TP, or not TP, that is the question

We’re having a bit of a weird week of it here at Adoption: The Bear Facts. Little Bear is not feeling good. It could be the hot weather but we rather suspect it is more than that. We think it is likely to be the anticipation of moving classes at the end of next week and with it, more of the Fear of Loss that I talked about last week. This time he is fearing the loss of his teacher, whom he has had for two years and who is really the only teacher he has ever known at big school. He is very, very fond of her and they have a lovely relationship. I know she is very fond of him too. I suspect she doesn’t often get the opportunity to make such a difference and see such an unprecedented level of progress in one of her pupils. This transition is a Big Deal all round.

The magnitude of the deal is being expressed through the medium of Little Bear’s behaviour. It is a little shocking after several months of relative calm and my parenting has certainly been tested. As such, I have been pondering on Therapeutic Parenting and how TP I really am.

Here’s a confession: I talk about being a therapeutic parent now and again but when I’m saying it, I’m often wondering if I actually am a bone fide therapeutic parent or, in fact, just a parent. That probably sounds a little ridiculous but I often feel that TP is a Holy Grail of adoptive parenting that can rarely be reached and can also be used as a larch branch with which to beat ourselves. I am certainly not somebody who often refers to ‘how to guides’ on TP, preferring to make things up as I go along. I’m not sure whether I mean ‘wing it’ or ‘follow my well-informed instincts’ but either way, my process of (therapeutic) parenting is fairly organic.

It is also fair to say that some days feel more therapeutic than others. Sometimes being therapeutic is a little less practical than other methods, which can lead to less of it being done. For example, the school morning routine has taken something of a dip here recently. In the dim, distant past, Little Bear used to need a lot of help with getting ready. All the demands were too much so I used to need to help him with dressing, teeth-brushing etc. However, he has made lots of progress and for quite some time now he has been able to complete the whole morning routine himself, with just a few prompts or reminders from me. That was, until Wednesday.

Wednesday’s routine did not go well. Little Bear was completely uncooperative, growly and intent on doing everything other than getting ready. I could see, after a quick thought or two, that there had been signs of decline earlier in the week. It was evident Little Bear wasn’t coping and I knew that the solution was to reduce the demands on him. However, that is not as easy or practical as it sounds when you have a finely timed routine, need to make two packed lunches because you weren’t organised the night before, haven’t eaten your own breakfast or got dressed yet and barely have time for those things, let alone any other things. As it is not socially acceptable to do the school run in your nightie, I made a quick decision that I didn’t have time to do it the therapeutic way. That sounds pretty bad in black and white but part of me thinks such is life. We do have deadlines and timeframes and sometimes Mums have to nag.

On Thursday I was a little more organised and Grizzly was working at home and I was more prepared for the possibility that extra help might be needed. However, I find having to do TP the very first second I wake up pretty challenging. I am not a morning person. Little Bear woke up in a foul mood. This is rare and doesn’t bode well. Little Bear got his I pad, got back into his bed and wouldn’t get out. Having dragged myself out of bed despite my internal protestations, I gave him lots of chances; pleasantly then more sternly. I was further irked by him shushing me every time I spoke. I did not react therapeutically. I expressed my crossness, though I managed not to shout and I banned his I Pad because without the bloody thing he would actually have got up. Little Bear continued not complying and I asked Grizzly to take over while muttering something about throttling him.

This is why I cannot possibly write a guide to therapeutic parenting.

However, after a moment’s peace and a few bites of breakfast, I was able to take some deep breaths and get a bit more TP. I observed out loud that he didn’t seem to be feeling too good today and wondered what that might be about. I don’t think I got my wonderings right and he was still grumpy. He demanded I feed him. It was not a particularly polite request but after modelling a nicer version just for him to hear, I did feed him. I also dressed him and put his sun cream on for him, all the while ignoring anything rude and trying to soothe him with my tone, pace and words. He went to see Ronaldo, his hen, who flapped her wings in his face and hurt him. I cuddled him, wiped his tears and made him laugh saying she thought his toes were worms.

I think my conclusion from that is sometimes the best way of being therapeutic is knowing when to step away and let someone else handle it. The bit when I kept my temper went pretty well as Little Bear got ready for school with very little demand on him and we successfully dropped him off without issue. Was I TP though? Or just parenting patiently?

I braced myself for school pick-up, rather suspecting the day wouldn’t have gone well. It hadn’t. Apparently Little Bear had thrown another child’s water bottle and smashed it and got into trouble for giving a different child a shove. I didn’t raise any of this with him, just telling him I had chatted with his teacher to see if he was ok because I was a bit worried about him. Little Bear asked me to watch him on the climbing wall and I did. Then I said it was time to go home. Little Bear wanted to do the climbing wall again. I re-iterated that it was home time and began to walk across the playground. Little Bear scream-growled and called me a name. I chose to ignore that and continued walking, knowing he would follow.

The first part of the walk home was fine. Little Bear announced we were going to play football when we got home. Big Bear said he wasn’t playing. I said I didn’t think any of us should as it was far too hot and a cold drink and a little rest would be a better plan. Little Bear began shushing me. By far the hardest part of trying to be therapeutic is overcoming your instincts to go mad when directly provoked. It took some effort but I ignored the shushing and tried the empathising route. Little Bear stuck his fingers in his ears and walked ahead. Whilst this pushed my buttons, I made myself take a deep breath and not get sucked in.

At home, Little Bear was still cross. He announced that if I spoke to him he would tell me to ‘shut up’. Usually, if he tries to threaten me like this, I call him out on it and explain about why threatening people isn’t nice. However, this evening I was just able to stop myself. This behaviour wasn’t really about being coercive; I think it was about needing some peace and his rather rudimentary way of asking me to be quiet. It can be so hard in the heat of the moment to look beyond the behaviour at what might be causing it but that is something that I seem to be getting a little better at with time.

I decided to go for the killing it with kindness approach; rallying around with a cold drink and snack. I suppose once-upon-a-lack-of-TP-knowledge I might have thought this was rewarding bad behaviour.

I left Little Bear with the TV and sat outside with Big Bear for a few minutes. “He isn’t having a good day is he Mum?” Big Bear asked. No, I agreed, he isn’t. I explained I thought it was because he was worried about the transition to the next class.

Later, at tea time, I tried to find out a bit more from Little Bear about what had happened in his day. As usual it was high tales, plot-twists and publishable fiction. Trying a different tack, I asked him how his friends were feeling about going to year 2. “They’re upset about it,” he said, “They really love Mrs Current Teacher and don’t want to leave her”. Aha. We explored the situation a little more, through the feelings of his ‘friends’. I have no idea if this is a known TP technique but it was up the sleeve and seemed to work.

