Adopted Children & Eating Issues

A really interesting chat broke out on Twitter earlier this week between several adopters. It was one of those chats where you realise that all your children do something that hitherto you didn’t really identify as being an ‘adoption thing’ but actually, now everyone is doing it, it must be. The thing we were talking about was eating. We have quite a few behavioural issues around food here but this chat was more about the mechanical side of things: disruptions to the process of taking a bite of food, chewing it and swallowing it. The chat really began around children holding food in their mouths for much longer than average, something which seems to be common in many adoptive households. We also noticed that many of our children overstuff their mouths and choke more often than you’d expect.

The big question was why? We had a healthy debate and several of us stuck our oar in. As with most complex issues my first reaction was to blog it out so here is my summary of the main factors:

The reason for holding food in their mouth could be a sensory one. It could be that a child is under-sensitive to sensory information in their mouth and can’t ‘feel’ the food there very easily. If this is the case it is likely they would be better at eating/chewing/swallowing food which has a more extreme taste or texture or temperature. Spicy foods or those with a lot of crunch or those which are sharp or bitter will provide the mouth with more sensory information than bland foods, helping a child to ‘know’ it’s in their mouth. The difficulty here of course, is that you child will have their own taste preferences and these will influence the range of food they will eat. I think this category could apply to Little Bear but he really doesn’t like spicy foods. He does like a good crunch though, especially from a crisp, but won’t tolerate it from a raw carrot. He has no difficulty dispensing with cold ice cream!

The converse of this point could also be true: some children are over-sensitive to sensory information in their mouth. These children are often sensitive to different textures finding some pretty disgusting. It’s possible that these children hold food in their mouths because it is preferable to them than swallowing it. Other signs of this could be spitting food out or an active gag reflex.

Often children need to get used to a bigger range of textures before being asked to eat the consistencies of food that bother them. Because of how the sensory system is wired, the next best place after the mouth to explore texture is with the hands (and if they can’t manage this, then with the feet). In typical development, young infants naturally put their hands in their food and explore it. This is an essential developmental step and some older children need support to revisit it to help with eating issues. Sometimes the foods they struggle to tolerate can be played with and explored manually before them being brought close to the lips then perhaps just touching them with their tongue tip. This should be a gradual process (weeks not hours) and needs to be managed sensitively. It should be done with a child, not to them. You can also lessen sensitivity through general tactile work – exploring different materials etc. It doesn’t necessarily have to be done with food though that does work well.

I suspect there is a third sensory category when it comes to eating which would be ‘sensory seeking’. I don’t think you would see food being held in the mouth with this aetiology but you might see over-stuffing as a child tries to get the most sensory input they can. I think you would see a constant need to eat and perhaps wanting to eat stronger flavours/ more extreme textures/ more extreme temperatures. It wouldn’t be a huge leap to think that children who seek oral sensory input would also chew/suck non-food items, though I think it is possible to seek oral stimulation without the food side of things.

However, there are other possible issues at play. What about experience? As most of our children were not with us when they were babies, we have very little information about their weaning. We don’t know if they were allowed to experience the getting messy-putting-their-hands-in-their-food stage. We don’t know what range of tastes they were given or even if the types of food they were weaned on were appropriate for an infant. We don’t know whether that may have led to sensitivities and a greater likelihood of gagging. We don’t know whether they went hungry or whether they were force-fed. All these options could cause potential eating issues now.

We do know though that tastes develop based on experience – the more times you try a food, the more likely you are to like it. We also know that there are ‘windows of opportunity’ within the weaning phase and if children are not exposed to tastes at these points, the window can close.

I strongly suspect that Little Bear hadn’t tried a wide range of foods before he came home. He certainly wasn’t too familiar with vegetables. If children haven’t been exposed to many different tastes and textures, they won’t eat a wide range. Things that are new to them will seem alien and it is likely their first reaction will be of dislike. They are likely to pass these foods around their mouth/ spit them out etc.

Research suggests that rather than assuming they definitely don’t like that food, we should keep offering it to them. Obviously you have to be extremely careful with making children eat foods they don’t want so this is pretty tricky. We used to do a lot of hiding vegetables – in sauces or soups and Little Bear happily took them that way. I also used a bit of good old bribery (some of you won’t like this) e.g. you can have pudding when you’ve tried one bite of x/y/z vegetable. We’ve had good success with this and I’m really proud of the range of vegetables Little Bear will choose to eat now.

