Birth Siblings

In all my years of blogging, I haven’t really mentioned Little Bear’s birth siblings much (See Re-visiting the CPR for my most recent mention) but they are increasingly on my mind. As difficult as it to share this, I need to be completely honest: when we were going through the Matching process, the fact that Little Bear had several older siblings caused me a lot of worry. I worried that as they remained (and were going to remain) in the Care system that their futures might not be as sunny as one would hope. What if they fell into drugs or crime? What sort of impact might that have on Little Bear, or us? Did I really want to invite these unknown youths into our lives, even if just with letters? It literally kept me awake at night.

I look back and I’m embarrassed that I held those views. I’m choosing to forgive myself because I was very new to adoption at the time and the Matching process is incredibly stressful. It is important, at that stage, that you consider all the whys and what ifs. You do need to go into an adoption open-eyed and aware of potential issues and impacts. You do need to ponder the information you are given and think about whether you really can cope with any possible challenges within the context of your own life. I suppose I was right in some ways to think critically about the other siblings and how we would manage contact with them.

However, what I did not need to do was tar all looked-after children with the same brush. Just because they are going to spend their childhood in Care certainly does not mean that they will come out the other end in trouble with the Police or addicted to class A’s. I didn’t know these young people at all – a much better starting point would have been an open mind and a willingness to get to know them.

I suppose the spectre of them loomed large to me, as a terrified, new, prospective adopter. I can understand how it did and I can understand how other people might feel that way too.

It is strange how my views and feelings have changed in the three years since then. My overarching feeling towards them now is one of wanting to protect them – to extend my parenting arms around them as far as I can feasibly reach. That probably sounds equally as strange as my starting viewpoint, because they are not my children, biological, adopted or otherwise. However, they are Little Bear’s siblings and Little Bear is my son. There is, undeniably, a link between us and them.

I think at the start of this process, we used words like ‘birth siblings’ to keep them at arm’s length. We didn’t use the words ‘brother’ or ‘sister’ unless they had ‘birth’ before them, again making a linguistic distinction, indicating they were somehow different. The truth is that no matter what we call them, they are Little Bear’s brothers and sisters and should be referred to as such.

We recently had an update about them from their Social Worker. They had sent letters and pictures which were spread out on our kitchen table. I was still being ridiculously careful about what I called them. Big Bear walked in and said, “Oh, Little Bear, have you had post from your brothers/sisters? That’s nice.” In so doing, he cut through all my euphemistic crap and just called them what they are. I looked on and learned my lesson.

In this post I’m going to keep calling them “Little Bear’s siblings” to protect their anonymity but now you know that we just call them their names or ‘your brother/sister’ at home.

I think the fact that it was Big Bear who cut the crap (pardon my language) was particularly meaningful. Part of the reason I tiptoe around is for him. I’d be interested to hear from anyone else who has a birth child about how they handle this. I find it difficult that Little Bear has several other full siblings as well as Big Bear, who is very definitely his brother. What relationship, exactly, does Big Bear have with the others? Technically, none. But it must be so weird for him that his brother has other brothers/sisters who he hasn’t met and who are a bit mystical in their absence. Little Bear figured it out for himself straight away – they are all his brothers and sisters, no quibbling. He doesn’t seem to struggle with the idea at all and I love it that he has taken Big Bear into that fold. In his mind, Big Bear has gained several more siblings.

I don’t think Big Bear feels the same though. It’s easy, with there being so many of them, for him to end up feeling the odd one out, something which I desperately don’t want him to feel in his own family.

I also don’t know whether he can feel part of them when I don’t really know whether the other siblings know he exists. I feel for them because it is already extremely hard for them to come to terms with the fact that they are all going to be in Care for their entire childhoods while just one of their brothers has been adopted. They must wonder why him? Why not them? They must also be really sad that they can still see each other fairly regularly (they are not all together) but can’t see Little Bear at all. It feels like an additional blow for them to learn that Little Bear not only has a new home and new parents but a new brother too. How come a stranger gets to be his brother and play with him and have fun with him when all they get is a measly letter?

I don’t know if they do feel that way – I’m projecting – but it would be understandable if they did.

My loyalties are divided because I want to protect them all. However, I rarely believe lying or lying by omission is the solution to anything, so as hard as it might be, I do think they should know about Big Bear. It isn’t fair to him to deny his existence and it isn’t fair for them to keep it a big secret that they might find out about when they are adults.

This feels like marshy ground and all I have to guide me are my instincts. When I write Letterbox I have made occasional mention of ‘our other son’ so they know there is a someone else. This time I have tentatively included Big Bear’s name. I haven’t made a big deal about it – just a little mention to (hopefully) help them get used to the idea little by little.

Previously when post has arrived from Little Bear’s siblings, we have ummed and erred over what to do with it – mainly because Little Bear hasn’t had much (if any) understanding of who they are and we knew it made Big Bear uncomfortable. We are thankfully now at a point of being able to announce the post’s arrival and leave it out for anyone who wants to look at it. I’m pretty relieved about this; it all feels a lot more normal. However, I do still feel that it is quite excluding for Big Bear and have been mulling over the best way forward. We have decided, rightly or wrongly and I’ve no idea if this is within Letterbox protocol, to give Big Bear the option of joining in if he wants to. I haven’t put any pressure on him to do so because I totally understand that it might feel uncomfortable for him but I have told him when I need to post the letters and invited him to write one if he wants. If anyone else out there has done this, please let me know.

