Each Other

I have written previously about the need to look after ourselves when parenting a child with SEMH, or trauma and attachment needs ( Self-kindnessSelf-Care, Parental Mental Health) . Recently, on a much needed date with my husband, I realised I’ve written little about the need to also look after your relationship.

Modern life is pretty challenging. It’s busy, people work hard, hours are long and the bombardment from e-mail and social media is constant. Long-term relationships are tricky enough within the context of passing like ships in the night, or when one or both of you are glued to a screen, without the additional challenges brought to the table by a small person constantly screaming your names at the top of their capacious lungs. Sometimes, it all just gets a bit much.

I think within a stressful life (late home/work pressure/deadlines/personnel challenges/financial concerns etc. etc.), it is all too easy to turn tensions inwards – to become tetchy or short with your partner; to not give them the time to offload their stresses; to consider your path difficult enough without whatever they have going on too. Add into that mix the usual concerns about running a home, running cars, remembering birthdays, booking holidays etc. and things can start to fray. Add the parenting of any child into the mix and there is immediately a whole other layer of logistics, concern and juggling. When the parenting of any of the children is relentless, difficult, keep-you-up-at-night-worrying, unremitting in its challenge to your emotions; you can quickly approach the ledge between stress and the end of your tether.

Now, some people are not doing this crazy parenting thing from within a relationship. Some are doing it alone, and as usual, I salute them. I’m sorry, if that’s you, this post won’t really be relevant, by my goodness I do take my hat off to you.

I wrote – a long time ago now – about My partner in adoption . And I fully stand by what I said. Grizzly really is a crucial cog in the survival of this machine. He is often not here for weekday bedtimes and sometimes he goes away for a couple of days at a time. He’s often out the house for longer than twelve hours and obviously he can’t be at home every day of school holidays. But those things don’t really matter, because if I Whatsapp him to say I’m being driven insane or one of them has done X or I’ve been called into school again because of such and such a thing or one of them is fully doing my head in or one of them did x AGAIN and I honestly can’t understand what possessed them, he will unconditionally understand. I can say far worse. I can voice the deepest, darkest, most unpalatable thoughts I might have about parenting at any given time and he will not judge me. The things you can’t say out loud, to anyone, I can say to him. And him to me.

I can’t really overstate the importance of that in maintaining ones sanity.

Despite his hefty workload, Grizzly does school-drops offs and pick-ups where he can. He prioritises school meetings. He is more than happy to take the kids off my hands at a weekend to give me a break. He doesn’t necessarily wait for me to ask – sometimes he’ll say I Iook tired before spiriting them off somewhere. He’s a good egg.

Earlier in our parenting career, I’m not sure we had that many breaks. BB was a terrible sleeper which made it difficult, then LB struggled to be left/ made life for whoever was looking after him very difficult and consequently we felt a weighty guilt about escaping.

More recently, I think my attitude has changed. I’ve come to realise that aspects of our parenting life are arduous and unrelenting and anyone would get tired. I’ve written before about how self-care and self-kindness are important, not just for your own wellbeing but because they inadvertently make you a better parent too. When you’re worn down and shattered, you haven’t the same resilience to deal with difficult behaviours, or to be calm no matter what, or as therapeutic as you’d like. Keeping yourself topped up makes sense for all involved. And now I’m given to thinking that your relationship deserves that TLC as well.

I don’t want the long hours and the daily irritations to erode our relationship. I don’t want those issues to turn inwards because we’re too tired or too stretched or too distracted. This family requires a well-oiled parenting team to function the best it can. Perhaps I mean it deserves one. Either way, it does mean that Grizzly and I need to ring-fence regular time that is just for us.

I think you don’t always realise you aren’t connecting the best you can until you go out, have fun, relax, and remember what your relationship was all about in the first place. We’re pretty good at keeping the lines of communication open in our daily lives, but inevitably, when everyone is tired after a long day, no one is particularly keen to discuss the relative merits of this home-improvement project over another or how big birthdays almost a year away should be celebrated or to go into anything but necessary detail. It is only when we go away and are not rushing back for pick-ups that these conversations tend to happen.

Not only that, but although our family time is fun and raucous and a little crazy, I probably wouldn’t describe it as relaxing. There is very rarely a moments’ peace. Any adult chat is constantly interrupted by an urgent, loud, attachment-needing voice. Even if we are engaged in something supposedly fun, like a game, we still need to heavily manage the situation to make sure everybody copes. Which does tend to reduce the fun element. We both find early mornings quite intense, woken as we are most days by the heart-rate raising noises of dysregulation and potential imminent meltdown.

One night away every couple of months is a surprisingly welcome balm. Fun can be had without worrying how others will cope. Conversations go uninterrupted. Meals can be long and relaxed. We don’t even drink. It is not as though we want a night on the tiles and a child-free hangover. It is just so refreshing to have a little space to be us.

We haven’t been as good as we should have been about booking such things in – it is another thing to add to the long old to-do list after all – but as we are just back from a mini-break, I have renewed enthusiasm for making it happen. Not just because it’s lovely but because I can finally see the necessity of it. I used to feel tremendous guilt for leaving the children, even for a short time, as though I were shirking my responsibilities. I also worried about the grandparents, who could be having a testing time. But now, I see that we need it. I need it, Grizzly needs it and as a parenting-team, we need it. The children didn’t even miss us this time, so I suspect they needed it too. We forget that the getting fed up of each other thing works both ways – a night with grandparents in charge is probably a lot more fun than usual.