The other aspect of experience that is important is that our muscles develop alongside the foods we eat. If we just eat sloppy or dissolvable textures all the time, our chewing muscles won’t develop. Many children who have experienced neglect have low muscle tone in general. Some have such low tone that their face can appear droopy and they need specific stimulation of those muscles to improve the tone, often completely altering their appearance.

I suspect that Little Bear was mainly given a mushy diet in foster care and didn’t experience a range of textures like fish or meat. I have noticed that he is more likely to hold chewier items in his mouth and this could be because his muscles are underdeveloped and chewing is actually really hard work for him. I chatted this through with a friend who is experienced in children’s eating and drinking difficulties a while ago and she suggested building texture up gradually. You can’t expect a child to go from eating Weetabix one week to steak the next. There needs to be a gradual build-up of chewiness. I think this has led to an improvement here. Little Bear will now happily polish off a range of fish, sausages, bacon or chicken (if it’s soft enough). He will eat beef but it is still noticeably effortful for him, it stays in his mouth a long time and can result in it being spat out.

My friend also pointed out that if you aren’t experienced in chewing (or sometimes this just happens randomly) you don’t develop the side to side movements of your tongue that you need to push food from one side to the other as part of the chewing process. She said you can develop this outside of eating by playing games that involve trying to touch a specific item in a specific place with your tongue or just the teeth on one side. I used to add a little game onto the end of tooth-brushing involving Little Bear playing ‘tag’ with his tongue and the brush.

Although I don’t want to get into the behavioural side of things too much, it is also pertinent to consider a child’s general presentation. Do they have difficulties with attention control and concentration in general? Little Bear does. Could it be that he gets distracted mid-chew and forgets he has food in his mouth? I do tend to give him frequent prompts and reminders to keep chewing. I also need to remind him that his mouth is full so he shouldn’t put the next mouthful in yet.

So far, that is quite a lot of possible factors that could be affecting our children’s eating. However, I haven’t really mentioned swallowing/choking and the factors above don’t really explain why some children who were removed from neglectful situations very early or even at birth still go on to have these types of difficulties. Could something be going on in utero?

It’s certainly possible because the bit of the brain that is most developed when a baby is born is the brainstem. This is also the bit that controls basic functions such as eating and drinking. The cortex and higher brain regions mostly develop after birth and are consequently very susceptible to environmental damage such as lack of stimulation. Because the brainstem develops during pregnancy, one assumes it is more susceptible to damage from things that happen in utero than any other bit of the brain. We know that recreational drugs, including nicotine and caffeine, as well as alcohol and stress hormones such as cortisol cross the placenta and impact an un-born baby. I have struggled to find specific research about particular pollutants affecting the eating and drinking areas of the brain but it isn’t a huge leap to imagine it’s possible. Is there something different about the structure or connections in our children’s brains that lead to the types of mechanical eating difficulties we are seeing? Perhaps.

At these points I like to reassure myself with the concept of brain plasticity – the ability the brain has to build new connections and new pathways; to learn to do things it couldn’t do before. I read that the brainstem is less plastic than the cortex but it is still capable of plasticity. Maybe change in the areas it controls is more difficult to achieve and may take longer but I like to think it’s possible.

It seems our random Twitter chat has led us unwittingly into a fairly complex area. My feeling is that this little corner of behaviour is under-researched and I suspect I have raised more questions than answers. If anybody knows of any articles that could tell us more, please send them my way. In the meantime this one was sent to me and I think it’s well worth a read: Article about the impact of trauma on the developing brain

 

 

 

*I probably need to point out that all children are different and will all have been impacted in different ways and to greater or lesser extents by their experiences to date. The reasons given here are just some of the possible reasons and may or may not apply to your child. They are also my personal thoughts and based on my reading only.

 

 

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Adopted Children & Eating Issues

Five Minutes Peace

I think I might need to preface this blog by saying that I really love my bears. You know I do. It’s just that I might well have reached the point in the holidays where I’m kind of ready for them to go back to school…

I started off, pre-holidays, super-keen and excited to have some quality time with them. The first two weeks were far easier than I could have asked for and we had fun doing all our craft projects, chilling at home, going out for ice cream etc. Grizzly was off for the second two weeks and we went away for one of them. We had some lovely family time and both boys have spent days with just me and just Grizzly. Mummy Days and Daddy Days. All good.