A tiny part of me is anxious about drawing Big Bear in and exposing him to the unknowns of where these relationships might take us. However, when I’m unsure, I generally ask myself whether it is better to do something or to do nothing. Doing nothing keeps things the same but doesn’t allow for progress. Doing something is riskier but by reaching out, things could move on/improve/take us to amazing places. For the possibility of improving these children’s lives, the risks feel worth taking.

This is probably going to sound overstated but recently I have spent a lot of time wondering what our role is in the other sibling’s lives. Instead of us passively waiting to be impacted or not by how the siblings turn out in later life, what if we did our bit to support and influence them now? After all, we could be a constant in their lives, when so many other things change. I am unsure as to how much influence it is possible to have through a couple of letters. However, I have had really positive feedback about the letters we sent last year and the perceived therapeutic benefits of them for the children. So much so, that I recently had a phone call from the Letterbox co-ordinator asking whether we would consider increasing the frequency of our contact. It was a no-brainer and immediate ‘yes’. As they were asking something of me, I felt it ok to ask something of them: would they send me an update about the children before letterbox time so that I could write them a tailored letter, answering their questions or tackling their specific worries directly. This was agreed and we have received it in the last few days.

In my eyes, the update is essential for me to be able to write them the best, most useful letter I can – without knowing what they need, it just feels like empty words on a page. We are also concerned about them and genuinely want to know how they are doing. The news about one child in particular was not good this time and it was upsetting to read. I am particularly concerned about getting their letter right and wonder whether we can impact how they feel, even in the smallest way.

It is a tricky line to walk, balancing the needs of all, their feelings, my perception of how they might feel, taking a positive tone and trying to therapeutically parent them from afar. It doesn’t feel like ‘just a letter’ this time. It feels like doing something. It feels like the beginning of a relationship; a relationship I’m keen to cultivate because if the writing goes well, maybe meeting up is not such a crazy thought.

 

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Birth Siblings

A Thursday with Little Bear (aged 6 and a half)

Back in May of 2016, when Little Bear was just over 4, I wrote an account of a day we had spent together (you can read it here: A Friday with Little Bear ). Today I was struck by the idea that it might be interesting to do it again – to reflect the progress he has made as well as the types of challenges we experience now he’s a bit older. I’m not 100% sure of the wisdom of this but here we go:

I was woken at about 8am by Grizzly’s alarm and a throbbing headache. The rest of the house was silent. When Grizzly got up (he was working at home) I could hear him speaking to Little Bear who had been up a while but had entertained himself with his I pad. We had a slow start because its half term.

When the boys had had quite enough screen time, I attempted to complete Little Bear’s holiday homework with him. Apparently he is supposed to write a whole side of A4 about what he’s been up to in the break, being sure to include conjunctions, adverbs and expanded noun phrases. In order to make the task slightly less ridiculous for him, I first read him his new social story about making mistakes and then we had a chat and I drew some pictures/ wrote some key words to make the task more visual. It looked like this:

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 We began the writing task using the visual to support us. Little Bear did well for the first sentence then quickly lost concentration during the second. He wasn’t keen to say the sentences out loud first which meant he wrote things that didn’t make sense. He quickly became annoyed and threw his pencil across the room. He was able to using a breathing technique when I pointed at his social story and we did manage to complete the second sentence. After that, it seemed wise to take a break.

Little Bear got himself a snack and lay down on the sofa and put the TV on. He stayed there quite a long time while I got ready and did a few jobs. I explained we were going out soon and gave a ten minute then five minute then every minute for about five minutes warnings. When it was time to go, Little Bear refused to turn off the TV or get off the sofa. After some persuasion/ negotiation he switched it off but refused to go for a wee or put on his shoes. I helped him with the shoe part so that we might actually leave the house today.

When he finally got outside, he didn’t want to get into the car.

In the car, Little Bear tried to tell us which songs we were and were not allowed to listen to. I made sure we took turns to choose a song.

When we arrived in town, we met my parents. Little Bear ran over to greet them and measured himself against my mum who has not been blessed with tallness. “I’m bigger than your mum’s boobs now!” he yelled, loud enough for half the town to hear. I don’t even bother to blush or check if anyone is looking any more.

We went into a clothes shop because the boys needed some tracky bottoms and they quite like looking at clothes for themselves sometimes. Little Bear chose some tops with those sequin designs that brush forwards and backwards which kept him busy for a couple of minutes. He was soon running around the store and trying to engage one of us in hide and seek. My Dad took him to the toilet while we paid. We met them at a restaurant but Little Bear had found a piano and my Dad was having some difficulty getting him to come away from it. When he did manage to extricate him, Little Bear found a triangle of landscaping to run up and down and round and round. I said he could have one more circuit then we’d go into the restaurant. He had one more then tried to negotiate for 5 more. He would only come when I started to go into the restaurant.

