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.