Best Family Board Games

The Bears have helped me write this post as part of their home-schooling this week. They selected which board games to include, staged and took the photos, agreed an order and have written some of the reviews themselves. We thought it might be a useful time for others to discover some new games to keep everyone entertained while stuck at home. With that in mind, we’ve selected the more unusual choices from our collection. For context, BB is now 10 and LB is 8. Without further ado, here is our top 11, as chosen by the boys.

11. Who knows where

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We’ve put this game in last place as although it is good, it is definitely aimed at a tween/teen/adult audience because it’s HARD! You basically have to figure out where in the world specific places are – either Capital cities or landmarks. You can use an easier map which marks the countries and borders or a harder one which is just land masses. Much trickier than expected but good for geography and a nice one to play with grandparents (when it’s safe to do so).

 

10. Yeti in my spaghetti

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A novelty twist on pick-up-sticks. Does what you’d expect but provides a bit of fun and fine motor skills practice for younger children.

 

9. Bug bingo

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An insect themed version of bingo. This isn’t a particularly popular game with BB but LB loves it and will sit and play for quite some time. Personally, I don’t think it’s as rock’n’roll as some of the others further up the list but the pictures are beautiful and sometimes a calmer, more regulating game is a good idea here.

 

8. Throw Throw Burrito

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This game is quite high tempo. It’s one where everyone plays at the same time which is good for children who struggle to wait and does make everything a bit more manic and fun. You basically have to make card families, getting your cards from your neighbour’s cast-off pile and discarding yours for the next player to pick-up, so everybody is manically picking up and throwing cards, trying to get the more matched ones than anyone else. LB says:

“When you have a full set of burrito cards, you can have burrito war or burrito duel or burrito brawl.” He’s right. It basically means that at random points in the game someone starts throwing a squishy burrito at someone else. We have had to add a ‘throwing gently’ rule as this could certainly get out of hand quickly. Great game, but comes with a side warning of dysregulation. Oh, and beware, dogs really like to eat the burritos, resulting in this terrifying spectacle:

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7. Klask

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I think he’s said it all really. A kind of wooden combination of football and air hockey. Really different, suitable for any age above little ones who would eat the pieces.

BB says: “This is one of my personal favourites. It is fast paced and a lot of fun to play. It is a two player game where each of you has a magnet under the table to control your player. Each of you are trying to get points by getting your player to hit the ball into your opponents goal. If you get 2 or more white dots attached to your character or if your character loses control and goes into the opponent’s half and if you go into your own goal/hole your opponent will get a point. It is first to 6 points.”

 

6. Tetris dual 

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A two player game, with play shifting between you, depending how well you do with fitting the pieces in (it tells you which shape to do next – you have to find the right place to put it to complete lines). If you leave a gap, play switches to the other person. It took us a while to figure out the settings but it’s a good game. All the addictive fun of the original game without the screen.

 

5. Genius square  

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BB says, “Genius Square is a fun, two player game where each of you will race to put all of their pieces on the board but it is harder than you think. You have to roll the dice and the coordinates that they all land on, you will put your wooden pegs on them. Then you can race with your opponent to be the first one to put all of your pieces in.”

Sometimes there is only one possible way to fit all the pieces into the board, sometimes several, but there is always a solution. I think this game is great and highly addictive. Probably more suitable for older kids as it could be quite frustrating if you aren’t evenly matched with your opponent, but it’s just as good for adults. My parents bought a set after playing at our house and are now using it a lot to entertain themselves during isolation. You can always play alone to improve your skills.

 

4. Crossfire

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Grizzly and I picked this game up at a vintage shop as he used to have one as a child so it’s probably one for eBay if anyone wants one. It’s another manic one, trying to shoot the little discs into the other person’s goal with the mini gun and ball bearings. I think you can tell it was made before anyone got too concerned about health and safety! Very easy to pick up. Can be tweaked to your own rules – for some reason I don’t understand the boys always have a Playmobil pig in the field, which apparently makes the whole thing better.