I had brought an activity book which kept Little Bear fairly busy while we waited for food though he mainly stuck stickers to himself, not the pages. He sat and ate surprisingly well but as soon as the last bite was in his mouth he was up out of his seat and heading for the door. He wasn’t pleased when I asked him to come back and explained not everyone had finished yet. Little Bear began hanging on the back of his chair and jumping around. I took him to the loo for a change of scenery and little walk. On the way back to the table he tried to push me then tried to jump onto me while we were close to people’s tables. I had to crouch down and explain to him (again) how we should/shouldn’t behave in a restaurant. He told me he hated me rather loudly. He sat on me while I was crouching which nearly knocked us both over backwards. I managed to persuade him to wait until we got to the table and then he could sit on my knee. He did and I asked him if he wanted a squeeze. He did and this calmed him a little. We also did some pushing with his hands pushing down on mine. I do try to use a bit of calming sensory input when we’re out and about – sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. This time it bought us a few more minutes for the others to finish their drinks/ pay the bill.

Little Bear didn’t want to put on his coat and shouted at me again. When we got outside, he ran around his triangle again and seemed much happier.

Next stop was the shoe shop. Little Bear loves going there, but only if it ends in new shoes. I kept explaining that it would depend what the lady said and his feet might not have grown –forewarned is sort of forearmed but I rather suspected there would be some fallout if shoes were not needed. Thankfully, they were. Little Bear told the lady he is a year older than his is (purposefully) and did try to control the situation by taking hold of her tablet/moving her seat around/ not letting her put the shoes on his feet. I had to remind him that it was her shop and she was in charge. He tolerated this and did say please and thank you. There was a time when he wouldn’t have spoken to her at all so overall, I was pleased with how it had gone.

We went in two more shops. Little Bear wanted something in each one. He didn’t tolerate me saying ‘no’ too well and told me he hated me a few more times. Outside he saw a balloon on a stick someone had stuck into a flower bed. I asked him not to touch it. He pulled it out of the soil and waved it about. I explained it was dirty and not to touch it. He waved it about some more. I told him to put it back. He waved it about. I got a bit cross and told him off. Little Bear tried to run off. As I took hold of his hand to stop him, he hit me then pressed his nails into my hand as hard as he could.

We went into the library because there was supposed to be an activity on. There wasn’t. Little Bear found a lion statue and sat on it. I explained it wasn’t for sitting on and asked him to get off. He did but shortly got back on. I asked him to get off. He said, “But that baby over there is sitting on one.” I explained the baby was small and he was big and needed to get off. He got off then three seconds later got back on again. I re-iterated the need for good listening and asked him to get off. He did but the next thing I knew he was sitting on it again and a librarian was telling him off.

I told him we were going because the activity wasn’t on so we’d go for some pudding instead. Little Bear didn’t want to leave. There were negotiations. When we were finally going in the right direction, Little Bear saw the security barrier and began climbing it. Every time we are there he does that and every time I explain why I don’t want him to do that. I got a bit stern. Little Bear hit me.

We went past the pet shop and I had to stop Little Bear getting inside a rabbit hutch. Then he fell into step with Big Bear and suddenly hollered, “King Kong’s got massive balls” at the top of his lungs. My patience was really beginning to wear thin at this point.

We went for a drink in a café that has toys. Little Bear was entertained for a while and the grown-ups managed some civilised conversation. After a while, Little Bear announced he wanted to play the piano again. I told him the piano was finished and we were going home. He didn’t want to go home. He began jumping and swinging on the back of his chair. I suggested we go for a wee then home. Little Bear hit me and ran off. When I found him he wouldn’t come. He told me he hated me and it was the worst day ever and I was the worst mum in the whole world. I took him to the loo then when I got back from going myself, my Dad was having a word with him about not kicking the café wall. There were issues leaving the café/ getting his coat on etc.

We finally got into the car. My parents decided they would come to our house for a short time so we both left the same car park to go to the same place but they were slightly ahead of us. “Take over them,” Little Bear demanded. “I can’t,” I said, explaining it wasn’t the right kind of road. He continued asking me to do this and when I wouldn’t got quite upset. “But they will get there before us,” he said, “if you don’t want me to be upset, take over them!” The tears were coming now so I had to calmly explain that it didn’t matter who got there first and that it was my main job as the driver to keep us safe, which meant no overtaking on little roads. I tried to distract him with some singing. Little Bear evidently began to reflect on his behaviour in town and started saying I shouldn’t have bought him any shoes. I tried to empathise that it must be hard if he felt he didn’t deserve them but that even though he hadn’t been totally sensible in town, that could have been because he was tired and despite any behaviour, I still felt he deserved to have new shoes which fitted his feet and I was glad I had bought them for him.

“I bet Grandpa doesn’t even know the way to our house anyway!” he said.

At home, Little Bear asked me if he was allowed to go on his I pad. “Yes”, I said. “Phew,” he said, “That was close, I think I nearly wasn’t.” He sat down with his brother and peace was restored.

At tea time he couldn’t sit still and did everything other than eat.

After tea he played Lego at the table, a game with his Dad and brother and then we played a game altogether. It was lovely. Little Bear understood all the rules and was really sensible. He didn’t mind when he didn’t win.

Little Bear was not especially co-operative for bedtime – I could hear Grizzly having to repeat instructions and giving warnings but when he finally got into bed, he read the whole of his school book because he wanted to, all 20 pages. He shouted for Big Bear and I and we made a big fuss.

Grizzly settled him and came down. We could hear kicking the bed noises and intermittent shouting noises but then he quietened down.

