Talking is Crucial

We’ve had a flurry of activity here over the past week or so, with various people visiting us and several sleeping over at different points. Each person has come with their own story, most of which have made our day to day challenges pale into insignificance. Their stories are not mine to share of course, so I won’t, but reflecting on it all has left a few thoughts whirling about.

Firstly, talking is crucial. It is crucial in a very basic form: the form where it allows you to have your needs met. We know this as a family, having adopted Little Bear at a point when he couldn’t communicate well and there was more he couldn’t tell us than he could. We know it but sometimes a situation arises that reminds you. One of our guests was a family friend who happens to have learning difficulties. Her speech and language skills are very limited and even in the short time she stayed, we could see a snapshot of the challenges she faces every day. She couldn’t always tell us what she wanted to eat; she couldn’t tell us what she wanted to watch on TV; she couldn’t tell us why she did or didn’t want to do certain things. It must be incredibly frustrating, especially as she can understand much more than she can express (you can’t help but notice these things as a speech and language therapist and incidentally, be a little desperate to solve them).

I certainly feel as though life would be different for her were she able to say everything she is capable of, whether that was verbally or in another way. I also felt it must have been really scary for her, to come and stay somewhere she hadn’t stayed before, knowing she might not be able to get all her needs/ wants met. Imagine how vulnerable that would make you feel. I suppose some people might think that due to her learning difficulties she doesn’t think about these things but I know she knows her communication is different. I think she’s embarrassed about it and is certainly more reticent if there are a lot of people around or people she doesn’t know well. More words began to sneak out as she settled but there was still a huge disparity between the ones she comprehended and those she was able to verbalise at the point she wanted to say them.

I can’t help but think of the what-ifs. What if she’d had more/better speech and language therapy when she was younger? What if she did now? Is it too late? Is it ever too late? Should something alternative have been put in place? What should it be? Why wasn’t more offered? Did people think it was ok because of her learning needs? What if a young child presenting as she did when she was young was under speech and language therapy now? What potential would be seen in them? Would outcomes be different? I like to think so but given what we know of speech and language therapy services since Bercow10 (see Ensuring Children’s Speech and Language Needs Are Met: A Call to Action) I wonder…

Surely we should be striving for the most a person can do, whoever they are, instead of settling for the least we can get away with.

On another note, it was interesting to observe Little Bear with this person. Firstly it really highlighted the progress he has made with his communication. He is a competent communicator now; he can say everything he wants to say and mostly with clarity. It’s not to say that his speech and language skills are perfect, because they are not, but in general, if you popped him into a group of people he didn’t know well, he’d be ok communication-wise. I don’t mean to draw a comparison, because that’s wholly inappropriate, but the realisation that Little Bear has reached that point was a bit of a surprise. I worried for so long that he wouldn’t reach it that this little revelation is very welcome.

Along with this revelation came an uncomfortable truth. Little Bear is now able to use his communication skills for both positive and negative purposes and though he was mostly great with the lady I’m talking about, there was one point when he was tired and cottoned on to the fact that he was verbally wilier and could use his words to wind her up. It was weird to observe because I have seen it so many times directed towards Little Bear, from wilier peers. I tried to intervene to stop him as I could tell he was upsetting her but as he was on that trajectory where he couldn’t stop himself he carried on regardless and I decided to take him out of the situation and up to bed.

The incident had a weird, double-edged irony: I was sad to observe it and sad for the lady’s communicative limitations whilst being simultaneously disappointed that Little Bear would do it yet also noting it was indicative of his developmental progression. We talked afterwards about it and Little Bear could remember times when he wasn’t able to say what he wanted and times when he had to resort to other methods of getting his messages across, such as hitting out and I think he understood why he shouldn’t have exploited her communication difficulties as he had. He was sorry afterwards.

Although it feels like an important moment to reflect on, I don’t want to make it more significant than it was. Overall both boys were fabulous and just took all the issues of the past week in their stride. They are both very empathetic and I’m extremely proud of the kind, understanding, non-judgemental young men they are becoming.

At one point the lady I keep talking about gave Little Bear a bear hug that was a little squeezier than he might have liked. Initially he got a bit upset and took himself out of the room. When I went to him he started with the usual “I hate said person/ she hurt me/ she did it on purpose/ I hate her now” rhetoric but we had a little chat and I left him to calm down. The next thing I knew he was coming over to her, offering another hug but asking her to be more gentle. Again, I could see the progress he had made. Previously he wouldn’t have been able to put his communication skills to such good effect, would not have calmed so quickly and would have given said person a wide birth/cold shoulder for a lengthy period. I think the approach he took showed real maturity and I felt a glow of pride.

Our week also taught me that it is not just talking at the fundamental level of getting our most basic needs met that is crucial. Talking is also crucial to keeping us mentally well. Other guests we had were carrying other issues and when I say carrying them, I mean lugging about a massive sack of stress, hurt and grief wherever they go. The difference, I think, between that massive sack dragging you further down or you being able to get on with your life despite it, seems to be your ability to talk about it. The person who internalises or who does not have an available/ safe outlet for their worries and feelings is in danger. I know that sounds a little dramatic but I genuinely believe it’s true. There is a lot on social media at the moment about suicide prevention and all the statistics around the issue. It’s worrying.