At this point, Big Bear joined in and I was struck by the fact it shouldn’t be called Therapeutic Parenting because the whole family do it. Maybe it should be Therapeutic Family-ing. I sat back in admiration as Big Bear reassured him how close current teacher’s classroom would still be; how cool future teacher is; how Little Bear (or his friends) could still go and visit current teacher if they wanted to and how current teacher would miss him too. He told him it would all be ok and cuddled him.

Big Bear has never read a book on TP, he probably hasn’t even heard of it, yet sometimes he is more instinctively therapeutic than Grizzly and I stuck together.

It felt like a good time to talk to Little Bear about giving his teacher a present. I have been agonising over what to get as I really want to get it right for them both. I am extremely grateful to her for her pivotal role in his learning so far so want to give her a token of our appreciation that feels right for what she has done. I also want Little Bear to have some involvement and ownership in at least part of the gift. Whilst it certainly seems possible to overthink a present, I have finally decided that Little Bear should draw a picture of him and his teacher and we will get crafty with a mount and frame it. I put this idea to Little Bear over tea. He was pretty bought in and wanted to get started immediately. After tea, he sat and concentrated hard and put lots of effort into his drawing. The idea that his teacher will have something he has done to keep and will think of him every time she looks at it seems to be helping him.

I have to admit that by the end of the day I felt like I might have done some therapeutic stuff. We certainly managed to end on a better note than we had started with.

Days like yesterday can be challenging. There are extra things to think about; you need to be on your toes; you need to override your natural reactions. You need to have your wits about you and you need to try as best you can to get into your child’s mind. Usually, when I’m not rushing around in my nightie, I try to do these things. However, I struggle to do them well first thing in the morning, when I have PMS and at other random points when my resilience dips. I occasionally mutter under my breath, give rash consequences and sometimes raise my voice. Is that TP? Or not TP?

I genuinely don’t know. I just know that I’m trying my best and to be TP 24/7 would take a Herculean effort. Can we change the acronym to Trying-your-best Parenting? Cos I think I’ve got that sewn up at least.

 

 

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TP, or not TP, that is the question

Negative Role Models

Yesterday I did a stupid thing. I took the boys to a party. I know that doesn’t initially sound particularly foolhardy but it was. A party on a Friday night, after a week of school, with a class full of exhausted 6 year olds is undeniably a bad idea. When it also involves staying out beyond Little Bear’s bedtime it is an even worse plan. What was I thinking? Fool.

The thing is that we have become notorious party avoiders. We say no to them all. We have reached a place of comfortably attending family parties or gatherings at people’s house when we know them well but parties involving Little Bear’s classmates are tantamount to torture for me. I hate them every single time. However, now and again, the parent guilt takes over and I feel I ought to let Little Bear try again. Last night was one such occasion. It was an outdoor party involving pond dipping and den building so I thought it might be ok. Surely it would be less stressful than 30 children fuelled up with sugar and charging manically around a village hall, trying to beat three shades of purple out of each other? Surely? Please…

I have to clarify that the reason I can’t bear these parties is not necessarily down to Little Bear and his behaviour. There have been times when the party situation has got too stimulating for him and he has ended up dysregulated and out of control. I have not enjoyed those times, feeling exposed and stressed. I am fairly keen to avoid putting him into those situations, hence carefully choosing which parties might be do-able and actively avoiding the others. However, over time, I’m realising that Little Bears ability to cope is improving and largely he does very well. It is his classmates and their interaction with Little Bear that really winds me up.

Unfortunately (for them) I do not seem to be very tolerant of the less than angelic behaviour of other people’s children. I am well aware of the limitations of Little Bear’s behaviour. I am not somebody who thinks their child is perfectly behaved when they are clearly not. I think if anything I’m a bit too aware of the times he doesn’t comply or doesn’t stay sat down and is running around or swinging from something when he shouldn’t be. However, I am also only too aware that Little Bear has very real and justifiable reasons behind his behaviour. Neglect, sensory needs, communication needs and difficulties with behavioural and emotional regulation all play their part. Whilst I have a good understanding of his needs and the reasons behind them, I do not allow us to become complacent or allow inappropriate behaviours to continue due to his background. I know that we still need to work on the areas he struggles with; we need to work on them much more than if he hadn’t had an adverse start in life. Obviously I try to approach his behaviour therapeutically and we work at a pace that Little Bear is capable of working at. If he isn’t able to sit still for as long as his peers, so be it. All I ask is he tries his best and I try my best to support him.

Little Bear, with our support, has consequently worked extremely hard. We have provided strategies, empathy, consistent boundaries, heaps of praise and encouragement, orchestrated situations to experience success, done a lot of wondering and tried to meet Little Bear in his inner world to forge a way forward together. Little Bear has listened, talked, reflected and worked his tiny little backside off to overcome his impulsive urges, to learn to regulate himself and to behave as best he can. He tries harder than most children have to every day and I knew, before we even arrived, that a party on a Friday night would be extremely testing for him.

It therefore really pisses me off when other children try to purposefully lead him astray; when they do not appear to try to behave as best they can and to be honest, are downright rude and obnoxious.

Some parents just dropped off their little darlings, something I wouldn’t consider doing because I know Little Bear needs close supervision and it wouldn’t be fair on him not to provide it. It resulted in a group of 12 or so kids going pond dipping with a ranger and a few of us parents who had been unwittingly conned into trying to keep control/ preventing anyone from drowning.

When I explain to someone else’s child that pond dipping has finished and the Ranger wants them to put the net down, I don’t expect them to step over the barrier anyway and tell me to “get wrecked”. I don’t expect them to put a crisp packet in the pond when I’ve explained why they shouldn’t. But what really blooming annoys me more than anything is that whilst Little Bear is toiling under the weight of expectation to behave appropriately, his peers, who have not experienced the traumatic start in life he has, are not acting as the good role models he really needs. In fact, the very last thing Little Bear needs is the modelling of rude and out of control behaviour.

As we navigated the walk to den-building, along the side of a huge expanse of open water, the ranger was specific in giving two rules: no running and stay behind him. His communication was very clear and he checked back with the children to make sure they had understood. I knew Little Bear would struggle not to run because in an open space running is his default. However, try he did. Another little boy, I’ll call him Callum, decided he did want to run. He wanted to run in circles around Little Bear and jostle him. When Little Bear still did not run, he smacked him on the bottom. Wanting to nip things in the bud I asked Little Bear to come to me. “But I haven’t done anything wrong”, he said looking crestfallen. “No, you haven’t”, I reassured him. “You are being very sensible but Callum is not. If you stay near Callum you might get into trouble but if you stay here you can show the other children how to behave”. Little Bear, miraculously, walked sensibly beside me and I praised him regularly. How ironic, given all his challenges, that he was now being a role model.

