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.

 

 

 

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Talking is Crucial

Interoception

When I went on Sensory Integration training (admittedly about ten years ago) we were taught that there are seven senses: all the ones you usually think of (taste, touch, sight, smell, hearing) plus proprioception and the vestibular system.

Proprioception is the sense of knowing where your body is in space and is stimulated by things like deep pressure, heavy work and vibration.

The vestibular system is in your inner ear and is the sense that helps you battle gravity. It is stimulated by movement, especially spinning or being upside down, and is the sense that causes travel sickness. If anybody has experienced Labyrinthitis they will have experienced their vestibular system on overdrive! Grizzly had it so badly that he literally didn’t know whether he was the right way up or not and couldn’t get out bed for several weeks or even move his head.

I think about Sensory Integration (SI) quite a lot when it comes to Little Bear and I’ve previously written about it a little in Too fast, too hard, too loud. The basic premise of SI is that everybody has a sensory system and we are integrating sensory stimulation all of the time. Everybody’s system is different and what we can cope with/ what we need in terms of sensory stimulation in order to be comfortable in our bodies will differ too. Little Bear certainly seeks proprioceptive and vestibular input which has led to us having a free standing pull up bar in the playroom so he can climb and hang as he needs, instead of seeking similar input in a more dangerous fashion (like clipping his belt loop to the bed and hanging from there. Full marks for ingenuity but a little too dangerous for my liking).

However, a couple of articles have caught my eye recently which have suggested my SI knowledge is a bit out of date. Current thinking is that there are in fact 8 senses: all the ones I mentioned plus something called Interoception. I have done some digging to figure out what it is and why it might be important for our children and thought it may be useful to share.

Interoception is a bit like proprioception but from the inside. It is the sense of knowing how things are within our bodies. It includes things like being aware of our heart beat and whether it has sped up or slowed down; being aware of our digestive system – are we hungry/are we full/do we feel sick; is our temperature ok – are we too cold or too hot; awareness of blood sugar – are we getting shaky and a bit low on fuel; awareness of our bowel and bladder – are they full/ do they need emptying; do we have pain anywhere.

I’m imagining it like there is a telephone system between our internal organs and our brain. The lines of communication need to be kept open so that if our heart is beating faster, it can “ring” the brain which can then take measures either to ignore that or suggest for you to sit down and rest for a bit. Or you might have a full bladder. The bladder would call and tell the brain to make you aware you needed a wee and you would go to the toilet. It’s all good and very effective when working properly but there are lots of things that can get in the way.

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Studies of infants have suggested that interoception develops very early, perhaps in the first few months of life and might be stimulated by things such as their parent stroking their cheek or rubbing their back – which are pleasant sensations that might ease internal states. One study showed that being stroked on the face led to a decrease in heart rate in 9 month olds. I read something else which stated that infants “associate interoceptive signals of warmth and satiety with their caregiver’s face, which in turn drives attachment behaviour”.

From the limited evidence, you can see that a child who has been neglected (hasn’t received physical comfort) or who has had multiple caregivers (seen many carers faces), might not develop typical interoceptive skills. There is already evidence to say that children who have suffered physical abuse grow up to have altered pain sensations. One article I read suggested that investigating the impact of adverse childhood experiences on interoception is a big area which requires loads more research.

Even if we don’t fully understand all the reasons why a child may end up with a faulty interoception system, we do know that they can and that they may be under-responsive, over-responsive or seeking of interoceptive input. Being over-reactive to bodily signals such as heart rate, butterflies and muscle tension has been associated with anxiety and depression. I suppose that is the equivalent in my analogy of the brain being phoned constantly for every internal twinge or tickle instead of just for the big ones.

Being seeking or under-responsive to feelings of a full tummy has been linked to eating disorders. In this example the brain isn’t getting the call when the tummy is full or the brain starts to panic when there aren’t calls so stimulates the body to continue eating. Something about the feeling of fullness is desirable. I think the converse could also happen – being empty being the more desirable feeling.

If children struggle with interoception, they can find it difficult to know whether it is something inside or outside of them that is causing discomfort, leading to dysregulation or an unusual response. I think hunger is a really good example as Little Bear definitely struggles to identify when he’s hungry (hangry!) and will tend to get irritable and aggressive with anything and everything rather than identifying his tummy is empty and that he needs to eat.

