Pressure to Know

Right from the start of the adoption process I have been aware of the need to get knowledgeable. I mean, adopting is a massive life-changing decision and you should certainly go into it with your eyes wide open. I think my quest for knowledge started even before the process itself. I sought out adopters with zeal and bombarded them with a gazillion questions. I googled different agencies and scoured their websites. I kept meerkat-alert for anything adoption or fostering related on TV or in magazines.

Once the process-proper began the reading came thick and fast. Our Social Worker would give us relevant articles to read or suggested You Tube clips to watch. Prep groups were fairly intense and threw up several new issues we would need to research, even though the safeguarding side of things was already familiar to me through my work in the NHS. Reading lists were given; book suggestions made.

I think at that point my focus in reading was attachment theory (Vera Fahlberg, Kim Golding) and real accounts of adoption or fostering (Sally Donovan, Casey Watson, Cathy Glass).

I suppose as we came to the end of the process and towards meeting Little Bear I probably thought I was fairly well prepared; that I at least had a good grounding in relevant theory.

Then we met Little Bear and it is quite hard to describe what happened. Knowing the theory we had gleaned so far was helpful and we probably did apply it. Well, I think we did. I don’t really know because that period is a bit of a blur to me. I suspect we used the theory in a subconscious, surviving minute to minute kind of a way. I do remember routinely ‘meeting’ with Grizzly of an evening to dissect the day’s events and to analyse why things had gone wrong, what might be behind Little Bear’s behaviour and what we might be able to do about it.

We were certainly reflecting (wracking our souls) even if we did not turn to literature for solace. I think I may have dipped into the books I already had a couple of times but they didn’t have chapters called “what to do when you don’t love your child straight away” or “when your child says ‘go away stupid’ at 3am and throws things at you” or “ways of staying calm when you are fully losing your shit” so I’m not sure they were doing what I needed them to.

I hadn’t yet discovered adoption Twitter which may well have plugged that gap for me had I have known about it. Discovering it and the world of blogging was something of a watershed moment when it did happen in January 2016 (about 5 months in). It is hard to quantify what I have learned from online adoption resources but I guess one of the crucial things has been an adoption reality check. I am now much more aware of the variation in children’s needs; the variation in support; the whole spectrum of issues faced by adopters as well as the campaigning that goes on to improve things. Prior to that watershed moment I was quite naively unaware of the struggle that many face in attempting to traverse their adoption journey.

My online life has also brought issues to my attention that I likely wouldn’t otherwise encounter or consider such as the fact that some people view adoption as a scandalous and incredibly negative act; that adoptees struggle to have their own voice; that contact with birth relatives is not black and white and cut and dried. That some adopters have exceeded their contact agreements and have met, befriended and even invited members of their child’s birth family into their homes was shockingly revelatory.

Throughout the months and years since, my thirst for knowledge has not been quenched. I continue to scan the landscape meerkat-like for any adoption-related information, stories or articles. There have been further watershed moments along the way. One was reading an article by Beacon House (The Repair of Early Trauma A “Bottom Up” Approach) which caused the penny to finally drop that Little Bear has experienced trauma. Looking back I feel pretty stupid that I didn’t know that before (more of this in a minute). I suppose that my reading about attachment only ever told me part of the story.

Discovering Beacon House altogether was brilliant and I have since read many more of their articles and infographics as well as plundering their online downloadable resources which I like to tell others about too.

Reading that article led me to other books. Controversially I had never read any Dan Hughes (though I had obviously heard of him) and now felt it was time to welcome him and Bruce Perry into my life. Although the principles of therapeutic parenting seemed fairly instinctive to me, I had somehow never actually read about them.

At some point I also attended a Nurtured Heart course and became a fully paid up member of Adoption UK, opening up their magazine to me (another great source of information).

The problem, because there is one, with all of this is that the more I learn, the more I realise I don’t know. Ignorance is pretty blissful. I still have the same desire and the same drive to be knowledgeable but the further into that quest I get, the harder it seems to achieve. The end goal of knowing everything there is to know about adoption seems to move ever further from me as I realise exactly what that entails. It initially seemed like a narrow field that I would absorb quickly but as I wade in a little further, I can see the field widening out and including all these things that I never thought it would.