Callum continued to run about. At one point he came behind Little Bear and threatened to smack him again, even though I was about a foot away, glaring right at him.

I continued to get increasingly irate as certain children back-chatted the grown-ups, ignored instructions and generally did whatever they fancied, including running up and down the tops of picnic benches or breaking bits off trees. Towards the end, an informal football game broke out amongst some of the boys. I could tell it was getting a little out of hand and was keen to leave but Big Bear was in the other group of children and not back from pond dipping yet, so I had to just keep a close eye instead. I noticed that every time it was Little Bear’s turn for a throw-in, Callum tried to take the ball off him, to the point of wrestling him to the ground. Little Bear is tough and was not keen to let go. Callum continued to target and goad him. Little Bear got more and more annoyed with it and began to retaliate. When he got angry, Callum laughed and provoked him more.

Part of me wanted Little Bear to punch Callum in the face because he was surely asking for it but Little Bear did not because he has worked really hard at not solving problems with his hands. We have taught him to behave better than that but what I was observing suggested his more restrained behaviour was putting him at a social disadvantage, something which I couldn’t stomach. After another incident of targeted ball-wrestling (and I could tell it was uncalled for because some of the other children began to speak up for Little Bear), I snapped. Why should Little Bear have to contend with this? He is working really hard, despite enormous provocation, to behave himself on a Friday night, after a hard week at school, after his bedtime. Callum, however, who has no excuse whatsoever for his behaviour is blatantly doing whatever he likes and as his parents are notably absent, I take it upon myself to have a little word. Little Bear was doing his bit in trying his utmost to regulate his behaviour and I would do mine in showing him I have his back, no matter what.

I’m not sure Callum enjoyed the conversation but he certainly started behaving better.

Rightly or wrongly I used the behaviour of some of the children as a talking point on the way home. I talked about how some of the other children had not behaved well and specified what they had done wrong. I told Little Bear how proud I was of him for not being sucked into that behaviour himself and empathised with how hard it must have been for him to resist. I feel he has endured enough time being labelled as the ‘naughty one’ in class and it is important for his self-esteem that he succeeds as being the ‘better behaved one’ where he can.

Although we were able to turn a negative into a positive on this occasion, I think we are back to party avoiding. I just don’t see the enjoyment of putting Little Bear into such a negative and challenging environment with such poor role models. It certainly doesn’t do my blood pressure any good either. I just hope that at school, the rules and the teachers keep these things a bit more in check.

Some of the other parents who know me a little have come to anticipate my rising stress levels at parties and find it quite amusing. I suspect they wonder why I can’t be more laid-back about it and just let kids be kids, but I can’t. We have worked too hard. Little Bear has had to overcome so much and I cannot stand by and allow him to be purposefully undermined and exploited by those who are wilier. Bruce Perry says, “Research has consistently found that surrounding a child with other troubled peers only tends to escalate bad behaviour”. Whilst I don’t believe these children are ‘troubled’ they are certainly not good role models and I am not keen on Little Bear being surrounded by them at the present time. I would much prefer to fill his life with positive role models who he can learn from and aspire to being like; the kind of children that he is slowly but surely maturing into himself.

Negative Role Models

Ensuring Children’s Speech and Language Needs Are Met: A Call to Action

As most of you know I am a speech and language therapist and my son, Little Bear, has Developmental Language Disorder   (DLD) so it is no surprise that meeting children’s communication needs is kind of a big deal for me. A recent report has come out reviewing speech and language therapy services for children and the findings are a little damning. It is called Bercow10 as it is written by John Bercow (of MP and having-a-bit-of- a-naughty-wife fame) in partnership with ICAN and the RCSLT and is a follow up to the original Bercow report which was written 10 years ago. It is a very important document and I want to share some salient points with you. As many of my readers are involved with adoption in some way, I am going to focus in particular on the bits of the report that are relevant for looked after children, children with mental health needs and children who become involved with youth offending. However, this is something that EVERYBODY needs to know about so please don’t look away, even if you don’t have any obvious connections to the content.

The report begins with an important message: “The most fundamental life skill for children is the ability to communicate” but it goes on to say that “as a nation, we have yet to grasp the significance of this”. This certainly seems to be the case as there are more than 1.4 million children in the UK with speech, language or communication needs (SLCN) yet it is not something we really hear talked about and most people have never heard of DLD despite it being one of the most common disorders of childhood. We hear a lot about the ‘obesity epidemic’ as it has a physical impact on children and a financial impact on the country. Bercow says that SLCN has a developmental impact on children as well as a social and economic impact and should similarly be considered an issue of public health. Being as SLCN impacts upon a child’s education, social, emotional and mental health and their future life chances it is a much bigger issue than it is given credence for.

A good starting point is to raise awareness of SLCN and what that means and what it looks like. If you want to know more about how Little Bear has been impacted by his language difficulties, see these previous blog posts: Living with Speech and Language DifficultiesCommunication Difficulties: Update

Children from disadvantaged backgrounds, whether that is due to social disadvantage or maltreatment, are disproportionately affected by SLCN: in some areas as many as 50% of children have language disorder and Looked After Children have poorer language on school entry compared to those who are not Looked After. Children considered high-risk for harm, such as those on a Child Protection Order face a higher risk of SLCN as do children who live with domestic violence. Across the care system as a whole, 63% of children have SLCN, compared to 10% in the non-care experienced population. This makes our most vulnerable children even more vulnerable to poor life outcomes. Children with SLCN in early years are twice as likely to develop social, emotional and behavioural difficulties and are at greater risk of depression or anxiety. Children with poor vocabularies are twice as likely to be unemployed as adults compared to those with age-appropriate language skills.

The statistics are pretty scary. What is also very worrying and makes my heart break a little is that many children’s difficulties are missed or misdiagnosed. Studies have shown that 81% of children with social, emotional or behavioural difficulties, including those with conduct disorder or ADHD have significant undiagnosed SLCN. If we extrapolate that a little, the picture seems even worse. These children, who cannot learn in school (because the curriculum is not accessible to them and teaching is not differentiated for them), often go on to engage is risky behaviours – drug-taking, crime etc. and unfortunately many will go on to find themselves in the youth justice system. Another study shows that 60% of children in the youth justice service have low language skills, often lower than an average 11 year old. Imagine having to be interviewed and appear in court when you cannot access classroom language let alone legal jargon. Many of these young people are then expected to engage with various programmes to aid with their rehabilitation. Statistics suggest that 40% of young people cannot access the content of these ‘verbally mediated interventions’ due to their language difficulties.