Some researchers think that interoception could underpin many psychopathologies and could be a lot more crucial than we yet realise. One thing they do agree on is that being able to recognise and respond to your internal states (interoceptive feedback) is a crucial skill for recognising your own emotions, learning and good decision-making. Poor interoception tends to be linked to risk-taking behaviours such as drug-taking, promiscuity and alcohol abuse in later life. Could this be because these things tend to heighten sensation, giving the brain the feedback it needs but doesn’t usually get?

As emotions such as anger, nervousness, and excitement have a physical impact on the body, as well a neurological one, we can see how interoception also has an involvement with our emotional development. In fact interoception is crucial in helping us to identify which emotions we are feeling from the signals our bodies are giving us.

It turns out that interoception is a much more complex and wide-ranging sense than you would initially think.

So what about Little Bear? What I have learned that is of use to him?

Well, according to SPD Star “it’s only when all of the other senses are regulated and in check that our body is quiet enough to listen to what those internal signals are telling our brain”. In other words, most children who experience SI challenges are likely to experience some interoceptive differences and they won’t be resolved until their other sensory needs are being met. Let’s hope that hanging bar is doing its job then.

I have identified that when it comes to the interoceptive sense, Little Bear is under-reactive. I have already mentioned that he would neglect to eat without adult support but perhaps the biggest thing I’ve learned is that he is probably under-reactive in the bowel/bladder department too. I have talked about his Continence Issues previously but this information shines a new light on them. It seems very likely that the phone line between Little Bear’s bowel/ bladder and brain is a bit faulty. When the bowel/bladder start to fill up, the message does not immediately get passed to his brain. It is only when they are full to capacity and the red warning light should be going off that Little Bear’s brain gets the signal to tell him to go to the loo. By that stage he often needs to run and sometimes he inevitably doesn’t make it. The theory certainly fits with the behaviour we observe.

I like this as a way of explaining why he’s not consistently dry, it makes sense. As with most aspects of SI it also means there is hope and that with the right approach he should be able to make progress.

I have found it more difficult to find specific advice about how exactly to work on interoception, other than to speak to an OT or get a sensory diet written. However, what I have gleaned is that you basically want to get the brain more tuned into the signals from the organs/ muscles and Mindfulness is mentioned quite a bit in the literature. I guess that makes sense – quietening everything down so that you can hear the internal whispers that you would otherwise miss. Once you are more tuned into those signals, your brain should get better at listening out for them.

Some of the things we already do at home seem to be appropriate for improving this sense. Things like when Little Bear is hungry, I will draw his attention to the rumbling sounds from his tummy and explain what they mean. Sometimes he will say he has tummy ache and I’ll know from the coincident hyperactivity that he needs the toilet. Since reading about interoception I am getting more conscious of not just herding him to the loo but trying to encourage him to feel that tummy ache and identifying it as the feeling of needing the toilet and explaining that when you feel that sensation, you know you need the loo. This sort of cause and effect doesn’t always come naturally to our children anyway and sometimes they do need us to state things that seem obvious to us (it isn’t obvious to them otherwise they would be able to act on the sensations).

Apparently regularly prompting a child to go to the loo helps them to get used to the sensation of an empty bladder and to experience the contrast with a full bladder which should help to develop their interoception over time. Using technology such as vibrating watches is a helpful way of keeping on top of their interoceptive challenges a bit more independently, as well as teaching them strategies such as going to the toilet during every break whether they think they need it or not.

As with most things adoption related, this isn’t a quick fix. It takes time and getting other sensory needs under control first.

I can see improvements in Little Bear’s interoception system though. He was certainly under-responsive to pain when we first met him and though he still has a high pain threshold (a few more than average phone calls from the injured area to the brain before a response happens) he does now respond to knocks and bumps in a much more typical way. He will cry and come for a rub where previously he could have banged his head on a solid object and not even broken step or let out a yelp. The toileting and hunger issues have improved too, but in a stepwise fashion, where we still have some steps to go.

Interestingly, while being hyper-aware of your own heart rate can go hand in hand with anxiety, some children enjoy the sensation of a heavily beating heart and actively seek this – driving them to exercise – and consequently they become very fit. I’m not sure if this applies to Little Bear but I’m not sure that it doesn’t either as he certainly likes running about/ bouncing/ hanging etc. and is developing into an impressive sportsman.