*

In the two years since I last wrote out a day, everything has changed yet nothing has changed. Being out is still harder than being in (in some ways). There are still times when my patience is sorely tested (and surely anybody’s would be?). We are still more visible/ louder/ more inappropriately behaved than other families. There is progress though: regulation is better on the whole and self-regulation is creeping in. There is heaps more verbal communication. Little Bear’s interaction with strangers is more appropriate and his situational understanding is generally good now. He does know what the expectations are, even if he can’t quite manage to stick to them. Little Bear’s anxiety is more obvious because he can express it verbally now – it is less likely to get misinterpreted as bad behaviour. Little Bear can reflect on situations afterwards and can feel very remorseful, in a way that he didn’t used to.

There are good bits and there are bad bits. I don’t worry too much about the less than good bits – they’re par for the course and we’ve got pretty good at taking most things in our stride.*

No matter the behaviour, he’s still gorgeous, just as he is.

 

 

 

*Just off to lie in a darkened room

 

 

 

 

 

A Thursday with Little Bear (aged 6 and a half)

The National Adoption Awards

When I found out that my blog had been nominated and then shortlisted for an award at The National Adoption Awards, I knew I was supposed to play it cool and act nonchalant about the whole thing. However, as truth-telling is my M.O. I can’t lie to you now: I was totally, child-level, excited. I have never been to an awards ceremony in my life (I’m pretty sure school prize night doesn’t count) and may never again so really wanted, as uncool as it may have been, to make the most of this one. Cue a lot of time thinking about dresses/shoes/make up and some accompanying squealing.

Not only that, but in my new portfolio career, I spend a lot of time on my own, writing, and I don’t really have a boss. I don’t have an annual PDR or get any kind of feedback, frequently sending my work off into the ether and either hearing nothing or ‘no thanks’ so to be nominated for an award, especially for my writing, genuinely meant a lot to me. It gave me a lot of encouragement and some much needed positivity.

There was one problem though – the awards were being held in London. I have a very good friend, of over 28 years now, who lives in London and is all too aware of my London-phobia as I have hitherto completely refused to visit her. As anyone who knows me or has been reading for a while will know, I’m a little unhinged when it comes to our glorious capital. In my morbid and fearful brain, there is a direct connection between the metropolis and terrorism and going there has always felt akin to risking my life. And yes, I can hear how crazy this sounds. Anyhow, I was so excited that I decided I would need to overcome my notably irrational fears in order to go (but only if Grizzly would go with me).

Like any parent, going away is not without its organisational/logistical/emotional challenges, especially when it’s the first time you have both left them on a school night. With the help of lists/timetables/grandparents and a bit of military-level planning, we were on our way.

My first priority was seeing my much-loved and neglected friend, who had recently had a baby who I hadn’t yet met. We spent a lovely afternoon, in unseasonably warm conditions, sitting outside a fancy brasserie near Kings Cross, chatting, cuddling the baby and catching up. I realised how infrequently Grizzly and I are in relaxing situations, without the boys or without wondering what the boys are up to or checking the time because we need to get back to the boys. I suppose due to us being too far away to do anything useful, we felt a little more relaxed than at other times when we have been out on dates. A little distance can be a good thing for getting some perspective on your day to day life and making that time to have fun as a couple is essential, especially when real life is so busy.

Soon, I was stepping into my first Uber (I live up North in the countryside, don’t judge me) and we were off to The Foundling Museum.

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Part of the reason I was excited about going to the awards was because I would get to meet some adoption glitterati. Grizzly isn’t on Twitter so I tried to fill him in on who was who. It’s quite a bizarre situation knowing someone’s Twitter handle but not their actual name or what they look like, yet still considering them a friend. It’s certainly not a situation I’ve been in before and it did take a few minutes to work out who was who and to find people I knew (in a virtual sense at least). It was great to meet @imperfectlyblog and @adoptionof2 whose blogs had also been nominated. It was strange to share photos of our children and use their real names when we are all so cautious about doing so in the virtual world we usually meet in.

There were canapes and bubbly and we tried not to make a mess on the surfaces that had signs saying “nothing on here”. We debated the seating arrangements for the ceremony itself – would it be theatre-style or round tables? It turned out, to our surprise, to be a standing event; a bit of a challenge while hot/nervous/wearing heels but soon the speakers began and we were distracted by their words.

Carrie and David Grant, of Fame Academy and also-being-adopters-fame, opened and hosted the ceremony. They were funny and set things off in a relaxed and friendly style. Nadhim Zahawi, Minister for Children and Families was also there and delivered a speech, as well as giving an award. It was lovely hearing about good practise and social workers getting things right for families. It was great to see people being awarded for their efforts and hearing their teams/families cheering for them. Unfortunately I ended up being out of the room for much of The Adoptables’ speech which I was gutted about because everyone said they spoke really well and were the highlight of the evening. There was also an adoptive family there who had been voted ‘adopter champion of the year’ – their children stole the show, especially their 2.5 year old.

 

All too soon it was over and those who had won awards were ushered into another room to have photos and video taken.