If children do not get their needs identified at any early stage and do not receive the therapy they require, the consequences can be dire. This is what Bercow means when he talks about social and economic impact. I think this particularly upsets me because had life been a little different for Little Bear, he could all too easily have fallen victim to this pattern. His behaviour did come before him and had we not been able to see beyond that and not recognised his DLD (and developmental trauma), things could have been very different. Before Little Bear was adopted at the age of 3 and a half, although there was a vague indication in his paperwork that he might have some language delay, he had not been formally assessed by a speech and language therapist. I was shocked at the severity of his communication needs the first time I met him and his language was later assessed as being more than 2 years delayed. I’m not quite sure what other signs would have been needed for a referral to have been triggered but he was certainly at risk of falling through the cracks.

I think there are two key things here. Firstly, if a child is presenting with social, emotional or behavioural difficulties, they should have a speech and language assessment as a matter of course. Behaviour itself is a communication and people in general need to get much better at looking beyond it. The second thing is that other professionals need to become more knowledgeable about SLCN; teachers, health visitors, the police etc. all need to be aware of the ‘red flags’ and seek help to prevent life escalating away from vulnerable children.

The bleak picture I’m painting could possibly all come good if there were excellent speech and language therapy services available to meet need once children were referred. However Bercow is pretty damning about this too. There continues to be a post-code lottery when it comes to availability and quality of services: of all the 2500 respondents, only 15% felt services were available as necessary. More than 50% of people had waited longer than 6 months to receive the therapy they needed and 34% had waited more than a year. This is a statistic I can empathise with as we had to wait over 8 months for Little Bear to be seen for the first time and a year for therapy to begin (see A bit of a rant).

This isn’t good enough. I was lucky to have my professional knowledge to fall back on and could begin helping Little Bear from day one. However, most adopters or foster carers do not have that level of knowledge and couldn’t be expected to. A year is too long to wait for a child who has already been neglected and needs immediate support. Due to Little Bear’s behaviour, our adoption began at crisis point. Thankfully we were able to identify there was a communication element to his needs, as well as developmental trauma, and could begin to tackle it. As most adopters do not happen also to be speech therapists, they would be unlikely to be pre-armed with the knowledge and strategies required. The impact of not receiving support in a timely fashion could be catastrophic.

Our story does provide some good news though, thankfully. The thing is that when quality speech and language therapy is provided, it is extremely effective (see Speech Therapy Works). Despite starting pre-school at the level of a 16 month old across all areas of development, with communication being one of the most difficult areas for Little Bear, by the age of 6 his language levels had improved to within the expected range for his age. Admittedly he received a high level of input, both at home, in clinic and at school but that input was effective. Our story shows that as bleak as this situation seems to be, it doesn’t need to be hopeless. If change can be brought about, services can be improved and awareness can be raised, we can literally transform lives.

Bercow 10 doesn’t just highlight problems, it makes practical recommendations for change under the following headings: communication is crucial; a strategy for system change; an accessible and equitable service for all families; support that makes an impact; early identification and intervention are essential. You can read the full recommendations document here: Bercow10 recommendations

And if you are feeling very keen, you can read the whole report here (it’s really well written and a lot more accessible than I expected): Bercow10 whole report

What can you do to improve outcomes for children?

In order for change to happen, people need to know about the current situation. They need to know about Bercow 10 and its contents. @GillianRudd has begun a petition to bring discussion of Bercow10 to the government to ask them to ensure the implementation of the recommendations so that children’s communication needs can finally be met appropriately. 10,000 signatures are needed for the government to respond to the petition and 100,000 for it to be considered for debate in Parliament. You could help by signing the petition and asking one person you know to sign it too. Just follow this link: petition

Please share this post far and wide to get the message out there.

It is essential that schools, health visitors, psychologists, CAMHS services, doctors and the Police know about Bercow10. Could you share the link with your child’s school or other professional?

If you want to get even more involved than that, see the Calls to Action section of the website: Calls to Action 

Thank you very much in advance for signing petitions and sharing etc. Change has to happen.

 

 

*This post is based on my personal reading and interpretation of the Bercow10 report. If you want to know the sources of my statistics, please see the report.

Ensuring Children’s Speech and Language Needs Are Met: A Call to Action

Unwanted Changes

Things have been going really well for a few weeks here. That way where you begin to think you might have cracked it and that having no specific difficulties is the new normal way of life. I wasn’t getting complacent about it; if anything it was making me feel a bit uncomfortable and suspicious, not because I want to have difficulties but because it seemed a bit too good to be true. About a day after having that thought, some problems predictably began to arise. I don’t think it is anything major at this stage, hopefully not, but we are at the point of thinking Little Bear’s behaviour might be escalating and we are keeping a close eye on what’s going on.

There are two issues, both school based. At the start of the school year we had some School Worries and then various things happened to resolve them (see Alleviating School Worries). Since then there have been niggles but generally an upward trajectory with Little Bear and Mrs C, his TA, getting to know one another better. Over the past two months or so I would say they have got into their groove. Little Bear feels safe with Mrs. C; he listens to her and accepts her authority. Mrs. C has come to understand Little Bear and what he needs and how to help him. Consequently Little Bear’s behaviour has been very settled and he has made fabulous progress. We have been very pleased with how everything has been going.

Unfortunately, Mrs. C is now experiencing some personal issues; a member of her family is very poorly and understandably she needs to take time out to care for them. She is still coming in most days but sometimes only helping Little Bear for an hour before leaving. Obviously I know it can’t be helped and I really feel for her, having been through it all last year with Supergran, but at the same time, with my parent hat on, I’m a bit gutted. Consistency is so important for children who struggle with attachment and trauma. It has taken a long time for this relationship to be properly established and just as things have settled seems an unlucky time for disruption to happen. Mrs. C is Little Bear’s safety net at school now. He knows she is there to help him and without her I suspect he is a little lost.

We are lucky in that Little Bear has made good progress and can now cope with a bit less support and still get some work done, where he couldn’t have managed to earlier in the term and would have become very disruptive. However, we are all too aware that things can escalate quickly when much needed support is taken away. We are keeping an extra close eye on how Little Bear is and checking in with his teacher more frequently.

The school are not currently covering Mrs C’s time when she isn’t there as it likely to be a short term situation but we are concerned that they may need to if Little Bear shows us he isn’t coping.

When I picked Little Bear up yesterday he appeared dyregulated and really struggled to listen on the way home. He did daft things like hide in someone else’s front garden and tried to put a Hula Hoop in his ear that he would not normally do these days. Could this deterioration in behaviour be a sign he isn’t coping quite so well as we thought?

Well, it could, but equally it could be due to the other school issue that we are also concerned about. For some reason that I can’t fathom, the school have changed the entire dinner menu. They have changed it on the premise of it becoming healthier. In practise, they have removed all carbohydrates. Cauliflower rice or celeriac mash anyone?