We have happened on an ideal scenario for minimising fallout too. We now take the children to school on a Thursday, then go off on our travels, returning for Friday pick-up. This way, grandparents are only on duty for an evening and overnight and can lie down with a cup of tea at 8:45 am the next morning if they feel the need, duties already complete. I think it gives us longer than the brisk 24 hours we’d allow ourselves on a weekend and the children don’t notice we’re gone in the same way, as we’re here for Saturday and Sunday. It works for us, anyway.

Now to get the next one in the diary. I’m finding that having something to look forward to helps with trickier days too.

 

Each Other

Alone Parenting

I’ve written plenty before about the challenges of adoptive parenting or parenting a child with SEMH needs (Social, Emotional or Mental Health needs) and the different ways it can impact you. I’ve written about the need we have, as parents, for affirmation – for someone to tell us now and again that we’re doing a good job. I’ve written about CCVAB (Childhood challenging, violent or aggressive behaviour) – the taboos around this, the terror of it, the ways it can keep you awake at night. I’ve written about external factors like the impact of school and professionals who come on the journey with you, and even how you can feel judged by random members of the public. There are times when I have written pretty frankly about the hard bits of our parenting journey, my anxieties, our messier moments.

This morning I have been reminded that I have revealed and discussed all of this from within the comfort of my supportive marriage. My marriage in which I can be brutally honest with my husband, and him with me. My marriage in which I have a place to off load, to discuss, to compare notes, to problem-solve, to rant, to moan, to cry, to celebrate the tiniest success, to despair, to have a hug. In my marriage, I have a co-pilot who I can switch with and who helps me navigate and make this journey.

Outside of my marriage, I have parents and a parent-in-law and a brother and soon to be sister-in-law who are all there, supporting our journey.

Outside of that, I have good friends who I can talk freely to, who bring their own knowledge to the table, who listen, counsel, support.

I’m very lucky.

This morning, I realised that even cocooned within all those layers of support, there have been times when I have felt desperate and despairing. I don’t think I’ve experienced those things too much on a prolonged basis but there have been times that I’ve felt them. I think all parents do, sometimes.

Then, I thought, what if all those cocooning layers were stripped away? What if a person didn’t have friends who understood their challenges or their child’s challenges? What if their family – their parents, their siblings, their cousins – whoever they have – didn’t understand their challenges? What if – even worse – their partner wasn’t supportive? How desperate and despairing would that be?

What if their partner not only wouldn’t work in partnership but actively avoided things that might help (such as engaging with any external support offered or reading helpful books)? What if their partner were critical or didn’t offer affirmation or a shoulder to cry on or a listening ear? What if their partner refused to co-parent or use therapeutic strategies or just didn’t bother to get their hands dirty with the business of parenting at all?

What if a person had to walk this journey truly alone?

I suspect many of us are guilty of seeing that a person has a partner or spouse and assuming they provide them with the support I talked about above. But what if they don’t? What if their relationship is a lonely place? What if they have polarising view points on parenting or discipline or how to manage CCVAB? What if they can’t even talk about how to parent anymore? What if every chat ends in an argument? What if one of them mentally (or even physically) checks out, leaving the other to deal with everything alone? What if their differences lead to inconsistencies and unpredictable boundaries? What if the children feel this and it further discombobulates them? What if the CCVAB becomes directed to one parent only? What if the other turns a blind eye? What if one is made to feel it’s their fault? That it’s their bad parenting doing it. What if that person’s confidence has become so eroded they think it’s their fault too?

I know you can adopt as a single person. I think the hope would be that the next layers of support – the wider family, the close friends – would step closer, ensuring you are still well cocooned. And this can work as beautifully as a good partnership. But what if it doesn’t? What if they don’t step forward? What if a parent is left with an empty moat where the support should be? What if they experience external judgement and criticism to such a level their confidence is eroded to nothing?

How desperate and despairing would they be then?

I guess it’s hard to speak out about it if you’re trapped in it. You think it’s your fault or just what you deserve anyway. You fear what the speaking out or the being honest could do.

This post is for you. I see you. I see how hard you’re trying. How you’re giving parenting everything but you’re exhausted. And worn down. How you think everyone must be doing it better than you are. How scary the future is. How alone you feel. How difficult it must be to have the courage of your convictions or to make choices about which way to manage challenging situations for the best. Alone.

You do deserve to be heard. You do deserve support. This parenting alone thing – its fucking rock solid, not just hard. It’s hard enough with the support but without it? I don’t know, but I’m upsetting myself imagining it. Please believe that what you are doing is a great achievement, in the most trying of circumstances. You’re doing it. You’re persevering. You’re getting up every day and doing it again and again and again.

Don’t look at the rest of us and imagine we have everything sewn up and tickety-boo. We don’t. We lose our shit, our houses are messy, we cut parenting corners. I mean it’s winter – if you can’t be bothered to iron a school shirt, it’ll hide very nicely under a sweatshirt. Not managed to bath them today? So what? Give them a quick wet wipe.