After the ceremony, Grizzly and I and a group I refer affectionately to as The Twitter Strangers all went to a bar. I drank a pina colada and was thrust immediately into the most intense and challenging adoption chat I’ve ever had (in the best possible way). We talked about the future of adoption. We talked about contact and how it is mainly agreed on quite an arbitrary basis at the moment and how open adoptions could be more modern and appropriate. We discussed the issues this would raise about safety and how there are probably some children for whom this could never be safe. We talked about how social work would need to mould and change; become more understanding of the need for direct contact, have protocols in place to support it and be more reliable in sharing the requisite information with adopters. We talked about adopter recruitment and how this might/could/should change. We talked about trauma being broader than adoption; much broader.

We talked about National Adoption Week itself and in fact the awards themselves. I realised it was a much more complex and thorny subject than I had previously realised. I have thought lots about adopter recruitment and telling the truth. What I had not previously considered, to my shame, is that National Adoption Week is really only about adopters. It is not really for adoptees or for others who provide permanence such as kinship carers or long term foster carers. I suppose it is something that has been born out of the need for adopter recruitment and has good intentions. However, it does feel uncomfortable to realise that it is quite exclusive and excluding. Whilst I think it is positive to applaud good practice and recognise those who have gone above or beyond in some way, it would be even better to see those accolades shared across a wider population. @MrAlCoates has written about it already here: Al’s blog  I’m not quite sure what I want to add other than having an event which brought together birth families and all forms of carer/parent and had children at its centre would be the ultimate in inclusive, inspiring and uplifting award-giving.

The conversations were Big. I would mull on them and snippets would pop into my head for days afterwards.

It was fun though, we laughed and shared stories. I had to confess to Al and Scott that I have never listened to their Podcast (awkward) though I hope I slightly redeemed that situation with the fact I’ve never listened to any Podcast because I’m a Luddite. I have also since made myself figure it out and am now a proud listener. It’s pretty cool, you can wander around putting the washing on and stuff and still learn things at the same time – so much more practical than reading – who knew?

I was extremely grateful to my lovely husband for taking the time out of his own manic work schedule to be there with me. He wasn’t at all thrown by not knowing anybody and got stuck into the Big conversations too. He’s a good’un.

The whole thing was an adventure and I had a brilliant time. I couldn’t quite believe it when I found myself wandering the streets of London beyond my bedtime or when we made it home without incident or terror. And the boys were absolutely fine.

Thank you to everyone involved at First4Adoption for all your hard work in organising it and of course, for this:

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The National Adoption Awards

National Adoption Week 2018

Next week is National Adoption Week – a big push from the industry to raise awareness of adoption and to encourage would-be adopters to pursue it. This year the theme is ‘the adopter’ – who makes a good adopter and, from my perspective, what support do people need to succeed as adopters?

This is the third National Adoption Week since I’ve been blogging and it’s tricky to have a fresh perspective each time (the first year I blogged every day and last year I wrote The Little Things ) so this time I’ve asked the boys for some help.

Me: What should I say to people who might want to adopt a child?

Little Bear: Do it!

Big Bear: Do it because you’ll help save lives of children. You might regret it for a bit but it gets better and better and better.

Me: Is it something everyone should do?

Little Bear: Yes, because if they’ve not got good parents, they have to send them to good parents.

Big Bear: No, because you might be too busy or dangerous people shouldn’t be allowed. Parents need to be approved as good. It depends on their environment and home. They need to respect the child’s values.

Me: Is there anybody who shouldn’t be allowed to adopt?

Little Bear: Named a lot of people we know! I think this question was too abstract.

Big Bear: They can’t judge a child on colour or how they look. You need training. It doesn’t matter about shape or size. You really just need to be able to protect a child.

I think you can tell Big Bear has been learning about values and diversity at school. Or perhaps he has a future in politics.

Me: Have you got any advice for people who adopt children?

Little Bear: You should be nice and take care of them.

Me: Was there anything we did that you didn’t like? That we should have done differently?

Little Bear: You guys were really bossy but now you’re just perfect.

I suspended the interview at this point to smother him in kisses and tell him he is perfect too.

Big Bear: You can’t give children everything they want, just what they need. Help them. Support them. Ask if there is anything wrong. Don’t be violent to your child. Take it easy to start with. Don’t talk about horrible stuff.

Little Bear: Yeah, don’t let them see scary things.

*

Between them, I think the Bears have raised some salient points. Firstly, adoption is not for everybody, they’re right about that. Adoption is life-changing. I don’t see the point of lying to people in an attempt to snare them, only for them to find out the realities when it is too late. Adoption is challenging in all regards – emotionally, practically, financially. It is rarely a fairy tale. Adoption requires you to open your lives, not just to a traumatised child, but to the wider birth family who inevitably come with them. If you think they don’t come with them or that a child can just forget their past once they’re with you, adoption is not for you. If you do not believe in attachment theory or the impact of developmental trauma on the infant brain, adoption is not for you. If you believe that a child’s needs can be resolved by love alone, adoption is probably not for you.

However, if you are prepared to educate yourself in ACEs, trauma and therapeutic parenting, and you are willing to put yourself in the shoes of your child and are prepared to try your best to look at the world from their point of view, you might find out how amazing adoption can be. Adopters need resilience, a willingness to learn, a preparedness to fight for their child if circumstances require it, an open mind and an open heart. An ability to persevere helps and so does keeping going, no matter what. If you have not yet turned away or come out in a cold sweat, maybe you could do it?

