Adoption’s a rollercoaster, just gotta ride it

Sorry to quote Ronan at you, but that song has been playing on loop in my head for the last few days – no doubt my subconscious talking – and it really is the most apt musical accompaniment for how things are at the moment. I have always likened adoption to a rollercoaster – the ups and downs are undeniable. It’s just that usually there are a couple of weeks or months that are good, followed by a trickier patch – a kind of long distance rollercoaster dipping and looping through the years. Not so this week. This week, we have been up and down several times, all in the space of five days and it’s hard not to feel a little dizzy.

I mentioned last week that the start of 2019 wasn’t particularly easy for Little Bear and therefore not for us either. When we arrived at the Easter holidays, we were all flagging and a little more in need of a re-group than usual. We didn’t do too much – a few days out but lots of time around the house too. Pretty much everything we did was low-key, together, and involved a lot of quality time. We have got much better at knowing what salves are required to sooth tired nerves and these tried and tested methods do work for us. By the end of the two weeks off, all was good with the world. The sun had shone a bit, we had all relaxed and re-charged and we all approached the back to work/ school situation with enthusiasm and good cheer.

I was certainly aware of the re-found bounce in my walk and the looseness in my shoulders and the lack of furrow in my brow. Had we turned a corner? In my sunny and optimistic mood, I thought so.

On the first day back, Little Bear knuckled down, worked hard and got himself onto the next reading level. This was brilliant. Not only that, but he seemed to have developed a new level of reading fluency overnight and was tackling the harder books without difficulty. The next day we met the Psychologist (I wrote about that in The Right Eyes ) and had a positive and further optimism-boosting meeting. Hoorah! School were next level knowledgeable and Little Bear’s needs were going to be met and I could further relax. My body and mind were very excited at this prospect. Nothing to worry about! Imagine that! I was imagining it, craving it and just plain ready for it.

The week was only four days long, due to Good Friday, and passed in a similar upbeat manner. Easter weekend was also a beautiful thing. The sun really shone, our vitamin D was boosted, we went exploring down a stream, we hunted for eggs, we saw a friend, we did outdoor sketching, we read books. It was nice. It wasn’t dramatic or exotic but it was really, restoratively nice.

I was very much settling into the relaxed feeling now. There was no reason whatsoever that it shouldn’t carry on for the rest of the term. Spring had sprung, winter had passed and taken with it the doom of the last months. We were at the top of the rollercoaster and due a lengthy stay.

The boys went back to school after the bank holiday weekend and had good days. On the Wednesday, I picked them up from football club and Little Bear told me I needed to speak with the coach. Here we go, I thought. The coach took me to one side, away from the rest of the parents and began our chat with, “I’ll be speaking to another child’s parent too.” Bloody Nora, what had they done? Brawling, I assumed.

I assumed wrong. He wanted to speak with me because Little Bear had been trying so hard and being so sensible both in PE and football that the coach was super impressed. He told me that he and the other boy, who usually have to be separated from one another due to constantly dysregulating one another, had been so sensible they had been allowed to play on the same team. There had been a foul and the coach felt sure this would lead to familiar difficulties. Instead, one had helped the other up in a very sports manly fashion. He wanted to tell me how proud he was of Little Bear; how much he was standing out for him in school, for all the right reasons, and how much he loves him.

The coach is a young guy (God, I’m old) but he just seems to understand children like Little Bear. He doesn’t automatically see naughtiness where others might. He also seems to understand instinctively, that as a parent of a child with behaviour challenges, sometimes you really need to hear good news. I thanked him and attempted to express the loveliness of what he had just done without A. crying or B. hugging him inappropriately.

Yep, we were at the top of the rollercoaster alright. The coach had taken Little Bear to his teacher and had a similar conversation with him too, so I felt confident that the following day would continue to bring positives.

Wowzers. It had been a long time since we’d had a run of positives and it was most welcome.

I was totally blindsided then, when Little Bear woke in the middle of the night incredibly distressed by a nightmare. I have to admit I slept through the drama and poor Grizzly ended up getting in the spare bed with him, even though he was working. But I certainly knew all about it in the morning when Little Bear feigned illness and announced he wasn’t going to school, the second he saw me. Cue a very difficult school run, school refusal and a very tricky ten to fifteen minutes cajoling an in turn sad and angry Little Bear to stay in the building. It took so long the playground had been locked and I had to escape through the school.

It’s funny how a bad drop off can really set the mood for your day. You can’t help worrying about how they are and half expecting a phone call. I did get a call, at break time, but it was mostly to reassure me. He wasn’t on top form but he was doing ok. I’ve never had a call for reassuring purposes before, perhaps school really were getting to grips with what might help us.

I think we were all in peril in Little Bear’s dream, which had triggered attachment and separation anxiety things again. What a shame after such a positive few days! Eeh, well. The rollercoaster plummets and you just have to ride it.

The next day was better. Just a blip. Up we went again.

On Friday, a different teacher opened Little Bear’s door and my heart sank a little. The school have introduced a new curriculum this term, which I feel pretty excited about, but none of us had really extrapolated what that meant for Little Bear. It means having a teacher who doesn’t know him and whom he doesn’t have a trusting relationship with every Friday. Hmm. His TA was there though, I reassured myself.

When I picked him up that evening, he was pale and furious looking. “Did you have a good day, darling?” was met with a very definite ‘no’. And things deteriorated from there. The evening part was ok but by bedtime, Little Bear was refusing to go upstairs, trying to break things, calling us names and threatening to punch me in the face. I somehow managed bedtime safely but it wasn’t exactly enjoyable.

The next morning, things were no better. When it came to getting ready for horse-riding, Little Bear wouldn’t, despite his brother wanting to go along to watch – the kind of carrot that would usually take Little Bear anywhere. We tried firmness, persuasion, therapeutic-ing. The works. In the end, I laid his things out and just told him they were there and gave him the space to make his own decision (I was trying to go for a Demand Avoidance friendly approach). It didn’t work. He didn’t get ready and so he didn’t go. The fact that he somehow perceived this as having got away with something, seemed to rattle him further and he began to (seemingly) purposefully escalate the situation. Anyone who has experienced that will know exactly what I mean. I realised he needed a firm barrier and told him if he wasn’t riding, he’d have to just sit on the sofa. Rampaging around the house wasn’t actually an option.

Five minutes later, he came back to find me, breaking his heart crying, saying he regretted his decision and now really wanted to go horse-riding. It was too late for that, the lesson was half done by now, and while on the one hand it was kind of helpful for him to have dealt himself a natural consequence (perhaps this would lead to a different outcome next time?), it was upsetting to see him clearly so conflicted and upset within himself. I held him like a baby and lay with him while he cried.

Obviously, my first and foremost thought was his distress and I did attempt to therapeutic the shizzle out of the situation. However, on a practical level, I hadn’t managed to get dressed, I needed to cook lunch and organise myself to get to work that afternoon. Trauma is so energy-sapping for all. Plus, what was going on with this bloody rollercoaster? Weren’t we supposed to be at the top?

The more I thought about it, the more I could link his behaviour now to having had a stranger teaching him on Friday. He’d spent the whole day feeling unsafe. Of course this had disrupted him. How bloody annoying that something so avoidable had happened and undone all our hard work during the holidays getting us back on an even keel.