Sometimes survival is enough, for all of us. It has to be.

I could have a separate rant about the standards we set ourselves and the random demands we think society expects of us, especially in the run up to Christmas – the mountains of presents, the outfits, the bloody elves on the shelves – but I’ll try to resist. Ignore it, if you can. Set your standards, stick to those. You’re doing your level best and at the end of the day, it’s all you can do and it’s all that matters.

I think what I’m trying to say is, if you are truly alone in this, I am truly sorry. Please look after yourself. It shouldn’t be this way, but if it is, be your own warrior. Don’t stop fighting to be heard. Don’t stop standing up for what you believe in. Don’t stop trying.

Twitter used to be an amazing place to connect and get virtual support but it is sadly not as safe as it once was. However, there are still those of us whose direct messages are always open and are more than happy to talk without judgment (@adoptionblogfox). We are all in this together, cocooned or not.

 

 

If you’re a person who sits in judgement, thinking how well you are doing and how good your parenting is and how lacking others’ is in comparison – stop it. Most of the time we have not a clue what does or does not go on behind people’s doors. Until you’ve walked a mile and all that…

 

If you’re the partner who has mentally checked out or withdrawn because it’s easier or because you don’t know what else to do, please talk to your co-parent. This sort of parenting isn’t easy for anybody. But it so much easier if you can find a way to do it together.

 

Apologies for my slightly bossy tone but I’m reaching the end of my third decade, my hormones are pretty fierce and I just cannot be doing with people being shit to one another. Life is hard enough, parenting is hard enough. SEMH parenting or adoptive parenting is next level hard. Doing that alone? Hideously difficult. Let’s have some compassion and look after each other.

Please reach out to someone if you can.

Virtual hugs,

xx

 

Alone Parenting

The Great National Adoption Week Debate

When I was a fairly new adoptive parent, I remember being aware that Adoption Week was taking place, bringing with it a certain discord within the community when it did so. I wasn’t, at the time, too sure why this was.

Year on year since then, my understanding of the complexities of the week have continued to grow until I now find myself hugely conflicted about the rights and wrongs of it all.

So, what is National Adoption Week all about? Is it about adoptees sharing stories and celebrating their adopted status? Err, not really. And the fact of whether they would want to do that at all is a debate within itself. No, Adoption Week is essentially a mass recruitment drive – a way of raising the profile of adoption so as to encourage more prospective parents to come forward. On face value that seems like a sensible enough plan – especially as there are currently over 4100 children waiting for permanence in the UK.

And yet…

Of course adoptees should be central to adoption week. I think those 4100 potential adoptees are, but not the thousands who have been adopted in the past and are now adults. They are conspicuous by their absence. Currently, adoption week is not about them or for them and I can fully understand their feelings of being cast aside.

Cynically, the real reason behind this is that many adult adoptees are not exponents of adoption. Sure, there are many who are happily adopted; some who have even gone on to adopt children themselves. But there are many who, if given a platform during adoption week, would use it to warn about the dangers of adoption; as an opportunity to press for change; who, if asked, would say, ‘do not adopt’. Clearly, speaking the truth of their lived experience would absolutely be their prerogative. And perhaps some would argue that those voices should be heard loud and clear in order to make necessary change happen in the sector.

Yet I can also see that were the majority of voices saying don’t adopt, this would surely have a significant knock-on to the number of people who would then consider becoming parents via adoption. Some would argue this would be for the better – after all if a person’s experience of adoption has been negative, why would they want it to keep happening to others? They wouldn’t.

Conversely, I can see why adoption agencies try to control this. While some would suggest this makes agencies corrupt, for me, it comes back to the 4100 children waiting. If numbers of prospective adopters dwindle, what happens to those children?

I suppose the majority (if not all) would spend their entire childhood within The Care System. Some might argue that this would be alright – they would be cared for, have stability and still maintain links with their birth families. However, unfortunately, not all foster placements are created equal. And behind the scenes there is the sometimes unfathomable workings of stretched social services teams, which end up moving children multiple times from placement to placement, deeming some children ‘unfoster-able’ and moving them into residential care homes. Like foster carers, some homes are brilliant but others are certainly not. And then there are the issues of permanence post 18 or 21 (depending on the placement type). There are many foster carers who informally offer young people support and family throughout their adult lives but this is not a requirement and by no means a given. A read of Lemn Sissay’s best-selling memoir, My Name is Why, tells you everything you need to know about how the ‘care system’ all too frequently does the opposite of care.

Is this what we want for those 4100 children? An unpredictable childhood? Which may see them thrive, but equally, for others, barely survive?

I have heard arguments for Special Guardianship Orders (SGOs) as a more stable alternative to ‘care’ but a less permanent severing of biological ties than adoption. But is it really a viable alternative when there is no SGO version of adoption/maternity leave and no such thing as post-SGO support? Those who currently care for children under SGOs (often grandparents or aunties/uncles) do so in the most challenging of circumstances with little to no support or understanding of the challenges they face. Until the inequalities in support provided for SGOs and adoption are more fairly balanced, I don’t see how SGOs can be a truly viable alternative to use on a wide scale.

So we are left with adoption. It is not a panacea, it is a last resort.