 

2. Bears vs Babies (joint second)

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There was some disagreement over which game should take the honoured spot of second place so a compromise was reached with both boys’ votes getting an equal footing. This is LB’s vote. Here’s what he has to say: “You can make a monster with any parts but when you have a weapon you can attach your tool what gives you more goes but takes some points away”

The basic premise is that you have to build monsters to fight baby armies. The babies are the baddies in this, but if you defeat them (by having monsters worth more points), you keep them. The player at the end with the most baby points wins. It sounds a bit crazy and it took quite a bit of getting our heads around the first time we played but once you know what you’re doing, it’s great. It says age 10 plus on the box but LB has picked it up really well, including all the wild cards and exceptions and is more than capable of strategizing to beat us. There is quite a lot of strategy involved e.g. if I do this, x could happen etc. You also have to keep running tallies of how much your monsters are worth, compared to other people’s monsters. It’s not straightforward, but as I say, LB has grasped it well.

I like the fact the box is small. I have been known to pop it in my (capacious) handbag to play in a café (pre-quarantine of course). Hours of fun and so different to anything else.

 

2. Bounce Off (joint second)

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While BB enjoys Bears vs Babies too, this one pipped it for him. He says: “Bounce off is an action–packed, entertaining game, where 2 players bounce their balls onto the grid, trying to make the pattern shown on the card. You will have 8 balls each, one set yellow, one set blue. The first player to make the shape on the card on the grid will win the card and after all the cards are won, the player with the most cards at the end wins.”This is very much a game of skill. You either have it (like BB) or you don’t (like me). It gets pretty fast, furious and competitive between two skilled players and anyone can have a go. There’s no hours spent reading the rules with this one – open the box and go.

 

And, drum roll….in at the top spot is:

 

  1. Carrom/karom

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No debate necessary with this one – an easy number one vote from both boys. This game originates from India apparently and, I can’t lie, the board is huge. Storage issues aside, the game is fun. It is meant to be a two player game, with each flicking their striker in an attempt to pot all their pieces before their opponent. Think pool, except it’s your finger controlling the striker, instead of a cue. However, we have invented various twists on the game to suit ourselves. Because the board is so large, four people can easily take a side each and work together in teams. We have also played a version where you don’t stick to potting one colour but you can have a free-for-all potting any colour you like with the person or team who potted the most at the end winning.

We’ve played at the kitchen table or outside on the grass.

It is a skill game really but it doesn’t matter too much if you’re rubbish at it, it’s still fun. It takes seconds to learn but you could certainly perfect your skills at it over time.

*The board looks dusty because it’s covered in Carrom powder – you tip it over the board to help the pieces glide over the surface better.

 

 

We hope we’ve inspired you to try something different – I’m sure many of these games can still be purchased online in the current circumstances. If anyone has any comments for the boys, I’m sure they’d be grateful to hear them and I’ll make sure I pass them on.

 

We hope everyone is well and staying safe,

The Bears xx

 

Best Family Board Games

Alone Parenting

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

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

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

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

I’m very lucky.

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

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

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

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

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

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

How desperate and despairing would they be then?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

Please reach out to someone if you can.

Virtual hugs,

xx

 

Alone Parenting

Being an SEMH-needs family

I suspect this blog is going to be hard to write without coming across badly. I know what I want to say, but it will require an honesty most people may not be comfortable with. You see, when you discover you have a child with SEMH (social, emotional or mental health) needs, you enter this weird dark underworld where reality shifts a little, standards become idiosyncratic and parenting as you thought it might be is turned on its head. You don’t just have a child with some needs; you become a family with needs. Each one of you now has SEMH needs to think about, contend with, manage. You might not have them inside of yourself and I’m not for one minute saying that those of you around the person with the needs suffer as they do, but you do all now experience life with SEMH needs in your pocket.

Some things go without saying (but I shall say them, for clarity): everyone loves the person with SEMH needs. They remain your child, brother or sister, grand-child, niece or nephew and you love them as such. They remain a fun, kind, clever, gorgeous human. Their SEMH needs do not define them and will always be a larger, heavier, more cumbersome sack for them to drag around than for any of you.

Nonetheless, those SEMH needs irrevocably affect all of your lives to one degree or another. This is the bit that people doubtless find hard to talk about because they fear the judgement of those who haven’t walked such a path. They fear them suggesting that the facts in the above paragraph can’t be true if you’re saying what you’re saying, or are directly disproven by your honesty. That if you say that living with a child with SEMH needs is hard work, you are making it about you, when it clearly should be about them. That if you say you are, at times, embarrassed by their behaviour, you are evidently a disloyal parent.

Why? Why isn’t ok to be honest about these things if they are true? Clearly nobody wants to disparage their child and writing or saying disrespectful things about them is never ok. But what about the need for better understanding of such children and such families? How can we expect the public or teachers or other parents to be more understanding if we don’t try to explain to them what this weird underworld we inhabit is like?