As with most differences, a differently developed interoception system brings its challenges but also its unexpected silver linings.

 

 

*If you want to know more about interoception, this is a particularly comprehensive article:

https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S187892931630127X

 

**This blog is based on my own reading. If you think I’ve missed something or not quite explained something properly please let me know.

 

 

 

 

Interoception

Football: A Yardstick for Progress?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And my heart melted.

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

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

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

 

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

Football: A Yardstick for Progress?

Guilt

The Bear’s had a bit of an incident with one another during the holidays. It wasn’t anything major, probably an everyday occurrence in most households. Play had got a bit over-excitable resulting in Big Bear accidentally hitting his brother instead of the ball he was aiming for. Big Bear immediately felt guilty which makes him uncomfortable. I think he did apologise though (I was upstairs letting Grizzly handle it). Little Bear, stinging from the blow and also because his favourite person in the whole world had delivered it to him, was upset.

Upset is easily confused with anger by Little Bear so instead of crying or moving away, he gave his brother a sharp kick (no doubt he had flown straight into Fight or Flight territory). Now both Bears were upset and a little enraged. Grizzly attempted to referee but at that point neither was ready to see sense.

I could hear Grizzly explaining that Big Bear had hurt Little Bear accidentally. He had not meant to. He had said sorry. The incident should have ended there. He explained that Little Bear should not have kicked him back. He suggested he too say sorry and then the whole thing could be forgotten.

Little Bear was not ready to apologise though. He wasn’t calm. He was very annoyed. I suspect by this point he was starting to see the error of his ways and the anger was beginning to turn inwards. He was feeling guilty.

A big difficulty, when you are someone who feels bad about yourself already, is that this type of normal self-condemnation is difficult to deal with. I suspect that when your heart is already filled with self-doubt and feelings of worthlessness, an additional feeling of guilt can be too big an emotion to squeeze in. What often happens here, and has been happening for the past year or so (previous to that Little Bear didn’t really experience guilt I don’t think), is that because the guilt cannot be contained and dealt with inside, it tends to spill outwards.

“Big Bear is an idiot!” I can hear him shouting. “He’s stupid. You stupid Big Bear!” and so followed a tirade of further insults.

Big Bear, already upset from hurting his brother and having had his apology thrown back in his face, could not deal with the name calling and marched off to his bedroom, slamming the door for good measure.

Little Bear, aware he had further upset his brother, no doubt felt even worse about his own actions and also marched off to his bedroom, also slamming the door for good measure.

“Well that went well,” remarked Grizzly sarcastically, coming to find me upstairs. As we started to chat about whether I should get involved or not and who Grizzly should go to first, we heard movement on the landing. There was a knock on a door then a little voice. “I’m sorry Big Bear” we heard. “I’m sorry I hurted you. You are very strong. I love you”.

It was unfortunate because Big Bear was still upset and not really ready to accept the apology in a gracious way. However, it did mean that Grizzly could go to Little Bear and make a big deal out of him being so mature and sensible and apologising by himself without any help from us. Because it really was a big step forwards and we were both very proud of him for how he dealt with it.

During similar previous incidents one or other of us has had to sit with him for a long time, trying to explain that he isn’t actually annoyed at the person he has hurt, even though he is shouting at them and insulting them. We have tried to explain that it is because he feels bad about what he has done. That he feels guilty. We have tried to explain that you don’t need to keep feeling bad about it. You can say sorry and maybe have a cuddle and then it is finished. You need to forgive yourself. Sometimes, if Little Bear has purposefully hurt himself and had similar feelings of guilt, we have encouraged him to afford himself the same respect. You ‘apologise’ to yourself, square the incident off and move on.

Obviously all that is pretty complex for a 5 year old, especially one with language difficulties, but it really seems that he is starting to take it on board. Understandably, in the heat of the moment, he still becomes upset/angry but he is certainly able to calm more quickly and is getting much better at identifying his own emotions and making more positive choices about how to react. Previously guilt would have led to a downward spiral and all sorts of other behaviours would have appeared. A small incident like the one I have described could easily have ruined a whole day.

The concepts of ‘forgiving’ and ‘guilt’ have been useful in other situations too and Little Bear is beginning to use the words himself.