Or is it? Within this great big debate, one also has to consider how children get to be waiting for adoption in the first place. Adoption should be the last resort, to be used in circumstances when every other possible route to permanence has been explored and ruled out, but is it always used that way? We have to think about why children are removed from birth families in the first place. Has it been for a reason that could have been resolved had the birth family been offered more or better support? If so, that family has been dealt a great disservice. It is hard to justify a permanent legal severance in a situation where a struggling mum really just needed more help.

Or what about situations where there has been domestic violence or coercive control? Once the perpetrator is removed from the situation, is the remaining parent (usually the mother) really an unfit parent? Or a victim who should not have to pay twice for her wounds with the subsequent loss of her children?

There are so many huge questions which have to be considered at all stages of the child protection process which ultimately leads to adoption. None of this is easy or clear. For every parent who was given chance after chance and adequate support to parent but didn’t take it, there will be another who was a victim of their circumstances. There will be those children who find themselves waiting for adoption who were removed from their mothers on the ‘risk of future harm’ premise and those who were systematically and horrifically abused. There will be those children who go on to be adopted whose birth parents would not harm them were they to see them every week and there are those children who should never, ever see their parents again after the irreparable harm they caused them. Individual circumstances are so different and so nuanced that it’s impossible to take one story and extrapolate it into a solution for all.

I suppose this is why adoption, as a concept, is so divisive. Where it has been the right solution for one, it has been extremely traumatic for another.

So, if I’m not sure about ‘care’ or SGO’s for the 4100, do I think adoption is the right solution? Well, it’s pretty obvious that I think it can be, because I am an adoptive parent and I wouldn’t have chosen to do something I didn’t believe could be right. I say ‘could be’ because it isn’t a given. It does depend on things such as recruiting the right kind of people to be adopters – those who are resilient and able to appropriately support a traumatised child; who can be there for them through life story work and contact and reuniting with their birth family if/when the young person wants that and, importantly, are motivated to adopt for all the right reasons. It depends on appropriate training of prospective adopters – being truthful with them about the challenges they’ll likely face and not perpetuating the happy ever after myth. It depends on robust post-adoption support.

If all that is in place, can adoption be the right thing for a child? I believe so. I believe it can give them a stability and permanence that cannot currently be achieved any other way. And if we need adoption, we do need to find adopters.

We have to be honest though, and we have to say that adoption does not work out as you would hope in all situations, usually because one of the criteria I described above hasn’t been met.

I think there is a general consensus now, within many corners of the adoption community, that adoption as it stands needs to change. From the few adoptee voices that are being heard, we know that having all ties to biological roots or heritage or culture legally severed is incredibly detrimental and has life-long impacts. Being removed from the parents who conceived and carried and birthed you is not something one ‘just gets over’ as many were told in the past. So it seems increasingly important that where links can safely be maintained with members of children’s birth families, they should be. If we think of the mother who was a victim of domestic abuse or the one who needed more support, we can see that an adopted child still being able to spend time with them could be of great benefit to all.

Again, I don’t think we can start saying that all adoptions should be open because what of the paedophiles and abusers? I am certain there are situations where it is in the child’s best interests to never see their parents again. But should they have as much information as possible about them at their fingertips? Of course. They will still need to know where they got their eyebrows from even if it is too damaging to have those relatives in their lives.

I think what I’m saying is that behind the billboards and newspaper adverts of bonny-looking children, there is a huge swampy, divisive, polarising debate going on. It’s a debate that needs to be had to move adoption forwards and to ensure that we do it better. It’s a debate that involves difficult questions and unpalatable facts and no easy answers. It’s a debate with no single solution.

The pity of it is that it’s a debate which currently divides. It is a shame because the posters and the agencies and the adult adoptees and the more experienced adopters and the grandparents with SGOs and the birth parents who desperately fought to keep their children really all want the same thing: the best for their children and for future children like them. We all want the best for the 4100. It’s just that we all have a different viewpoint of what that best is.

At the moment The Great Adoption Week debate mainly goes on in muttered huddles behind billboards, with many pretending the campaign isn’t happening, yet feeling irked it is. The recruitment aspect still tends to dominate. Wouldn’t it be great if, somehow, the debate in all its meaty complexity could step forward? Punch through the posters? Wouldn’t it be even better if all the groups with vested interests could pull together, with adoptees at their centre, and sort this shit out?

If everyone worked together, perhaps better support for SGO’s could be secured? Perhaps policy around risk-assessing maintaining maximum links with birth relatives could be written and put into practise, instead of every child with a permanency plan just having annual Letterbox automatically added to it? Perhaps more creative solutions could be found. Perhaps plans would be more personalised to individual circumstances and also flexible enough to reflect changes to circumstances. Perhaps every adoption panel and advisory do-dah would have adoptees on it.

I suspect there would still be adoption but it might work differently to how it does now. I suspect it will become more open and get used more carefully as we move forwards. I just hope that together, we can push the debate onward.

In the meantime, 4100 children wait. And aside from the rights or wrongs of the methods employed, National Adoption Week at least endeavours to find them a solution.

