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

Reflections on Adoption 4 Years In

Every year since LB came home, I have written a reflective blog post to mark the anniversary of his arrival in our lives:

Reflections on Adoption One Year In

Reflections on Adoption 2 Years In

Reflections on Adoption Three Years In

It’s time for this year’s so I have just looked back at the previous three. In year 1, I reckon I played down the true horror of our experience. I probably wasn’t that comfortable sharing on social media yet and still very conscious of what others might have thought.

In year 2, I was analytical. It’s clear I had already come on quite a journey in terms of my knowledge of attachment, trauma, ACE’s etc., how it all fitted together and what it meant for LB. I was well into my constant quest to fathom his behaviour.

I don’t know what happened to me in year 3. I’ve just read it back and sneered to myself – and not in a good way. It’s lovely that I was so positive and all glowing about how ‘normal’ our life was but had I lost touch with reality?

I do think year 3 was a good year for us. I do remember struggling for blog-fodder because everything was ticking along and being quite unremarkable. Ha. What a fool. I should never have tempted fate with my glib positivity because in contrast, year 4 has been significantly more difficult. Last year, I seemed to have lulled myself into a weird false sense of security that we were following an upward trajectory and the only way to go was further up.

That was not the case. It’s not that things have been awful – they haven’t – but they’ve been hard enough that I know without a shadow of a doubt that our ‘normal’ is not normal.

I suppose in our third year as a family, LB was settled in his second year with his very favourite, gentle-natured teacher. Once he had formed bonds with his TA, there were no significant upheavals for him. Our fourth year has seen him have a difficult transition into year 2 and we’ve had the most trying time yet attempting to get his teacher on-board. Though we did eventually achieve significant progress and breakthroughs, it felt as though the entirety of the academic year was punctuated by mini-crises, every few weeks or so. This was exhausting, stressful and highly frustrating. I think I came the nearest I have come to having some type of school-based meltdown.

It follows that a tricky school year would equate to a tricky behaviour year and boy, have we known about that. I think the most concerning thing is that behaviours we hoped were long gone, such as Childhood Challenging, Violent & Aggressive Behaviour (CCVAB)  have returned. I don’t know if I would say they are worse than before but the experience now that LB is 7, instead of 3 or 4, certainly feels different. Thankfully he still can’t really hurt me but where I used to dither over whether his lashing out really could be classed as CCVAB when he was smaller, I know it would be now. He’s bigger, he tries to be intimidating and we have to work hard to de-escalate situations at times. Thankfully, CCVAB is not our everyday experience but it has become more frequent of late, making us feel as though we are regressing and as though we are re-living that challenging first year when we should be forging forwards with confidence into our fifth.

We are finding this an emotionally challenging parenting situation – one that is almost impossible to navigate without anxiety taking hold. How is it possible to be back here? If we are back here and we stay here, what on earth does the future hold?

Over recent weeks and months we have worked harder than perhaps ever to maintain equilibrium in our little family. Grizzly and I have had many despairing chats. We know our world has got smaller – we have said ‘no’ to more things because we know LB won’t cope, or, sometimes, that there is a high likelihood that LB will kick off which will make a situation a nightmare and we won’t cope. We are acutely aware that there are times when four people are ruled by one person and he’s the smallest.

I think one of our strengths as a couple has always been our ability to keep on keeping on – to brush off incidents quickly, to move on, to not let them mar our days or hang over into our tomorrows. Grizzly, in particular, has never stopped doing things because of fearing what LB might do – he’d pretty much do anything with him and if an incident occurred he’d deal with it. I’m naturally less like that but once that first year was over, I have never gone to bed worried about the next day. I might pick and choose activities carefully but I’d never overly concern myself with what LB might do somewhere or how I might cope with it. I suppose we have, in the main part, been pretty confident in our ability to parent him.

That sort of sounds like a happy accident but I think it has been a lot more actively cultivated than that – it has been born out of us being well-read and researched, having a clear priority list (think NVR baskets though we had actually not heard of them when we started doing it) and purposefully using a highly joined up approach. We have actively refused to fear the more challenging aspects of LB’s behaviour from the outset and always made sure we’ve had plenty of tools in our parenting toolbox. We have had a clear vision of how to handle things so it has almost been like we’ve had a set of pre-planned instructions we could just follow in any given scenario.

I have to be honest and say that confidence has taken a knock in both of us of late. I think it’s because of the aggression and LB’s increased size and his increased ability to cook up a major scene. I think it’s because we have found ourselves in parenting situations that have been, frankly, pretty scary and in which we’ve had no Scooby of what to do. I mean what exactly are you supposed to do when your 7 year old spits on you in public or threatens to punch you if don’t do x or y and then does punch you when you stand firm? Even when you read a book about Non-Violent Resistance you don’t really get an answer.