This holiday we have also spent time with my brother, girlfriend and their dog. The dog is still young and can be pretty boisterous herself. Little Bear LOVES the dog (I suspect he over-loves her if that is even a thing). We took her for a walk. Little Bear had a great time throwing the ball and playing fetch. On the way home, he got tangled in the lead and fell over. It hurt his knee, as well as his feelings. “I don’t forgive you” he kept saying to the dog. No, we reassured, you don’t yet. You are still upset with her because she hurt you. She didn’t mean to though, look, she feels bad about it. She’s sorry. When you’re ready, you can forgive her and be friends again.

On that occasion Little Bear was able to verbalise that he wanted to hurt her back, because she had hurt him, but he did manage not to follow through physically. After a bath, he was ready to move forwards and announced that she was forgiven!

There is clearly still some way to go but I’m pleased we have made a start at unpicking some of these more complex emotions and that Little Bear is able to reflect on them.

Although Big Bear was not ready to move on as quickly as Little Bear after the hitting/kicking incident, there was a difference in his reaction too. Previously this type of altercation with his brother would have led to catastrophizing. It would have dredged up all the old feelings of whether he really wants a brother at all. This used to lead to him being generally unhappy and us needing to rally round and involve the grandparents to make sure he got some extra special time (and a break).

This time, though he needed a bit more time on his own, he did still say, “I love you too” back through his closed door. There were no fallout chats later on.

Less than an hour later, having allowed both boys to eat their tea separately and on the sofa (I find it’s always wise to eliminate any blood sugar issues), they were friends again. They snuggled up together watching a programme like Ninja Warrior and laughed a lot. All was forgiven.

If anything I think they were extra nice to each other because a little bit of guilt was still lingering.

Guilt

PMS and Adoption

It is hard to know where to begin with this topic and as I have had so many half-musings about it I’m worried I won’t make much sense but I’m going to give it a go.

I have PMS. There, I’ve said it. I don’t mean that I feel a bit off when I have my period, I mean that I feel really shit: physically and crucially, mentally too. The majority of the time I am a calm, patient and pretty controlled person. However, for about 4 days every six weeks or so, I’m really not. I become short-tempered, rage-y, impatient and very fed-up. I do not enjoy this version of myself and work extremely hard to appear “normal”. I try my best to react as I usually would even though I have burning desires to scream expletives and throw things. It is very tiring.

I try to warn my husband that I’m feeling a little crazy so that he can avoid winding me up/ lessen my load but as I still seem to appear pretty calm on the outside I don’t think he fully understands the depth of my potential wrath. We have been together 15 years and married for 10 of them and he has never witnessed me fully lose it until this month when I kind of did. Although it wasn’t an enjoyable experience for either of us I think it has given him a greater understanding of how I do feel and the effort I’m expending every cycle to keep a lid on it. This is good because in this mix there is also Little Bear who has the ability to try the patience of a saint, let alone a woman suffering PMS.

The last thing I need when my patience is already frayed by my pesky hormones is greater than normal provocation, less than usual compliance and a near constant requirement for attention. Yet, after two years, I’m now seeing a pattern emerging. When I have PMS Little Bear’s behaviour is definitely more difficult to manage. I am certain this is not just because I’m finding everything harder to manage as I can observe others becoming more frustrated with him and we have discussions about why he is behaving the way he is. It is not only this but I’ve observed physical changes in him at these points too. He is more tired, lethargic and generally appears under the weather. All of which makes me wonder: what is my PMS doing to him and why?

Evidently, consciously or not, Little Bear is hypervigilant to the changes in me. Despite putting all my efforts into trying to act normally, am I actually acting differently enough for him to notice? What is it that I’m doing? Is it the short temper? Am I quicker to react? Do I react to things I normally wouldn’t? It is very hard to say with any accuracy because clearly my slightly addled brain is not the best judge at these points. I know I certainly don’t feel serene inside so I’m guessing he can notice something different in my parenting. Why does this cause him to up-the-ante though? Most children, well Big Bear anyway, figure out that Mum is grumpy and do their best to placate, please and stay out of the way. Not Little Bear though, oh no.

I fear that it is because I go from being very predictable to not-so-predictable in my behaviour and this causes him anxiety. He usually knows exactly where he is with me and what I’ll do in any given parenting situation but what I might do on these days blighted by PMS does include shouting and losing my temper, where usually it wouldn’t. Am I scaring him?