Recently, I’ve felt a few things that I suspect many parents of children with SEMH needs feel, but aren’t comfortable being honest about. I’ve felt as though I were being forced deeper into the underworld by these issues; even keener to hide. But my child with SEMH needs is just as entitled to his life experience as anyone else. I am just as entitled to my parenting experience as anyone else. BB is just as entitled to his own particular feelings about being a sibling as any other sibling. Our experience is different. It sets us apart. It complicates things. But it shouldn’t make us lesser. We shouldn’t have to cower in the underworld.

So, you know me, here comes some honesty.

One thing that people don’t talk about is that having a child with SEMH needs make you all individually and collectively more visible. If you’re all together, the noise and behaviour itself tend to draw attention. Everyone always knows you are there. You never melt into the background or pass through an event or situation unnoticed. You are certainly noticed and not necessarily in a good way.

It can be hard not to imagine that everyone in the vicinity is looking at you, observing you, scrutinising how you handle the behaviour. It is easy to feel judged. I know that all parenting involves an element of this but SEMH parenting is by definition more visible. SEMH parenting means that it’s your child drawing more attention than everyone else’s. It is your child breaking the rule, having the tantrum, shouting, throwing something.

It is quite a skill to remain calm in such circumstances and to actively filter out those around you. It takes balls to think that you do not care for their judgement, stares, tutting; that you care only for your child and their needs and you will proceed with supporting them in the way you know works best, despite that most likely being at odds with the ideas of the multiple eyes observing you. The act of forging forwards as you know best in such circumstances is far harder than it sounds. It can require a strength you don’t have and a don’t-give-a-fig-ness not naturally associated with your personality.

It is hard, while we’re at this honesty game, not to sometimes feel embarrassed. We’re British. It’s in our nature to stay calm, maintain a stiff upper lip, act politely and with reserve. Children with SEMH needs don’t tend to have got this memo. SEMH needs don’t discriminate for different audiences – they are what they are, wherever you are. Your child’s behaviour can all too often be completely at odds with the unspoken set of behaviours expected by all, but also by you, in a particular situation. There are times, frankly, when their behaviour is mortifying and you wish you had an invisibility cloak or teleportation device. It is incredibly difficult to parent in the best possible way for your child in these situations, because that way is probably not immediately compatible with the unwritten rules either and consequently you find yourself hissing ‘stop it or else’ type threats at them in a poorly disguised whisper. This isn’t useful, and you know it, but your face is glowing like you’ve overdone a sun bed and sweat is collecting in cold puddles in your arm pits.

Being in public, with your child with SEMH needs can be exquisitely uncomfortable. (And by saying this, no, it doesn’t mean that I’m not also extremely proud of him every single day.)

But at least in public you have relative anonymity – a fact you can cling to, when things go south. Not so, within school. SEMH needs make your child far more visible than other children. When your child is the one who gets sent to work in other classes, or has their card changed to red again or their face moved onto the sad cloud, or the one who gets suspended, or sent to the Head, or put on a behaviour chart, or taken out of class to work, or has their desk in a corridor, or gets into fights, or heckles the Head in assembly, or tries to escape, or stands in the urinal, or throws something, or hides under the teacher’s desk, or swears in class, everyone knows who they are. Everyone. When this is your child, you can easily guess that households around the vicinity hold teatime discussions about what your child has been up to now. They gain a certain infamy.

I guess everyone handles this differently, but I handle it by trying my best to remain invisible myself. I don’t talk to other parents, I don’t go to parties. I keep away from situations that will further alert me to his infamy. I suppose I do my best to pretend it is happening – what I don’t know can’t hurt me. It helps me to focus on my child, and what he needs and not to care what anyone else thinks, whether indeed they think anything. It’s like I go around with a protective shroud between me and the rest of the parents and as long as I don’t interact with anybody, the shroud does its thing.

Then, a situation or conversation will arise, as one did recently, that will remind me that I am not paranoid, people really are discussing him at their dinner tables. It’s a very weird feeling, knowing this is the case. It’s a mixture of defensiveness (back off, you don’t know him, you don’t understand him), acute discomfort and a realisation that when you walk across the playground being purposefully aloof, that people know exactly who you are and what your child has been up to. It makes you infamous by association. I don’t want to be infamous, or even famous; I want to be invisible, but SEMH needs have eradicated even the possibility of that. It is not a great leap to imagine that we, the parents of the infamous one, are also subject to dinner time debate. Perhaps they thrash out the myriad ways we’ve clearly failed him, for him to be behaving this way.