Talking helps people take things out of their massive sack. Issues can become less, opinions can be sought, advice given, soothing words or hugs dispensed. Talking doesn’t make things go away but sometimes it can give perspective, space or a fresh view point. Things tend to multiply or expand or metastasise when left in the sack. Talking can curb things, keep them in check, prevent them taking on a life of their own.

On face value, one of our guests maybe seemed to have a lot of issues. They told me a lot of things. They seem to have a lot to worry about. However, I know that another of our guests, who said nothing, also has a huge sack of issues. It’s the one who said nothing that worries me. The one who talks spills the contents of their sack at regular opportunities and I’m glad they do. They have hard things to cope with but they’ll be ok. The other one, the one who doesn’t talk, I worry about them. I don’t know if they have that safe outlet, that trusted person, that someone who will just listen. I don’t know and I think their lack of being able to talk, even though they have the communication skills they need, is a red flag. I suspect it is not being viewed as such by people around them – they do not appear upset, they aren’t saying upset things ergo they must be fine.

Whilst talking is crucial, so is listening and both are required for mental wellness. I know many people who think they are good at listening but few who genuinely are. The best kind of listening is not just done with the ears; it is about observation, reading between the lines, hearing the unsaid. It is the ability, or maybe the willingness, to see beyond what is presented. I suppose it is about connection. I suspect not everyone thinks they have the time.

I also suspect that people don’t always think the same level of observation and alertness to emotional wellbeing is required for children; that somehow children are just fine. They aren’t and the ways they manage, or don’t manage, their feelings and worries and grief will follow them into adulthood and shape their future selves. This whole talking thing needs to start as soon as possible.

Sometimes I wonder if I’ve got too wrapped up in adoption and the issues it brings. None of the people who have been here this week are care-experienced. They are not adopted yet they have experienced trauma. I guess I’ve been reminded that we don’t know what sacks people might be lugging with them; these cumbersome burdens are often invisible. The emphasis is on us, as fellow human beings, to be alert, to look beyond appearances, to actively observe and skip the snap- judgements. Talking is crucial but so is hearing the unspoken.

It has been a funny old week.

 

 

 

Advertisements
Talking is Crucial

Win, Lose, Cheat

Everything seems to be a competitive activity in our house at the moment, even activities you would never have considered remotely competitive, such as having a drink. At mealtimes Little Bear studies how much is in each person’s glass and judges who has the most/least. He tries to drink his first so that he can be “in gold”. I am frequently heard saying, “This isn’t a competition. It doesn’t matter who finishes first, please just eat your food.” Of course no one cares and Little Bear continues to aim for poll position.

I am not against competition per se. In fact every member of The Bear Household is pretty competitive in their own way but I suspect things are getting a little out of hand. Not being the first to get dressed/ get out the door/ get up the stairs can be enough to induce a meltdown in Little Bear. It isn’t usually a big affair but it can certainly lead to a change of mood and make the next part of the routine/ trip out that little bit more challenging.

I have also noticed that normal play situations are somehow frequently turning into competitions. Little Bear was off poorly for the last two days of term and so was Grizzly so we tried to have some quality 2:1 time with him. We got the Hot Wheels cars and track out for a game. The game could have gone anywhere. We could have built a big track with loads of jumps. We could have built a garage. We could have arranged all the cars. What we actually ended up doing was having races to see who went the furthest or whose car was fastest. It was a big competition. The more Little Bear won, the louder he got. The more Little Bear lost, the more irate and controlling he became. Either way, he found the whole situation pretty over-stimulating and soon needed to do something else.

I think the problem is more pronounced in a structured game situation where competition is meant to be part of the scenario. I guess when Little Bear was younger we didn’t play many such games because he found rules difficult and he struggled to follow instructions. He has made brilliant progress with his comprehension and has picked up the idea of a fairly wide range of games now and has enough concentration to play them. The difficulty is that his strong desire (need?) to win often obliterates the intended fun element of the game. Little Bear gets increasingly wound-up if he seems to be losing, even if someone else scores just one point, and quickly turns towards self-hatred. We get a lot of “I’m stupid” or “I’m rubbish at this” or “I can’t do anything” or “I’m an idiot”. Obviously this is unpleasant and I don’t want playing games to be a negative experience for him. I don’t want to erode the fragile sense of self-confidence we have worked hard to develop.

However, equally, I want Little Bear to be able to function in the big wide world and, in real life, you can’t win all the time. It can be tempting to ignore the methods he uses to manipulate his victory (changing scores when he thinks you aren’t looking, changing the rules to suit himself, moving playing pieces about etc.) because life would be a lot easier that way. He would win, you would lose, he would be happy. I know that would be a short-term view though and long-term I would have a child who just couldn’t cope with competitive situations unless he always won and, as we have already established, real life doesn’t work like that.

If I don’t want him to have winning/losing issues forever, I need to be willing to tackle it. As with most things that require ‘tackling’ that inevitably means short-term pain for long-term gain. Seeing as though it is the summer holidays and we are going to play a lot of games now seems as good a time as any.

As with most things, my default for tackling tricky behaviours is, rightly or wrongly, to be direct and specific. I am clear about the expectations of a game and what constitutes cheating. I have started verbally calling out cheating. I have started pointing out that people don’t like cheating and people won’t want to play if another player is cheating. I will say that I won’t play if there is cheating and I’ll be willing to follow through on this.