 

 

 

The Great National Adoption Week Debate

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

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

Mislaying The Positives

I think everyone knows that the last few weeks have been a little trying. Between school residentials and transition, there has been plenty to get my knickers in a twist about (if you somehow missed it, see Hysterical , The Big Trip and Is Dysregulation Rocket Science? ). This isn’t unusual, I’m frequently banging on about some issue or other, more often than not relating to LB’s education. I’m aware though, that in getting caught up dealing with the myriad issues, it can be all too easy to skip over the positives. It means that things, that when you stop to think about them are actually amazing, can pass you by with barely an acknowledgement. I don’t want to skip over these things – these achievements of LB’s – because they are massive within the context of his history and should be given the credence they deserve. I’m going to share one thing, in particular, today. First, I need to tell you some facts.

I don’t like bragging. That’s a fact. I can’t bear it when people go to parents evening then write #giftedandtalented on Twitter or Facebook. Or when someone asks you if you’re concerned about your child and you say yes, and then they say how they aren’t at all worried about theirs because they are exceeding expectations in every area. I don’t like it when people brag about how expensive their house is or how much they earn or how clever they are or any of the others ways that people try to seem better than other people. Just, no.

Here’s another fact. When LB started pre-school, his development was measured to be two years behind the typical expectations for his age – so he was functioning round about the level of a two year old, when he was four. That’s a very tricky educational starting point. There were many barriers between LB and formal learning – behavioural, emotional, linguistic.

When LB started reception class, he couldn’t count. I’m not exaggerating – he literally couldn’t count to three in the correct order. This was not through a lack of trying on anyone’s part – it was mainly due to his Developmental Language Disorder (DLD See Developmental Language Disorder or DLD & Education ), as well as his tricky start. It did mean that numeracy was going to be extremely difficult. It is impossible to do sums if you don’t understand the currency you’re dealing with. It literally must have been like adding apples and pears for him.

By the end of year 1, though LB had made incredible progress in all areas, he had never quite managed to hit an expected level in any subject. It didn’t matter. We were extremely proud of him because of all the things he had achieved and really, from a starting point of 2 years behind, how could he?

Year 2 felt like a big jump. Year 2 had SATS. SATS were going to be hard for someone working below the expectations of the curriculum; someone who had only been able to count for 18 months or so. Fact. We didn’t even know if we’d let him sit the SATS – if they were going to feel too big an obstacle.

Somehow, despite all those facts, at the end of Year 2, LB managed not only to sit his SATS but to pass his Maths SATS. Not only that, but he smashed it, gaining close to a ‘greater depth’ score. He has also been deemed to be working at the overall expectations of the curriculum in numeracy, so in his report, he got his first green light. In fact, he got one for science too.

Why are you telling us this, if you don’t like bragging? I hear you whisper.

I’ll tell you why.

The ACE’s index (Adverse Childhood Experiences index) came about as a way of measuring the impact in later life of various different adversities that could befall a child. This is important because it is only fairly recently that society has begun to acknowledge that things that happen during childhood can continue to impact a person throughout their life. It is important we understand that childhood abuse, neglect or the disappearance of a parent through divorce, death, imprisonment or moving into the Care system doesn’t stop impacting a person once the event is over. It is really important these things are widely understood. The old adage that ‘the child is safe now so the past can be forgotten’ really does need eradicating and something like the ACE’s movement helps with this.

The ACE index also tells us that the more ACEs a person has experienced, the greater their risk of mental and physical health difficulties, substance abuse and unemployment. In short, the worse your start in life, the higher the likelihood of your life outcomes also being poor. A double-whammy body-blow.

ACES another one

 

It is beginning to be recognised that though this information is well-intentioned and to some extent needed, by encouraging people to count numbers of ACEs, you are really misunderstanding the way trauma works. It’s feasible that a person could score just 1 on the index, for an event that may only have occurred once, on one specific day. The index would suggest that this event would only have a minor impact on the person. However, from what we know of trauma, this is isn’t accurate. Depending on the person and their own reactions, that single event could have anything from a minimal to a profound lifelong impact upon the person. Similarly, because you have a large number of ACE’s, it doesn’t necessarily mean you will end up homeless, addicted to alcohol and drugs and suffering several health complaints, and I think there is a danger in suggesting you would.

ACES

 

For a young person, growing up with the knowledge they have a high ACE score could well make them feel hopeless about their future, and is that really what we want for our most vulnerable children? Surely the message should be that, yes, rubbish things that happen in childhood can impact upon a person and as a society we acknowledge it. We should also be offering all the extras a child could need – therapy, education, social/behavioural/emotional support – to help them in overcoming the impacts of those ACES. We should be acknowledging that children with any ACE score need more from us – more care, more love, more support. We should be flagging them up as at risk of the future harm the ACE index suggests whilst providing them with what they need to negate that risk.

I think there’s a danger in suggesting that something that happens early on will categorically lead to x or y later. These things are not set in stone. With the correct support, children who’ve had adverse starts in life can and do overcome the barriers their early lives attempted to block them with. I’m not saying it’s easy – it will undoubtedly be harder for them than for children without ACEs – but shouldn’t we try? Shouldn’t we aspire for the best we can for all children?

So, when a child comes from two years behind expectations, having experienced neglect and the severing of links with their biological family, and several moves, and despite all that catches up with expectations for children who have dealt with none of that, shouldn’t we be shouting from the roof tops? I think so.