I wasn’t even too worried about weeks five and six because I still had some activities up my sleeve, some days out planned and we were feeling all loved up. How hard could it be?

Err…

I think it’s the noise more than anything.

Mum! Mum! Mum! MUM! MUUUUMMMM!!!

Mum!

Dad?

Thump, thump, thump from the foot against the floor/ the sofa/ the wall. Ting, ting, ting, ting, ting on the bell from the Pit game that we’ve become obsessed with. Bang, crash, wallop from the bowl falling out the cupboard and the thing being launched across the room.

Penis. Penis face. Willy. Boobs. Boooooobies! Because, err, boys?!

The sound of my voice for the gazillionth time saying, “I don’t want to hear any rude words. Please stop saying ‘penis’.”

A barking noise. A horse noise. A wolf noise. A zombie noise.

A really loud, indescribable, vowel hooty type of thing.

The very worst: Little Bear has found a whistle.

Mum!!!! Mum? MUUUUMMM!!!

Growling (so pleased that one has re-appeared) and screaming. Muttering (and sometimes yelling) ‘imbecile’, ‘idiot’ and ‘I hate you mum, you’re really annoying me!’

As one assumes that countering with, “For the love of God, put a sock in it” is not good parenting, I am finding that I’m spending more and more time hiding in the bathroom and thinking up trips out that allow me to engineer five minutes peace. It’s like the book of that name and I’m really feeling for Mrs Large right now. And just like in the book, when you hide in the toilet, they find you and sit directly outside, incessantly talking. That’s if you’re lucky. If not, the smallest one barges right in and hops on your knee. The noise is inescapable.

I think now, towards the end of week 6, my brain is starting to protest. Its saying, ‘this assault on your auditory sense is too much. It’s a bombardment. Move away. Seek shelter’. Yesterday and today I have taken them to park-type places where they have begged and nagged and attempted to bully me into playing with them. Part of me has felt bad (because at the start of the holidays I was so well-intentioned I said yes to everything) but now I’m getting a little claustrophobic and just need them to leave me alone for half an hour. Most other parents I see are sitting on benches while their children run around; why can’t I? There is a long answer to that question involving attachment-needing behaviour and yada-yada but I’m asking rhetorically. Nay, I’m begging, for just five minutes peace.

In my meanness over the past two days I have ushered them off to play, amidst a few protestations (Big Bear thinks he’s too cool for parks and Little Bear can’t possibly play without me) which I have ignored for my own sanity. I have noticed that when I’ve sat back, it has taken them maybe 10 minutes to settle into the play and then they’ve inevitably made a friend or agreed to play together and actually they are having a perfectly lovely time. Today I should have been enjoying my cup of tea while they tried to build a den out of those polystyrene sheets that are meant to fit together but they couldn’t figure it out and I kept getting the guilts that I wasn’t jumping up to help them. I had a stern word with myself that this was a good chance for them to do some problem-solving and if I didn’t just sit there quietly staring into space for a while, it would not be cheerful mummy who would be looking after them for the rest of the day. It would rageful mummy who cannot deal with all the noise and who has got quite overstimulated and just needs FIVE MINUTES PEACE!

So sit back I did and eventually Big Bear built a pyramid den encasing his brother inside which seemed to suit everybody.

Phew. The holidays are quite intense. I’ve said it before but I have no idea how people manage to home-school their children. It would be like this all the time. All. The. Time. I don’t think my brain could take it.

It is probably a good job that there are only 4 more days to go. No doubt they’ll go back to school and I’ll fill my poor brain with worry over how Little Bear is coping in the next class and also with the fact that I’m missing them and don’t quite know what to do with myself. I’ll probably think it’s too quiet and turn the radio on.

I have to admit that I’m looking forward to some alone time. Some walks and some writing. Some time when I can hear my thoughts. No cacophony. No obscenities being chanted. Five minutes peace.

Five Minutes Peace

Prep Groups

Our lovely voluntary adoption agency has now asked me several times to come along to prep groups to speak to prospective adopters. I like doing it and I went again last week. I have since been reflecting on the role of visiting adopters in prep groups and the things which are said and unsaid.