I can remember being 12 and being quite sure that I knew as much as grown-ups. I was convinced I had this whole knowing about life thing sewn up. I have a sneaking feeling I continued with that level of quiet confidence throughout my teens and twenties (obviously with moments of deep angst thrown in for good measure). As I reach the latter end of my thirties I fear I was incredibly vain in my youth as it is becoming increasingly apparent that there were many things I really didn’t know or understand about life in general.

As I’m getting older, I’m clearly not getting wiser and unfortunately it feels the same way about adoption. The more I find out, the more I realise I didn’t know before. Having the watershed moments I’ve described, and others like them, can actually be pretty painful. You realise you were merrily trotting along being ignorant about certain things and that realisation can be unbearably cringe-inducing. I seem to be a bit prone to self-doubt since entering parenthood and sometimes gaining knowledge only serves to undermine my confidence in the whole thing.

Being a parent and specifically an adopter seems to invite a high degree of self-critique. Are we really doing everything we can to meet our child’s needs? Do we have all the right knowledge and information behind us?

I often look to more experienced adopters and am in awe of their expertise. I know that their savoir-faire has been borne from necessity and often being the only person who is fully-versed in their child’s needs, which is a great sadness, but it has essentially led to them becoming extremely knowledgeable.

I’m lucky in that, so far, I have always had access to professionals who understand attachment, trauma etc. and I have not had to be a lone voice, cramming knowledge in order to fight for my child. I have encountered people who know little but have always had the back-up of people who know lots.

I am also lucky that I work with some of the most knowledgeable and experienced social workers that there are (I’m not exaggerating). This is a double-edged sword that offers me a huge, unparalleled resource but, at times, another reason to doubt the depth of my own knowledge.

Whilst I can’t help doubting myself (it creeps in without my permission), the sensible bit of me tells me I mustn’t allow it to cloud my decisions and approaches. Parenting is much better carried out naturally and without a negative voice over your shoulder. Theory is essential and knowledge is power but I need to remember that whatever I do or don’t know I am walking the walk. This parenting lark is happening. It is not waiting about for me to read another book. I am doing it. I have been doing it for some time.

I know what I know. I probably need to work a bit harder to accept that what I know is not everything there is to know. I may never know that. I need to accept that as I gain in knowledge it will expose gaps in what I knew before. That is inevitable. It is probably an essence of being human and one of those things that I thought I knew about when I was 12 but actually didn’t.

Becoming an adopter has involved a steep learning curve and is most likely going to continue to for a long time yet. I shall endeavour to scale the curve, absorb the knowledge and try not to undermine myself as I go.

 

 

 

 

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Pressure to Know

I’m Stupid

The following comment was written in Little Bear’s take home book recently: “Little Bear keeps saying he is stupid when we’re doing English. Obviously we tell him he’s not but he’s very insistent”.

Firstly, I could hear the discomfort in Mrs C’s voice, the TA, as I read it to myself. Hearing a child say they are stupid is a very unpleasant thing to hear. Generally, as grown-ups, we’d rather they didn’t say that, about themselves or anybody else. I can hear the unwritten plea: how can I make him stop?

Well, as we have discussed on several occasions in school meetings, telling him he isn’t stupid isn’t going to work, for the simple fact that he believes he is. Let me turn to all round adoption guru, Dan Hughes, to explain this:

“When your child verbalises his shame, it is important not to reassure or argue with him – this would only make him think that you do not really know him or that you are lying to him. A more helpful response will be to express empathy and then curiosity about his sense of shame”.

I have interpreted this as needing to say, “It must be really hard to feel stupid. I wonder if it is because you are finding x, y or z a bit tricky?” I usually go on to say that I know he can do whatever it is that is being asked and that I will help him. I then put whatever measures are necessary in place to ensure that he succeeds at the task. I might make the task a bit easier or shorter, do part of it for him or just give general encouragement to have a go. I think it’s essential that he completes the task though in order to get a sense of satisfaction at the end. What better way to prove to yourself that you CAN do something, than actually doing it? (See Jigsaws for more detail on how this can work).

I have definitely explained this process to Mrs C before but I think that sometimes she doesn’t believe what I say/ doesn’t believe I know anything and, aside from my own personal insecurities that I can easily distract myself with, perhaps this is just a difficult way of working for some people. It certainly isn’t something that I would naturally have done: I have only been doing it on Dan’s advice. After trying it a few times I was fully bought in. When I get the wondering right, Little Bear often crumbles, seemingly with relief that somebody actually gets it. I don’t always get the wondering right, his little mind being as complex as it is, but on some level I think he appreciates the trying. It is certainly better than a flat “no, you’re not stupid” which, when you think about it, is more about the adult’s need to stop hearing it, rather than being of any therapeutic benefit to the child.