This last year has seen us have to re-think our strategies and employ different approaches. I think when children are smaller, it is an accepted part of parenting that occasionally your child might have a meltdown or refuse to leave somewhere and you can simply bundle them up like a sack of spuds and transport them out of there. Although we still see that type of behaviour, that response is no longer appropriate now that LB is large and extra-specially fighty. Verbal ways of managing such situations are tricky when your child is hyper-aroused and anything that comes out of your mouth will be seen by them as provocation. We have had to further hone our skills of staying calm, literally in the face of flailing fist and attempts to damage things. I very rarely raise my voice because there is now a clear correlation between that and escalation. Where once we would have stayed with LB no matter what he was doing (for the relationship and so as to show the behaviour no fear), we now sometimes find ourselves in situations where he appears purposefully provocative and ignoring or walking away are far more effective (and safer) strategies. One day, he seemed intent on damaging the house but when he realised no one was even there to see, he got bored and switched on the TV. Had we have followed him around, trying to coach him out of it, or even worse, used a traditional telling-off method, I know someone would have been hit or kicked. It was far wiser to make ourselves scarce.

I’m finding that a chameleon-like parenting ability is required so we can alter our approaches to match the ever-changing circumstances we find ourselves in. I have also reflected a lot on this, as I’m sure you have come to expect, and a controversial part of me is whispering that since we’ve upped our therapeutic approach to parenting, LB has potentially started to view us as weaker and easier to dominate. I’m a huge believer in the power of relationships and I’m sure that is the way to lasting change but I need him to get the message that threatening people is not the way to get what you want. And that violence is never ok. Though we will of course be persevering with all things therapeutic, I am increasingly of the point of view that LB also needs logical consequences to really underline serious messages.

Anyway, since we’ve agreed on this plan, I feel stronger in my interactions with LB. This sort of parenting certainly requires a plan, in a way which ordinary parenting doesn’t. Once you have a plan, you are much less likely to find yourself off balance, flailing for a solution in a challenging situation. You still find yourself in that situation but you have half a clue how to handle it.

This sort of out of the ordinary parenting (I prefer this term to ‘extraordinary’ because that sounds like we’re fabulous at this and as you can see, we’re just feeling our way through the swamp) requires an incredible amount of strength – to get up again; to do it again; to go there again; to get in the line of fire again; to do it cheerfully; to not let that incident haunt the next minute, next hour, next day; to not be quaked by it; to love unconditionally. Unconditionally: despite it all; including it all.

Sometimes I don’t know how we’ve got this far. Sometimes it’s easy. Sometimes it really isn’t.

I suspect this is another trough in the typical peak and trough pattern of life with a trauma-experienced child. I talked last year about higher peaks and shallower troughs. Year 4 has involved many more oscillations and a more frequent swinging from peak to trough. Some troughs have been pretty deep but we haven’t languished in them for long. The weeks, and even months of relative calm I talked about last year have all but vanished. I don’t think we’ve managed more than a calm (ish) week or two before something has happened. And it has been harder than ever to pinpoint triggers. There have been some obvious things like a school residential, specific incidents in school, moments of poorly thought-through parenting etc. but at other times it has felt like a general malaise. LB certainly continues to struggle with his Interoception skills and feeling under the weather is generally expressed through increased fightiness only – he still doesn’t know he’s ill and we often don’t until several days later when someone else catches it. He has grown a lot too – I don’t know whether that could impact.

There is always a trigger. I know that. It is tricky when you are a person who over-thinks a lot yet you still can’t figure out what it is. I feel quite sure that LB rarely knows what’s behind his own behaviour at the moment – not in a way he can express in words anyway.

In the process of writing this, I’ve thought and re-thought and scrolled back through my Twitter feed looking for clues. I think I can trace the latest regression back to the blasted school residential. It wasn’t even two months ago yet LB has had three different bugs since then and just hasn’t been himself. As I say, at times it has been like stepping back three years. I wonder whether it has essentially re-traumatised him, re-awakening all those feelings he felt when he was uprooted and brought here. I think he had a taste of the wild abandon he used to experience in foster care (due to being in a large dormitory full of boys without constant supervision) and that has re-awoken his need to be in charge of his own survival. Certainly we have been able to soothe him by staying around the house, with a high level of nurture – the kind of thing we would have done when he first arrived – but as soon as we try to spread our wings a little, we are rapidly back to a tricky place. My conclusion, now I have some possible insight, is that he needs more of his world being kept small and the close nurture and the bonding. I don’t think there’s going to be much excitement for the remainder of the holidays. I hope it’s going to be enough because LB in school, trying to learn, when he’s in this survival state isn’t going to be pretty.