Often, it is the most privileged who brag the most. It is hard to be impressed by the gains of those who already had a head start, but when the one who was lagging behind, who joined the race a long while after the others and kept on running despite being so far back, manages to catch up, that’s truly brag-worthy.

This is not all about catching-up though. Even if LB hadn’t have caught up, but had kept running, that would be a significant achievement too. He’s still running when it comes to literacy and he may always be, as may many of his other adoptee peers who have educational mountains to overcome, and I think it’s important we acknowledge that every next reading level, every percentile, every point on every scale, is harder won for our children with ACEs. But they’re doing it. They’re out there, surpassing expectations all the time. And I don’t want that to be lost in schools that don’t understand their behaviour or in parents having to fight or getting dragged down by the multitudinous battles they’re facing. We mustn’t mislay the positives. These positives are huge and indicative of something bigger even than ACEs. They’re about human fortitude and our ability to overcome. And a beacon of hope for what can be achieved, when we properly support our most vulnerable.

 

 

 

 

 

Mislaying The Positives

The Big Trip

Last week I was getting all irate because I couldn’t get LB’s TA to understand the magnitude of LB going on a residential – see Hysterical . I was also worried about how LB himself would cope, following moments of distress and him struggling to sleep.

After that, things improved a bit, seemingly because they’d spoken more about the details of the trip in school, resulting in LB realising they weren’t in fact camping out in tents. The idea that they were must have been worrying him because he did settle when he realised they weren’t. I have no idea where he got that idea from in the first place – it just goes to show that not all worries are predictable.

I didn’t press any issues with school because things seemed to be ok.

The night before the trip, LB grew anxious again. He really struggled to get to sleep and got himself in quite a state. He was worried about “missing us too much”. The next morning, we woke to him to him crying and shouting the house down. It was such a shame to hear because it isn’t like him to get so distressed.

LB came into bed for a cuddle and soon rallied. He started doing my make up while I was still half-asleep and, despite, or perhaps due to me looking a state, it cheered him up considerably.

When BB got up, he did a fabulous job of encouraging LB – telling him that he was nervous when he went on the trip too but that all his friends would be there and it’d be ok. He is so instinctive that boy, it really does make my parenting job easier.

It was almost as though once LB got his head straight that he wanted to go and that it would be fun, even if he was nervous, he just focussed himself on getting ready. Soon we were at school, amongst a throng of similarly excited children and LB was fine. He didn’t struggle to separate at all (as I thought he might have) and went right on in.

I had a quick word with the TA and impressed upon her the importance of calling me, should he need her to. I could see her reluctance, but ensured I got my point across.

 

It was a very strange evening at home, that night. It was so quiet. And so tidy. And something was palpably missing.

Our thoughts were not far from LB all evening. I checked my watch every ten minutes, trying to think what he’d be doing at each point. I was surprised by how much BB worried about him – he too wondered aloud about him much more frequently than he would if he had been staying with grandparents, for example. We all knew this was a huge deal and could have gone any which way.

From about 8pm onwards, I kept thinking my phone would ring any second. But it didn’t.

I kept checking the school Facebook feed but it hadn’t been updated since 4pm so that revealed nothing.

By about 10pm, I figured it was safe to take my shoes off and have a cup of tea, whilst simultaneously wondering if they would call the second I sat down.

But they didn’t. It seemed unlikely they’d call during the night so I assumed this was us: he was really doing it. It would have been really appreciated had someone taken a couple of seconds to send me a message saying he was fine, but that didn’t materialise either. I half thought, due to them having me down as mildly hysterical and neurotic, that they would have sensed the need for such a message. But there we go.

 

By school pick up time yesterday, I was very keen to get him back again. I had half envisaged him running out of the classroom door to be swung into a swirling hug, but, this being LB, our reunion was a lot more nonchalant. I had forgotten that we’d probably get a bit of the cold shoulder because we had been separated for twenty-four hours. That’s always the way of it. But, in the grand scheme of things, it was ok. He didn’t hate us, he was just a bit quiet and standoffish.

He was also, what Gary would technically describe as, “dead dog tired.”

It happened to be parents evening, so between the information LB shared, the chats I had with his teachers and accusations made by random children in his class, I managed to piece together an accurate-enough account of what actually went down. I think he enjoyed it overall. Apparently at teatime on the first day, LB began to droop and asked to go to bed. He does go to bed early and his body is very much ruled by a strong circadian rhythm, and affected by not sticking to it. The staff jollied him along because they hadn’t done the bonfire and marshmallows yet. LB managed to power through but then, obviously, went beyond tired and by the sounds of it, struggled to get to sleep. I suspect there was a degree of high jinks. However, I’d rather that than him be upset and crying for us. And, according to his TA, “all the boys were a nightmare for bed.” And, well, I did warn them.

I suspect the second day was trickier – LB was tired and no doubt struggling with regulation. But, he came back in one piece and so did all the staff.

I think this is a probably a time where I don’t need to worry about the details too much – instead focussing on the bigger picture. That picture is that LB, at seven years old, with a history of neglect and trauma, has managed his first residential, without any significant ill-effects. What a guy.