I think most parents questions themselves frequently and wonder if they’re doing a good enough job. But when your child is swinging from the lampshades and ignoring every request you make, it is far too easy to descend into self-doubt, especially if your patience starts to fray and you find yourself losing your temper. I find it is shockingly easy to make the leap from thinking I know what I’m doing to berating myself for my evident parenting failures, along with the rest of society. It is far easier to imagine we’re parenting well when our children are behaving well. And instead of explaining the transgressions with their actual cause – the SEMH needs – we are more likely, as parents, to think we should have been more therapeutic or calmer or somehow better at this parenting lark.

This is partly why I think we ought to be honest about the realities of SEMH parenting. It’s really bloody hard. It’s hard on a cellular level and many of us expect superhuman levels of self-control and parenting wizardry from ourselves on a daily basis when actually, it’s pretty unobtainable, for the key reason that caring for a child with SEMH needs is a big, difficult, complex task. A task which I think should be better understood and supported by society as a whole.

Perhaps if discussions around dinner tables focussed on what our child’s behaviour might mean about the life challenges they’ve had or what they need their friends to do differently to support them, attitudes might be different. Perhaps if people didn’t approach SEMH presentations with an urge to blame, us parents may not feel so isolated. Perhaps if onlookers were telepathising supportive vibes instead of judgement, we might not be so stressed in public places. I think it’s fair enough that the general public don’t really understand what it’s like or why our children behave as they do, because there aren’t many means of becoming informed, unless they have personal experience of SEMH issues. So, to some extent, it is incumbent upon those of us living it to share those experiences and help people to become better informed. Hence, you know, this blog.

 

I also want to talk about the fact that it is not just parents of children with SEMH needs who feel scrutinised, but siblings too. If you happen to attend the same school as your brother or sister who has gained infamy through their SEMH based behaviours; you are also infamous by association. No doubt you get kids coming to you in the playground, informing you of what your sibling has done now. Perhaps sometimes they are unkind or judgemental or ill-informed. Perhaps they laugh. Perhaps they find it a sport. Perhaps you witness others handling your sibling and their behaviour in ways you don’t think are fair or appropriate or commensurate with what happened. You don’t want to be associated negatively with their high jinks and rule-breaking – you don’t want people to think you are like that too – but you love them, and you can’t stand to see them mistreated either. You are willing to compromise your own reputation to defend them, if necessary. You love them but they embarrass you and draw unwanted attention to you and sometimes, you wish they didn’t and you like them a little less but you feel guilty for it, because they’re still your sibling and they can’t help it and you know that really. Your feelings towards them can be very complicated and overwhelming.

I think being an SEMH family can be a lot for siblings. It requires an emotional maturity beyond their years. Those skills we struggle with as adults – of trying to be Teflon-coated to repel the judgement of others – are challenging and often unachievable for us, despite years of practise. Siblings of children with SEMH needs have to employ those same skills in childhood. It’s an ask which I suspect is routinely underestimated.

As parents, this is another element we have to be aware of – are the siblings of our child with SEMH needs ok? Are we appropriately supporting them to wander around with SEMH needs also weighing in their pocket?

 

To conclude, life as an SEMH needs family has all these extra layers to it, over and above supporting the child who has SEMH needs, as though those needs radiate out from the child, creating ripples far beyond them. There is a visibility to it which has us trying to hide in the shadows. It can lead to uncomfortable and unwanted feelings such as embarrassment, misplaced anger, guilt. It can be isolating and vulnerable. It makes you grow a thicker skin, bundle yourself in a protective shroud, but beneath that, you can’t help but be wounded by the judgement, blame and insensitivity of others.