*

I’m sorry that I have been more negative than usual this year. I have always been mindful of frightening people but the further into this we get the more important it feels to tell the truth. In some ways it has got harder to do that – this year has also seen a rise in people questioning the very concept of modern adoption. There are many who see deep flaws in the current system – who view the permanent separation of children from their birth families as morally corrupt; who see all adopters as wrong-doers. There is a very strange juxtaposition between having an awareness of that and living this. I suspect a hard year has felt harder within a hostile climate.

All of that said there have of course been positives. Yesterday was lovely and it has never been more important to stop and acknowledge and enjoy these moments.

I am hopeful of a better school year. I was wondering aloud the other day whether the next teacher would heed any of the plans we made in our transition meetings when lo and behold we arrived home yesterday to a package she had hand-dropped off with a post card for both boys and a book for LB and an offer to meet in the holidays if it would help him. I’m so grateful and feel she understands things on an instinctive level Mr. Previous Teacher, though he was lovely in the end, just didn’t have.

Despite our wobbles, we remain positive and resolute. I remain optimistic. Here’s to some of that mystical normality I once knew making a re-appearance in year 5.

Reflections on Adoption 4 Years In

Highs & Lows

I have written about the contradictions and rollercoaster nature of adoption before – see 3 in 1 , Adoption’s a rollercoaster, just gotta ride it , Adoption is a dodecahedron. It isn’t something which has gone away (yet) and we have very much felt it over the last few days. There are those who strongly advocate against writing about it but, for many, this sharp upping and downing is their lived reality. I don’t believe my truth is any more or less relevant than anyone else’s and I also don’t want these tricky realities to get shut behind too-shamed-to-open-doors, so I am going to write.

The highs are high and the lows are low – that’s our truth. Take a ‘normal’ scale of what you conceive to be challenging through to amazing, with everything in between, and push those minimum and maximum limits as hard as you feasibly can. Push them until they fall away. That’s the adoption scale of ups and downs.

I don’t know if it should be the adoption scale or the trauma scale or the parenting a child with SEMH difficulties scale. Pick whichever you want – it’s one or all of them in our case.

At the up end of the scale, you go to a Friday night football presentation evening for BB. You want everyone to go but you’re worried about it because it starts after LB’s bedtime and you usually keep that static with good reason. You can also reel off various other similar scenarios that have gone worse than badly so you feel pretty justified in having some doubts about the wisdom of it all. You try to anticipate the issues by taking two cars so you can take LB out of the situation if it gets too much for him, without impacting on BB’s ability to enjoy his night. You worry about balancing the needs of both boys and can’t help thinking the balance usually falls in favour of LB because he can cope with less and needs more. You don’t want to do BB a disservice when you’re already aware he makes compromises and deals with things other siblings do not have to. So you go.

When you see LB joining in with the other children without a bother and staying where you’ve asked him to stay and sticking within the rules of social convention, you are extremely relieved. You are helping with the setting up of the event and realise that you have felt comfortable trusting LB to be out of eyeshot while you do so and he has behaved impeccably. As the night draws on, you are filled with pride at what he’s managing. You watch him sit still on a chair while the other boys and BB receive their trophies. You don’t need to sit next to him and you don’t need to rush over to intervene with any type of unwanted behaviour. He’s got this. You watch as he chooses to join in with Musical Bumps and Musical Chairs and a teamwork balloon game and you marvel at how he’s coping. He gets out early on in the game and you tense, wondering if he’ll blow. He doesn’t. He’s very calm. He takes the whole thing in his stride and helps the leader with running the game. You feel your eyes well as you remember how parties used to be – how you dreaded organised games because LB hated them, couldn’t understand the rules of them, didn’t want to join in with them, fought against them and was prone to embarrassing outbursts during them. You remember that like it was yesterday and you can’t honestly believe how much he’s managing now.

You observe as he plays with the same boy all night. The game is boisterous but it doesn’t get out of control. You watch LB giving the boy a balloon when he hasn’t got one and you think what a kind and considerate young man he’s becoming. When you decide at 9:45pm that BB looks like he’s flagging, you tell LB you’re leaving and he comes straight away. He doesn’t argue. At home, he goes straight upstairs as agreed and gets ready for bed. He settles to sleep without a problem.

You chat with your husband about how proud you both are of him; about the things he can do now; about how he has surpassed all expectations again. You re-arrange the upper end of the ups and downs scale, knowing he has just smashed through the barrier you thought was there. You wonder how far he could go; what he’s really capable of. You know it is far more than anyone would have believed. Your heart swells with deep pride.