I think my appearances at such things total 5 or 6 now, over a 3 year period. Each time I’ve been I think I’ve probably told a slightly different story. I haven’t changed any facts but I’ve naturally talked about different things depending on the point we were at in our journey, things that were happening around the time of my visit or how I was feeling on the given day. I’m not quite sure how I managed to speak at them at all, the first time I did it, as it was only a couple of months into our adoption and certainly during the bit I now refer back to as ‘The Bad Bit’. I can see myself in my mind’s eye, sitting in front of those strangers, trying to be strong, for them as well as me, and I’d like to go back and give myself a hug. It was hard to do but I felt it was important.

I don’t find it hard now really. I tend to get emotional when I talk about Little Bear’s progress and how far things have come, rather than when I talk about the hard bits. Because I do talk about the hard bits. I have worried that my Agency will add me to some sort of black list after one of my visits as I’m so graphic with the truth. However, as I’ve got braver and more knowledgeable, I now feel that if a group of prospective adopters can’t handle our story in all its murky glory, they are perhaps not cut out for adoption. Our story is by no means the scariest you will hear but I have certainly seen fear in people’s eyes when I’ve been telling it. Obviously I don’t set out to instil fear; I would never purposefully scare anyone. However, I don’t see my role as treating people with kid-gloves either. Prospective adopters need to know the truth. They need to know what real adoptive families are like and that includes hearing the less palatable details of some of the challenges we face.

I try to give a balanced narrative. After all, I think our adoptive family is pretty awesome and the highs have been more than we could have asked for. In the most part we are very happy. But we have had some really hard times, we have been challenged to our core and felt a desperation you would never associate with parenthood. Prospective adopters need to know that this ain’t no fairy tale. I can’t have them going home thinking you pick the perfect child, they move in, no one looks back and you all skip away into the sunset. That would be doing a great injustice to them and their future children.

I know that listening to one adopter probably won’t make great shifts in a person’s thinking and people will hear what they want to hear to some extent anyway but I hand them my truth, because I think I have a responsibility to do so, and it is up to them how they use it.

There are a few key points that I would want to make to any prospective adopter and I suppose I may not have been consistent in doing so when I’ve popped up at the groups because of how the questioning has gone or what has been on my mind at the time. These are things that are not necessarily covered as a matter of course in the groups but I think are important for people to hear:

Firstly, you might not love your child straight away. I think it can be easy to assume you will, because the stars have brought you together in the matching process and you suspect everything happens for a reason. You may well be meant for each other but, honestly, it can take time to feel that. When you have been through a lengthy matching process and you are nervous and excited about finally meeting your child, not feeling that love can really throw you off course emotionally. Guilt, doubt, it all creeps in. I always try to remember to say to prospective adopters that it doesn’t matter if that love isn’t there at the start, or even after a few days or weeks. I think it took months for us. It is normal not to fall in love with a child you’ve just met. They are a stranger and it is ok if it feels that way for a while. Don’t beat yourselves up about it, love will come.

The second thing I try to tell people is difficult to discuss in a different way. It’s about money. Our experience was that adoption is costly. We were extremely fortunate that it wasn’t a precluding factor but at the time, we kept thinking about people on low-incomes and certainly felt it would have been unaffordable for some. I’m aware that people’s experiences are very different depending on where they adopt or where their children are in foster care and some areas seem more able/ willing to reimburse costs than others. Our experience was of clocking up hundreds of miles in the car driving back and to meetings, panels etc. including crossing a toll bridge. We did get those costs reimbursed in the end but we were out of pocket for a good 6 months. We also paid for our own accommodation as introductions were several hours from home. Whilst away, we obviously had to eat and go on days out etc. to keep two small children busy (all a little more difficult when you don’t have your own home to use) which added up cost-wise. We weren’t offered any sort of living allowance (I know some places do offer it) and we didn’t get a settling-in grant for car seats/ bed/any essential equipment we needed for Little Bear. The total costs were greater than you might anticipate and the LA wouldn’t cover anything more than petrol. There isn’t much that can be done about this (despite the rights or wrongs) but I think prospective adopters should be aware so they can ask the relevant questions and consider the practicalities.

I guess the third thing I try to get across is that in adoption, nothing is solved quickly. I am a great believer that children can and do recover from trauma but that recovery doesn’t happen the moment a child steps over the threshold. It doesn’t happen if you deny the trauma exists or if you attempt to forget the past. Helping a child to recover from trauma is a lengthy, challenging process, which requires a high level of perseverance. It takes years, not days or weeks. Adoption is a long game and you need to go into it prepared to work really, really hard.