I thought he’d have been fast asleep early last night, but no. I suspect if there are any lasting effects, it will be tricky bedtimes for a few days, while he re-adjusts and maybe a dysregulated weekend – no big deal.

I hope that him going away and us still being here when he came back is powerful for him. We all told him how much we missed him and how weird the house was without him. We told him how proud we are of him for managing it. I hope it’s another step forward with his attachments, and with his self-confidence too.

LB might be the smallest member of our household but my goodness he’s a big presence. Even when he’s asleep, the house feels fuller and more complete when he’s in it. I think the trip gave us all a strange vision of what life would be like without him. It would undoubtedly be tidier – the tornado of discarded clothes and toys notably missing; quieter and calmer. But, jeez, it’d be boring. Who wants sedate when you could have exuberant, unpredictable and hilarious? I know which I’d choose, and there’s no contest.

 

Addition – Saturday

As you can tell from the above, I thought we’d survived and were kind of okay.  I didn’t anticipate that I would be called into school on Friday evening, faced with teachers who were surprised at LB’s lack of ability to control himself and have a smiley face chart waved under my nose as a supposed cure-all.

I actually despair.

Surely it is not that difficult to attribute dysregulated behaviour the day after a trip, to the trip? Surely, it should have been obvious to all that Friday would be a very tricky school day? Surely, or so we naively imagined, the demands and expectations would be reduced accordingly, to accommodate LB’s temporarily reduced window of tolerance? Surely?

Err, it would seem not.

Instead there was outrage that LB wouldn’t do what was asked of him and that he was rude to some teachers. We just cannot accept this behaviour, there have to be consequences.

Groan.

Then, without consulting any of the members of staff who know him best, and without reading any of LB’s paperwork, two members of the senior leadership team thought they knew how to sort him out. A smiley face chart. Seriously. I think they actually thought I’d be pleased with this new fangled invention.

I’m just so frustrated that every time we think we’re there; that school understand LB’s needs and how to support him, something like this happens to suggest the polar opposite.

Grizzly and I now feel we shouldn’t have let him go on the trip. School clearly aren’t able to accommodate and support his needs properly when dysregulated. They can’t even recognise that he is dysregulated. Essentially, they can’t keep him safe. And if that’s the case, they can’t take him on any trips. Its so frustrating because I told them and I told them, but they thought I was exaggerating. Then when the behaviour we predicted does occur, they think its nothing to do with the trip, it’s him getting spontaneously extra naughty. Not my words – how I imagine they think of it.

I could scream.

And while I’m ranting, getting dragged into school means my children are left in the playground, to their own devices, which is clearly unwise for LB. I’m discussing his behaviour while he’s given further opportunity to misbehave.

It is exhausting being a parent of a child with behaviour needs – not because of their needs – but because schools just cannot wrap their heads around them, despite training and meetings and about a gazillion discussions. The patience of a saint is required and mine is running out.

 

 

 

The Big Trip

Hysterical

One of the biggest problems, I find, with attempting to get other people to understand the emotional and behavioural needs of your child with SEMH issues is getting your points across without those people drawing the conclusion you are hysterical. I’m pretty sure I’m not being paranoid about this – I have read it frequently in people’s body language, facial expression and even in their choice of words. Here she goes again, being all over-anxious and fretting unnecessarily, they think. When I say people, I mainly mean teachers, though this isn’t exclusive to them.

When you do have a child with SEMH issues, you become adept at predicting their triggers. You know the sorts of situations that may challenge them and, in an attempt to parent them the best you can, you try to anticipate potential problems in advance so that tweaks or alternatives or supportive measures can be implemented to minimise their stress. For me, that just makes good sense. Why leave a child to flail and panic and worry, when you could prevent that with a bit of forward planning or heightened awareness? Obviously you can’t predict everything, but where you can mitigate potential problems, why wouldn’t you?

It’s this attitude that brings me to teachers, raising possible problems with them in advance of them happening. Unfortunately, what I see as a wise anticipation of issues is more often than not interpreted by them as over-anxious parenting. I’m pretty sure they have conversations about how I’m creating a self-fulfilling prophecy and bringing LB problems where he didn’t have any before. “Her anxiety will be rubbing off on him,” I can imagine them whispering, “It’s not him, it’s her”.

This has come to the fore because next week LB is going on his first residential. I do not feel it is excessive to say this is a big deal for him. Staying away from home without any of your family would be a big deal for most 7 year olds but is even more so when your early life has involved moving from place to place: staying away might trigger all sorts of difficult feelings and anxieties, not least whether you will actually return home again. This is compounded by embarrassment that you wear pull-ups at night when your friends don’t and the trip will involve you staying up way beyond your bedtime; a time that you already struggle to stay regulated for in your own home.

So yes, I think there are some very real concerns about the trip and in an attempt to help LB as much as possible, I have been pro-active in discussing my concerns with his teachers. I wanted them to be aware of his continence issues so they could help him subtly. I wanted them to know his bedtime is early so that when he starts to spiral they will be able to recognise it as dysregulation due to tiredness, not bad behaviour. I wanted them to be aware of the reasons why a trip away from home might trigger feelings from his past. I wanted them to be aware of all this so they could support him through it.

I thought this was all tickety-boo. They had seemed to listen and had been reassuring about how they would deal with it all.