 

I don’t want to end on a negative, because being an SEMH needs family is not all doom and gloom. I want all the above to be better understood, but I also want people to know that our family is pretty cool. Yes, we’re different, we’re loud, we struggle with rules, we can be a little shocking to behold but we have a lot of fun. We all work incredibly hard to overcome the challenges we’ve been dealt. We are grafters, survivors, persevere-ers, overcome-ers. We are out and about doing things despite the SEMH needs. Wouldn’t it be amazing if that were cause for celebration? If we could all focus on what our son can do and all the brilliant things he achieves, instead of feeling we have to apologise for his challenges.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Being an SEMH-needs family

The Great National Adoption Week Debate

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

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

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

And yet…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

The Great National Adoption Week Debate

Parental Mental Health

Thursday 10th October is World Mental Health Day – a chance for everyone to focus on mental wellness, ways to support mental health difficulties and suicide prevention. I wanted to contribute by writing about a niche, slightly neglected corner of mental health: how do you keep yourself well when you are caring for someone else with mental health struggles? Specifically, how do you keep yourself well when your child has social, emotional or mental health needs?

As a parent myself, of a child with SEMH needs, I am all too aware of the toll it can take. No doubt people will accuse me of selfishly focussing on myself and my own needs when it is my child who is in real turmoil, but to them, I say this: when you are parenting a child with such needs, there is barely a waking minute that passes without you puzzling over how they’re feeling, why they’re feeling like that, what you can do to make things easier for them. You can tie yourself in knots wondering how certain situations might affect them and what measures you can put in place to reduce their anxiety or make things easier. You rake over previous situations wondering what you could have done differently, what else they might have needed, what underlying worries or upsets might have been driving certain behaviours. You write social stories, make visual supports, meet with teachers, buy sensory equipment. You read books, blogs, articles to inform yourself; to check you haven’t missed anything. You consider them and their needs in every plan you make.

I’m not saying any praise or accolade is required for that – it isn’t, it’s just you doing your parenting best like everybody else – but it is all consuming and somewhat exhausting.

The very nature of SEMH difficulties means that children who experience them will now and again (or often) present with behaviour that is difficult for people around them. Again, that might sound selfish, but I just mean it factually. It’s the nature of the SEMH beast. And no matter how good you are at looking beyond it, analysing it, understanding it, trying to support it, the fact of the matter is that some of the behaviour you live with is difficult.

In trying to support my child in the best way for him, I sometimes have to dig so deep into my emotional reserve that I know I’ve gone beyond what is actually there. Sometimes the effort required not to rise to provocation, not to shout, not to fully (or even partially) lose my shit, not to enter my own fight/flight state and to instead respond therapeutically and calmly, feels like a superhuman request. I am not superhuman. But sometimes I feel I’ve plumbed superhuman depths and that can’t be good for you. I often feel depleted after particularly tricky situations and that is probably because I am. I’ve used everything I’ve got and more.

This is where concerning ourselves with parental mental health is absolutely not selfish and should be a priority for all. If I am depleted, how can I provide all the things my child needs? How can I analyse and look beyond and generate solutions? I can barely get off the sofa.

This is why caring for carers is absolutely something that should be talked about.

For me, there are three main safeguards: self-care, self-kindness and external support. I have written about self-care before ( Self-Care ) and I generally consider it to be all the boring stuff that you should do to look after yourself and stay well. That is just my personal interpretation – some people include all the self-kindness stuff in there too but in my mind there is a distinction. For me, self-care is things like eating properly (which isn’t fun because I don’t eat sugar or bad carbs like bread but I know that I stay healthier this way), getting enough sleep (despite being a natural night-owl), getting enough fresh air and exercise. I don’t necessarily enjoy self-care but it is all about things I’ve learned from experience that I need to do or not do in order to function the best I can.

Self-kindness  is much more fun. I view it as little treats to yourself that give you a boost and help to fill up your emotional reserves. It can be anything – sometimes the thought of getting into fresh pyjamas and watching Location, Location, Location is enough to help me through a day; at other times it’s some uninterrupted writing time, or being alone for a bit, or chatting to a friend, or now and again, I do need an actual treat.

Though self-kindness is more enjoyable and has the potential to vastly improve your mood quickly, I continue to struggle with allowing myself to have it. I can’t be the only one. We do seem to live in particularly trying times – with the threat of Brexit, political instability and, even more horrifyingly, climate change hanging over us. There is a general atmosphere of unrest and unpleasantness (just dip your toe into social media to see what I mean) and no doubt all these things are contributing to a country-wide dip in mental wellness. I can’t be the only one who thinks about using some retail therapy for self-kindness reasons then gets the guilt that I might be unwittingly ruining the planet. One purchase can lead to a spiralling concern about use of water to farm cotton, tonnes of clothes entering landfill and a general worry about human over-consumption. Whilst I clearly should be concerned about my carbon footprint (and I am), I am finding that my ways of practising self-kindness are dwindling in parallel.