I was annoyed with myself for not spotting this would be a problem when I first heard about the new curriculum. I was also annoyed that school had not anticipated any potential problem either. It was barely a week since we’d met with the Psychologist and I had got excited that they were finally on it and I didn’t need to worry any more. Sadly, it seems I was deluded. I know they won’t have meant for this to happen, and they will care when I tell them. It’s just that, for once, it would be so nice if they could take some of the responsibility for noticing these things and rectifying them, without me needing to point them out. Even better, they could start anticipating some of these things before they happen because they do have enough knowledge to do that now. And it is blindingly obvious to anyone who knows Little Bear that having a different teacher for one day a week, without any preparation isn’t really a good idea.

I have e-mailed and the SENDCO has replied, at the weekend. They are lovely and I know they will try to sort this. However, riding the rollercoaster as we are, and have been for the last months, is exhausting. We’ve barely recovered from one thing, when another thing happens. I was so desperate for that feeling of relaxation that I experienced for about a week that I’m spending quite a bit of day-dreaming time willing it back again – in between threats of head butts and absconding.

And the SENDCO, who is the saving grace in all this, is heavily pregnant and leaving for maternity leave imminently. She will send our renewal funding application first but she won’t be here when the results come in…

My brow is re-furrowed, my shoulders re-tightened. But what can you do? Adoption’s a rollercoaster and you just gotta ride it.

 

 

 

Advertisements
Adoption’s a rollercoaster, just gotta ride it

Navigating Adoption Support Conference

Last Thursday, The Centre for Adoption Support ran their first conference, all about post-adoption support, which I was excited to attend for both professional development and in my parenting role. I thought I’d tell you a bit about what happened there, the key messages that were shared and why it was an important event.

The day began with a keynote speech from Sir John Timpson, of Timpson’s shoe repairs fame. I knew a little about him in advance – that he was a keen supporter of helping to rehabilitate prisoners by offering them employment opportunities (they make up 10% of his workforce) and that he did other altruistic things such as offering free dry-cleaning of suits to the unemployed. I also knew he and his wife had fostered many children. I was looking forward to hearing him speak but hadn’t anticipated he’d be quite so inspirational and amusing to listen to. Without meaning to sound disrespectful, what I think Sir Timpson is particularly adept at is cutting the crap. He isn’t concerned with policy and red-tape and oh that couldn’t possibly be done attitudes. He is concerned with people and creating environments which allow people to thrive. By his own admission, he doesn’t bother with psychometric testing or CVs or previous experience – if somebody is smart, keen and willing to work, they can have a job. His attitude is that a boss’ roll is ‘to help people do the best they can’ and he does that by taking away wider life stresses such as debt (he has a hardship fund for such occasions), by incentivising people to work hard (with free holiday cottages to use, birthdays off and a Dream Come True scheme where one employee per month gets to choose a life-changing event such as a holiday) and by crediting employees with common sense (they can give sums of compensation to customers without manager approval, be flexible with the pricing structure if there’s a sound reason and are not given lessons in customer service, being encouraged to simply treat people as they’d hope to be treated).

This combination of cutting to the chase and being highly proactive has evidently served Sir Timpson well at home too. With his wife, they have fostered 90 children and adopted at least one and it was clear from the anecdotes he shared that as a family they have been around the block. He seemed refreshingly un-shockable. When he has seen opportunities to make things better for fostered or adopted children and for their parents, he has: creating guides to attachment which are available for free in all his stores, offering free holidays for foster carers and getting involved with his children’s school when it was threatened with closure. He stepped in with both financial help and by applying his bottom-up, cut the crap management style to the school. The school was soon full and rated Outstanding by Ofsted.

Sir Timpson continues to be involved with education and trying to make schools attachment and trauma friendly. He believes schools need to be maverick – to be willing to break out from the rules and regulations and limitations imposed on them by LA’s and other bodies – and to give teachers freedom to do what is best for individual children. He believes in inspirational head teachers, whole school approaches and safe spaces. He believes in children with developmental trauma having a consistent mentor within school – crucially he advocates that person being chosen by the child (not inflicted on them) and them being any member of staff, be that a dinner lady or caretaker if the child so chooses. I can’t help feeling that Sir Timpson would be an asset to any organisation, such is his clarity of thought and determination to do what is right, despite any barriers placed in his way. I came away certain in the knowledge that he’s my new favourite maverick and there is hope for our children’s education yet.

The second speaker was Sir Mark Headley, a retired High Court Judge. Having been a judge in the child and family division, a foster carer and adopter, he too had much to contribute. His talk was mainly about the current legal context of adoption, both in the UK and globally. It was fascinating to hear that adoption has only existed within the law since 1926 in this country, and in the four adoption acts passed since then, its purpose has changed from being about ‘the homeless child for the childless home’ to having a welfare role. Apparently our adoption laws are considered ‘draconian’ and ‘excessively hard line’ by other countries and Australian judges consider our system ‘barbaric’. This is because our laws differ in two main ways. Firstly, in the UK, when a child is adopted, the law treats that child as ‘having been born to the adopters in all respects’, in essence extinguishing any link to their birth family (in the eyes of the law) and stripping birth parents of any right to their child. I didn’t get to ask how things are done differently abroad but I’m assuming there is more contact allowed or some ongoing sharing of parental responsibility.

Secondly, in the UK, it is within the law to ‘impose adoption on unwilling parents if the welfare of the child requires it’ but other countries consider this improper or even immoral.

I haven’t ever stopped to think too much about the legalities of adoption but it was certainly enlightening to realise our laws are viewed this way.

Sir Headley went on to talk about the Judge Munby rulings which he feels have been misinterpreted by many as suggesting there should be fewer adoptions. He clarified that Judge Munby’s point was not to reduce adoptions necessarily, but to be clearer about justifying decisions to make placement orders. He talked about it being imperative to consider whether adoption is the best solution for a child and the only solution for them. If the answer to both questions is yes, he believes our laws are justified. If the answer is no, every other possible solution should be considered and ruled in or out first. He advocates ‘not having inflexible mind-sets’ and ‘keeping the welfare of the child central.’ And when he puts it like that, I can’t help thinking he’s right.

After the first two speakers, we all filtered off into parallel workshops that we’d picked in advance. The first one I attended was entitled, ‘Adoption Support: Problems, RAAs and implications for the 3rd Sector.’ I have to admit that all the talk of policy and neoliberalism tied my brain in a few knots. Like Sir Timpson, I am not a fan of policy and policy changes and have already had my fill of it in the NHS so it was tricky to get my brain in gear. The basic point that I gleaned was that the whole shift to Regional Adoption Agencies (RAA’s) isn’t working very well. It seems there is a lot of trying to stick square pegs in round holes going on and the needs of children and families have got a little lost. This is just my interpretation of what I heard – maybe don’t quote me on it.