You are extremely proud of BB and his trophies and his behaviour, as always, but the difference is that the top limit of the ups and downs scale for him is pretty consistent. There is far less traversing up and down the scale and the range of the scale itself is narrower. It is also more fixed. LB’s scale, in comparison, has far wider parameters and is much less predictable. LB’s scale is more likely to surprise you, one way or another.

You are also dimly aware that a high as high as this will have cost LB in energy and this, along with the late night, will more than likely come back to bite. You know from experience this will probably not be the next day, but the one after. The one when you are holding BB’s birthday party. Unfortunately for LB, it’ll be another event that is not about him and that will test very similar skills to the football night.

There is a meltdown before the party and LB refuses to leave the car and there are a couple of flash points while you’re there but LB does very well, all things considered. Everybody has fun, nothing major goes awry, nobody gets broken.

That night, after the party, however, LB will not rest when you ask him to. He will not eat when you know he’s hungry. He will not stop over-stimulating himself on his gym. You know an almighty blow out is building but you cannot succeed in cajoling him into doing any of the things you know could prevent it. Inevitably you are eventually punched, kicked, bitten, head-butted. It doesn’t hurt but it does hurt. The rage is incredible and it hurts somewhere deep within to see your lovely boy so distraught and so intent on attacking you. You use all your skills to remain calm and to soothe, whilst trying to avoid injury or damage to the house. Whilst trying to slow your own heart rate and ignore the butterflies.

It takes quite a while and you worry about BB who understandably gets upset to see you getting battered and upset to see his brother so out of control. You know it would likely upset the hardest of people to see a child so incandescent with rage.

Eventually, after vacillating between hysterical laughter and flailing punches, pausing for long slugs of milk in-between, it is finally over. The behaviour is nothing if not baffling at times.

It feels like a pretty low place – getting set upon by your child, in your home – but you have shizzle to do. You have ironing and birthday presents to wrap and a house to decorate. The show must go on. You pick yourself up and you get on with it. What else is there to do?

Sleep doesn’t arrive as you’d hope it would and even when it does, something wakes him in the night. You very much fear the next day but it’s BB’s birthday. You can’t minimise it or pretend it isn’t happening the way you do when it’s your own – to make things easier for LB – because BB has the right to a proper birthday. He’s your child too.

You start to feel quite anxious that a huge fighty situation could oh so easily arise again and that BB would always remember his tenth birthday for all the wrong reasons. You try to keep things within perspective and not let the fear of the potential behaviour take hold. You do not want to become scared of your own life; of your own child. You do not want to start fearing up-coming situations in a paralysing way, knowing how easily that could become your reality.

You do what you can, within the parameters of it being someone’s birthday, to minimise the demands for LB. You know it isn’t ideal to take him on a day out but this is what BB has chosen and when it is LB’s birthday, everyone does what he chooses without complaint or issue. You try to pre-empt the inevitable difficulties. You chat with LB about him being tired and about how listening will be hard for him and how you are aware of this. You re-iterate the basic rules of ‘please come back when we ask you’ and ‘stay where we can see you’. You re-inforce this is because you need/want to keep him safe because that’s what parents should do.

Things initially go well.

Every followed instruction is acknowledged; every sensible decision praised. The boys decide to go on a bouncy pillow. This looks fun and you sit and watch with your husband, who has brought you a cup of tea. You relax a little. You sit there quite a while. The play seems alright; it doesn’t seem to be spiralling. You keep a close eye. Husband goes to get something from the car.

You notice LB throw some sand so you call him over and ask him not to. Three seconds later you see him do it again. You call him over and ask him to sit down for a minute, to calm and to think about the throwing of the sand. You explain he can go back on the pillow, when he’s ready to be sensible again.

He turns and spits on your arm. Just like that.

You are a little taken aback and suggest that spitting is not sensible and will not lead to getting back on the pillow. You perhaps shouldn’t have reacted but you aren’t sure in which world being spat on is okay. LB spits on you again and onto the ground. You sense people are watching. Your brain chugs into action as you wonder how exactly you should manage this situation which you can quickly sense getting out of control. He moves away and you think this might be good. Then he comes back and kicks and hits at you. You are acutely aware that people will see. You attempt to keep him at arm’s length while wondering what exactly is the therapeutic way of dealing with this. You will not allow yourself to accept being kicked and hit; you don’t know how that would benefit either of you. But you aren’t entirely comfortable with ‘restraining’ him either.

You use the most minimal touch you can, to keep the onslaught at bay, whilst getting showered in more saliva and you know that when you thought last night’s epic meltdown was the lowest you could get, it wasn’t. It’s this, being spat on in public by your seven year old son.

Being spat on is surprisingly demeaning and difficult to bounce back from. You do, because husband has swapped places with you and the change of face has diffused the situation. They have talked about it and LB has apologised to you. Also, it’s still BB’s birthday and you don’t want to make any bigger deal out of the situation than absolutely necessary for him.