I don’t drink, I don’t eat sugar, now I can’t really shop. But I’m still plumbing those emotional reserves and that need for a boost continues to gape. I suspect it is about turning away from having to have things and finding more wholesome ways of filling reserves. Writing is a salve, as is cutting myself enough slack to actually relax without constantly clambering around my to-do list. I’ve realised that buying books is pretty wholesome – even a hardback is a fraction of the price of a new top and unless we buy them, authors can’t make a living – so it’s a multi-faceted win (assuming it’s made from sustainably sourced paper. See? I have self-kindness with a side-scoop of guilt problems). Enid, our puppy, arrives soon and I’m hoping that her furry little face will be a salve in itself.

There are no clear answers, and what each individual needs will be different, but my point is that self-kindness is essential. We must let ourselves have it and find the things that work.

Lastly, parents of children with SEMH needs will require outside support in one form or another. It is too big and too hard to deal with single-handedly. Whenever Grizzly and I have one of our frank chats about how we’re feeling, it is never long before one of us wonders aloud how on earth single parents do it. If I couldn’t air my deepest darkest thoughts without needing to censor them or without fear of judgement, I suspect I would implode. Everybody needs that outlet.

We are lucky that outside of our family of four, we have a wider family of grandparents and aunties/uncles and close friends who get it. They are an informed bunch who listen and are willing to help with the analysing of behaviour and application of strategies as needed. They are happy to give us a break. I’m not sure we take that option enough, because life is a little manic and it requires forward-thinking, but it helps to know the option is there. We are also fortunate enough to have the support of school. I had a meeting with them recently and realised that despite the myriad ups and downs we’ve had with them (and the odd specific person I find it hard to engage with) they are genuinely caring and they do want us all to be ok. I feel comfortable speaking honestly with them too and just that ability to voice your worries and challenges outside of your four walls is invaluable.

Unfortunately, not all parents of children with SEMH needs have this emotional scaffold around them and I can only imagine how lonely a place that is. It must be particularly hard for those who don’t know others in similar positions – there is a very real risk they would consider themselves the only ones in their particular predicament, further compounding worries and stresses over whether they or their parenting may be to blame.

I hope that by being open about the challenges of SEMH parenting it will reassure other parents they are certainly not alone as well as raising awareness for any wider family members or professionals working with such families. For me, the key thing is to ask parents if they’re ok and to give them the time to talk if they are not. Be prepared for tears. Most of the time, it is just an outlet that’s needed, not necessarily a raft of solutions, because those parents are likely to have already tried most things you can think of.

Families of children with SEMH difficulties will have found themselves in all manner of weird and not-so-wonderful situations – please don’t judge them. It is safe arenas in which they can be honest that they so desperately need.

Parents can be made to feel guilty for talking openly about their worries and challenges – as though they are in some way disloyal to their child in doing so – however the real risk of encouraging them to put up and shut-up is that it might well push them to breaking point; a point at which they are no longer able to adequately meet their child’s needs.

As a parent, it is scary to admit that things are hard and that scenarios are arising where you don’t know what to do. Parents already fear they are failing, they do not need their suspicions to be compounded by bad listeners, naysayers and judgmental attitudes. Unless you have over-plumbed your emotional depths caring for someone, you cannot begin to imagine what it’s like.

Actually, I think there is a fourth thing that is needed, as well as self-care, self-kindness and support: niceness. It seems like an outmoded concept these days – it’s faded into obscurity along with other seemingly bland concepts such as beige clothing and magnolia paint. But I really miss it. I think we’re all unknowingly really missing it. Politicians could do with re-inventing it for sure. Since when did it become normal to shout and yell and name-call and judge and troll and alienate and oppose and incite? Just be nice. That would improve everyone’s mental health. Some kind words, a smile, a hug or an “I hear you” can go a long way to improving a day.

Let’s look after one another; we’re all just trying our best.

 

Parental Mental Health

My Father Has A Monobrow

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

 

My Father Has a Monobrow

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

My Father Has A Monobrow

More Summer Holiday Activities

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

Excavating

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

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Black and neon

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

 

Glowing Eggs

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

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

 

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

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

 

Block Printing

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

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

 

Creepy Crawly Clings and other sets

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

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

 

Slime

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

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

 

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

 

More Summer Holiday Activities