Funnily enough, I had a chat recently with another adopter (not in a work capacity), who said their son also frequently says he is stupid too. Their way of dealing with this uncomfortable comment has been to ban the words ‘bad’ and ‘stupid’ in their home. I know I shouldn’t judge someone else’s parenting but by banning those words from a child’s lexicon, you are effectively banning their ability to talk to you about their inner state of mind. How are they supposed to work through their shame if they are not permitted to discuss it? I suspect that just adds shame about having shame to the big pot of unwanted, hard to deal with feelings.

Obviously I don’t want my gorgeous, clever, funny Little Bear to feel stupid. Of course I don’t. But if that is how he feels, I really do need him to be able to tell me. How can I help him otherwise?

Sometimes, to help with challenging those self-beliefs, I have gone to some strange lengths.

As I’m convinced that a child needs to experience success in order to change their feelings and beliefs about themselves, the biggest challenge is often getting them to have a go at whatever the activity is in the first place. It turns out that donning an American-esque cheerleading/ army PT instructor type of vibe is pretty useful in these situations. Grizzly is very much a natural at this and I have witnessed him many a time getting a child to do something they aren’t too confident about by shouting ‘push it, push it’ or ‘come on smash it’ in his naturally loud voice. It isn’t a shouting at them kind of way, it’s more of a pumping everyone up before a match kind of way; an exuberant boosting of their self-esteem and public show of your belief in their ability to do it.

Whilst I do not have a loud voice or such an exuberant manner, I am not against stealing good ideas.

Over the last few weeks Little Bear has been avidly watching a programme on Netflix called Beast Master. It is like Ninja Warrior, only harder. As Little Bear tends to, he now thinks he is the Beast Master (see Fantasy versus Reality). At bedtime the other day, he was telling me all about his Beast Master abilities. How good he is at flips, how long he can hang for etc. We then got onto the reading part of his bedtime routine and his demeanour drastically changed. “I’m no good at reading”, he said, “I’m stupid at it”. My inner cheerleader kicked in. “Well, I’m shocked at you Beast Master. I didn’t think you would be all miserable about reading a book. I thought you would smash it like the Beast Master course”. He looked at me and I could see him wondering if that was really true, if he really could smash it. Leaving no time for doubt, I continued a la Grizzly, “come on Beast Master, smash it”.

And he smashed it. He read with more drive and determination than I have seen for a several weeks. He knew he’d smashed it too. We high-fived (am I actually turning American?!) and made a big deal out of how well he had done. It’s just one instance of succeeding at reading but I really believe that all the small instances add up and one day, he’ll really believe he can do it, because he can. The Beast Master won’t work every time, I’ll have to stay on my toes and come up with new ways of motivating and encouraging him but it’s worth it, because every success, no matter how small, is a step in the right direction. A step in the direction of leaving the “I’m stupid” feelings behind.

In order to really maximise the opportunity offered to us by Beast Master I needed to share it with school in the hope they too might be mad enough to give it a go. I did feel like a bit of a wally explaining it in the take home book and wondered what on earth they would make of our alternative methods. Thankfully, Little Bear’s teacher fully understands the need to use a child’s interests to motivate their work and bless her she totally did the Beast Master thing. Apparently, the Beast Master was in attendance at school, he smashed his reading and he completed lots of other work that hadn’t been done over previous days. He had an extremely successful day: more success, more steps forwards.

I also shared that little snippet of life with my Bears with school in order to try to change the narrative away from “no, you’re not stupid”, to something more constructive. I know Little Bear’s teacher gets it and I’m so grateful for her open attitude towards teaching him. I don’t know whether Mrs C gets it. I suspect she thinks I’m bonkers.

We still have plenty of work to do on Little Bear’s self-construct, but Rome wasn’t built in a day and every piece of genuine praise, every experience of success, every time he exceeds his own expectations of himself, takes us one step closer to the robust self-esteem we are aiming for. And if that involves us chanting “smash it, smash it” occasionally then so be it.

 

 

 

 

 

I’m Stupid