One major problem for Voluntary Adoption Agencies, such as ours, is that, as I understand it, any assessment of need to inform an application to the Adoption Support Fund (ASF) has to be carried out by an RAA. This means VAA’s hands are a little tied and they need to wait for RAA’s to do the assessing bit. It also seems that instead of parents approaching a post adoption support service (PAS) for help and the PAS assessing and deciding what therapy a young person needs, the assessing teams aren’t knowledgeable enough about the range of therapies available, how they should be applied or how proven/unproven their efficacy is. So, the reality is that parents ask for help and the RAA say, ‘what help do you want?’ and the parent doesn’t know what choices there are and neither do the RAA. It means that applications for funding are not well informed and may not be in the best interests of children. I am speaking in blanket terms but I’m sure some RAA’s are much more informed than others.

I find it difficult knowing some people’s experience of PAS is so horrendous when we are extremely lucky to have the services of The Centre for Adoption Support (CfAS) available to us, where all the members of staff are knowledgeable, highly trained and specialise in PAS. I can’t help feeling that all this tendering and competition in the market is a huge mistake and causes more problems than it solves, as I believe it has in the NHS.

Anyhow, I didn’t like to dwell on such issues and went for some lunch where I had a very interesting conversation about high schools, high-fiving (not a friendly thing but clapping someone on the back hard enough to leave a print – apparently it’s a thing) and Hate Books (also a thing where kids write all the things they hate about each other to bully people with. It sounds lovely) and concluded I’d prefer for my children to just skip high school.

My next mini-lecture was ‘Navigating a Child’s Journey in School’. This was really enlightening for teachers or other professionals and essential listening. For me, I have spent many an hour plumbing the depths of the topic for Little Bear and though I agreed wholeheartedly with the content, there wasn’t anything novel in terms of Being an Expert Parent. However, I suspect the people I had been discussing internal exclusions with would have gone away with significant food for thought.

The talk did introduce me to the term ‘emotional differentiation’ which sums up well what we really want teachers to do for our children. I have never thought about it in those terms yet we talk about ‘educational differentiation’ or ‘differentiation of the curriculum’ but what many of our children need is emotional differentiation. This is also a good rebuttal for the times when someone inevitably argues that you can’t have one rule for one child and another for the rest of your class. You can and this is why.

The final workshop I attended was, ‘Good Practice in Working with Families Affected by Violence and Aggression’ and I have to admit that by the end I was like a woodland creature blinded by headlights – wide eyed and frozen to my chair. I am totally down with the need to be open about Childhood Challenging, Violent & Aggressive Behaviour (CCVAB) , to reduce shame and bring it out from behind closed doors. I just think it is a bit scary to be living with a child who is unpredictable and at times, does tend towards the aggressive. I find that I start workshops like this feeling keen and interested and leave them a bit freaked out for our future. That wasn’t anyone’s intention and the content of the workshop wasn’t designed to shock in any way. I was aware even as I was sat there, that I was bringing my own fears to the table and that was colouring what I was hearing. I think talk of calling the Police and having a Family Safety Plan, avoiding victim-blaming and CPVAA being the main cause of children leaving home prematurely is essential but, simultaneously, I can’t help fearing those things could be in our future and desperately hoping they aren’t. It is certainly different to listen to the facts as a social worker versus as an adopter who can envisage such things in their reality.

I know knowledge is power, but sometimes fear makes you want to bury your head in the sand instead.

The day was finished in record time – I attended the plenary and before I knew it I was wandering back to my car in surprising sunshine. I thought it was a brilliant day. I had found all the lectures engaging and my earlier fears that I might struggle to sit still and concentrate were entirely unfounded. It was great to have social workers, adopters, adoptees, teachers, psychologists and legal representation all under one roof, with one common aim – of making things better for adopted children and adoptive families. The concept of post adoption support is a relatively new one but now there is a recognised need for it, we cannot become complacent. We need to continue to innovate and hone services to make them the best and most responsive they can be. Events like the conference trigger debate which will hopefully disseminate outwards to improve knowledge and set the wheels of change in motion.

This was the first conference run by CfAS but I certainly hope it wasn’t the last.

 

Navigating Adoption Support Conference

Demand Avoidance

I have been pondering this blog for a while and, ironically, avoiding it. There are a few reasons why: it requires research which takes time; I may have had more than my fill, of late, of demand avoidance and I’m not sure how kind it is to myself to spend even more time thinking and writing about it. But hey ho, here I am writing about it because there’s no time like the present and it will, at least, feel current and relevant.

I thought this would end up as a compare and contrast between PDA – Pathological Demand Avoidance – and demand avoidance as part of an attachment profile and potentially some mention of ODD (Oppositional Defiance Disorder), with me arguing that although Little Bear is pretty demand avoidant, I don’t believe he has PDA. However, after reviewing the literature, I feel comfortable to say that PDA and demand avoidance with a trauma history are different conditions and I do think this is acknowledged by some knowledgeable professionals, even if not widely (See this piece of research PDA and differential diagnosis ). I should point out that PDA is not officially recognised as a condition in the DSM or ICD diagnostic manuals but there is a growing belief that it does accurately describe the needs of a specific group of individuals (See PDA Society for more info).

Assuming it does exist, I think what would be really useful would be a Coventry Grid type document (comes up on Google if you are interested)  that drew out the differences between demand avoidance in PDA versus demand avoidance in a trauma background. The difficulty is that this is extremely difficult to draw out. One key factors seem to be the case history – are there trauma/neglect/attachment issues in a child’s background or not? Parents of children who match the diagnosis of PDA are rightly worried about it being branded an attachment disorder because there is a direct insinuation that they have neglected or abused their children. I can see how this could be problematic. However, I do think that where there is identified trauma in a child’s background, such as in Little Bear’s, this should immediately bring into question a diagnosis of PDA. Similarly, I would also say that trauma in a child’s background should bring into question an Autism diagnosis. I’m not saying that an adopted child couldn’t have PDA or Autism: a small percentage could. However, I am saying that where there is trauma in a child’s background, the impact of this should be considered first and foremost.

The second key factor appears to be whether a child who is demand avoidant matches the criteria for Autism. If they do, they are more likely to fit the PDA profile. However, there is also literature out there to contradict this – see Gillberg Research .

I can’t really work out where ODD fits in, because Little Bear appears to fit the profile for that too (ODD is recognised and does have DSM & ICD criteria) but my hunch, again, is that it wouldn’t be right to diagnose him with it.

The group I am interested in are those such as Little Bear, who do not meet the criteria for Autism and do have trauma in their background and are markedly demand avoidant. What is going on with their demand avoidance and how should it best be managed?

A useful place to start seems to be the Extreme Demand Avoidance Questionnaire (EDA-Q) – a questionnaire which has been designed for research purposes and is not diagnostic, but could be useful in picking apart the nature of behaviours we experience. You can find it here: EDA-Q

EDA Questionnaire

I have filled it in for Little Bear. As you can see, he scores 38 points which doesn’t reach the threshold for a PDA diagnosis (the threshold is 50 or over) , though it does say that those scoring lower may still meet the criteria as individuals can be impacted differently. I’m a little unclear as to how this type of decision would be informed. Either way, I don’t think he has PDA, yet he certainly does have a higher than average propensity towards demand avoidance. For context, Big Bear scored 6 on the same questionnaire.

