family of 4 feels healthy and balanced now (most of the time). I have written about the changes in the relationship between the 2 Bears in Brothers.
Last year I wrote about Little Bear being quite rejecting of his grandparents. That has changed loads over the past 12 months and I would say he enjoys a close relationship with all three of them too. There is less of a gap between his behaviour with us and with them, where he used to test their boundaries far more. I think he trusts them now and understands their not-everyday but consistent role in his life. In fact, he has even slept over at my parents and not only did they live to tell the tale (!) but it went well.
Little Bear is friendlier in general and often plays with children he hasn’t met before at parks etc. instead of pretending they don’t exist.
All of that said I suspect that the testing of boundaries continues with those whom he is less attached to e.g. teachers and I would be very reluctant to leave him with anyone who didn’t know him well.
I think we saw the most progress in this area during the first year when Little Bear went from being a little ball of rage to mostly calm and happy. In general I would say that Little Bear’s emotional regulation is fairly good. He experiences a range of emotions, as we all do, and is making ongoing progress with expressing how he feels with words. Although he can be stroppy, I wouldn’t say that he shows extremes of emotion any more.
This is probably the main area in which we have experienced difficulties.
As with all aspects of Little Bear the progress he has made with his behaviour has been incredible but if there is one thing that is going to slide, it is generally this. Little Bear knows right from wrong in most situations and he can often verbalise what you want him to do or not do but if he’s dysregulated he just cannot co-operate. The flash points are usually when he’s hungry, tired or not feeling well and he can get quite out of control.
These days we are much more tuned in and can often pinpoint what is causing it fairly quickly and can help him to regulate. He is not yet able to identify things like his own hunger in order to self- regulate. If he is in the process of catching germs there is not much we can do and we sometimes puzzle over what on earth is going on with him until a few days later when the illness hits.
There are times when Little Bear is dysregulated that he does try to hurt us or himself. It is usually in a fairly low–level way: scratching, hitting, maybe a kick. At the time he wants to do it but afterwards he feels bad and usually, day to day, he would be upset if he hurt us even by accident.
This is the thing that most concerns me for the future. I hope that he is able to overcome his difficulties with regulation because a teenager or young man who sometimes wants to hurt you (or himself) is a very different prospect from a skinny 5 year old.
I think that this is an area where Little Bear’s difficulties have come more to the fore over his second year with us. It was probably harder to notice them before because we were focussed on the big, hard to ignore behaviour stuff. I wrote a bit about how Little Bear’s lack of self-belief impacts on his ability to learn in Jigsaws. When it comes to most sitting down tasks Little Bear’s default position tends to be to assume that he can’t do it. He seems to put a lot of pressure on himself and if he cannot do something immediately e.g. stick a Lego brick where it needs to go, he becomes quickly frustrated and will sabotage the task or launch it across the room. He will often say “I’m rubbish” at x, y or z. This has a fairly major impact on school-style learning and is something we are working hard on at the moment.
Thankfully Little Bear tolerates and in fact thrives on praise so we are able to build him up, reassure, point out strengths and celebrate successes. We have to ensure we do this to keep Little Bear engaged with tasks otherwise he will withdraw and consequently feel worse about himself.
I hope that I am able to look back in another year and say that his confidence is going from strength to strength.
I can honestly say we haven’t experienced any issues in this area.
Little Bear’s difficulties with information processing, memory and problem-solving are well documented throughout my blog. I’m guessing that the very fact I have been talking about it so much is a good sign: Little Bear must have made good progress in his limbic and brain stem development (the first 4 areas described above) or he would not be learning at all. Children with high levels of developmental trauma often have many needs in those areas and are not yet developmentally able to use the cortex or thinking part of their brain as their brain is stuck in survival mode.
Whilst Little Bear is learning at a rapid rate, he does experience difficulties commensurate with requiring additional funding and support at school. Over the last year observing his ability to overcome these barriers has been one of my biggest joys.
At the start of school Little Bear’s Auditory Memory skills were poor – he could remember 2 to 3 items at best and it held him back from being able to count or learn blending skills for reading. He is now reading, remembering 6 word sentences and counting almost to 20. If we help with number 15, he can then get to 30. The post about jigsaws shows how rapidly his problem-solving can progress if the right support is in place.
In the early days, Little Bear couldn’t engage with Duplo. He couldn’t make a man sit in a Duplo bus without losing his temper. This week he has completed a Lego City model (recommended age 5-12) admittedly with help but he understood the instructions, could search for and locate the pieces and could add them appropriately to the model. He focused, overcame his urges to break it up and completed the whole aeroplane in one sitting. It was so lovely to watch him succeeding.
So there you go Trauma, we are slowly but surely kicking you to the curb.
After two years as an adopter I continue to be challenged but mainly in a good way. The more experienced I become, the more aware I am of what I don’t know – I have ordered 2 books to fill some gaps during the writing of this post! I continue to adore my Bears and despite the harder days remain thankful that we chose to embark on this adoption adventure.
I have just done a quick straw poll of the other Bears to see what they think has changed over the past year:
Grizzly: Little Bear’s language. It has come on loads and he is much calmer and more chilled out now.
Big Bear: I think his behaviour’s changed: he’s a good boy, aren’t you mate?
Little Bear: I think I’ve got more toys.
*I apologise if any of the theory in this post is not quite right, it is very much written in my words, not the words of Bruce Parry.
**Though I’m desperate to include Little Bear’s opinions in my blogs, I’m not sure he’s quite up to answering my complex questions yet