Inevitably if there isn’t any cheating, Little Bear will end up in a position of losing some of the time. I am trying to reassure him that it doesn’t matter if you lose. Somebody always loses and that’s ok. If I lose or Grizzly loses, we make a point of saying how we don’t mind. Sometimes I have a comedy strop or stamp my foot, to show Little Bear he is not alone in finding losing difficult, but I only do it in a messing about way and show him how we can quickly move on. We try to emphasise the fun part of playing.

I am trying to get inside Little Bear’s head and figure out how his thought processes are working. I assume it is something along the lines of ‘I’m losing at this game therefore I’m no good at it. I’m not good at many things (if any things) and this is just another thing I’m failing at. I’m a failure. I’m a bad and worthless person”. I am trying to break this negative thought cycle for him. I’ll praise how well he is doing at the game or comment on how something was particularly tricky but he managed it anyway. I might say something about how confident I am he’ll be able to do a part of it, even though it’s hard because he is so clever etc. I might say something like, “I know you haven’t got as many points as you’d like but that’s because the game is hard. It is not because you can’t do it”. I might throw in a random comment that has nothing to do with the game about how impressed I was with how he did x, y or z earlier in the day. I might comment that I know he finds losing hard and I want to help him with that. I will try and help him understand that no matter how he reacts this time or how he reacted last time, he has the power within him to act differently next time. Sometimes one of us can make a joke just at the right moment to distract him away from the negative thoughts.

Sometimes, when we are playing properly, Little Bear will say, “See, I’m losing, you want me to lose” and I will need to do a whole lot of other re-framing about my feelings towards him and how I certainly don’t want to keep him down and how it is just luck whether you win or lose a game most of the time.

It can be a little waring as many of the things that are meant to be fun turn into quite a challenging situation that as a grown-up you need to manage and be emotionally on your toes for. Like with most tricky behaviours it can take quite a long time to see any change so I suspect we are still in the early stages of making any difference. I’m not too worried though because perseverance and consistency usually pay off.

Also, it is only day 2 of the holidays and I’m still pretty cheerful. Perhaps someone could remind me of this optimism in a few weeks?!

Although I do want Little Bear to get better at coping with losing, I don’t want to dampen his inner drive. Competitiveness is a really good characteristic if put to good use and I feel as though his desire to be better and do better has already served him well. Little Bear has many genuine excuses for not performing well at school or not behaving well but he has never rested on them. He has always strived to behave as well as he can; to learn and to achieve. Every reading level he has been on has been viewed by him as a stepping stone to the next one and the next one and consequently he has already surpassed all of our expectations. Little Bear was not satisfied with being in the lowest group in his class so he has worked hard to get out of it. I love his strength of character and work-ethic. I really feel they will serve him well in life. His desire to be the best he can be is admirable. I just don’t want him to have to be the best, over everyone else, in every situation and to become easily wounded if he cannot achieve it. I suppose I don’t want him to be ruthlessly competitive. I don’t want him to live a life ruled by competition, where winning equates to happiness and losing to the depths of despair. That would be quite an extreme way to live.

I suppose I’m aiming for balance. A healthy competitive streak, focussed on what matters – career, chosen sport, academic targets, whatever is important to Little Bear, tempered by a good humour and solid sense of self-confidence.

I don’t think we can achieve all that this holiday but we can get cracking.

 

 

 

Win, Lose, Cheat

New Teacher

You may have gathered, from my last few posts, that Transition has been the theme of the summer season here. See This Year, Last Year Fear of Loss if you don’t quite know what I mean.

Little Bear’s angst has been building for several months in anticipation of moving to Year 2 and getting a new teacher, reaching its zenith this week when the Big Move actually happened.

The first we knew about Little Bear’s sense of impending doom was in April-time when he announced he was scared of the Year 2 teacher. I’m going to call him Mr Jones for ease because Mr New Teacher is already feeling unwieldy. Mr. Jones seemed, from what little I knew of him, to be perfectly nice. He does, however, cut a substantial figure. I don’t mean he’s overweight but he is certainly taller than average. Grizzly is also a taller man so I wouldn’t have thought it would have been particularly noteworthy for Little Bear but evidently the broader build, deep voice and towering height were creating some level of fear for Little Bear. I suppose he must seem giant-like to a 6 year old.

We tackled this by chatting with Little Bear’s Year 1 teacher (whom I have never gifted with a pseudonym but I am feeling sufficiently guilty as to rectify that right now. She can be Mrs Potter henceforth.) Anyhow, we made the teaching staff aware and they made sure that Little Bear spent more time with Mr Jones in a non-threatening way. Mr Jones is a bit of a joker and told Little Bear that he doesn’t bite; not hard anyway. Little Bear found this pretty funny and it was one of the rare snippets of school he actually shared with me. Over time Little Bear got more used to Mr Jones until one day he announced he wasn’t scared of him anymore.

This was great but such was the state of Little Bear’s anxiety that where one fear was allayed, another immediately crept in. Now that Little Bear had allowed himself to accept he really would be going to Mr Jones’ class, the realisation hit that he would consequently be leaving Mrs Potter behind.

As for any child who has experienced severed relationships and developmental trauma, the loss of another key person is very triggering – it drags up the emotions of previous losses, wobbles the present and makes you question the certainty of the future.