These are the descriptors in which he scored the most highly:

  • Is driven by the need to be in charge
  • If pressurised to do something, s/he may have a ‘meltdown’ (e.g. scream, tantrum, hit or kick).
  • Has difficulty complying with demands unless they are carefully presented.
  • Has bouts of extreme emotional responses to small events (e.g. crying/giggling, becoming furious).

I have previously written about his need for Control which fits in with the first and second point. In reference to the third bullet point, sometimes demands that are made in a reverse psychology kind of way (‘I bet you can’t do x or y’ or ‘I really hope you aren’t going to eat my apple’), or a challenge kind of way (‘I’ll time you to do x’) go better than a straight forward ‘do it, or else’ kind of way. The fact that I have thought of alternative ways to phrase demands suggests this is something we have to do quite often. In reference to the fourth point, at the moment, something as small as asking Little Bear to go to the toilet and then, God forbid, actually wash his hands afterwards, is enough to unleash fury.

It is also interesting which statements he didn’t score on. I am assuming that in order to gain a high enough score to meet diagnostic levels for PDA, a child would generally score highly across all descriptors. Could it be the areas where children without PDA don’t score that are important diagnostic indicators for differential diagnosis?

Little Bear didn’t score on the following:

  • Finds everyday pressures (e.g. having to go on a school trip/ visit dentist) intolerably stressful.
  • Takes on roles or characters (from TV/real life) and ‘acts them out’.
  • Makes an effort to maintain his/her reputation with peers.
  • Prefers to interact with others in an adopted role, or communicate through props/toys.
  • S/he was passive and difficult to engage as an infant.

I’m not sure if it’s just the examples used in the point about finding everyday pressures intolerable, but Little Bear loves a school trip and his behaviour was exemplary the last time we went to the dentist so I’ve scored it as zero. I would say that he can find new situations or places anxiety provoking and that might lead to more dyregulation. However, I wouldn’t say that necessarily correlates with greater demand avoidance in those situations. It might, or it might not – I suspect it is more complex than just where we are at the time.

If the descriptor were to mean every day, seemingly inconsequential demands, such as eating, toileting or getting dressed, I would have scored it much higher.

The bits about taking on a role or communicating through props don’t resonate here. Little Bear has good imaginative skills and sometimes there are difficulties separating Fantasy versus Reality but I wouldn’t say he uses them as a means of communication or specifically to avoid demands. I think this is where social mimicry as part of an Autism diagnosis comes into play.

In terms of how Little Bear presents himself to his peers, he certainly doesn’t try to comply with them but not us. I would say he takes a blanket approach to demand avoidance and if anything, there is a slight bias towards doing what familiar adults say. The less attached he is to a person, the less likely he is to co-operate with them, be they child or adult.

In all honesty, I don’t know if he was passive as an infant, as we didn’t know him then, but I cannot for one minute believe that he was!

The other items on the questionnaire that I have scored as ‘somewhat true’ or ‘mostly true’ are mainly not scored more highly because the behaviours come and go or because they used to be a problem but we have seen improvements. I have read that children with PDA can fluctuate in their demand avoidance – becoming much more co-operative when they are comfortable and relaxed. I would say this is true for Little Bear too. If he’s struggling in general, the demand avoidance will be much more pronounced. It is to the point where we have had months of co-operation – where I could just say, “Please put your shoes on”, as I would to any other child and Little Bear would do it with a smile – and then times like we are currently experiencing where every tiny request feels like a battle and can all too easily lead to escalation.

I have gone on the hunt for information about demand avoidance in developmental trauma to explain why this would happen but it’s thin on the ground. The Beacon House information about trauma does say this:

  • Boundary setting can trigger a big reaction or noncompliance in child (where there are Attachment insecurities)
  • Prolonged meltdowns over small things (as a part of difficulties with Emotional Regulation)
  • Rule breaking at school
  • Unresponsive to day to day requests (often seen as non-compliance) (as a part of Behavioural Dysregulation)

I guess those things sort of add up to the levels of demand avoidance that we see but I’d be really interested in knowing how other children who have experienced developmental trauma score on the EDA-Q and how their scores are distributed across the descriptors. I can’t help feeling we don’t have enough information about this and at the moment and it would be difficult for clinicians to make informed differential diagnoses between PDA or ODD and demand avoidance caused by developmental trauma.

If anyone knows of any other sources of information I’ve missed, please get in touch.

The one thing that I can unequivocally say is that parenting a child with demand avoidance is a little tricky (I’m totally under-egging it) and that finding ways to manage and manage it, has us scratching our heads. I am very much still working on it but here are some things that sometimes work at our house:

  • Know your own triggers. It is very, very difficult to be calm when a child won’t do anything you say. I having to be conscious of the fact that this could cause me to snap and that I need to very deliberately react in a different way. I find this is much easier to do if you plan your response in advance, rather than just reacting when you are taken by surprise.
  • At the moment, the plan which feels most effective is not shouting and moving away from, not towards Little Bear. He needs the space and I am less likely to react negatively a bit further back, busying myself with something else. This more casual approach seems to help things simmer down. Little Bear tried to saw the table with a dinner knife the other day, in a bid to avoid eating his tea, but I barely turned around. I did calmly tell him that it was his choice whether he carried on doing it or not, but if he did, I would take the money from his pocket money to fix it. It wasn’t in a threat way – just a pointing out a logical consequence way to help him with his decision.
  • Self-care. I know people mock the concept but maintaining patience and calm in the face of zero co-operation is exhausting. We must look after ourselves (I’m talking to myself as much as anyone after a friend gave me a stern telling off!)
  • Allow much longer to get ready to go somewhere than you’d think necessary. This allows your small person to spend time avoiding and doing everything but getting ready while you gently steer them through the necessary tasks. Time pressure won’t help anyone.
  • Reduce the demands. There are certain tasks that have to be done but can you help by dressing or feeding or helping in another way? Other tasks, which are not essential, could be omitted for that day.
  • Often it is verbal demands that Little Bear can’t tolerate. Sometimes we manage to acknowledge this in advance of what is likely to be a tricky situation for him e.g. bedtime and are able to collaborate on a solution. We’ve found that things like having all the equipment Little Bear needs for a task laid out for him e.g. toothpaste already on the brush, pyjamas laid on the floor etc. means he can complete the whole routine himself without us needing to make any verbal demands. Visual supports like a tick chart or timetable can also work.
  • As mentioned above, careful wording of a command can help e.g. reverse psychology or a challenge. Unfortunately two good choices no longer works for us, because Little Bear has figured out he can just agree to neither.

 

I should point out that underlying the demand avoidance is likely to be anxiety of some kind – whether it be a fear of losing control or some other internal precipitant – so we should be mindful of this and manage the behaviour as kindly as we can.

I have to be honest and say that I am a little torn over demand avoidant behaviour. Half of me is extremely therapeutic about it and willing to be patient and accommodating. The other half of me thinks that one cannot successfully navigate life never doing what one is asked (employers and the Police certainly aren’t too keen on it) so perhaps there is some mileage in being encouraged to push through the difficulty barrier of wanting to avoid demands. I insisted, the other day, that Little Bear did carry out his reading before he went on an exciting day out. I insisted very quietly and patiently and had been specific on how many pages I expected (hardly any) but such was the strength of his need to avoid the demand that he would have given up his day out just to avoid the reading. We persevered and when he finally did the reading, we were able to praise him and make a big fuss for pushing through something we knew he was finding difficult. He was pleased with himself and had a lovely day out.