Clearly I don’t want to frighten him or push him back to a place of fight/flight but I really am putting in 110% effort to contain myself. I don’t mean to lose my temper with him but in my defence I do have PMS, I feel totally rubbish and he is pushing every single one of my buttons. The other day he was driving me right up the wall and back again at tea time so in order to avoid shouting (or harming him) I took myself out of the room to calm down. I told him I was leaving the room and why. I told him I would come back, I just needed 5 minutes. Most children would be quiet, eat their tea and try to get back in Mum’s good books. Not Little Bear. I had been gone about a second when he started shouting. Mum. Mum. Mum. Mum. I’ve eaten some more, Mum. Mum. Mum, come here. I want to know if I can have pudding now. Mum.

He doesn’t know when to stop. He can’t read the pragmatics of the situation. He cannot control himself. He doesn’t want me to be away from him because he feels safer if I am close.

I know all this and yet I am being driven slightly mad. Every time he shouts “Mum” it is like a virtual peck to my head. I just need some peace.

Given that we are both trying our best but I am failing at the keeping my temper part it is clear that I am having a negative impact on the little guy’s behaviour. What impact are my failings for 4 days every 6 weeks going to have on him long term? Is the fact that I’m pretty consistent in my calmness the rest of the time enough to wipe out the impact of the bad days? Or am I, due to the blasted PMS, an inconsistent carer?

Or, is this nothing to do with my predictability; is it something to do with regulation? Usually, I help Little Bear to stay calm and not over-excited or angry and upset by co-regulating with him. If he’s getting more and more excited, I don’t get excited with him. I stay calm and through my body language and manner, help him to calm down too. When I have my period I don’t think my own regulation is good at all. I’m furious, whether I’m acting it or not, so my ability to co-regulate is probably rubbish. In fact, is it possible that we are co-regulating, just that he’s coming up to join me in dysregulated land not the other way round?

And how do I explain the physical changes I’ve noticed in him? There is more than regulation at work there. It is as though he is feeling what I’m feeling. The PMS Bible by Katharina Dalton says: “Children who cannot understand their mother’s mood swings, may react by developing psychosomatic or bodily symptoms such as a cough, runny nose, endless crying, temper tantrums or vomiting” but there is no real explanation as to why.

Could it have something to do with Mirror Neurons? Apparently we have neurons which fire not only when we feel something but also when we observe someone else feel it e.g. if we see someone gag because they have eaten something gross, our own stomachs can turn. I can’t find any research on it but is it possible that Little Bear is so reliant on me and tuned in to me because having a reliable parent is still a bit of a novel concept (and actually we are very close) that when I feel rubbish his Mirror Neurons make him feel rubbish too? Is this empathy at work?

Or is there something hormonal going on? I know that one woman’s hormones can affect another’s. In fact one of my friends’ cycles always goes completely awry when she comes to stay with me, probably because my hormones are so crazy there is some sort of hormonal force field surrounding me. Has Little Bear been sucked in? Again I can’t find any research on whether mother’s hormones can impact on their children or not but I’d be really interested to know. There must be a very clever person out there who knows more about such things (if there is I’d love to know your thoughts).

All I do know is that adoption and PMS are a less than desirable combination.

An adopted child needs calm, consistent parenting. When Bruce Perry said “the parent’s mind needs to be the child’s safe base” I don’t think he meant ‘excepting every sixth week when their mind is all over the shop’.

Despite my rageful state, I feel guilty when I lose my temper and I do try to do the repair part. I say that I’m sorry; I try to explain that I’m not feeling good and I try to give him lots of love. We muddle through. I congratulate myself at the end of each hormonally contaminated day that we have survived and that I have not harmed him. Then I collapse in an exhausted heap.

This month has been particularly bad. Note to any fellow PMS sufferers: never start an exercise regime around the time of your period and certainly not in the middle of the summer holidays. It is extremely foolish. Also, when feeling this rubbish, it is wise to abandon usual functioning (who cares if you haven’t tidied up or taught your children anything all day?) and the best and only solution is snuggling on the sofa.

I have been looking for a way to end this post that leaves me with hope rather than despair and as I should have learned by now, the way to turn in these situations is to Dan Hughes. He says this (not specifically about PMS but he might as well have): “You are not a robot. You have ‘bad hair’ days. Accept it, own it, and don’t blame your child for it. But let him know that you have less patience on that day and you might be a bit grumpy”. He goes on to say “if this grumpiness is the worst behaviour that your child will experience from you – and you have not abused, neglected or abandoned him – he is likely to feel more safe rather than less safe after such days”. I’m not sure this is totally true in practise but I shall cling on to it as they are comforting words.