I don’t think I’m over stating the situation when I say that Little Bear loves Mrs Potter. She has played a big role in his life so far. She visited him in pre-school and was a key person in his transition from pre-school to Reception class. She set him on course for his whole formal education. She has been responsible for him learning to read, write, do Maths. She has stayed with him for two full school years and in that time has been a safe, trusted adult who has stuck with him through some pretty testing times and challenging behaviour. Little Bear adores her and Mrs Potter makes it clear to him that the feeling is mutual. No matter what.

It was completely understandable that Little Bear would be bereft to leave her. To be quite honest, I was also a little bereft. It’s no secret that navigating the education system as the parent of an adoptee is tricky. It can be extremely difficult to get the system to understand your child rather than wanting to constantly change them. As a parent of a child with additional needs, it can be hard to get your voice heard and to be recognised as an expert in your child and seen as a valuable member of the team. At times in Little Bear’s education so far, I have struggled with all of these things. I have also had moments of utter panic at the level of Little Bear’s delay and how on earth he will ever manage to catch up (see LINK). Throughout these challenges, Mrs Potter has always been there. We have somehow managed to develop a really honest and mutually respectful relationship, something which I know is difficult to achieve. I also felt the fear of leaving that safety behind and taking a large leap into the unknown. I felt the fear of having to work really hard to create that relationship again, with another teacher, as well as instilling in them the same level of understanding of Little Bear as Mrs Potter now has.

This transition was a Big deal for all of us.

We tried to allay Little Bear’s fears by reassuring him that Mrs Potter was not disappearing from his life. She would just be next door, in her classroom. He could go to see her whenever he needed to. We (Mrs Potter was very involved in this) reassured him that she would not forget him and that she would still love him, even when he was in Mr Jones’ class. Little Bear and I made a present for Mrs Potter. I made a big deal of how she would think about him every time she looked at it and Little Bear really did pour his love and a few of his other feelings into the picture.

Little Bear started to feel better about moving on from Mrs Potters’ class but such was the state of his anxiety that where that fear was allayed, another crept in.

When we were getting organised with teacher gifts, I made sure to get one for Mrs C, Little Bear’s TA. Although she was going with Little Bear to Year 2, I wanted to thank her for everything she had done for him so far. Of all the teachers in Little Bear’s life, Mrs C has been on the biggest journey. I feel okay to say now that when they first met it was something of a personality clash. It was a disaster and I genuinely believed the wrong appointment had been made. I suspect Mrs C was pretty confident in thinking she’d easily sort Little Bear out with a bit of firm discipline. However, it was more like a head to head stand off and the harder she went in, the more he resisted and the more creative he became in testing her boundaries. I’m pretty sure he gave her the full works, including a few kicks and scratches and caused her to go home in despair on a daily basis, wondering why on earth she had taken the job.

However, I have to credit Mrs C with a very important trait: she has been willing to listen and to try something different. She was prepared to persevere and she stuck with Little Bear where others would certainly have thrown in the towel. She changed her approach, she read what we gave her, she listened and she has now become another trusted and consistent adult in Little Bear’s life, who understands him and is able to effectively support his learning. I would now be absolutely gutted if she left and feel as though she is the crutch that will bear the weight of this transition for Little Bear.

As such, I felt it was important I expressed my thanks. When I mentioned I had got her a gift, a flash of panic darkened Little Bear’s face. “Mrs C is going with me to Year 2 isn’t she?” he asked, evidently fearful she wasn’t. Yes, we reassured, she is. However, over the course of a few days, Little Bear made more comments indicating he thought she wasn’t really. I suppose it is hard to fully trust even your trusted adults when you have been so let down before.

On the last day of year 1, I didn’t really know how Little Bear would be but taking his gifts in seemed to be a handy distraction. Mrs Potter cried over him several times and both she and Mrs C gave him a cuddle in exchange for their gift. Little Bear was absolutely made up that they loved their gifts and evidently Mrs Potter let him believe that his gift was her favourite.

Surprisingly, the day ended much more positively than I had anticipated and much more positively than the end of Reception class which had involved a lot of throwing and screaming. I couldn’t even see Little Bear when I went to pick him up and it turned out he was so nonchalant about the whole thing he was busy sharpening his new pencil instead of being upset. Mrs Potter had bought each child a notepad, pen and pencil and Little Bear was so delighted that he came home and immediately started writing?!

Then, that Friday night, at 5pm, Mrs Potter and Mr Jones both came to visit Little Bear at home. This was absolutely above and beyond the call of duty and not something they usually do. However, because they understood Little Bear’s anxieties and are prepared to do things differently to help him, they wanted to. Little Bear loved the visit and I really feel it assuaged his worries. We had the calmest weekend we’d had in several weeks. It felt particularly poignant because it reminded me of when the foster carers came here to visibly give Little Bear their permission to be happy with us. I felt Mrs Potter was visibly saying “Mr Jones is taking over now and he’s a safe person too. I am ok with you being happy in his class” and that was so much more powerful happening in our home.

The preparation had gone as well as possible but we were in no way complacent. We had no idea what Monday morning would bring.

It actually brought a very happy Little Bear who was excited to be in Year 2. He skipped straight in without a backward glance.

My anxieties rose a little after school because Little Bear did his usual trick of not telling us anything that had happened/ telling us a clearly fictitious version. Later in the week I made sure to have a quick catch-up chat with Mr Jones – both to set the expectation that we need to be in regular touch and also to put our minds at rest.