Isn’t this how resilience is built? By people believing you can do things you think you can’t and supporting you to achieve them anyway? Life for Little Bear is going to be extremely difficult if he can’t cope with the smallest of demands so I don’t see that lowering our expectations to zero will be of much long term use to him. I suppose, like everything, it’s a fine balance between being therapeutic and building life skills and we continue to hobble along the line.

 

Demand Avoidance

Promises, Promises

Here’s a little scenario that happened in our house this week:

Me: It’s bedtime, Little Bear

LB: Aw, can’t I have a bath?

Me: I think we’ve left it a bit late for a bath – you’ve been busy eating your pudding, haven’t you?

LB: Yeah, but I reaaallly want a bath (Hangs off me, bats his big brown eyes at me, pulls his best super cute puppy dog face)

Me: I’m just a bit worried that because it’s late, you’ll find it hard to get out the bath when I ask you to…

LB: I won’t! I PROMISE. I’ll get out straightaway, when you ask me.

Me: Are you sure?

LB: Yes, I PROMISE. Straightaway.

Me: Hmm. Ok then, as long as you’re sure you can do that…

Did he get out the bath, folks, when I asked him to? No. No, he did not. He went under the water to pretend he couldn’t hear me. I gave a countdown (‘we’ll need to get out in 5’ etc.), I reminded him of his promise just before the moment it would be needed, just in case he’d conveniently forgotten. So, he could hear me and he hadn’t forgotten, yet neither did he exit the bath. Once I’d let all the water out and he finally decided he was out of options, he did get out and began calling me names/ telling me he hated me and that I was making him annoyed. It was all rather ironic really, given I had stretched his bedtime for him, made a concession for him and he had reneged on his promise. I mean, yeah, he was totally justified in getting annoyed with me (can you hear me rolling my eyes?!).

Anyway, more fool me, because I should know by now that Little Bear can’t keep his promises. I’ve been pondering on this since and have had a few chats on Twitter about it, as I do (it’s such a good barometer of what is adoption shenanigans and what is just plain shenanigans). There are two things in my mind: why can’t he keep promises and why do I keep giving him the chance to make them in the first place?

My immediate thought about why he can’t stick to them is because at the point of making them, he is fully present and intent on doing what he says he will (I don’t believe he ever sets out to purposefully dupe me) but as he struggles with regulation, when it comes to the point of following through, he isn’t able to control himself enough yet to do so. I imagine there are times he knows he’s letting himself down but can’t help but do it anyway.

Then there is the theory that perhaps it’s an act of self-sabotage. Perhaps he doesn’t feel he deserves a nice bath or a peaceful bedtime and kind of deliberately puts a spanner in the works. This is a sad state of affairs if it’s true. I have tried wondering aloud along similar lines but I can’t tell whether it resonates or not – I suspect it doesn’t because he usually gets quite tearful if we get our wondering right and he certainly wasn’t tearful on this occasion – just combative.

I suppose another theory is that it could be an anxiety-based behaviour. Perhaps the end of the bath triggers something in his mind about the beginning of bedtime and the fact that sleep is soon and sometimes he has bad dreams. Perhaps he is attempting to stave that off by causing an escalation.

Another feeling of mine is that sometimes Little Bear remembers a situation similar to the one he is in and recalls a situation or behaviour that has happened before and for whatever reason is moved to recreate it. We’d certainly had a similarly difficult bath time a week or so before and the following evening from the incident described above also featured a sudden switching and similar behaviour. I can’t really explain why this would happen but there are certainly times when I feel it does.

There could also be an argument for saying that because I had voiced my concern about what could happen in the situation (me trying to be open and honest etc.) I had somehow created a self-fulfilling prophecy. There is certainly a truth in the more Little Bear knows you want him to do something, the less able he seems to do it. He’s pretty oppositional like that.

As if I hadn’t already muddied the waters with enough theories, I have more. Could this behaviour be linked to poor situational understanding/ poor cause and effect? I feel as though I don’t have many of these challenges with Big Bear because it is obvious to him that if he messes me around in this way, I won’t give him similar concessions in the future. However, this type of A + B = C thinking seems challenging for many adopted children. Perhaps Little Bear doesn’t realise he is cutting off his nose to spite his face, as it were? I have started asking him what he thinks might happen if he does such and such, at times. The confounding this is that he is often able to tell me what a logical consequence might be. I can’t tell whether he isn’t bothered so just does the thing anyway or whether there is a disconnect between knowing in theory and changing his behaviour in practise.

A final theory is that demands of any kind make him anxious because they feel as though they are clawing at his need for control (see Control where I’ve written all about that). Someone on Twitter mentioned Pathological Demand Avoidance to me (PDA for short, a sub-diagnosis of Autism) and it is something I’ve turned over in my mind before because Little Bear is undeniably demand avoidant. However, whenever I check out the diagnostic criteria I don’t feel he meets them. There are elements that ring true but I don’t believe Little Bear lies anywhere on the Autistic Spectrum. As with any child who has experienced developmental trauma, I always think it’s essential to consider the impact of that first and foremost. I would love to see a document like the Coventry Grid though, which instead of drawing out the similarities and differences between ASD and attachment, drew out the similarities and differences between PDA and demand avoidance within an attachment/trauma presentation. I think I might e-mail Heather Moran and see what she thinks (why not?).

One of the reasons I don’t feel Little Bear has PDA is because his ability to manage demands fluctuates enormously. Sometimes he can do everything you ask without difficulty. At other times every tiny request is difficult for him. I think a child with true PDA would be much more consistent in their demand avoidance. Little Bear’s behaviour tends to be pretty unpredictable. I know there would be other days when we could have had exactly the same bath time scenario and he would have got out of the bath the second I asked him, like an angel. What is difficult is predicting which days would be like that. If Little Bear is having a day where every demand is a battle, I would never have even considered entering into a promise-based scenario. I would have made sure the rules were really firm and clear and it would have been an early bed.

However, on the particular day in question, everything had been going well. Little Bear had done well at school, eaten his tea, come off his I pad and come upstairs as requested. The stars appeared in alignment so I was sucked in by the promise of a promise. The switch from co-operative to oppositional happened in a nano-second. I have to say that I find this type of scenario difficult. Because I don’t see it coming and because I have already given ground, it is extremely difficult not to feel taken advantage of and really rather annoyed. I coped much better the second night when I was able to anticipate the behaviour I might be confronted with in advance.

So why do I do it? Why do I allow him to get into a making promises situation if I know he might not be able to stick to it? I’ve asked myself this question a lot. Part of it is because I find myself keeping the rules much stricter for Little Bear than for Big Bear and that can feel mean. I let Big Bear stay up late sometimes or negotiate on what order he’s going to do certain tasks in because he has proved over and over that I can trust him to do that. I’d be quick to reign things back in again if I thought he was exploiting me but I have very little need to. However, because Little Bear has more difficulty sticking to promises and has reneged on many, I am less inclined in the first place to give him a chance. I suspect that is with good reason and that with firm, immovable boundaries and rules, he feels safer and happier. I also don’t like putting him in situations with a high risk of failure because in general, that doesn’t do anything helpful for his self-esteem.