I’m all for healthy eating and children having their vegetables, of course I am, but I do think this menu has gone about three steps too far. Little Bear loved buying some toast at break time and I always encouraged it because he gets very hungry and I felt it was regulating for him. I am sure there is some evidence about children who have experienced trauma needing more fuel because they expend so much energy trying to stay within their window of tolerance (if anyone knows what I’m on about please point me in the right direction). I also think Little Bear has to work harder due to his Developmental Language Disorder, another reason to keep his energy levels up.

Anyway, needless to say he can’t buy toast anymore because bread is the food of the devil or some such nonsense.

The lunchtime menu now has one choice only so I guess you eat it or you don’t. Previously there were always two choices and personally I feel there still should be – aren’t children allowed to have preferences? My feeling about the food now is that it would probably be delicious for me, a grown up with developed taste buds, who is conscious of my waistline but either I have failed as a parent or my children are lacking in some way as they are very unlikely to eat it. I don’t know many children who would eat harissa lamb or Greek salad or greek yoghurt and berries for every pudding, to be honest. Apparently they have done it on purpose to get the children tasting more things.

The thing is I feel as though they have misunderstood the function of a school lunch. In my eyes yes, it should be as healthy and fresh as possible, but it should be appealing to most children because the most important thing is that they eat it, fill their tummies and are able to approach the afternoon well-regulated and able to concentrate. I think that pushing boundaries and trying things can happen at home or during special events at school but the last thing I want is for Little Bear to push his posh nosh round his plate, not eat any of it and spend the afternoon swinging from the lampshades. Being well-fed is crucial for Little Bear’s behaviour regulation. If he is hungry he will not be able to control himself and he certainly won’t be able to learn.

I feel as though the school has inadvertently created a very exclusive menu which will inevitably exclude many children. There has been no consideration for children who may have restricted diets due to underlying conditions such as Autism or children who have had limited life experiences. Before Little Bear came to us, he didn’t eat any vegetables and perhaps only one or two fruits. The fact that he will happily eat a range now feels like a success to me; I don’t feel the need to push him beyond his comfort zone and I don’t appreciate the inference that my child (or my parenting) is somehow lacking by him not wanting to eat anything on the exclusive school menu. I feel as though it has somehow become an elitist basis on which to separate the parents – those who have succeeded in getting their children to eat like grown-ups and those who haven’t. Bring back jacket potatoes and roast dinners I say, are they really that detrimental to our children’s health?

As an aside, the children are no longer allowed to bring a cake in when it’s their birthday either which I find very sad. I know we are meant to be concerned about childhood obesity but neither of my boys sits still and Little Bear has a six pack to be jealous of. I think he can eat a slice of cake now and again without any of us getting too concerned.

Anyway, menu-related rant aside, I am mainly concerned about Little Bear’s wellbeing and him pushing his friends about and trying to shove crisps into his ears could well be due to hangry-ness. Little Bear not eating his lunch could well be a disaster and could easily lead to an escalation in his behaviour. I am trying to keep a close check on whether he is eating at school, though it is proving difficult as, according to him, yesterday’s lunch was soup and porridge which even by the new menu’s standard seems unlikely.

I know change is unavoidable but on this occasion I really wish they’d left things well alone. For our children, those who have been through enough already, small things can be big things and medium-sized things like not having your trusted adult or being expected to survive a day without carbs can be enough to upset their wagons completely. Here’s hoping this is just a small bump in the road and not the next dip on the rollercoaster.

Unwanted Changes

Pets, Children & Why We’re Not Getting a Dog

We keep thinking about getting a dog. We have favourite dog breeds and have even thought about dog names. We are not getting one though, unless I actually want to have a nervous breakdown, which I don’t, so we are not getting one. Not in the foreseeable future anyhow.

It is not as though we haven’t got any pets. We have two cats, outside fish, inside fish and up until fairly recently we had three hens (they got old, don’t worry, it isn’t a grizzly fox story).

The cats are good pets for Little Bear. The cats are quite straightforward with clear boundaries; if they are happy they show you with purring, if they’re not they show you with a scratch. They literally never get over-excited, I don’t think cats can be bothered, and if Little Bear is too rough or over-exuberant with them, they either walk away or give him a nip. Obviously I don’t want him to be nipped or scratched but it is a natural consequence of not treating the cat properly and has led to him being very gentle with them. He has learned that if he is nice to the cats, they will reward him with cuddles and sleep on his bed. Whenever that happens I always tell Little Bear how much they love him, otherwise they wouldn’t want to be in his bedroom or on his bed and that makes him feel good.

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Little Bear has started to get involved with feeding them and knows when they’re hungry. He is also good at keeping them company on the way to the vets. He is less pleased when the little cat goes on a killing spree and brings all sorts of half-maimed creatures into the house but he has helped to catch a live mouse on more than one occasion and has also tidied up dead birds (I don’t make him do that, obviously, but he likes to help). The cats have taught both boys a lot about life, nature and responsibility.

The fish are quite entertaining to look at but I have to admit they are the least exciting of all our pets for children. Little Bear enjoyed building the pond though and enjoyed keeping it ice-free over the cold spell we just had. He likes to feed the inside and outside fish and helps to clean out the tank. Pets definitely provide opportunities for helping and feeling successful.

Our hens have been our most fear-inducing pets, though only ever in other people’s children, not in our own. It has always been a bit of a surprise to folk when they have come across them in our back garden as we live in a typical cul-de-sac, with a not-very-big garden and you don’t really expect to find them there. We have fenced off part of the garden at the side and the hens are generally free range in that bit. Children have to go in there to get to the trampoline though which is what causes the consternation.

We already had the hens when Little Bear came home and he was pretty interested in them from the beginning. I have some lovely photos of him holding one of them and also him inside the hen house with them all outside! I was pretty impressed with him that at the age of three he was brave enough to get hold off one (they were friendly but you did risk a whip from a wing if you didn’t hold them firmly enough). The look on his little face of pride and happiness is just lovely.

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Little Bear has learned quite a lot from the hens. When he first arrived I don’t think he’d ever seen an egg before and he certainly didn’t know that hens lay them. The first time he was left alone with the freshly laid eggs, he threw them all on the ground and trampled them. I often talk about the incident in my workshops and I genuinely think it was because he didn’t understand the context. He didn’t understand that the hens had laid the eggs, that we could take them inside and cook them or that we could eat them. I think he just thought “they look interesting” and explored them on a sensory level.

Funnily enough Little Bear is a good little helper in the kitchen these days and whenever we are baking or making pancakes, he is always in charge of the egg part.