I think there are some members of the adoption industry who are unwilling to tell this truth through fear of the damage it will do to recruitment of adopters. My view is increasingly that if people are put off by a few truths, they are unlikely to be cut out for adopting. We need people to go in with their eyes open, because discovering you can’t do it or it isn’t quite what you thought it would be once you’re already in, causes irreparable damage to all parties.

I don’t mean to point fingers – to some extent there will always be unknowns. There is the unavoidable disparity between understanding something in theory and experiencing it in practise. There is the unpredictable impact of moving a child from foster care to their forever home and all the additional losses that come with that. There is the unavoidable risk of relying solely on the information that is provided to you.

Risk cannot be fully mitigated in adoption.

However, I truly believe there will always be people who are willing to take these risks; people who won’t see the risks but the possibilities. Those people, they are the ones who are needed.

Everything in life is a risk isn’t it? Conceiving and given birth is riddled with risk but we tend to err on the positive when we talk about those. Riding motorbikes is risky. Buying shares is risky. Extreme sports are risky. Debts are risky. Crossing the road is not without risk.

We decide where to put our risk; when to roll our dice. We choose which risks are the ones we want to take. Which ones feel like calculated risks and which are a risk too far. I am one of the most risk-averse people you could meet. I wouldn’t roll my dice on debt or drugs or bungee-jumping or extreme-anything. In truth I’m hyper-aware of risk, worrying far too much about terrorism, planes falling out of the sky or getting squished on the motorway. But I took the risk of adoption. I informed myself so it was a calculated risk. I embraced everything about the idea of it, risks and all, because, for me, I believed it would be worth it. I believed it would be more than its risk. And it has been. So much more.

Adoption has been life-changing for us, in every way. Big Bear has become a brother through adoption. He has grown stronger and more self-assured because of adoption. He was always going to be a kind and empathetic young man but adoption has made him even more aware of others – the ways in which they might struggle, the ways in which he has the power to change outcomes for them through his words and actions and the ways other people’s lives might differ from ours. He’s very emotionally astute for a nine year old and I think adoption has played its role in that.

For Grizzly and I there is the obvious impact: we have gained another son. A son who drives us up the wall at times, who has found buttons we didn’t even know we had and pushed them, then pushed them again. A son whom we love entirely, just as he is. A son who we are immensely proud of and who brings each one of us joy, every single day. A son who is the funniest, kindest, most determined young man you could wish for.

Adoption has completed our family. It has brought our parents another grandchild; my brother another nephew.

For me, adoption has taken my career in new directions. It has led me to writing.

And as for Little Bear himself, it’s kind of hard to quantify. I don’t want to perpetuate the myth that adopters are like superheroes, saving children from a lesser life. There are no capes or bulging thigh muscles here and we don’t wear our pants on top of our clothes too often. There is no heroism in losing your temper or the natural mess of our daily lives. But it is possible to think about Little Bear’s starting point and the ways in which being adopted have undeniably changed his trajectory. He has gone from being a three and a half year old functioning at a 16 month level to a keen, enquiring and capable 6 year old. He has gone from attending a special educational needs nursery to literacy, passing through and leaving behind the lowest group in his mainstream class. Expectations for his future have gone from zero/ worrying to certainty he will succeed in a field of his choosing.

Adoption means Little Bear aches for his birth siblings. It means he has a lot of questions and we don’t always have the answers. It means he sometimes feels different and wonders where he belongs.

Adoption has given Little Bear stability, safety, self-belief and certainty. It’s given him a forever home and a family who will fight wolves empty-handed for him, if necessary.

Adoption has been life-changing for us all.

I can’t tell you to do it and I can’t tell you not to do it. It’s your risk.

If you think you can do it, do your research. Know the type of risk you are considering; arm yourself with knowledge.

I can tell you this: you cannot do it alone. You can be a single adopter, of course, but you need your people for the days when you don’t feel well or when your little darling has driven you three times around the bend. You need an adoption agency with proper, robust, actual post-adoption support for the times when only a reassuring, experienced professional will cut it. You need to acquaint yourself with self-care; what works for you, how much and how you will know when you need it, because adoption relies fully on you being okay.

Adoption is not the right route to parenthood for everybody. But if you like your risks with a high likelihood of progress, satisfaction and pride, it could well be the route for you.

National Adoption Week 2018

School-Parent Partnership

I have written lots before about our challenges with school ( School Worries), the work we have both put into resolving them ( Alleviating School Worries ) and the importance of strong relationships ( New Teacher ). I thought we were now at a point of having a solid working partnership where we each know the parameters and expectations of each other. I thought we were cool.

Yesterday morning, I found out completely by accident that school have changed Little Bear’s support timetable. Apparently the change happened several weeks ago but was never communicated to us. Mrs. C (Little Bear’s TA) has been told to start later each day, finish earlier one lunch time and work one afternoon instead. My immediate question was ‘why?’ I assumed the decision had been made because Little Bear doesn’t cope so well in the afternoons when he is unsupported. I get why they made the decision. However, I have several problems with it.

Firstly, if we are in a partnership, I don’t expect one partner to make big decisions without consulting the other partner. I am not necessarily against the change but would certainly prefer to have been able to discuss it first.