But it’s a new low and you do need to decompress afterwards. You need to be alone and you need to write about it – that’s your outlet. Because it happened and you know that you can’t just keep absorbing these lows like they’re normal. And you need to move on. You need to be ready for the next thing and the next thing, so you can handle it the best possible way for LB. And you don’t want to pretend it didn’t happen either, because it did and it does in houses, and public places, up and down the land. I don’t see why it has to be a dirty little secret I’m not allowed to talk about.

This isn’t ordinary parenting, yet I’m an ordinary parent. There are lots of ordinary parents out there dealing with extraordinary things and we need each other. We need to talk about this shit that we struggle to deal with; that anybody would struggle to deal with. This stuff that’s hard.

I cannot, and will not, accept the punches and the kicks and the great globules of spittle. I’ll do my damnedest to look beyond them; to understand and to support; to respond with kindness and compassion. But in silence? Why should I?

This is our truth – neither greater nor lesser than anyone else’s – and the lows are low and the highs are high.

 

 

Highs & Lows

Self-kindness

I’m sitting here, a la Carrie Bradshaw, nibbling the end of a pencil and staring whimsically out of the window. Well, at the shelves above my desk anyway. This is not going to be one of those factually-correct-I-read-a-book-first kind of blog posts. This is going to be one where you have to try to follow me on a wandering journey of my deepest thoughts. Let’s hope it all makes sense once I’ve blurted it onto the page.

I wrote a blog, a while ago now, about Self-Care . I was saying how I was quite late to the concept, having previously been something of a sceptic, but was now fully bought in and getting better at meeting my own self-care needs. Since then, I’ve become further tuned-in and I’m not bad at it really. I’m certainly losing my shit less, so something must be working.

More recently, having had a fairly trying start to 2019, I’ve been pondering the idea that maybe self-care is not enough. I know, controversial.

The topics of my blog posts are pretty revealing as to how things are with us. This is how 2019 has gone so far: Conversations (about the time the Ed Psych was so bad he gave me a Migraine); Childhood Challenging, Violent & Aggressive Behaviour (CCVAB)Promises, Promises (as in Little Bear couldn’t keep them); Holi-yay or Holi-nay? (about the unforgettable trip to Finland when we all became ill and I spent three days trapped in a cabin) and then Demand Avoidance . Just a few little challenges during the first quarter.

Now, I need to make it clear that I am not suggesting my life is in some way harder than anyone else’s or that I need anyone to feel sorry for me, because clearly neither is true and I’m really not down with competing about one’s stresses: we’re all in this crazy life thing together. I have to refer to myself and my own experience to illustrate my points though, because I just don’t know anyone else’s inner cogitations quite so intimately as my own. I have a very nice life and am indeed very lucky in many ways, so this is not whatsoever about complaining.

Still, the facts are the facts, and there are points in all of our lives when we feel a little challenged in one way or another.

As we’ve established, it is essential to care for oneself all the time, but particularly at these challenging times, so that we are physically and emotionally well enough to deal with them. I’m cool with that. It’s just that sometimes, self-care can be more of a chore than a joy.

At the moment, I’m doing an elimination diet and it’s pretty hard-core. The reasons for me doing it are health and wellness-based and therefore put a nice juicy tick in the self-care box. One has to try to keep oneself physically well – I think that’s a generally agreed upon wisdom. All good. Well, sort of.

I was already a teetotal vegetarian. That is quite a lot of abstinence already, but nothing I found hard. Add to the banned list: sugar of any kind, fruit, gluten, yeast and anything fermented, and things suddenly step up a few gears. I spent the first days wandering around wailing there was literally nothing I could eat. As long as it contains a vegetable, I’m pretty much sorted with my options now and it is do-able day to day.

However, say I have the kind of day where Little Bear won’t do anything I ask him or I have a difficult meeting or the travel company refuse to compensate us properly, where is the chocolate? There isn’t any, I can’t have it. Ditto a takeaway or a large bowl of pasta. I’ve realised that, like many people I think, I used food as a way of showering myself with a little extra kindness. I don’t think there is anything wrong with that ordinarily because there are days when we need that something to ease the stress; that way of soothing ourselves or giving ourselves a little pat on the back for having survived.

If I can’t do that with chocolate – which I won’t because I’m stubborn and there is no point in undoing all my hard work – how can I?

I suspect my second go-to vice is shopping. Again, I think a bit of that is ok. A pretty top or a new pair of Doc Martens really can go a long way to lifting a mood, I find. However, there are obvious drawbacks – bankruptcy – and, like chocolate, shopping can often come with a side-scoop of guilt. Did I actually need that item? How will I fit it in my already bulging wardrobe? What about the environmental impact? Have I contributed to the premature demise of the planet? That type of thing.