Obviously I am far from having the relationship with him (yet) that I had with Mrs Potter but the chat felt positive. Mr Jones doesn’t feel Little Bear is testing him which is a good indicator that Little Bear feels safe and settled. Mr Jones has been laying out his boundaries but has not removed Little Bear from class or used any cards. He told me that Little Bear had not engaged well with a particular task but he had evidently gone away and pondered why that might have been and then asked Mrs C’s thoughts, knowing she has more expertise when it comes to Little Bear. I feel these are good signs of willingness to listen and look beyond behaviour and hopefully bode well…

I don’t want to count my chickens (especially after our recent fox-induced henmageddon) but at the moment it looks as though the anticipation of the transition was the biggest problem for Little Bear and that the measures everybody put in place to support him helped a lot. I have been really touched by the level of support we have recently received from school – it has come from a place of genuine care. As well as thanking the individual teachers, I have now e-mailed the Head Teacher to make sure he knows how hard members of his staff have worked and what a difference their commitment and support has made to us. I would be quick to speak up if the right support wasn’t in place for Little Bear so I feel it’s imperative that I am also willing to speak up when things are done well.

I am under no illusion that year 2 will be plain-sailing. Mr Jones has already discussed his aim of taking Little Bear from working towards Year 1 levels to achieving expected levels for year 2 in a year’s time. This is no mean feat and I don’t honestly know if it’s achievable. We also have the spectre of SATS on the horizon and a school residential. But for now, on the wind-down to the summer holidays, I am grateful for having got this far. The new teacher, myself and of course Little Bear are all taking our first tentative steps into this new situation. I just hope that we find a way to walk together.

 

New Teacher

Anxiety

This is one of those blog posts that I am not too sure about writing because it is going to require a high degree of honesty, soul-baring and general over-sharing. However, I think I should write it because all the recent discussion about mental health encourages us to talk more. That is one of the main aims of the projects I’ve seen mentioned and shared around social media. It’s a good aim. We should talk more. Talking can save lives.

I’m not going to tell you anything that dramatic but I am going to be honest about something which is fairly common and has impacted me in my lifetime: anxiety.

The reason this feels topical and like I want to write about it today, rather than at any other point in my life, is that Big Bear has recently begun suffering with anxiety and I don’t want it to be something we sweep under the carpet or hide like a dirty secret.

Big Bear plays football for a club. He joined because he wanted to and to begin with he absolutely loved it and it gave him a lot of confidence. He trains every week, gets very excited about going and has a whale of a time. He also has a match, usually each week too. To begin with, Big Bear took us by surprise by how well he could play (having never previously been particularly bothered about football) and generally played up front, becoming his team’s best goal scorer. He loved it and all was well with the world.

However, on match days, over recent months, we have noticed a deterioration in his ability to cope. Big Bear begins to anticipate the upcoming match a few days before and it starts to play on his mind. It’s hard to tell whether he is excited or nervous about it. On the day of the match he will often wake up early and go to the toilet a few times. He will try to eat his breakfast but often can’t and then experiences tummy-ache. He might go to the toilet a few more times. By this point he is usually a little ashen and really struggles to get his kit on and get to the match. Sometimes when he has got there and seen his friends he has been ok and has ‘run it off’ so to speak. At other times, he has barely managed to stand up let alone run about. Obviously his goal-scoring record has deteriorated alongside his mental health as nobody is capable of playing well if they haven’t eaten and if they are consumed by anxiety. I suspect the poor performance is only serving to propagate Big Bear’s internal pressure on himself and he is now trapped in some sort of negative thought cycle.

It is such a shame to observe as he is only 8 (nearly 9) and far too young to be crippled by anxiety. We have done all the obvious things. There is no pressure to play, let alone score and we make that very clear. We only want him to enjoy it and he doesn’t have to be in the club if he doesn’t want to. So far, he has wanted to persevere. Initially he wouldn’t talk about the anxiety so it was hard to help him. Over time he has got more open about it and has made suggestions about things to try that might help him e.g. specific things he thinks he might be able to eat; having a relaxing shower; having a little wander before breakfast. The coaches know about it and quite often have little pep talks with him, telling him there is nothing to worry about. Although this is well-meaning and meant in a supportive way, when you are anxious, you are pretty sure there are things to worry about so although it’s kind, I’m not sure how effective it is.

Unfortunately, our shared endeavours are not paying off and if anything the anxiety is getting worse. Not only does Big Bear now need to visit the toilet frequently but he has started vomiting too. The poor child seems to have inherited both mine and Grizzly’s weaknesses.

People say ‘but what is he worried about?’ If it is not the scoring of goals or the desire to please, what is it?

The thing is I know what it is, because I’ve been there too. It is a very difficult fear to overcome: the fear of fear itself. I know that sounds ridiculous but there you are. There is no justifying the actions of an anxiety-fuelled mind. It does what it does and expresses itself through your body.

I can’t remember when it first started to impact me. I certainly wasn’t as young as Big Bear but I think my mum would say I was a worrier as a child. It was probably in my late teens or early twenties that things set in with gusto. There wasn’t a trigger; nothing happened to me. I didn’t have any ACEs (Adverse Childhood Experiences) or any reason to be anything less than fully joyful. However, I developed IBS (Irritable Bowel Syndrome) and it made me pretty ill. It was hard to get to places early in the morning due to far too much toilet activity and I lost weight. I spent quite a lot of time feeling like death warmed up and it certainly impacted what I was able to do in my daily life. It was worse when I was doing exams or something stressful like placements at university. I look decidedly bony in my graduation photos. I mainly survived by abusing Imodium, not eating until I felt I could digest (often after lunchtime), having a couple of ‘safe’ foods and always knowing where the toilets were.