Secondly, for me, if my child isn’t coping to the point of requiring a change to somebody’s working hours, I need to know. That isn’t a minor deal. If Little Bear isn’t coping, what is going wrong? What behaviour is he displaying that indicates he isn’t coping? Perhaps there could have been other reasons or solutions to the problem? When there is a problem, I really hope to be consulted because we know Little Bear better than anyone and we might have an insight they haven’t thought of. When these things just happen without consultation, I am immediately propelled back to a place of thinking school don’t value our opinion or expertise as parents.

Thirdly, when changes are just made on a whim, the full consequences are not necessarily considered. While it may be good that Little Bear now has support one afternoon a week, he no longer has his TA there to meet and greet him at drop off in the morning. I know school thought that adjusting his timetable by 15 minutes wouldn’t make any real difference but in practise it makes the difference of whether he wants to cross that threshold or not. I have struggled on several mornings to get him in, not helped by Mr Jones who has no compassion whatsoever for a child refusing to leave his parent. His attitude is “get in, sit down, stop messing about”. When Mrs C is there (I guess she is now early sometimes), Little Bear is visibly relieved. She is his safety beacon within school and unless Mr Jones tries a bit harder to take up the mantle, Little Bear kind of needs her there. I could have told them this, had they have asked me.

We have now mentioned that Little Bear is more reticent to enter school in the morning since the change. Mr Jones says he hasn’t noticed any differences within the classroom. Again this is frustrating because school isn’t a silo. Things happen outside of school. Children exist outside of the classroom door and though Mr Jones may not see anything different inside his room, he cannot be blind to things happening immediately outside.

I strongly believe that care of children is a holistic process. There has to be an overlap between parenting and schooling; a bit in the middle of the Venn diagram where we come together. At times like this I feel as though we are in two separate circles, with a gaping hole between us. Our circle is constantly trying to encroach on schools’. We have a very friendly circle and are keen to overlap. Sometimes I feel their circle is shoving us roughly away.

A final unwanted consequence of this change to timetable is that I rather suspect it has pissed Mrs C off. She had those working hours because they fitted with her own life and her own children and that’s important too. Pissing Mrs C off is the last thing we would want to do, when we harbour secret hopes of renewing funding and her staying on for a few more years.

I know school had no intention or awareness of causing all these issues. They thought they were quickly solving a problem. However, I find it very frustrating that this has happened again, after all we have already been through together and when I really believed we had a trusting partnership.

Grizzly and I have a bit of a set-up where I’m good cop, because I need to interact with school twice every day and he is bad cop because he sees them far less frequently. Yesterday, bad cop got on the case with e-mailing the Head. Messages went back and forth and I could tell they were a bit bewildered by us having the audacity to think we could meddle in school decisions. In the end, I couldn’t keep quiet. I’m finding more and more that directness and honesty are often the most helpful ways of sorting things out. I sent an email explaining the above. I explained why we believe in partnership and how, as parents of a child with additional needs, it is imperative we work as a team. I was clear that school are doing an amazing job and that we are happy with Little Bear’s progress. We are not against them; we want to work with them. I was also clear that we are valuable members of this team and need to be regarded as such.

I have received a lovely reply. I think they understand now. I hope so because it is tiring having this type of issue every few months. We aren’t asking for a lot. A regular half-termly meeting and updates on anything that changes in between would be ideal. We just want open lines of communication and to be considered relevant in Little Bear’s education.

It’s tricky because I know that school have upset us completely unwittingly. The way we would like to work is evidently not natural for them and requires a bit of extra thought on their part. I can’t help thinking it shouldn’t be quite so difficult. Partnerships with parents should be core business; it is only when we truly work together that the best outcomes for children are achieved.

 

 

School-Parent Partnership

Working on Interoception

Back in March I wrote this blog: Interoception   At the time, I promised I would have a go at working on interoception with Little Bear at home and I would report back about how we got on. Another random Twitter chat has prompted me to do that this week so here we are!

I began Mission Interoception by buying this book because I struggled to find any practical information on the internet:

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It is quite informative but it is also very expensive for what it is. I was expecting a sturdy text book for the £24 I paid, not a thin novel sized book which I was able to read in one sitting. Although the content is quite helpful, I didn’t find it revelatory. The basic premise of interoception remains the same as I thought before: we need to get children more tuned-in to things that are happening inside of them. In order to do that, we need to get them thinking and talking about what’s inside. A key part of interoceptive therapy seems to be describing how different parts of the body are feeling and this is where we ran into a bit of trouble. Little Bear has well-documented speech and language difficulties and it soon became clear that coming up with lots of different adjectives to describe parts of his body he doesn’t really know are there is fairly challenging. In fairness, if I make myself think of how to describe my stomach for example, when I’m hungry, I’m not sure how many adjectives I can really come up with either. Working on interoception has several pre-requisites I’ve discovered and good language skills are one.

The book gives quite a few different activities to do but they are essentially all just different ways of making a child think about a specific body part (a grown up points at different bits with a light sabre/ you draw a picture of your child & point at different bits of the picture etc.). As with most things, I picked the bits I liked the most or thought would be the most fun or the most practical and we had a go.