All this considering of alternative methods of treating myself – because I do think we all have a need for it – has got me analysing how I treat myself in general and to be honest, it’s a bit weird. I’ve discovered that I’m quite strict with myself. For example, I have a sizeable to-read pile and a few bits of crafts and a half-finished painting knocking about the house, but it is rare that I allow myself to engage with those things. I’m quite hung up on wasting time and seem to be clear in my unconscious thinking about which activities are a good use of time and which are more wasteful. I seem to have inadvertently fenced relaxing activities such as reading/drawing/crafting into the time-wasting field, which when I think about it consciously, I don’t agree with. However, I find myself telling me that I can’t do x or y fun/relaxing thing until I’ve achieved certain ‘useful’ things from my to-do list.

To some extent this is just good time management. I work on my own, at home, and am trying to break into a very competitive career (writing). I can’t just relax all day because nothing would ever get done. However, as is becoming more apparent as I write, I’m pretty self-disciplined and conscientious so in all likelihood, shizzle will get done. And when I’m asking these things of myself – to submit my manuscript here or there or write this or that piece – I’m not taking into account the other things I’ve done already. It’s as though I mentally wipe-out having done the washing/ the shopping/ the morning routine (which can be pretty challenging)/the school run (which can be very challenging)/ the meeting/ the organising. I’m not counting these things as useful, despite them being essential, and my to-do list is full of other things that aren’t those things.

That’s a bit weird. Though I doubt I’m alone.

My friend pointed out to me that in my weird mental token system of making myself earn the nice activities, I’m not allocating myself any tokens for tricky things like a difficult school run. Why not, she asked? Err… I don’t know. It was obvious when she said it, that there would be absolutely nothing wrong with coming home from a tricky drop-off and reading a book or watching an episode of something and having a cup of tea. In fact, it would probably be a welcome act of self-kindness. I never do it though, mentally shelving the drop-off debacle and getting straight to the to-do list.

I’m glad she pointed it out because now I’m more aware of it and now I can’t eat chocolate and I might break the bank if I do too much more shopping, these are the sorts of ways I can show myself some kindness.

I’ve been consciously practising it over the past week or so and it’s been enlightening. I’ve found myself shivering but not getting myself a cardigan or pair of socks. Why? I am allowed to be warm. I’ve found myself thinking it might be nice to lie down for a minute but staying resolutely upright. Why? Other people would just lie down – try it. I’ve tried it. I even had a power nap in the sun one day. It was just as lovely as it sounds. Grizzly was extremely shocked at my behaviour which just goes to illustrate how unlikely it was to happen before.

Instead of walking past my to-read pile, or thinking how nice it would be to read a book one time, or delaying my enjoyment by faffing about on Twitter (why?), I have been actually just reading the books. It isn’t rocket science, I know, but it has required a consciousness (or permission?) on my part that I evidently wasn’t employing before. Ditto, doing some drawing. Instead of thinking it would be nice to braid my hair one nebulous day in the future, I just did it.

I wonder if I have been considering these things selfish previously, but the more I consider them, within the context of my life, the more I realise they don’t negatively impact anybody when I do them but they do negatively impact me when I don’t. If I am harbouring resentment that I don’t get to do the things I enjoy (even though the only person preventing me is me), surely that impacts upon my happiness in a wider sense? If I’m not as cheerful as I can be, that isn’t great for my friends and family.

I have to confess that my little self-kindness experiment has been very enjoyable and there is undoubtedly an extra spring in my step that wasn’t there before. I can wholeheartedly recommend being a little nicer to yourself. And it’s good to know that I can still treat myself without a grain of sugar or spending a penny.

Life is short. Get the things done, move the career on, don’t wait for tomorrow or the next day. But in so doing, don’t skip the bits you enjoy. You deserve enjoyment and happiness just as much as anybody else.

 

 

 

Self-kindness

Promises, Promises

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

Me: It’s bedtime, Little Bear

LB: Aw, can’t I have a bath?

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

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

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

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

Me: Are you sure?

LB: Yes, I PROMISE. Straightaway.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

Promises, Promises

Childhood Challenging, Violent & Aggressive Behaviour (CCVAB)

The title of this post is a fairly new suggested term, if you like, proposed to replace what used to be known as CPV – Child to Parent Violence. This post isn’t so much about what we call the thing though, but about the thing itself.

I want to be open about CCVAB because hiding it behind closed doors doesn’t help anybody. I suspect many people feel ashamed or embarrassed to admit it goes on. I know many families have a much larger and more frequent struggle than ourselves but there have certainly been times when I haven’t known what to do and when I’ve felt deeply worried about the future.