Those closest to me knew about it but it was embarrassing as afflictions go; we aren’t really a Society which talks about bowel movements openly so I tried to hide my IBS and was ashamed about having it.

I experimented with eliminating foods to see if that would help. I did cut out coffee and alcohol, both of which improved things a little but it wasn’t food that was irritating my bowel; it was anxiety. Just like Big Bear, there wasn’t a specific thing I was worried about. I was mainly worried that I would have an IBS attack and that would ruin whatever it was I was supposed to be doing. So basically I was worried about IBS which made the IBS happen and there I was trapped in the cycle. Getting engaged nearly tipped me over the edge. I was 26 by then and as soon as the proposal happened I was immediately anxious about having IBS on my wedding day, 18 whole months away. Clearly that is ridiculous and I knew it was then but when your mind is inclined to go that way, it is virtually impossible to stop it. Anxiety is such a self-fulfilling prophecy that of course all the months of angst and anticipation did result in IBS on my wedding day. I coached myself through being ok in the morning and I did pretty well but it hit later on and I wasn’t able to eat my own wedding breakfast.

My IBS (that probably never was) is now fully cured. It’s the strangest thing. You would have thought that having children would make it worse as they are such a cause for ongoing concern but if anything, having Big Bear saved me from it. I can only think that before kids you tend to think you are really busy but in actual fact I clearly had too much time and brain space for navel-gazing. After kids, my mind was so taken up with keeping them alive and developing them and running a home and having a job that those corners of my brain where anxiety used to lurk got filled with something more useful. I am not immune to some worries and my brain does naturally go to worst-case scenarios but with age I seem to be able to over-ride those thoughts more and can largely keep them in check.

I do remember getting to a point where I saw that my life was ruled by IBS and I decided I wouldn’t tolerate it any more. Despite all my issues I had got my degree and held down a job I liked and was good at. The IBS made everything more difficult but it had never completely ruined anything. I had survived every single situation in which it had tried to undo me. I think I stopped fearing it. I just accepted I might need the loo more than your average human and that would be ok. Just as soon as I didn’t worry about it, it ceased.

When I started writing this I wasn’t too sure how I was going to go about helping Big Bear but in blogging it out I may have answered my own question. I think that Big Bear also fears the symptoms of his anxiety and by trying to stop the symptoms from happening we have only served to make him more anxious when they do and more desperate for it to stop. Perhaps a cleverer approach would be to talk to him about how many people suffer anxiety and get nervous before matches or big events. Sometimes people do need to use the loo more or might be sick but that’s ok. Yes, that probably will happen to him at his next match but it doesn’t matter. He doesn’t need to fear that happening. It’s normal. Nobody is going to die. If he starts getting into a state we don’t need to make a fuss, just give him a drink and carry on.

I can empathise with him as clearly I have been there and I can certainly help him with not feeling like it just happens to him and I hope, by being open about it, we can normalise it a little. By keeping things secret or trying to hide them or not acknowledge them, we only serve to perpetuate the fear. Anxiety is parasitic; it feeds off your deepest worries and burrows into your brain. It gets pretty comfortable there if allowed but the more you bring it out and show it to people, the less powerful it becomes.

I now suspect that we have some sort of genetic propensity towards it as it is too coincidental that Big Bear is now presenting similarly and has never witnessed me suffering with IBS symptoms in his lifetime. A quick Google suggests a genetic predisposition is a thing when it comes to anxiety, which is unfortunate. And of course there is the brain-gut connection which clearly states that anxiety can cause digestive difficulties.

Little Bear, despite his much rougher start in life, seems far less impacted by such things so far. It just goes to show that birth children have their issues too and it has certainly been Big Bear giving me my grey hairs recently.

For now, we have decided that while Big Bear will continue attending training because he has fun there, he won’t play any matches for a while. He is too young to be throwing up with nerves every weekend and I don’t want to re-inforce that behaviour pattern at all. However, when he tries again, I think we’ll play it much cooler. If he has physical symptoms of anxiety, that’s ok. We won’t reinforce his thought that it’s wrong by coming up with various solutions and we’ll see how we go. Perhaps he won’t be ready for competitive football until he’s a bit older and that’s ok too.

Today Big Bear has gone on a school residential where they do all sorts of adventurous things and I’m really hoping it will give him the confidence boost he needs, as well as him having some fun and hopefully enjoying some anxiety-free adventures with his friends.

And as for me, now that I’m a decade older, I’m much more aware that we all have our foibles and weak-spots. It isn’t something to be embarrassed about. It’s part of what makes us human.

Anxiety

Transition

Transition is usually a concept that people begin discussing in the summer, as term time draws to a close. However, in conjunction with Little Bear’s school, we have decided to begin working on it and talking about it much earlier than that. In fact, Little Bear’s transition to Year 2 has already begun.

Last year, when he moved up to year one, he did pretty much what the other children did: spent that last two weeks of the summer term in his new classroom. This seemed ok at the time. In fact, it seemed pretty good because most schools don’t transition before the summer holidays, just going straight to their new classes afterwards. However, in reality, we hadn’t done anywhere near enough work and planning around the transition and things went pretty pear-shaped (see Adoptive Parent: Behaviour Detective  & School Worries).