The book suggests that a good starting activity is to draw around your child (who will be lying on a large piece of paper – wallpaper or lining paper is ideal), get them to help you mark their different organs on their body map and then talk to them about how different ones feel in turn. We enjoyed the drawing around each other part – I roped Big Bear in too to make it a bit more fun:

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 It was at the stage of marking the organs on the map that I realised there was another pre-requisite skill that we were slightly lacking. Your child kind of needs to know what’s inside of them. Not complex anatomy but stomach, lungs, heart, brain, bladder, bowel are all fairly crucial to this. Little Bear seemed to find the drawing around each other part quite overstimulating so between that and not really knowing about the organs, he quickly lost attention for the task. If you were hoping for the kind of blog post where everything goes swimmingly and I resolve my child’s difficulties overnight, you have come to the wrong place.

My conclusion after this was to shelve direct work on interoception for a while so that we could fill in some anatomy blanks. Little Bear’s birthday was around this time and always wanting to get something a bit educational in amongst the fun stuff I had got him this:

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 I found this a much better way to think about insides with Little Bear. The model is good because you can take the transparent plastic ‘skin’ off then ‘dissect’ the man with the tools provided. There is a labelled sheet with blank spaces for you to match the 3D organs up with their pictures. It felt quite a bit more rock’n’roll than drawing on the paper which meant it grabbed my boys’ attention more and they engaged with it better. Over time I linked the items they were removing from the unfortunate plastic man to their own body parts. Sometimes I would hold a bit up and ask if anyone knew where it was on their own bodies. We began to talk about what the bits did and how they worked. We re-visited this task every so often to re-inforce the information.

 Alongside this, the book I bought advocates working on interoception ‘on the fly’ i.e. just at random while out and about, not solely during an interoception task. It also suggests trying to apply interoceptive learning at points of dysregulation, though it points out this is difficult. I realised I was guilty of identifying out loud that Little Bear was hungry or needed the toilet but I wasn’t really arming him with the skills to identify this himself. I tried to add in a bit of interoception on the fly at these points. For example, I might say, “We need to get up now; its breakfast time. How is your tummy feeling?” Little Bear might struggle with the vocabulary so I would sometimes give him a choice of possible descriptions e.g. is it full or empty? If his tummy rumbled, that was brilliant and an opportunity I tried to seize. The first time I tried it, I said, “What was that noise?” and Little Bear very earnestly replied that it was a bear. I suspect he knew full-well what it was but it is possible, with my interoception hat on, that he couldn’t identify that the noise was coming from inside of him.

Over the last months I have tried to tune him into these little signals, as well as things like how his behaviour changes when he needs the loo or is hungry. I describe the changes I see to him and try to get him to feel them e.g. “You are talking really fast and jiggling up and down. I wonder if that could be because you need the toilet? How is your bladder/bowel feeling?” I might put my finger on his tummy to help him focus on the right place.

I think the most significant thing we can now (sometimes) manage is getting Little Bear to pause, even for a few seconds, to consider his body. I can’t pretend it works every time or that when he pauses he can read the signals but certainly sometimes he is now able to stop and try to tune in. This doesn’t sound like much but I think that interoception is something that takes a long time to change. We are chipping away at it and maybe in a year’s time I’ll notice bigger changes.

One thing that has changed is that Little Bear has become aware of his heart and how fast his heart is beating. We haven’t targeted this directly so I do think it’s a sign of improved overall interoception. The fact that Little Bear is able to lie still and be quiet enough to notice his own heart beat feels like a positive step in the right direction. He can use his breathing to slow it down and notices when it speeds up, neither of which he could do before. He seems to have gained this awareness by himself, perhaps as a result of being more aware of where his heart is and what it does. I have seized on this where possible to link the changes in his heart rate with his feelings/emotions, especially when he feels angry. I have explained why I encourage him to do his ‘Ronaldo breathing’ at these points.

A couple of times, Little Bear has been getting grumpy and heading for meltdown when he has managed to say, “Mum, I think I’m grumpy because I’m hungry”. This is brilliant and obviously I have fed him straight away. It’s far from consistent though and I would say that the majority of the time it is still down to Grizzly or I to interpret his behaviour to figure out things like hunger or needing the loo.

With regards toileting, this is the area we have had least success with in terms of interoception. The majority of the time Little Bear doesn’t seem to know he needs a wee until he is wet and then sometimes he isn’t always aware. This is the area that would make the biggest difference to him but I wonder if there is a hierarchy within interoception, with some body parts being more difficult to tune into than others.

Overall, I would say we are making progress but it is slow and steady. I guess it might be quicker if I chose to focus all my efforts on interoception for a 6 week period and did a little every day. It is hard to give it that level of focus though when we have so many other areas that also require our attention.

On a related but slightly tangential note, I have noticed significant improvements in Little Bear’s sensory seeking behaviours recently. I suspect it is since he has had his Our Gym Bar Invention. Initially he used it all the time, for lengthy periods – mainly hanging upside down – but he rarely uses it now. I wonder whether he has had sufficient proprioceptive and vestibular stimulation that he has been able to re-organise those brain systems. It was particularly noticeable during the summer holidays because there were quite a lot of days when he didn’t do any vigorous exercise, just walking, and he was absolutely fine. That could never have happened even a few months ago. Every day he needed a good run around or swim or bike ride or to climb something or we would have been in for trouble. I can genuinely say that has changed which fills me with hope that sensory diets do work. We still see dysregulation but it’s less physical than it was.

My belief is that interoceptive work will be effective too but it’s a long game. Perhaps if I’m still blogging in a year’s time I could give you another update then.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Working on Interoception

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.

 

 

Adopted Children & Eating Issues