Little Bear has always enjoyed a practical task and would often help Grizzly to hose out the hen house or to re-fill the feed or water or just give the hens some treats. Our last hen, Yoko, recently became poorly and it was obvious she was going to die. It was during the Beast From The East so we brought her inside and she sat in a washing up bowl by the back door for several days while we gave her ‘end of life care’ (the poor thing had lost her ability to move about). Both boys were good at sitting with her and stroking her. Big Bear even suggested she might want to watch You-Tube on his I Pad!

I think that having her inside and letting her go naturally was helpful for the boys who could get a bit used to what was happening and were not shocked when she did die (though the three of us did stand there for quite some time staring at her, trying to decide whether she was breathing or not. It’s harder to tell than you’d think!).

Having pets has certainly brought another dimension to our lives and I do think the boys have gained from it. They have developed empathy, caring and the practical ability to look after something.

I could see us with a dog: I could see the boys would get a lot from one too. Only we just can’t get one. It’s a bad idea.

Little Bear LOVES dogs. I don’t think I’ve ever met a child who loves dogs quite as much as him. When he was smaller he would just run at them, whether he knew them or not and would be desperate to get his hands on them. We have had A LOT of chats about not knowing whether dogs are friendly or not and that you must ask their owner first before you can touch them. Little Bear has learned the rule well but it has not stopped him from gate-crashing stranger’s picnics to make a furry friend or trying to wrestle a lead from someone so he can walk their dog. Once, we were in the country park near to home and I happened to turn around just at the instant Little Bear had over exuberantly scooped up a Dachshund and was dangling it face first above the ground, the poor thing no doubt scared out of its wits. Another time we met a Chow Chow on the high street and within three seconds of being acquainted with it, Little Bear popped his hand in its mouth, probably as he was intrigued by its dark tongue. Dark tongue or no, you can’t go round sticking your hand into random dog’s mouths.

My brother has a dog. She is only about a year old, massive and EXTREMELY bouncy. She is a Tigger of a dog. She is very friendly and has no malice in her whatsoever. She never growls and loves the children. However, and it’s a big however, she has some issues with regulation. She basically can’t regulate herself and hence can be poor at listening, unruly and very, very excitable.

Before we go to see the dog, Little Bear and I always have a little chat. I remind him that if he runs and jumps at her, she will jump up at him. I remind him that if he wants her to be calm, he needs to be quiet and calm and move about slowly. Little Bear knows all this and can tell me the rules. I believe he has every intention of sticking to them.

When we arrive, the dog will be beside herself because some new people have appeared and not only that but some of them are tiny people and that’s way more exciting. Her tail will be wagging with such vigour that she’s knocking things over and she will be being held by her grown-ups to stop her from jumping at everyone’s faces. As she is considerably bigger than Little Bear on her hind legs there is a very real possibility that she will knock him flying. Little Bear doesn’t mind one jot and is just as keen to get to her. What usually ensues is a tangle of human and dog, lots of licks and possibly an accidental scratch.

Already, Little Bear has forgotten the rules. Then mayhem breaks out. The more times the dog licks him or stands on him or knocks him over, the more excited Little Bear gets. The more excited and loud and fast Little Bear gets, the more excited the dog gets so the more she leaps about like a lamb and the more Little Bear laughs and falls over, the more the dog tries to bury under him and the more it tickles and the more he laughs. The dog and the boy reach fever pitch within the first 5 minutes of meeting each other.

Now, if that lasted for half an hour and then everybody calmed down I could deal with it. But it doesn’t. You wouldn’t think it humanly possibly but Little Bear at least, remains at fever pitch the entire time he is with the dog. We once managed 24 whole hours at my brother’s house before Grizzly and I couldn’t bear the dysregulation any longer. People say, “but they’d get used to each other, they’d calm down after a bit” but they wouldn’t. Little Bear doesn’t get any calmer and Grizzly and I find it really hard because what everyone is seeing is Little Bear at his worst. He is completely out of control. He has lost his ability to listen and he cannot be controlled either by us or by himself. He is as dysregulated as he can get. It means that when we try to get everyone to sit quietly and watch TV or let the dog have a nap, Little Bear is not physically capable at that moment in time of leaving her alone or of being quiet or of sitting still. It means he seems very disobedient and is constantly told off.

Having written about Interoception recently, I do wonder if that is the root cause. I read that part of being under-responsive to interoceptive feedback is that you don’t know when you’re getting over-excited or when you need a break. Little Bear certainly doesn’t when he is with the dog and last time, he was absolutely exhausted when we got him home, having come down from his adrenaline-fuelled high.

Obviously if we did get a dog Little Bear would love it but you can see why it feels risky. We would do our research and get a calm breed but a puppy is a puppy and all will be excitable to some degree. We wouldn’t be able to rely on Little Bear sticking to any sort of rule about leaving the dog alone for five minutes or not playing with it roughly and I do wonder how on earth we’d be able to train it properly in those circumstances. The very worst outcome for Little Bear would be us getting a dog then having to send it back, something we are, for obvious reasons, keen to avoid.

It feels a little mean, saying our child can’t have the thing he would love most in the world but until his regulation is improved, it’s too risky. I know there is a lot written about the benefits of dogs for adopted children but I wondered whether anyone else experiences the issues we do?

I think we’ll stick to cats and hens for now. Easter is just around the corner, the perfect time to welcome some new chicks…

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Pets, Children & Why We’re Not Getting a Dog

Football: A Yardstick for Progress?

Back in the summer of ’15 (no, I am not re-inventing a song) Little Bear had just arrived. It was both a blessing and a curse that this momentous event had taken place during the summer holidays. It was great because it answered the question of how we were going to possibly manage meeting our youngest son a couple of hundred miles away whilst also managing the needs of our elder school-age child.

However, once we were back, the days stretched out interminably ahead of us. Grizzly and I were both on leave and there was no school or pre-school to give some much-needed structure to our days. There was just us and a very unruly seeming energetic mass of a child who at the very minimum needed to be kept out of immediate danger all the livelong day. With the benefit of hindsight I can say that he was traumatised and emotionally at sea. At the time I don’t think we quite knew what had hit us and I’m pretty sure we had barely a second to think about it.

We discovered, within the first hour of his arrival, that being inside the house with Little Bear was kind of difficult. He could not be contained in one room and wandered, nay prowled about, seemingly looking for the most dangerous or unwanted (by adults) tasks to engage in. He was everywhere: up shelves, in cupboards, under furniture. Little Bear was not in any way tuned into language so didn’t respond to any verbal means of trying to shape his behaviour. We spent the first weeks trailing after him, like a Police dog trailing a criminal, trying to anticipate what he might do next, trying to keep up with him, trying to offer distraction. We had to physically remove him from dangerous situations, which triggered his fight response and we were often bitten, scratched, hit or kicked.