When Little Bear first arrived in our lives he was three and half. He was somewhat prone to getting a bit fighty from the get-go but, newly thrown into the maelstrom of adoption, I wasn’t too sure what to call what we were experiencing. It wasn’t that I didn’t know about CPV, because I did, but more that I didn’t really know if the fairly low-level violence we experienced counted. My confusion was two-fold. Firstly, I think it took me a long time to fully admit the level of challenge we were living with to myself. I read many accounts of adoption and saw that what some other families had to deal with was horrendous. I would never have described our conditions as such and certainly felt that any aggression we saw was milder or less extreme in comparison. It would only be later that I would see that I was comparing us to the extreme end of a minority group. If I compared us to the majority of typically developing families, I would see that aggression and violence from children is not most people’s ‘normal’.

Secondly, I wondered whether a bit of hitting and biting and the like was ‘normal’ (ish) as a part of toddler development and typical boundary testing.

Last week, when I tried to deliver nearly seven year old Little Bear to school and he decided he didn’t want to go in because the ice looked more interesting than his classroom and when I tried to suggest otherwise, he punched me and kicked me and tried to head butt my face and when I asked him to stop hitting me, he looked me in the eye and hit me again, I had to concede, that, yeah, we most likely do experience CCVAB at our house.

Thankfully, it is not a regular visitor, as it is for some. It was, in the early days. It was kind of par for the course – it’s bizarre how quickly you can accept these things as ‘normal’. But, now, it’s rare. In fact, up until last week, I would pretty much have said it had been eradicated. When it re-appears, it can be quite shocking. I mean, what exactly are you supposed to do when your little darling tries to batter you in the playground? I’m still considerably bigger than him, thankfully, so he didn’t hurt me but I felt acutely embarrassed that other people were around to see. When it isn’t something you are practised at dealing with, it sends you swiftly onto the back foot. I probably wasn’t as therapeutic as I could have been but I didn’t give him a clip around the ear (as I quite fancied) either. I have never and would never hit him (just to be clear) but God, I’ve felt like it – and who wouldn’t? I suppose anyone under attack goes into fight/flight/freeze/flop and as you can’t exactly run away from your child on the school run, fight comes quite naturally. I think, as a grown up in charge of child with CCVAB, the hardest thing is quelling your natural urge to defend yourself.

As the incident occurred I was livid: that kind of behaviour is not acceptable, even if it has a very valid reason behind it. For me, no matter what else is going on, if there is violence or aggression happening, that immediately becomes my priority to sort out, with everything else becoming ignorable. I have no doubt that if we didn’t make sure we put a stop to CCVAB, Little Bear would feel less and less safe and more and more out of control and it would only perpetuate his need to be aggressive. I know there is a lot of talk about consequences and whether we should give them to children with developmental trauma/ attachment issues or not. But for me, personally, violence is not something I can ignore and we do give consequences.

Preferably, that consequence would be a natural one. I was pretty certain that when Little Bear had been able to calm down, he would feel bad about what had happened and sometimes, that is enough. A few times, Little Bear has hurt me and immediately I have seen his little face change and almost read the thought passing through his mind of ‘why on earth did I just do that to Mum?’ On those occasions, I’ve barely finished yelping when he apologises and starts to cry. In those situations, nothing else is needed, apart from an ‘it’s ok, I think you might have done that because of x or y’, a ‘Mum still loves you’ and a cuddle.

However, on this particular occasion, Little Bear wasn’t sorry. He was still annoyed that I hadn’t let him play in the ice and apparently he hated me. That did little to assuage my annoyance, which had coloured the entirety of my day (CCVAB has a way of doing that).

It was time to step it up to a logical consequence. I like a logical consequence because it matches the incident and often, I find, taps into the underlying reasons that have caused Little Bear to feel the need to lash out in the first place. That probably makes little sense as a standalone statement so I’ll try to explain.

Because I was so mad and because it was the biggest incident we’ve ever experienced at drop off and I wanted him to understand the severity of it, I very kindly came up with three logical consequences. The first was that Little Bear was no longer allowed to go to school on his scooter. This fed into two which was that as Little Bear evidently wasn’t coping with having freedom in the playground or on the school run, he would now need to hold my hand throughout that time. He was showing me, through his behaviour, that he couldn’t cope with the demands of having to come back when asked at the moment so I would help him with that by keeping him close. Whilst he wasn’t going to like this and would far rather have gone on his scooter, the consequence was designed to make the situation easier for him – it was both unwanted (by him) and therapeutic if that makes any sense at all*.