If I haven’t made people run screaming from the room with all that, plus tales of violence and developmental delay, I feel they deserve the reward of hearing some positivity. That’s the point at which I get a bit choked up and oogey-gooey. I know that one of these times, the dam will break and I will weep in a room full of increasingly terrified people but none of us wants that.

My final point is around questions. When I’ve finished talking in a slightly uncomfortable monologue, people really need to ask some questions. Not just because it’s pretty awkward for me if I bare my soul and the entire group reacts with silence but because if you are going through adoption assessment, you should have at least one question. In my opinion, you should have a gazillion and one questions. Adoption is a huge, life-altering decision. I have no idea how you could be faced with all that reality and not be able to form one question. When I go along to the groups, it is with the intention of answering any question as honestly as I can. I don’t mind at all if people ask me so many questions I have to stay longer than planned. Questions are good. Some people may never have met another adopter before; they should bleed me dry of information. They should ask any obscure or difficult or mundane questions they might have. I honestly think that any adopter who has agreed to go along to prep groups would be ok with being asked all the questions.

Last week was a brilliant group. They were really engaged and asked many, many questions and it felt like it boded well for their future. Once, a while ago, I finished my awkward monologue and nobody spoke. Not one person. I invited questions, made a joke of the silence but not. One. Person. Spoke. The Social Workers did, obviously, but none of the prospective adopters. I thought it was me and my story and to be honest, I didn’t agree to do prep groups again for a while after that. There was no satisfaction in it at all and I went home feeling worse than when I’d gone, which is not something you hope for in a voluntary role. So, please, if you are a prospective adopter and an experienced adopter comes to speak to you at prep groups, please speak with them. Drum up at least one question. Do it out of courtesy for them but do it for yourself too. Prep groups are part of the assessment process and the Social Workers will be observing. Plus, surely there is just loads of stuff you want to know?

The funny thing is, is that despite all my honesty and re-living all our dramas for the prospective adopters, I still get really excited for them too. All the hopes and dreams of their future lives with their future children are infectious. I remember it so well and despite everything, I’d do it all again to get my Little Bear.

 

Prep Groups

Reflections on Adoption Three Years In

Wow. I honestly don’t know how we’ve got here already. How can it be three whole years since Little Bear whizzed into our lives? The last year has flown quicker than any other but in some ways it feels as though Little Bear has been here forever.

At each of our anniversaries I have written a blog post reflecting on how the year has gone and how my thoughts and feelings on our adoption journey have changed over time. You can read the first two here: Reflections on Adoption One Year In

Reflections on Adoption 2 Years In

For some reason, this year’s feels a bit harder to write. I think it might be because everything is feeling pretty (dare I say it?) normal… I guess that expecting the odd challenge is now woven into our everyday so it is only larger hurdles that feel noteworthy. They come and they go. We can have weeks, months even, of relative peace these days then we hit a rough patch, like we did towards the end of term and things get a bit trickier for a while. I suppose we still have the peaks and troughs pattern that we probably had last year, only now the peaks are bigger and the troughs a little shallower.

With it being our ‘famiversary’ (a term I have shamelessly pilfered from a fellow Tweeter) our minds have naturally turned to reflection. Today I have also been to speak at prep groups for prospective adopters so of course I have once again cast my mind back to the early days of our adoption in order to tell them our story. All this thinking has proved bitter-sweet. The beginning of our adoption story is not a happy one. I would describe the Introductions process onwards, incorporating the first 6 months or so, as one gigantic trough. A crater, if you like, so deep and barren and challenging that we spent quite a lot of time wondering how to get out. The good news is that it has been an upwards trajectory ever since, peaks and troughs notwithstanding. But it is sad for all of us that we had to begin in that place.

The level of challenge at the time was such that I couldn’t always separate my exhaustion and desperation from the little person seemingly causing them. Time, as people so often tell you, has given me distance and clarity and now when I look back, I am so sad for the scared little bundle that arrived on our doorstep, his bag, containing all his life’s belongings, bigger than he was. The bag contained mainly clothes and nice ones at that. It contained some toys, but a smaller range than you might imagine for a child of 3 and a half. There wasn’t a book in sight.

Little Bear himself was tiny, his head fitting in my hand like a baby’s would. When I look back at photos of him he looks much younger than he was. He also looks ridiculously cute to the point where it surprises me. I suspect the reason for that is because his behaviour was anything but cute and my memories of him are of a much bigger, stronger, angrier, harder boy. It’s funny how your memory plays such tricks. It’s funny, but it isn’t amusing. How awful that I couldn’t see that vulnerable tininess at the time.