My personal feeling is that getting a TA was the biggest difficulty for Little Bear. Obviously it’s brilliant that we managed to secure funding and he certainly needs the support. However, from Little Bear’s point of view, a new adult, who he had never met before, appeared and went everywhere he went. She told him what to do and he wasn’t too sure whether he trusted her. He didn’t know what the rules were with her – were they same as with his teacher or as with mum and dad? Would her rules be the same every day? What would happen if he didn’t do what she said? Would she shout? Would she just let him do anything he wanted?

The only way to figure all this out, if you’re a child who has experienced trauma and loss, is do all the things you’re worried about and find out. If you test a person who isn’t prepared to be tested and isn’t quite sure what you’re doing or why you are kicking them or refusing to do anything they say, that person might find it all a bit tricky to navigate. That person probably won’t know how to react and may try different things on different days. Because they are not consistent in upholding the rules or dealing with your behaviour, it is likely that as a child with developmental trauma, you will feel unsafe. When children feel unsafe, they go into survival mode: fight/flight/ freeze or flop. In Little Bear’s case, it was fight mode and hence his behaviour escalated for a while.

This is not a scenario that we are keen to repeat at the beginning of year 2. On the positive side of things, Little Bear’s TA, Mrs C, has worked really hard to understand him and to support him in a way that works. Their relationship has now settled and they work really well together. Little Bear’s behaviour has improved dramatically and he is learning lots. Mrs C is going to move to year 2 with him which should provide him with a good level of stability.

However, Little Bear will be moving classrooms and he will have a different teacher. This will be a big deal for him because he has had the same teacher throughout Reception and Year 1 and he loves her. One of the big problems with transition for children who are Care- experienced is that moving on usually involves saying goodbye and that can trigger all sorts of issues from their earlier lives.

Not only will leaving her behind be hard for him but it will inevitably mean getting a new teacher and having to get to know a new adult who Little Bear won’t be sure whether to trust or not. We could have all the issues I described above again. Thankfully, no one wants that to happen and as school were so shocked by what they witnessed from Little Bear last time, they are keen to do better this time.

Little Bear himself is all too aware that he has to go to a different class at some point and has been expressing his worries to us for a few weeks now. He is scared of the new teacher and doesn’t want to leave his current one. Although his grasp of time has improved, it is still not fabulous, so telling him how many weeks or months he has left in year 1 doesn’t seem very reassuring for him. Instead of waiting until nearer the time, we have decided to start preparation now as the best means of reassuring him and reducing his anxiety.

I thought it might be useful to share our transition plan and all the things that are happening that will hopefully help Little Bear with moving on:

  • Today we had an official transition meeting. It was attended by us, Little Bear’s TA, his current teacher and his next teacher. We shared concerns and crucially told the new teacher about relevant background information. This didn’t happen with Mrs C until after she had been working with Little Bear for a while which was a backwards way of doing things and did impact upon her ability to understand him and set her expectations of him. In order to understand Little Bear’s behaviour, it is essential to know key factors in his background that precipitate his current behavioural and emotional challenges.

I think Mr. New Teacher seemed a little shocked.

  • We also shared tried and tested strategies that are currently in use at home and at school for supporting Little Bear. We talked about allowing him calm down time before discussing his behaviour with him; consistent and clear boundaries; praise; the need for repetition and managing dysregulation amongst other things.

 

  • Little Bear knew we were having this meeting, as he always does when we have one and as much as possible I put a positive spin on them so that he knows they are about helping him and making sure he feels safe: I don’t want him to think it is a chat about all the ‘bad’ things. We always ask him if there is anything he wants us to say to the teachers or to ask them about.

 

  • Little Bear has been going into his future Year 2 classroom for a few weeks now with Mrs C. Initially they popped in to do ‘jobs’. They have since stayed in there a little longer and explored the toys and books. More recently he has been going in during his 1:1 time to complete his work. Mrs C has started popping out for a few minutes on the pretence of needing to do something so that Little Bear gets used to being in there on his own. This is clever because Little Bear still has a tendency towards opportunism and he may be tempted to see what he can get away with without Mrs C by his side. It will give Mr New Teacher the chance to start laying out his boundaries.

 

  • Over the next weeks, the plan is for Little Bear to spend more time with Mr New Teacher so that they get to know one another better. Little Bear has already shown him his work a few times when he has done something good, which is a very positive interaction for them to have.

 

  • Before the two week transition at the end of term, Mr New Teacher is planning to visit us at home for five minutes so Little Bear can see that we trust him and that we have a relationship with him too. The consistency across all settings and people is so important for Little Bear and we hope this visit will make him feel safer. He will also love being able to introduce Mr New Teacher to our pets etc.

 

  • Little Bear’s current teacher has been talking about the transition with all the children and reassuring them as a class.

 

  • The teachers plan to put together a ‘transition pack’ for Little Bear with photos of the new classroom, teacher etc. for us to look at over the summer.

 

  • The school are aware of the need for Little Bear to still have contact with his current teacher once he moves to his next class so he will have the opportunity to pop into her classroom for ‘jobs’ or to share work and equally she will pop to see him.