The third consequence was both natural and logical. As Little Bear was causing a spectacle with the hitting and the refusing to get off the ice, I had looked across the playground to where Big Bear was standing, alone, patiently waiting and I realised that not only was Little Bear’s behaviour unpleasant for me and him, but it wasn’t fair on Big Bear, who routinely pays the price of having to walk around to his classroom on his own because I am too busy trying to wrestle Little Bear into his. I didn’t ask for CCVAB, but Big Bear certainly didn’t and I was guilty of getting things wrong if the one who wouldn’t behave appropriately was getting more attention than the one who always quietly gets on with what is asked. Therefore, the third consequence would be that we would drop Big Bear off first every day, instead of theoretically taking turns (I say theoretically because Big Bear’s turn is often sabotaged by Little Bear). That way, there would be no impact on Big Bear even if Little Bear continued to behave as he had.

Little Bear was not pleased with his consequences and he was not sorry. However, the next morning, he accepted the new arrangement and has arrived at school willing to enter his classroom without a battle every day since.

Although I am clearly not averse to using consequences (carefully – what would a banned IPad or grounding have achieved?), I do not believe in using consequences alone to tackle CCVAB. I don’t believe that any child wants to hurt their grown-ups or siblings and no matter how annoyed or upset we are, we need to look beyond the hurting to understand what’s causing it. As last week’s behaviour was so out of the ordinary for Little Bear, I knew something must have triggered it. It came within a wider picture of increased aggressive incidents/fighting in school and tricky episodes of behaviour at home. Nothing specific had happened or changed so it was difficult to figure out, but I knew I had to keep wondering.

Eventually, after being woken several times in the night by Little Bear and noticing he was struggling to fall asleep and waking earlier and earlier, we figured out he was having a recurring nightmare. Apparently it was about a monster that killed us all. Everything began to make sense: Little Bear was frightened of losing us and all the old attachment issues had been well and truly triggered. He may as well push us all away because we’d leave anyway – that whole joyful scenario.

We have tackled the nightmare issue head-on with the help of Neon the Nightmare Ninja, a fabulous book by Dr. Treisman. It really seems to be helping and though Little Bear is still finding it hard to fall asleep, the CCVAB seems to have disappeared again and he is sleeping much better when he finally drifts off.

I am no longer complacent about CCVAB. I don’t suppose it has gone forever. There are times when the idea of it recurring when he is 10, 15 or 20 terrifies me. There will clearly come a time when he can hurt me and I’m not quite sure what I should do about that, other than hoping that all the therapeutic work that we do on an ongoing basis will be enough to take away the need for CCVAB. I may be fooling myself, but where’s the use in fretting?

I have never been on a course about NVR (non-violent resistance) but when I’ve read about it, I think we use quite a few of the principles of it. I have always been conscious, since my days working as a SaLT with children with complex needs, meeting families who experienced CCVAB for non-adoption related reasons, of not allowing Little Bear’s more challenging behaviours to frighten me. Some families were completely ruled by it: CCVAB powered over everything and left parents tiptoeing around their children. I have always known that, as much as possible, CCVAB needs to be kept in check and not allowed to rule. I think that if Little Bear sensed fear in the grown-ups around him, he would feel more out of control and the behaviours would worsen. It’s a very fine balance between being present and therapeutic and not standing for any nonsense. I don’t think that being therapeutic should equal accepting CCVAB (something I sometimes get the impression happens) because in my mind, it isn’t acceptable.

I understand where these behaviours come from and I hope that I’m sensitive and inquisitive about that, but I don’t want Little Bear growing up thinking his background leaves him with no other choice but to behave in this way. There are other choices available to him, as there are to everybody else, and though I acknowledge it is likely to be harder for him, he needs to know that he can make different choices and he can learn to control himself. If I were to leave his CCVAB unchecked and not explain to him why it isn’t okay and not try to shape his behaviour differently, he would never learn this.

Sometimes, even if there is no physical aggression, Little Bear attempts to threaten us in other ways. He might say, “If you don’t do x or y, I’m going to get really mad” or “if you don’t let me have so and so, I won’t do anything you say”. We make a point of never giving in to such threats because I don’t want to reinforce the idea that that’s how you get what you want in life. A child who threatens and hits is one thing; an adult quite another.

More than anything, Little Bear is not a violent or aggressive boy and I don’t want him growing up feeling the CCVAB defines him. He is complex and cheeky and gorgeous and kind and gentle and so many other things that are belied by the label of CCVAB.

I’m not arguing about the labelling of the thing (the thing is there whatever we call it). I think I’m just saying that though it exists, we shouldn’t have to accept it – for ourselves or for our children.

 

 

*I should say that I also think children deserve second chances. If Little Bear is sensible in the playground in the next days, I will give him another chance to have more freedom and even go on his scooter. I’ll only do that if I think there’s a good chance of success – I don’t want to set him up to fail.

 

Childhood Challenging, Violent & Aggressive Behaviour (CCVAB)