However, as the time draws closer, LB’s behaviour is beginning to spiral. I have noted it at home. They have noted poorer listening, poorer compliance and an increase in fidgety behaviour at school. LB has started saying he doesn’t want to go on the trip. To me, it is obvious he is anxious about it. This anxiety is being expressed through the changes in his behaviour.

School, on the other hand, are scratching their heads about this change of mood. Why is he all of a sudden throwing things and threatening to kill his TA, they wonder. To help them out, I’ve tried to make the link between the two things for them. This has involved me having to elaborate on why exactly the trip might be anxiety-provoking now, before it has even happened. The problem is that I don’t think they’re really getting it, so I find myself harping on more than I’d really like. The more times I even reference the trip, the more convinced they become that I am a hysterical, over-reactive mother.

This morning, as a small part of the coherent explanation I was trying to weave on the spot, I mentioned that LB has only ever stayed with us or his grandparents (I thought the ‘since he’s been here’ part was obvious) so staying somewhere else might be quite triggering. “He won’t be alone in that,” his TA says, “many of the children won’t have slept anywhere else”, as if I am being quite unreasonable by making a point out of something common to all the children. What I want to say is something along the lines of, “Yeah, but, before these other children moved to their forever home, did they live with foster carers who randomly took them to other houses for respite, with people who were not always registered as carers? Did they get left there without explanation for inordinate periods of time? When they came to their forever home, were they just dropped off by people they had lived with for several years who would then just disappear never to be seen again? Before that, were they suddenly removed one unpredictable day from the family who conceived and gave birth to them? Where they? No? THEN IT REALLY ISN’T THE SAME!”

Obviously I said no such thing, smiled sweetly, took a deep breath, and attempted again to explain things in a calm manner that might actually get my message across. That’s how it was from my point of view anyway. I suspect that from theirs, they thought, “Oh, she’s still going. I’ve covered off that point so she’s trying to concoct more. Definitely hysterical.”

What’s infuriating is that when you don’t feel heard, there aren’t many options. I don’t believe in shouting or being rude (it’s all about the long game and building relationships) so I’m really left with repeating myself or trying to find other words or other arrangements of words to get the ideas to strike home. I often find myself reaching for more extreme or more shocking examples when the tamer ones don’t resonate. It is as though I have to escalate the severity of what I’m saying to get my messages heard. The thing is that if they are still not heard, I am surely seen as increasingly hysterical.

I suggested today that we must monitor LB. Yes, some anxiety is to be expected. But as he is already at threatening to kill people levels, perhaps we don’t want him to escalate much more. Perhaps, if he does seem to be spiralling out of control, we might need to come up with a plan to soothe his nerves. Perhaps, and I was just throwing things out there, we could reassure him that we would not make him stay somewhere he doesn’t want to (trust and all that) and we could offer to pick him up from the day-time part so he can sleep where he feels safe: at home. Though, to me, this makes perfect sense, I can see that school find it an outrageous suggestion – the kind that would only be made by a mother struggling to loosen her apron strings. “She doesn’t even want to let him out of her sight for one night, for goodness sake,” I can imagine them commenting. The response from the TA only confirmed my feeling they had been talking about me in this way – “Mr Teacher doesn’t want you to do that,” she said, when I suggested it.

It really is quite a challenge to remain dignified in these situations. It is a constant balance between persisting in getting messages across and presenting like a non-hysterical, credible source of information. I do a lot of internal swearing.

I understand that they have taken hundreds of children on trips and that every parent gets a bit worried about it and that they will do their best to look after LB and that if he gets upset, they will deal with it. I know they haven’t had to call anyone’s parents before, but, if we’re honest, that’s more of a gauntlet than a reassurance. When they say, “he’ll be fine,” I hear, “we’re not taking this seriously enough”. If only they could acknowledge this is a huge deal for him, we’d be grand.

Obviously we are doing all the prep stuff and giving reassurance at home. LB does seem to be coping better now he’s realised they aren’t camping outside (you really can’t anticipate all the issues) but I am typing this outside of his door as we have another tricky bedtime. I intend to monitor him/ his behaviour over the weekend and should things have worsened, I shall be back at the classroom door, making myself look hysterical again. And I don’t really care what Mr Teacher thinks about it – should LB be crying and hanging from my leg when I drop him off for the trip, I will be picking him up at bedtime.

As tempting as it is to just pack LB off with them, with little instruction, to let them deal with whatever happens themselves, I can’t shrug my shoulders of all responsibility. He’s our son and it’s our job to meet his needs as best we can. If that means occasionally having to overrule school and to lose street cred over being anxious parents then so be it. LB’s needs are paramount and if that makes me hysterical, then I guess I am.

 

 

*The irony of me writing last week about how much I love the school is not lost on me. I should have known that singing their praises would nudge the universe into trying to prove me wrong

**The word ‘hysteria’ derives from the Greek word for ‘uterus’, suggesting that to be a women is to be hysterical; that being overly emotional is an intrinsic failing of having a womb. Marvellous. I wonder whether any of the dads out there experience a similar thing when they have worries or if this shrugging off of concerns is more prevalent when they are raised by mothers?

I’m not really trying to make a feminist point, I’m genuinely wondering.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hysterical