It quickly became apparent that we might fair slightly better outside. Wide open spaces were good because there weren’t many things you couldn’t touch and Little Bear could be freer. Obviously the not responding to language thing was tricky, especially when you wanted him to come back. There was many an occasion when Grizzly had to sprint after him but notwithstanding that, things were easier.

You cannot actually live your life in a field though so we did have to try to make do with our small-ish back garden some of the time.

Left to his own devices, Little Bear would have spent the whole day watering the garden with the hose until a flood came and we would have needed Noah on speed-dial. We did of course allow Little Bear some hose time but it was essential we introduced some parameters if we were ever going to gain a modicum of order. As an aside, on one occasion of supervised hosing, Little Bear accidentally caught the sunlight at just the perfect angle to create a rainbow. It was one of the first times he responded to my communication to “look” and together we shared the same reference point and together marvelled at the amazing rainbow. I remember feeling more happy than you might think about that because I had actually reached him. After that we often tried to make a rainbow collaboratively and he began to see the point of me in an interaction. He also learned the word “rainbow” which was a big deal in his otherwise depleted vocabulary.

While the rainbow moment was a mini-turning point, I still did not want a flooded garden and knew that Little Bear needed help to engage with other outdoor activities too. Big Bear was 6 at this point and had recently got very into football. He was keen to be outdoors and was never far from a ball. Little Bear was also interested in the ball and generally ran straight though the middle of a kick-about with the sole purpose of nicking said ball. This was incredibly annoying from Big Bear’s point of view.

We tried to explain that Little Bear was little and didn’t understand games yet or that there were rules and he was really just trying to play. Big Bear could entertain this type of reasoning and would try to follow Little Bear’s lead. Little Bear would pick up the ball and run off, saying ‘catch me’ and looking for you to chase him. Big Bear or one of us would oblige. As he was shouting ‘catch me, catch me’ that’s what we tried to do. Only, when we did catch him, all hell would break loose. I guess because when the catching actually happened he decided he didn’t want it after all. I suppose being grabbed by people you aren’t sure if you trust yet is pretty frightening.

Little Bear would cry, we would be scratched. We would try some reasoning but Little Bear couldn’t process it. Five minutes later Little Bear would be running off with the ball shouting ‘catch me, catch me’ and the whole merry-go-round would begin again.

It was very difficult to manage or to see how to manage it a different way. All we knew was, it was a very inauspicious start to a footballing career and we probably had not just adopted the future David Beckham.

In the summer of 2016, things had developed a little. Big Bear was now getting good at football and wanted to practice properly. Little Bear had fallen totally in love with his brother and wanted to do whatever he was doing. If Big Bear was playing football, Little Bear was close by. Unfortunately he still had a penchant for ball-snatching and though Big Bear is extremely patient with him, it really did push his patience to breaking point. Most football games ended in one or the other or both in tears or storming off.

By this point Big Bear was pretty knowledgeable about the rules of the beautiful game and both he and Grizzly did their utmost to teach the basics to Little Bear. There were a few problems. One was that Little Bear could be (and still can be at times) rather oppositional so rules were like a red rag to a bull. If you told him he wasn’t allowed to pick up the ball, his first urge was to pick up the ball. Another problem is that Little Bear had very poor resilience then and the smallest knock or comment or his own perception that he had done something bad would be enough to cause him to purposefully kick the ball out of play or boot it at someone or call someone a name or hit them. Football continued to be a source of stress, distress and very little enjoyment for anyone involved.

Thankfully for Big Bear, he played football at an after-school club and he joined a club outside of school so he could get his fix somewhere. Interestingly, he had had a rough time because he didn’t like football when he was younger and it had really impacted on his ability to be accepted by the other boys. We had been reluctant about allowing him to join a club as it can be so competitive and the last thing we wanted was for his confidence to take a further knock, for example by being kept on the bench if he wasn’t perceived to be good enough.

Grizzly researched all the options and found a club with an inclusive ethos where all children get an equal go, irrespective of how good they are. Despite our reservations, it was a fantastic experience for Big Bear and did wonders for his confidence, both inside and outside of school. He continues to play for them now and apart from a recent appearance of nerves (a whole other tale, there is always something!) he loves it.

By the summer of 2017 a glimmer of football-related hope began to appear. Little Bear was beginning to tolerate the rules. He accepted they were there but was often in conflict with himself over sticking to them. He was still easily upset and something like the other team scoring a goal could be enough to cause a bit of a situation. However, the situation was generally less dramatic than before and mostly involved him stropping off to a corner of the garden for five minutes.

Alongside this, Little Bear’s language skills had now developed unrecognisably. We could start to talk about how he was feeling and what might be causing his behaviour. We could say things like “I think you are feeling a bit frustrated because the other team scored. That’s ok. Sit there for five minutes then join in again when you’re ready”. We generally didn’t make too much of a fuss and often if we ignored the outburst he would just join in again a few seconds later by himself. We always praised the good decision he had made to come back. We also tried some other techniques like bringing a squidgy stress toy outside with us and Little Bear would go and squeeze that if he was getting annoyed, rather than shouting at somebody or running off with the ball.

Football still had its moments but as the summer wore on I realised that the boys were starting to have a kick-about on their own after tea, while I did the washing up (handily positioned in front of the back window where I could keep a watchful eye). More often than not, the game would go without hitch and I would silently count my blessings when they came back in. They even started to set each other up for specific bits of play e.g. Little Bear would throw the ball so Big Bear could volley it in. Maybe football could be fun in the Bear household after all?

Not long after term started again, Little Bear began asking to join the after school football club that Big Bear attended. I had a lot of concerns. He is extremely tired after school, making listening harder than usual. We were having a very rough phase in the classroom and Little Bear was frequently in trouble for being disruptive. The guy who runs the football is lovely but not especially firm and I’d always rather suspected the children ran amok. Little Bear is not a child who should be allowed to run amok. It is not wise. It could be extremely detrimental.

Little Bear clearly wanted to go though and I had to listen. I decided this was a rare time that a sticker chart might work. I was clear with Little Bear that I couldn’t let him go to the club if he wasn’t going to listen to what he was told because that could be dangerous. The rules would be there to keep him and his friends safe. He gained stickers by doing what he was asked in school, at home and if he was with others like his grandparents. If he didn’t manage to do as he was asked, nothing happened. If he did manage to, a big fuss was made about his ability to make good decisions and he got a sticker.

By October half term the chart was full and I kept to my word and signed him up. I did speak with the football coach about Little Bear’s needs; that rules need to be clear and consistent for him and that he needs to know that the coach and I will talk and if things are not going well, the coach will tell me.

I knew I had to let him try but I was worried.

Last week, out of the blue, I received this message:

Just a quick one, I know you were unsure about signing Little Bear up for football but he has been amazing! I love coaching him, football or PE, just wanted to drop you a message to let you know. And then Big Bear is something else, great kid that doesn’t get the credit he deserves, he’s fantastic.