The other unpalatable fact is that Little Bear was meeting his developmental milestones when he entered foster care yet was more than 2 years behind age expectations when we met him, some 2 and a bit years later. He wasn’t toilet trained, couldn’t walk safely without reins, used a high chair, had a bottle at bed and couldn’t make himself understood to us, his new family. He couldn’t count, didn’t know his colours, his own name or have words for everyday things such as the tele. He was due to start school in one year’s time. I wrote about my feelings on some of this in Developmental Delay

Little Bear’s tongue had a very unusual cracked appearance and he took medication for constipation. He was dehydrated.

Most of the time these days I suppose I don’t think about all of this but when I do, I vacillate between fury and heartbreak. My gorgeous little boy was trapped inside of himself; his potential all but wasted. I’d go back in time if I could, bring him home sooner. Of course that was never a possibility, but you can’t help wondering how things could have been for him; how much farther ahead he would be; how much angst and frustration and rage could have been saved.

As if that wasn’t tricky enough, we were expecting the other boy, the one from the paperwork. He had Little Bear’s name and picture but the description and the behaviour of the fictitious on-paper-child and the realities of the in-the-flesh one were something of a contrast. We were completely unprepared for the prospect of violence and aggression coming into our home, especially as we had specifically stated we couldn’t cope with it. We may not have been quite so over-faced by Little Bear’s behaviour, had we have known about it in advance.

The facts of the start of our adoption are thus: a little boy, who was completely lost and terrified but who had no way of verbalising his scary thoughts landed in our house. He didn’t appear to be anything like the child we had agreed to adopt which was somewhat terrifying for us (understatement of the century). To say things were touch and go for some months would be accurate. Was it ‘love at first sight’ and did he feel like ‘the one’? Well, I think you know the answers.

Yet here we are, three years on and I can tell you, unequivocally, that I love him like I’ve given birth to him. It’s hard to summarise how we got from there to here; you’d have to read my blog in its entirety, but we have. I look at my tall, muscly boy who is so strong but not at all aggressive, and it’s hard for me to compute that he is the same one who came home. He’s loving, can be polite (!), hilariously funny and so sharp. To his credit he has worked his tiny backside off, all the while creeping closer to age-expectations. Not only can he count but he’s learning his times tables. He can read, write and do a whole myriad of other impressive things. He’s an extremely well-behaved and considerate little brother.

It is impossible to imagine that there could have been another child out there who could have been a better match for our family. I questioned the match. Many times. I questioned it most often at 4am when I just got back into bed after 3 hours of providing middle of the night ‘supervision’ and was too exhausted to sleep and couldn’t face the day ahead. For a long time the match seemed questionable. But it isn’t. The match is perfect. Little Bear is The One. He feels like he’s my son, just in the same way that Big Bear feels like he’s my son.

Adoption is such a strange thing. What an abnormal way of gaining a child! Yet, I’ve struggled to pick things apart this year because our life feels so normal. All that stuff at the beginning of our relationship is getting less and less relevant. This is us. A family. Mum, Dad and two boys.

Someone asked me today if Little Bear identifies as being adopted, first and foremost and how you manage to truly integrate a child who isn’t genetically yours. I think they were worried that talking too much about adoption could make their child feel less theirs and were wondering whether just not mentioning it might work better. I’m not sure that I managed to articulate my answer properly because it is a tricky concept to get across. What I tried to say was that Little Bear is very much my son. I don’t think he could feel more like he is. It isn’t physically possible. He is one quarter of this family, just the same as each of us are. He doesn’t get a smaller proportion because he’s adopted. We are each an equal member. We have a strong sense of family unity and I would say he identifies as a Bear. He identifies as mine and Grizzly’s child and as Big Bear’s brother. He identifies as a grandchild to our parents and a nephew to my brother. However, I know that he does also identify as adopted, because he is. There was some sort of incident in school recently where another adoptee in Little Bear’s class got upset about being adopted. Little Bear stood up, in a show of unity and said, “I’m adopted too”. I can totally picture it and it looks like Spartacus every time.