Anyway, by next month the apparently amazing benefits of exercise will have kicked in and no doubt I will float through my period like some sort of serene goddess with nary a frown to blight my glowing complexion.

PMS and Adoption

First and Lasts

Just to be contradictory I will talk about the Lasts first.

This week has been Little Bear’s last in Reception class. As of Monday he will be taking part in two transition weeks in his new Year 1 class (and ditto Big Bear in his new Year 4 class). I think many children who are Care-experienced find goodbyes difficult: they tend to stir up lots of emotions about loss, lost relationships and missing people. Goodbyes can be pretty anxiety provoking and hard to find a way through. Little Bear has been lucky this year in that the goodbye is really only to his classroom as his teacher is moving up with him. We are very relieved about this as it should definitely ease the anxiety and I’m hoping it will mean a smooth run into Year 1 without any need to play catch up while a new teacher figures out all his quirks. Likewise all the same children will be in his class.

However, there is still the finality of last shared reading sessions, last days in Reception and on Friday a last day afternoon tea for parents. We nearly didn’t make the last shared reading session as I had caught a bug and had succumbed to sleep on the bathroom floor (yes, grim indeed). Thankfully Grizzly was working at home and reshuffled everything to make it. He was really glad that he had as Little Bear was over the moon to see him and had been anxiously waiting for one of us to appear. He was well aware that it was the last time we would have the opportunity to go to it.

Although still a little green around the gills I made sure I was there for the afternoon tea on Friday (I just pretended that the children hadn’t really made the scones and that they wouldn’t be at all contaminated by sticky fingers and that mine didn’t really have a hair on it!!). Little Bear was so happy to see me and was more clingy than usual. We spent a lovely 20 minutes or so building a Duplo house. Little Bear was not keen on sharing the Duplo or me with any of his peers. He didn’t really want to come away from me to join his class in singing to us, even though I was right there watching.

The parents all went outside for a few minutes whilst the children did final registration. I must have been slightly out of Little Bear’s eye line while I ferreted around in the ‘jumper dumper’ (a depressing wasteland of sloughed off sweatshirts) and he must have panicked that I had left him, though I never have disappeared before. He tried to distract himself with another scone but the TA said he couldn’t have one. This was the final straw in what was evidently a simmering pressure cooker of emotions. Little Bear made his last exit from Reception class by pelting his toy at the waiting parents and screaming.

Thank goodness for the emergency KitKat in my handbag.

The emotions continued to be untameable on the walk home when Little Bear insisted upon balancing alongside the roadside curb edge despite me telling him several times to walk on the path part as it would be further from the cars and much safer. Little Bear was unable to heed my instructions and I eventually had to move him to the safe part of the pavement. This resulted in a hit and a scratch which I chose to ignore.

A few seconds later Little Bear said “I just scratched your hand” in a small sad voice. “Yes, you did” I replied “but I’m ignoring it because I think you’re feeling a bit sad”. I suggested that when we got home it might be a good idea to have a rest in front of the TV. When we got in Little Bear wasn’t particularly up for that plan. Nor was he keen to go to the toilet when I asked him to and was starting to get offensive.

Usually at these times you can talk, reason, cajole, shout, fully lose it to your hearts content and Little Bear will not heed your words. However, somehow he got onto my knee and must have listened to what I was saying (though it didn’t look or sound like he was listening at all). I did some wondering about how he might be feeling and maybe it had something to do with it being the last day in Reception class. I gave reassurance about his teacher going up with him and Big Bear chimed in, in that instinctive way that he has, about how Year 1 is not scary and will be fun. I suggested that Little Bear was likely to head towards getting himself into trouble if he continued as he was and that I was trying to help him not to do that by giving him a rest. By some miracle something resonated and he asked if I would sit with him on the sofa.

We spent the next hour or so with Little Bear wedged between my thighs, his legs atop mine, the back of his head pressed into my chest watching Paw Patrol. I didn’t think it was a coincidence that the programme he chose to watch was one he used to choose when he was a bit younger.