And my heart melted.

How lovely of the coach to take the time to send me that? I wonder if he really knows how much that means?

I couldn’t possibly have predicted, back in 2005, mid back garden flood, that my little dude would be able to overcome so many hurdles that he would be able to not just cope but flourish in a football club only 2 years later. He’s a phenomenon.

Maybe we did adopt the future David Beckham after all?!

 

And as for Big Bear, he is an extremely patient and lovely big brother and I hope that I at least give him the credit he deserves.

Football: A Yardstick for Progress?

Pretend I’m In Your Tummy, Mummy

Most children go through a phase of imaginative play when they are developing. They pretend, they act and they direct you to take your role in the game. They often play the same game over and over.

I can remember when Big Bear was about 3 or 4 he constantly wanted me to “make the man talk”. It was usually a Lego man and there would be some sort of scenario panning out in which I would be tasked with a specific role. Often he would tell me what words I should say and would be quick to correct me if I was getting it wrong. There was one particular game that involved a Lego man waiting on a platform for a train. Every time the train got to the station I would try to put my man on. “No” Big Bear would say, “Wait for the next one”. The next one would come and the same thing would happen. It was a game that required a lot of patience!

There was also a lot of dressing up pretending to be Batman or a fireman or a doctor. I think sometimes he pretended to be a cat.

This was Big Bear, still living with the family he was born into, following typical patterns of development.

Recently, I have discovered that this type of play with Little Bear is not quite the same. There are similarities but trauma has added an extra layer of complexity. This is a familiar conversation at the moment:

Little Bear: Pretend I’m in your tummy, Mummy

Me: Ok (cuddling him on my knee)

Me: Ooh, I wonder what my baby is going to look like. I can’t wait to meet them.

LB: I’m out now.

Me: Oh look, he’s gorgeous. Look at those eyes! He looks like a …Little Bear. I’ll call him Little Bear (In reality I say his actual name – I don’t really pretend he is a bear!) I’ll look after you and keep you safe forever.

If I don’t do the naming part he whispers to me “tell me I look like a Little Bear”.

LB: Pretend I’m a dog

Me: Have I just given birth to a dog?!

LB: Yes, you are a mummy dog

Me: Oh right

LB: No! You’re a dog! You can’t talk, you have to bark!

And so the confusing tale continues. Little Bear keeps replaying the part where I meet him for the first time. I don’t know if this is because I keep telling him how much I want him and how I’ll keep him safe forever in an attempt to be therapeutic or if in fact he keeps coming back to it because I haven’t yet said what he needs to hear. Your guess is as good as mine.

I think it is fairly obvious that the game has to do with seeking a sense of belonging, of claiming (and being claimed)* and is due to him wishing he had come out of my tummy as his brother did.

Interestingly there is another version of the game that involves me pretending he is a puppy who has got lost. I have to pretend I am following his footprints and discover him buried in a heap of snow. He pretends he is lost from his owner and that I rescue him, taking him home to warm up and have some food. Does this symbolise me back in my role as adoptive parent, I wonder? Coming in where someone else has left off? I’m intrigued that he would see that as a rescue.

Sometimes, once I have rescued him from the snow, he talks about his mum and dad coming in and finding him again. I always wonder if he means his birth parents but when I enquire who he means, he says Grizzly and me. By this stage I’m fully confused as to my role in the whole thing and whether I’m quite possibly just overthinking it.

Little Bear is definitely at the stage where fantasy and reality are fully entwined and he switches from one idea to another moment by moment. One minute I’m rescuing a puppy, the next he is a gorilla. On one occasion the baby I had given birth to was in fact an egg and I was a hen. It’s pretty difficult to keep up. I suspect the games are an amalgam of several ideas floating around his head at any one time.

A couple of times, over recent days, the games have taken a darker turn. I rescue the cold puppy, who initially seems to want some love and cuddles but who then suddenly switches to wanting to bite me. This could just be the new version of the game but as I am permanently in analyse everything and look for hidden meanings mode, I can’t help but wonder if this is like reliving the early days of our adoption. We chose Little Bear, we were excited for our future with him but when he came home he hit, bit, scratched, kicked and threw things and was generally distressed. Little Bear was 3 and a half at the time and likely remembers it. Is he double-checking my response? Do I still want to rescue the puppy if it turns out to be aggressive? Will I still take it home and love it?

I know that I might be over-analysing but I am careful with my response just in case. “Don’t worry little puppy” I reassure, “I think you are a bit frightened at the moment. I think that might be why you tried to bite me. I won’t hurt you. You are safe”.

In the game, this seems to calm the puppy.

Little Bear has instigated similar games before; right from when he arrived he wanted me to pretend he was a baby. I would lay a large blanket out on the floor and he would lie in it and get me to swaddle him. I had to be careful in the early days because it was easy to cross an invisible line into ‘too much to deal with’ territory. He would let me coddle him a bit – stroke him and coo over him like a baby but often I would unwittingly overstep the ever moving mark and be rewarded with a bite or hit. It always felt like it happened when he had allowed himself to let go for a moment and then accidentally let me in a bit too much, so that it had felt emotionally weird or frightening and he needed to back off again.

It has changed over time. I have had to persevere despite the re-buffs and he has evidently slowly become more comfortable to the point where he seeks a lot of physical comfort now. I rarely feel that the line is even there.

I find it interesting that over two years in, these acted games still feature and new ones are still appearing. I wonder if he wanted to play these recent ones before but his language skills wouldn’t allow him. Or whether he is only now reaching the appropriate developmental level. Or whether it is because he has a better understanding of his life story now. Or whether he is still seeking something I am not giving…

When I used to make the man talk for Big Bear I didn’t have all these extra things to think about. It really was about a pretend man getting onto (or at least trying to get on to) a pretend train. No hidden meanings. Little Bear’s play, on the other hand, is laced with them.

I am probably different too though – far more aware that there might be hidden meanings and far more attuned to looking for them.

What I want Little Bear to realise is that it doesn’t matter to me whose tummy he grew in, I love him just the same. But I guess they are only words to him; he needs to truly believe it and feel it within himself.

I guess we will be pretending he is in my tummy for a while longer yet.

 

*There is definitely a claiming element to it, not just biology, as Little Bear has also pretended to be in Big Bear’s tummy. Big Bear, being Big Bear, took it fully in his stride and ‘gave birth’ to Little Bear on the kitchen bench (!), before rocking him on his knee, cradled like a baby. I have no idea how an 8 year old came to be so instinctively therapeutic but he’s a natural.

** I’m very lucky to have two such lovely boys.

 

 

Pretend I’m In Your Tummy, Mummy