There is something about me not trusting him to have a go though: I don’t want him to think I don’t trust him and don’t believe he’s capable of keeping promises. I know that he can (given the right set of circumstances) and I would like him to have a go from time to time and feel successful at it because otherwise he will surely grow up thinking he is a person who can’t stick to their word. He certainly finds it harder, given the myriad possible reasons I’ve cited above, but I don’t believe it’s impossible, and like anything else, I’m sure he’ll get there in the end.

 

 

*Also, how complicated is this adoptive parenting lark? One tiny scenario, a gazillion possible explanations. Maybe he just didn’t feel like getting out the bath?

Promises, Promises

Conversations

Firstly, I’m sorry, I’m in a bad mood at this moment and I rather suspect it will be evident as this blog post progresses. The reason for my mood will also transpire.

Earlier in the week, we had some workmen over to do a job for us. I didn’t know them but we got chatting, as you do. Within minutes I had learned that the man’s son had ADHD and they’d had difficulties with his schooling. Feeling an immediate kinship, I felt I wanted to tell him that I also have a son and he also has some behaviour and learning needs. I was cautious though because I distinctly remember sitting in adoption preparation groups doing a practical exercise on who you should and should not share information with about your child being adopted. Workmen were a clear ‘no’. They knew where you lived: they did not need to know that an adopted child, who may be vulnerable, lived in your house. This was in the back of my mind but I also knew that this man had walked a walk which I understood. I decided to trust he was a decent bloke and shared that I also have a son with needs.

We shared some similar anecdotes and then he asked me what diagnosis, if any, my son has. I knew this would happen and this was the bit I had considered avoiding. However, I didn’t. I explained he’d had a traumatic start in life, was now adopted and his diagnosis was Developmental Trauma. The man understood what I was talking about and it turned out he knew an adoptive family well and their son had similar needs. It also transpired that the man himself was adopted so we chatted about that too.

It was a conversation I perhaps shouldn’t have had, but it was a thoroughly positive experience.

Today, we had a meeting with an Educational Psychologist about Little Bear. This was an official conversation I had to have but ironically, this was the conversation I wished I could undo. As I’m sure you’ve guessed, this is the reason for my furious mood. As a parent of a child with additional needs, when you have a meeting about those needs with a professional who is supposedly more knowledgeable than you are, the very least you can reasonably expect is to come away feeling understood. You would also hope to come away with some useful tips or strategies. You would not expect to come out sweaty-angry because things have got a little heated.

We’ve seen the Educational Psychologist (EP) before (see Seeing the Educational Psychologist and SaLT, EP & an Assembly ) and despite me having some misgivings, it went brilliantly. The man in question was knowledgeable and trauma-informed. Unfortunately, that EP has moved on and we have a new one.

Things started okay with this fellow. He’d done an hour’s observation first thing then we had met for a consultation, with the SENCO, class teacher and Little Bear’s TA also in attendance. The main purpose of the meeting, in my mind, was to review where we were up to in terms of re-applying for funding going forwards. I am fully aware that funding is not within the jurisdiction of the EP. However, I have been in enough of these situations to know that as a professional, you are often called in to inform a funding decision. You make an independent assessment and you write a detailed report detailing a child’s needs. It wouldn’t bother me in the slightest if people wanted to discuss funding in my presence. I wouldn’t be able to say whether a child should have it or not but I would be very clear about their needs and what measures are required to meet those needs appropriately. I thought the EP would do the same.

Instead, he was so touchy about funding (even though we didn’t mention it any point) that I came away believing he had a (not very well) hidden agenda. It meant that he wouldn’t give a straight answer about what level of support he believed Little Bear to require and wouldn’t comment in any detail on his needs. He kept saying, “I have no influence on funding”. We kept saying, “We know, we aren’t asking you to comment on funding”. At one point Grizzly said, “So, are we on the same page?” (in relation to a specific point) and the EP replied, “I’m on my own page”. When we tried to establish what that page was, he wouldn’t tell us. It was most baffling.

I also felt he had little to no knowledge of trauma/attachment. It was when we started discussing independence that things started to unravel.

The key reason that Little Bear has 1:1 support now is due to his extremely poor emotional resilience and lack of self-confidence. I’ve talked about it before and I think my post Jigsaws illustrates my point most powerfully. The EP evidently thought (though he only said so cryptically) that Little Bear has too much support and does not do enough work independently. He felt independence in his learning was a priority. I disagreed with this because I feel his biggest priority is building resilience, a love of learning and the confidence to tackle new tasks when faced with them. When those things are in place, he will manage independence. I struggled to get the EP to understand this.

He kept saying that Little Bear can be given a task he knows how to do first to break him in gently to a task he’s never done before. That makes sense in theory but what he doesn’t account for is Little Bear’s alertness to new tasks and the fact that, without the nurturing support of a trusted adult by his side, Little Bear will baulk at the task and not be able to begin. The EP, in his uninformed wisdom, reckons that with practise of working independently, Little Bear will learn to complete tasks alone. He won’t if he doesn’t have the requisite skills or belief. He will disengage and learn diddlysquat.

The EP went on to patronise us all by saying that children need to experience success in order to build resilience. I KNOW. I feel as though I have said it a million times myself. However, Little Bear currently needs adult support to begin and engage with a task. He needs an adult to support him to stay on task and reach the point of completion and success. Without that support, he will not experience success. You can’t remove his safety net and expect him to get there by himself.

I pointed out that we put him in challenging positions all the time. I didn’t labour the fact that we tirelessly work to match activities to ability (see Our Just right challenge) and carefully dampen or increase our level of support to ensure his success. He said, “But do you though? Do you do it enough?” It was an open question to us and school but I would like to have seen him take Little Bear canoeing when he was still in the feral phase or take him for a skiing lesson or horse-riding or on a plane or on a skidoo or a bike or supervise him with a sharp knife or a power tool. We have done all of those things and more and I did not appreciate the inference otherwise.

Grizzly had done well keeping fairly quiet throughout this debate and I wondered if it was just me. However, the EP went on to suggest a strategy of “planned ignoring” for when Little Bear interrupts or shouts out in class. Grizzly stepped in to point out that there is an attachment reason behind this behaviour and Little Bear shouldn’t be ignored because, if anything, it would inflame the problem. He needs to know the teacher hasn’t forgotten him and is holding him in mind, even if shouting out is not an appropriate behaviour. The teacher’s approach of saying; “That’s a lovely answer. I’d love to hear it when it’s your turn/ when you have your hand up” feels much more appropriate.

Overall, I felt the strategies the EP suggested were extremely basic and I felt defensive of the school who are already working hard and employing so many more complex strategies. The suggestions he made indicated a lack of knowledge and understanding of the complex behaviours we all experience.