Lasts are so hard for our children. Evidently the last day had brought all sorts of other things into question for him, most basically, was he still safe with us or were we leaving him too? I wonder how long he will need to be here before he can stop asking that question.

 

The First that I wanted to talk about is much more positive, though it has been hanging in the balance for most of the week. Little Bear was meant to be going to stay at my parent’s house this weekend. It would be the first time he had slept out since being with us (23 months now) and when I thought about it, I realised it was a pretty big deal.

Big Bear has slept out quite a few times now (sometimes because he needs a break) and on the last few occasions Little Bear has felt quite left out. Up until recently we would not have considered it all, being as though it would only have been fair to the grandparents if we could have sent Little Bear with some Valium and a flak jacket for them. As that wasn’t possible, we really couldn’t have inflicted the task on them.

However, apart from one fairly bad occasion, my parents have put Little Bear to sleep at our house successfully several times and sometimes he can be angelic at bedtime these days. The problem is that bedtimes are still very variable and we couldn’t guarantee what kind of night he might have if he went there. Irrespective of all that, my parents were feeling brave and we had pencilled in this weekend to have a try.

Bedtimes throughout this week have not been good. Things have been thrown, pulled, poked and spat on. Grizzly and I decided that if Little Bear could not show us that he could be sensible at bedtime, at least on Friday we couldn’t allow him to go. It just wouldn’t be fair and could go really badly. Of course we wanted the first attempt to be successful. However, we were pretty keen on it going ahead because Big Bear was super excited about getting some Mum and Dad time and as always we would have to balance both of their needs. Little Bear really wanted to go and has been excited about it for ages and my parents really wanted him to go.

I was very clear with Little Bear last night that he needed to get into bed and try to sleep. He shouldn’t be standing on the other end of his bed or pulling his door or shouting or throwing things. I was clear that if he couldn’t be sensible he couldn’t go to his grandparents. I know he understood this because he explained it back to me.

Bedtime did not go particularly well. It wasn’t horrendous but he certainly wasn’t trying to sleep and I did get called an idiot. It took quite a long time.

This is where adoption gets complicated. Although I know that Little Bear understood the rules I don’t honestly think that he can control himself enough yet to stick to them (not all the time anyway). This is where giving a consequence is unfair – is it really right to punish something he cannot control? Well, no. However, I could not have re-iterated and reinforced the rules more and as I had been clear about the consequence in advance, would I now be undermining myself and the rules if I didn’t follow through? How would Big Bear feel if his plans were scuppered by his brother’s behaviour? How would Little Bear feel in the morning when he found out that the consequence was really happening? Would it damage his self-esteem that I didn’t trust him to try the sleepover? Another day a fresh start and all that…

It is very easy to tie your brain in a knot of over analysis.

In the end Grizzly and I reached a compromise we were both happy with and I ran it by my parents to check they were on board too. Little Bear did get a consequence for his bedtime behaviour: he was not allowed his I Pad today (we are consistent in our use of this rule and feel it does have a useful impact and has helped with sorting the bedtime behaviours in general). However, we agreed to let him try the sleepover. If things went awry and he did not co-operate my parents would bring him home. Big Bear would get his evening out and I would keep everything crossed that Little Bear could manage.

This morning Little Bear woke me before 6:30, already half- dressed and asking me for a “packing bag”. I was pleased that I wouldn’t be dampening his enthusiasm. He was fully dressed and packed by 7am.

Although Little Bear was excited, he seemed a little nervous too. He wondered if my parents would come if he shouted them. He was upset Big Bear wasn’t going too. He would miss him. He needed reassurance that it was just one night and he would be back tomorrow.

It is not just Lasts that are complicated – Firsts have their fair share of issues too.

I have purposefully waited until this evening to blog because I really didn’t know which way things would go but I’m very happy to say that Little Bear has managed to get to sleep at my parent’s house and though I’m sure there will have been some shenanigans they were not sufficient to end the mission. I’m so pleased that we will be able to tell him how proud we are of him tomorrow and that we have missed him (the house is strangely quiet) and that he can sleep over again another time if he wants to because he behaved himself and my parents enjoyed him being there. Well done Little Bear, another fabulous first to celebrate.

Also well done and thank you to my parents as the three of us have had a lovely time going out for a grown up tea and seeing Despicable Me 3 and Big Bear is very happy.

Phew. I wonder what next week’s first days of Year 1 will bring?

 

 

First and Lasts