 

The plan feels fairly comprehensive and I’m really grateful school are facilitating it. The biggest risk factor is whether Mr New Teacher listens to what we have said about the best ways of supporting Little Bear in class or whether he will feel preached at and will just want to try things his way. We know, from bitter experience, that new adults tend to wish Little Bear came with an instruction manual. He doesn’t, but we have cobbled one together over the years and if the willingness to listen is there, so too are the effective strategies.

Transition

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

Sensory trial and error

One of the biggest priorities at our house these days is helping Little Bear with his regulation. It has always been an issue but I think because other things have settled down, it has come more to the fore. I have been experimenting with various sensory hacks to see what works and which ones we can use routinely to improve things in our daily lives. Here are some things we have recently tried and how we have got on:

Regulation at the table

Little Bear has always struggled with sitting still. He’s fine on a sofa and can sit for quite a while but finds sitting at the kitchen table for mealtimes particularly tricky. He is better on our wooden bench than on any of the chairs but still tends to kneel up and change position a lot and get down a lot. I have been trying to engage Little Bear in his own regulation more so I recently asked him why he moves about so much. I had no idea if he’d have enough insight to be able to tell me but it seemed worth a try. He said he didn’t like being too low down. We then experimented with putting various items on the bench to make him higher and a bit more comfortable. Several were no good or too unstable but in the end we settled on a beanbag. We can tuck it through the gap in the back of the bench so it stays in place and Little Bear has given it his seal of approval.

I have to say it has been pretty miraculous in its efficacy. Little Bear is certainly able to sit still for much longer with it and doesn’t change his position half as much. Crucially Little Bear prefers it and goes looking for it if I have taken it off the bench for any reason. My feeling is that children will show us when we are getting the sensory input right for them and this hack is ticking all the boxes. I have been considering a wiggle and sit cushion for a while but I don’t think we need one, the beanbag is perfect.

Regulation when out and about

This is the biggest challenge for us and one I would really like to come up with a solution for. We generally notice Little Bear’s difficulties with regulation when we go on a day trip somewhere or go somewhere new. I guess there might be an element of anxiety underlying the behaviour and we certainly feel Interoception has an impact. We are continuing to work on that but it is not a quick fix and I don’t think we are ready to feedback about how it’s all going just yet (but I will when we’ve made more headway). In the meantime, we have been experimenting with things that help in the instant of dysregulation, while we are waiting for longer term solutions to work.

If we are having a dysregulated day out, Little Bear continually seeks movement, which can be unsafe depending where we are. Often we let him run where we can or swing or climb to his heart’s content. I realised on a recent day out though that all the movement doesn’t actually seem to help, if anything, it gets Little Bear more and more dysregulated. Therefore I hypothesised; we needed to add in more calming elements, rather than encouraging the seeking elements.

I remembered that we used to use a rucksack for that purpose so we have re-introduced it. On the first attempt it didn’t go particularly well as the straps were a bit loose and kept coming down Little Bear’s shoulders which annoyed him. The next time we tried a different bag which has a little chest clip to keep it in place. It was a mixed outcome. We could certainly tell the difference in Little Bear’s behaviour – the weighted bag did calm him and stopped the running and swinging almost completely. I would say this was a fabulous outcome apart from one crucial factor: Little Bear doesn’t like wearing it. I don’t want him to think it’s a punishment of some sort and the fact he doesn’t like it makes me think we haven’t quite got it right sensory-wise. I suppose we need to experiment with the weight of the bag; how long he wears it for etc. I know that when I was taught about weighted blankets, the rule of thumb was always to remove them after 20 minutes as otherwise the body modulates to the weight being there and the effects cease. However I have played around a bit with just letting Little Bear wear the bag for a bit then taking it off but I feel as though the effect goes with the bag and as soon as it goes, he’s back to seeking movement again.

I also wonder if there is another way to give him ongoing proprioceptive input that doesn’t involve wearing a bag? I know you can get pressure jackets but I feel as though he would be too hot. Please make suggestions if you have any as we are certainly in the market for trying something else.

Regulation at bedtime

Little Bear has one of those heavy cuddly toys that is filled with sand, I think it’s a large newt and I have been experimenting with that lying on him to help him calm at bedtime. Again I would say it works a little but then he chucks it on the floor!

In the winter if Little Bear can’t get to sleep, we have a heavy knitted blanket that he sometimes likes me to put over the duvet on top of him which works well. It is generally the sensory approaches that Little Bear is collaborative in that work the best. He will tell me when he does or doesn’t want the blanket and I assume that relates to when he does or doesn’t need it.

I have noticed recently that he has a big fluffy blanket on his bed at the moment and he likes to get all cosy inside that, especially if he hasn’t got his top on. I feel as though it would be quite an unpleasant sensation but it obviously works for him. Looking at how children self-soothe can be a key way of discovering sensory hacks that work. Little Bear still has comfort blankets in bed. They are muslin squares and it is the label that he likes – he strokes his lips with it which seems to soothe and calm him. I can’t think of anything worse and he often tests it out on me knowing full-well that it will make me squeal in discomfort. I suppose it’s a good way into talking about how everyone’s sensory needs are different!

I am now wondering whether proprioception is the best avenue for calming for Little Bear or whether the right kind of tactile stimulation would work better for him. How would we go about providing that whilst walking around a zoo or museum I wonder?

This has definitely been a post with more questions than answers (apart from beanbags, they are an answer) so I apologise for that but if anyone has any clever solutions I’d love to hear them.

Sensory trial and error