The final straw, which we were unable to resolve, came when he said he had made a tally of the number of times Little Bear’s TA intervened to help him during a task. Apparently it was, “considerably more often than she intervened with others”. I queried this because Mrs. C is employed with Little Bear’s funding as Little Bear’s TA. I would expect her to help him more than others because that’s her job. I couldn’t understand the point of it as a statistic. The EP seemed to suggest the number was meaningful so we asked him what his interpretation of the number was – did he mean that Mrs C steps in too frequently or that Little Bear requires a high level of support? He refused to be drawn, saying he is there to gather the information, not to comment on it. He then returned to his rhetoric of not being allowed to comment on funding.

The Head, who was working quietly in the room, but not in the meeting, said, “They aren’t trying to trick you, I think they just want an answer” to which, there was no answer.

The more I reflect on it now, the more bizarre it seems. I get the impression this EP is used to coming to meetings, asking lots of questions, writing down the answers and going away again. I don’t think he is used to informed parents who ask difficult questions of him. I’m pretty sure he went away thinking we are a royal pain in the backside but I don’t really care. It isn’t okay to provide mediocre or downright rubbish services to parents because they don’t know otherwise. Services should be excellent because these are the most vulnerable children in our society. What we do now and what support is put in place for Little Bear now is going to be crucial for his life chances in the future.

I know people are under pressure because of funding cuts and I suspect he did have an agenda along those lines but children’s needs are their needs, irrespective of funding and I’m not sorry that I will fight for Little Bear’s needs to be met. I’m sorry we crossed paths with that particular EP and I’m sorry we have to have another meeting with him in a couple of months. I suspect it would have gone considerably better if we let our workman from earlier in the week chair the meeting.

I am sure it will all work out and with a child with additional needs, a meeting or three like this are par for the course. But they shouldn’t be. It isn’t ok and our children (and us if we’re honest) deserve more.

I do want to give credit to school though and specifically to Little Bear’s teacher, who has really listened and changed his approach and referred several times to ‘doing things differently’ in the meeting. I am extremely grateful to them.

Conversations

Five Minutes Peace

I think I might need to preface this blog by saying that I really love my bears. You know I do. It’s just that I might well have reached the point in the holidays where I’m kind of ready for them to go back to school…

I started off, pre-holidays, super-keen and excited to have some quality time with them. The first two weeks were far easier than I could have asked for and we had fun doing all our craft projects, chilling at home, going out for ice cream etc. Grizzly was off for the second two weeks and we went away for one of them. We had some lovely family time and both boys have spent days with just me and just Grizzly. Mummy Days and Daddy Days. All good.

I wasn’t even too worried about weeks five and six because I still had some activities up my sleeve, some days out planned and we were feeling all loved up. How hard could it be?

Err…

I think it’s the noise more than anything.

Mum! Mum! Mum! MUM! MUUUUMMMM!!!

Mum!

Dad?

Thump, thump, thump from the foot against the floor/ the sofa/ the wall. Ting, ting, ting, ting, ting on the bell from the Pit game that we’ve become obsessed with. Bang, crash, wallop from the bowl falling out the cupboard and the thing being launched across the room.

Penis. Penis face. Willy. Boobs. Boooooobies! Because, err, boys?!

The sound of my voice for the gazillionth time saying, “I don’t want to hear any rude words. Please stop saying ‘penis’.”

A barking noise. A horse noise. A wolf noise. A zombie noise.

A really loud, indescribable, vowel hooty type of thing.

The very worst: Little Bear has found a whistle.

Mum!!!! Mum? MUUUUMMM!!!

Growling (so pleased that one has re-appeared) and screaming. Muttering (and sometimes yelling) ‘imbecile’, ‘idiot’ and ‘I hate you mum, you’re really annoying me!’

As one assumes that countering with, “For the love of God, put a sock in it” is not good parenting, I am finding that I’m spending more and more time hiding in the bathroom and thinking up trips out that allow me to engineer five minutes peace. It’s like the book of that name and I’m really feeling for Mrs Large right now. And just like in the book, when you hide in the toilet, they find you and sit directly outside, incessantly talking. That’s if you’re lucky. If not, the smallest one barges right in and hops on your knee. The noise is inescapable.

I think now, towards the end of week 6, my brain is starting to protest. Its saying, ‘this assault on your auditory sense is too much. It’s a bombardment. Move away. Seek shelter’. Yesterday and today I have taken them to park-type places where they have begged and nagged and attempted to bully me into playing with them. Part of me has felt bad (because at the start of the holidays I was so well-intentioned I said yes to everything) but now I’m getting a little claustrophobic and just need them to leave me alone for half an hour. Most other parents I see are sitting on benches while their children run around; why can’t I? There is a long answer to that question involving attachment-needing behaviour and yada-yada but I’m asking rhetorically. Nay, I’m begging, for just five minutes peace.

In my meanness over the past two days I have ushered them off to play, amidst a few protestations (Big Bear thinks he’s too cool for parks and Little Bear can’t possibly play without me) which I have ignored for my own sanity. I have noticed that when I’ve sat back, it has taken them maybe 10 minutes to settle into the play and then they’ve inevitably made a friend or agreed to play together and actually they are having a perfectly lovely time. Today I should have been enjoying my cup of tea while they tried to build a den out of those polystyrene sheets that are meant to fit together but they couldn’t figure it out and I kept getting the guilts that I wasn’t jumping up to help them. I had a stern word with myself that this was a good chance for them to do some problem-solving and if I didn’t just sit there quietly staring into space for a while, it would not be cheerful mummy who would be looking after them for the rest of the day. It would rageful mummy who cannot deal with all the noise and who has got quite overstimulated and just needs FIVE MINUTES PEACE!

So sit back I did and eventually Big Bear built a pyramid den encasing his brother inside which seemed to suit everybody.

Phew. The holidays are quite intense. I’ve said it before but I have no idea how people manage to home-school their children. It would be like this all the time. All. The. Time. I don’t think my brain could take it.

It is probably a good job that there are only 4 more days to go. No doubt they’ll go back to school and I’ll fill my poor brain with worry over how Little Bear is coping in the next class and also with the fact that I’m missing them and don’t quite know what to do with myself. I’ll probably think it’s too quiet and turn the radio on.

I have to admit that I’m looking forward to some alone time. Some walks and some writing. Some time when I can hear my thoughts. No cacophony. No obscenities being chanted. Five minutes peace.

Five Minutes Peace

Our Just-Right Challenge

The term ‘just-right challenge’ was first coined by well-known Occupational Therapist (OT) Jean Ayres. She was referring to finding activities for children that are neither too easy nor too hard. The secret, she said, was pitching a task just above their current level of functioning – so that it was definitely attainable but not so difficult that they would experience frustration and not so easy that they wouldn’t develop any new skills. I think it’s a concept well-known and used within the field of OT.

The just-right challenge is like the sweet spot of learning, when you pitch something just perfectly and you can see your child grasping a concept right before your eyes. The just-right challenge is essential for developing confidence and turning the I’m Stupid feelings on their head. It’s a crucial, yet largely underrated skill in any parent, teacher or therapist.

The idea first came to my attention when I attended a Sensory Integration training course, an approach also derived by Ayres, several years ago. Despite practising it all the time without actively labelling what I’m doing, the term just popped into my head the other day, probably because we have been having some issues with finding the just-right challenge for Little Bear.