My point is that a child can be fully integrated, a true member of a family and still be adopted. The two are not mutually exclusive. I think to fail to acknowledge his background would be a huge disservice to him. I can see how acknowledging your child had a life before you could be a threatening concept for a new adopter but it needn’t be a threat. I know the concept of a child being yours and someone else’s feels like it could be uncomfortable, like there wouldn’t be enough room for everyone, but there is. Love is a funny thing. It’s pretty stretchy.

Someone else gave birth to my son and he felt like a stranger when I met him. But love came and it grew. It grew so much that parenting him now feels like the most natural thing in the world. He’s my son and while we definitely do acknowledge he came here through adoption, it doesn’t matter. I really do think much more value is placed on genetics than is necessary or relevant. Three years have sealed the bonds, strengthened the attachments and mercifully, made everything feel really normal.

 

 

 

Reflections on Adoption Three Years In

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.

 

 

 

Talking is Crucial

The Bears’ Summer Writing Challenge

Every summer, libraries do their Summer Reading Challenge to encourage children to read more books. I think it’s a really good idea but this year I had decided we wouldn’t participate*. We do alright on reading here, I really can’t complain. Big Bear will be getting some new books for his birthday and I know he will read them during the holidays, now that he has discovered the pleasure of reading for fun. Little Bear has a well-stocked book shelf, having inherited Big Bear’s picture books as well as acquiring a good collection of his own. He loves reading and we religiously read three books each night, as well as Little Bear reading to me (I have invested in a pack of Oxford Reading Tree books of the right level from The Book People to keep practise up over the hols).

I’m not complacent about reading and I definitely place a high value on it, it’s just that I have already given it a whole heap of my attention and I think we can afford to shift our focus elsewhere now, leaving reading ticking along nicely in the background.

I suppose I have always felt fairly confident in how to support and develop reading at home. Being a speech and language therapist, knowing about phonological awareness (the awareness of the sound structure of words) and how to teach it, is crucial. Phonological awareness underpins speech processing and development but it also underpins literacy. Therefore my career has armed me really, with the tools to help my children learn to read.

Irrespective of teaching the mechanics of reading, I have always believed that it is crucial for a child to feel successful at something and to truly believe they can do it in order for them to develop a confidence in their skills. When it comes to reading, that lightbulb moment often happens when children go out and about and realise they can read signs and labels and text they just happen upon in their environment. It is important to practise reading in a school book but I think children need more than that to truly develop a love and desire for reading. Where possible, at each stage, I have tried to pick books from Little Bear’s shelf that I knew he could read. He often didn’t believe he could because they weren’t colour-banded school books, but once I’d persuaded him to try, the fact that he really could was powerful for him. As was being able to read made up stories we hand wrote on a piece of paper or bits of a cereal packet or words on the TV.

Obviously Little Bear is not yet reading War and Peace but he has the foundation skills in place and is making good progress. As yet, the same cannot be said for writing.

I have to admit that I have been somewhat neglectful of Little Bear’s writing development. There are a few reasons why. Firstly, I do think reading is more important to start with and writing is a skill that can follow. That’s just my opinion: I’m not a teacher, so I may well be going against some sort of law of teaching or other. Secondly, I don’t have the same confidence to support Little Bear’s writing development. What on earth do I know about teaching writing?

As we have now got to the point where Little Bear is pretty happy and confident to read but frequently says he hates writing and that he’s rubbish at it and might sabotage his written work and is what school would term “a reluctant writer” I can no longer hide behind my excuses. The Eureka moment we have all been hoping for has not materialised.

I think what I mean to say is that the Eureka moment has not happened through school input alone. Now, I absolutely do not believe that my ability to teach Little Bear is better than schools. We have already established that I have zero knowledge of teaching writing and I love the Bears’ school and think they do an amazing job. The problem, and I think there is one, is with the curriculum and the pressure on our children to meet all sorts of crazy standards. I haven’t the energy for politics but all I know is that if I were a ‘reluctant writer’ and I found within me the effort to put pencil to paper and immediately as I did, were told my starting letter should have been a capital and that my ‘S’ was incorrectly formed, I probably couldn’t be arsed to try again either.

In considering a way to give Little Bear his Eureka moment, I had a little one of my own. I am no teacher but I am a writer. I don’t profess to ‘know my craft’ as I’m pretty new to it really and am certainly still developing my skills, but I do love it. I had a little think about what I love about it and the answer I came up with definitely wasn’t punctuation or grammar. Whilst I do understand punctuation and I think use it appropriately it really doesn’t excite me and despite studying Linguistic modules at degree level, the more I consider how to craft a piece of writing, the more I fear I know nothing about grammar. Grammar is starting to scare me, but that’s another story. I concluded that my love of writing comes from the fundamental concept that it allows me to take ideas from my brain and put them on a piece of paper. It allows me to express myself. I can say whatever I like. Anything, in the whole world.

That freedom is what I want to gift to Little Bear. I want him to write. I don’t care what he writes, how he forms his letters, if it’s massive or tiny, if it’s in pencil or biro, if he adheres to the rules of grammar or not. I don’t think it is possible, for a child lacking in self-esteem, who struggles so much with rules, to learn to love writing when there are just so many constraints placed upon how he can do it. I know that he will need to go on to learn the rules, of course he will, but it feels like there should be a stage before that in which he can experiment and figure out the whole raison d’etre of writing.

On Friday, the day school ended for summer, I got a couple of little things for the boys to keep them entertained in the holidays. I got them each a notepad and pens and I set them a writing challenge. When I did this I wasn’t too sure whether it might be one of those things Mum comes up with which she thinks is a fabulous idea but actually the children can’t believe what I’m doing to them. I did make my purchases as appealing as possible because every writer needs good stationery and I needed as much help as possible with marketing my idea. Little Bear has a notebook with sequins on it that can be brushed backwards or forwards which he LOVES and Big Bear has a green furry one that smells of apples and who could need anything else? I also provided new pens, in a delectable range of colours.

I set the challenge: to write every day for the whole holiday. Effort and commitment will be rewarded at the end of the holiday. If you don’t write, your chances of reward dwindle. The rules? There are no rules. You can write anything; a story, a list, a diary entry, a song.

I didn’t say this part out loud but I made a deal with myself that anything that got written would not get corrected and would not have to be copied out again. At school they do this ‘purple polishing’ thing which is about checking your work and drafting and re-drafting to achieve the best version of the work you can. I get it, obviously in my writing life I draft and edit and tweak and tinker until the cows come home, but I’m a grown up and I’m trying to get published and if I were a child I would be BORED. Like Little Bear, I would also be disgruntled that I had already tried my best and I simply didn’t have the energy left to do it all again.

On Saturday, after tea, the boys dutifully sat down to write in their books. Big Bear wrote a diary entry in lumo-green. Little Bear began making up a story, every few lines changing colour so it looked like a rainbow. Little Bear wrote a whole paragraph without any sort of encouragement which was more than I’d ever observed him write. We made a big fuss of how well he had done and he was made up when the other three of us each trooped over to read his words aloud.

I feared that my hands-off approach would hamper progress and development but I was heartened to hear Little Bear sounding his words out as he went and applying some of his phonic knowledge. When he got to bigger words he asked for help and I either helped or encouraged as necessary.

On Sunday, when I got up, Little Bear, ever the early bird, was already up and seated at the kitchen table. Apparently he fancied carrying on his story and had covered another page and a half in rainbow writing. It doesn’t make total sense. Some words are missing and I can’t decipher some of it but I am absolutely over the moon at his enthusiasm.

Later on, Big Bear chose to play a computer game and Little Bear chose to write some more.

After tea, Big Bear sat down to do his writing and I told Little Bear he didn’t have to as he had already written plenty, yet down he sat and more story appeared.

On Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and today, Little Bear picked up his sequined notebook at random points in the day and he wrote. I have not reminded him to do so on any occasion.

I don’t know whether this is his Eureka moment but he has never hitherto shown this level of interest, so I’m feeling optimistic. The curriculum feels quite restrictive to me at times. Why do we need to push our children into complex grammatical structures at such a young age? As if to prove my point, we have homework about extended noun phrases. The power of creativity feels massively undervalued in today’s schooling. Little Bear has a wild imagination. He could be a fabulous writer, but only if we can inspire him.

Having Developmental Language Disorder makes all aspects of literacy harder for Little Bear. He is already pushing a boulder up a hill before he picks up his pencil. I know he can achieve a good level of literacy despite this, but does he?

The whole point of the writing challenge is to ignite his self-belief because, unfortunately, his formal education doesn’t seem able to.

 

 

*When we popped to the library the boys decided they did want to do the Reading Challenge after all so we have challenges come out of our ears!

The Bears’ Summer Writing Challenge

New Teacher

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This transition was a Big deal for all of us.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

New Teacher