Little Bear attends swimming lessons every Saturday and has been doing very well, so well in fact that his teacher said he was ready to move up to the next group. Little Bear seemed pleased with himself and I took him along the following week. I popped back to the pool a few minutes before the end to wait for Little Bear with his towel. When I got there I was shocked to see he was crying. “What’s the matter?” I asked the instructor who was closer to me than he was. “He’s just cold” she said.

Well that didn’t stack up because Little Bear is one of the toughest children I’ve ever met, he’s practically a Marine, he doesn’t cry because he’s cold.

Little Bear’s lesson is now at the deep end of the pool and he, along with the other children, was standing along the furthest edge, preparing to jump in. I noticed that Little Bear was about a foot smaller than the other children who appeared about 8 or 9 years old. Little Bear looked extremely uncertain but did jump in. He swam straight to the edge, got out, came to me and dissolved into a crying wreck. It just wasn’t like him. What on earth was wrong?

After a lot of cuddling and drying Little Bear managed to tell me that it was too deep and he was scared. I said I would speak to his instructor as I could already foresee a problem with next week’s session. I went back into her, wondering if he’d accidentally gone into the wrong group. No, she said, he was absolutely fine, he could keep up with the lesson. He was fine; he’d be fine next week. She said ‘fine’ a lot. I don’t find ‘fine’ particularly reassuring.

The following day Grizzly took both Bears for a fun swim, thinking it would boost Little Bear’s confidence. They had fun, they dived in, and it was all good. It was fine.

When the next swimming lesson rolled around I was careful to keep an upbeat approach. It was working until we got to the front door of the pool building when Little Bear began crying and wouldn’t go in. He didn’t have to do the jumping in bit if he didn’t want to I reassured, I would come back early for him. Anyway, the long and short of it was that when we entered the pool area Little Bear was crying and gripping on to me for dear life. This is not like him: he usually skips in on his own. The new instructor, who I was quickly growing annoyed with, told him to get in, he’d be fine: cue more crying and clinging to me. The instructor continued to teach the other children and made no move to come to Little Bear, reassure him or anything else remotely useful.

Thankfully, Little Bear’s previous instructor, who was teaching a class in the middle section of the pool, noticed what was happening and asked if he would like to re-join her group. “Sometimes the jump to the next group is too much,” she said, “don’t worry about it, he can come with me”. I thought Little Bear would have been relieved (I certainly was) and would have hopped straight back in. He didn’t though, continuing to cry and hold onto to me. He managed to tell me that although he did want to go back to his old tutor he now didn’t know any of the children in her group because the time of his lesson had also changed. Evidently this was unsettling him.

The old instructor listened, took him quickly into the pool, introduced the other children and had him swimming a width before he had time to protest further. She was like a swimming fairy and I couldn’t have been more grateful. The would-be new instructor was unfortunately more like a wet lettuce.

I watched the rest of the session from the side, in the bit where parents are forbidden to be, as I had promised Little Bear I would and he kept checking I was still there. As I stood, I reflected. The thing is that we want our children to do well and we want to be able to celebrate their achievements with them. When children work hard and succeed they are generally rewarded by being able to move up a group or go onto a harder task or level. That is the usual way of things in school and sporting situations. However, what is often not considered (and I failed to consider on this occasion) is that moving up means leaving behind everything familiar to you. In this case it meant leaving the instructor Little Bear knew and was comfortable with. It meant leaving the children he knew and was familiar with. Although he would still be going to the same place, it also meant he would be in a different part of the pool: a deeper, more challenging part. As a transition I had underestimated it.

Yes Little Bear was doing really well at swimming but moving him up a group was not the just-right challenge for him. It was a too-far-out-of-the-comfort-zone challenge.

That is the tricky thing for children who have experienced developmental trauma or who struggle with attachment: finding the just-right challenge for them (obviously it’s very different child to child). You cannot simply base the level of challenge on their skill level. Clearly in terms of Little Bear’s swimming ability, he was capable of being in the harder lesson. However, that didn’t take into account his emotional or attachment needs which, at the moment, mean that taking the leap away from everything familiar leads to him feeling unsafe. He would probably have coped better (it’s all good in retrospect) had the whole group and the tutor moved to the deep end; or had they stayed where they were and just done harder swimming.

I suspect also, that Little Bear has had a bad experience in water in the past as he was terrified of it when he first arrived and clung onto me the first time we went into a pool – arms tight around my neck, feet wedged between my thighs, clutching on limpet-like. It was ironic really as I dislike water and can barely swim but it was undoubtedly good for bonding as I kept him safe, successfully hid my fear and he slowly found his confidence. Grizzly takes the boys swimming a lot now and Little Bear had seemingly fully conquered any fears he used to have. That’s the thing about trauma though, it pops up when you least expect it and perhaps something about standing at that deep end, already out of his comfort zone, staring into the aqua depths triggered something? A memory? A fear?

We couldn’t really have anticipated the possible trigger but with hindsight I think we should have been able to see that moving up a group was a challenge too far. For now, doing very well in the group he is in is the just-right swimming challenge for Little Bear.

When it comes to education, finding the just-right challenge for him has been even trickier. Not only do we have to consider his skills, his attachments and familiarity but we also have to consider his self-esteem and sensory needs (he is pretty confident physically and sports meet his sensory needs well). In addition, as with many children, what Little Bear is capable of on any given day can fluctuate. If he’s particularly anxious or hungry or unwell or excited he is unlikely to manage as much as if he is calm and relaxed. The just-right challenge can vary minute to minute and task to task and requires an adult to really know him to be able to differentiate demands accordingly. My post Jigsaws is a good example of me getting the just-right challenge bob-on and the positive outcome that resulted from it.

Too often we don’t hit the right challenge level, usually making the challenge too hard, resulting in upset, frustration and even aggression. As a rule we have now learned that Little Bear’s just-right challenge tends to be a little below his full ability when all the stars are in alignment. Pushing him too hard causes a panic, even if we know he is able to achieve whatever it is.

In a recent meeting with school, his teacher told us that he is doing well in his Maths group and they are considering moving him up. Whilst it is fabulous that our little dude who couldn’t count for toffee on school entry has overtaken some of his peers and has taken to extending his own learning (why do tens and units when you could do twenties or thirties and units?!), knowing him as we do, the just-right challenge for him is being the best in the group he’s in, not struggling to keep up in the next group. Yes, he would probably be able to do some of the work but he would find it hard and his confidence would suffer. I think he would enter scared-mode. Where he is, he can succeed nearly all of the time which is just-right for now.

 

 

*It’s difficult in a situation like swimming where the teachers don’t know anything about Little Bear or his background so aren’t aware of the need to make reasonable adjustments. I never know whether I should try to tell them or not but, practically, it would be difficult as they are in the pool and I would need to shout!

**Whilst I have spent the whole post pointing out the problems, I shouldn’t omit to point out that Little Bear did fabulously being able to let his emotions out and putting his fears into words and telling them to me. It’s not so long ago that he would have had a meltdown or punched somebody instead. Progress comes in many forms.

 

 

 

 

Our Just-Right Challenge