Promises, Promises

Here’s a little scenario that happened in our house this week:

Me: It’s bedtime, Little Bear

LB: Aw, can’t I have a bath?

Me: I think we’ve left it a bit late for a bath – you’ve been busy eating your pudding, haven’t you?

LB: Yeah, but I reaaallly want a bath (Hangs off me, bats his big brown eyes at me, pulls his best super cute puppy dog face)

Me: I’m just a bit worried that because it’s late, you’ll find it hard to get out the bath when I ask you to…

LB: I won’t! I PROMISE. I’ll get out straightaway, when you ask me.

Me: Are you sure?

LB: Yes, I PROMISE. Straightaway.

Me: Hmm. Ok then, as long as you’re sure you can do that…

Did he get out the bath, folks, when I asked him to? No. No, he did not. He went under the water to pretend he couldn’t hear me. I gave a countdown (‘we’ll need to get out in 5’ etc.), I reminded him of his promise just before the moment it would be needed, just in case he’d conveniently forgotten. So, he could hear me and he hadn’t forgotten, yet neither did he exit the bath. Once I’d let all the water out and he finally decided he was out of options, he did get out and began calling me names/ telling me he hated me and that I was making him annoyed. It was all rather ironic really, given I had stretched his bedtime for him, made a concession for him and he had reneged on his promise. I mean, yeah, he was totally justified in getting annoyed with me (can you hear me rolling my eyes?!).

Anyway, more fool me, because I should know by now that Little Bear can’t keep his promises. I’ve been pondering on this since and have had a few chats on Twitter about it, as I do (it’s such a good barometer of what is adoption shenanigans and what is just plain shenanigans). There are two things in my mind: why can’t he keep promises and why do I keep giving him the chance to make them in the first place?

My immediate thought about why he can’t stick to them is because at the point of making them, he is fully present and intent on doing what he says he will (I don’t believe he ever sets out to purposefully dupe me) but as he struggles with regulation, when it comes to the point of following through, he isn’t able to control himself enough yet to do so. I imagine there are times he knows he’s letting himself down but can’t help but do it anyway.

Then there is the theory that perhaps it’s an act of self-sabotage. Perhaps he doesn’t feel he deserves a nice bath or a peaceful bedtime and kind of deliberately puts a spanner in the works. This is a sad state of affairs if it’s true. I have tried wondering aloud along similar lines but I can’t tell whether it resonates or not – I suspect it doesn’t because he usually gets quite tearful if we get our wondering right and he certainly wasn’t tearful on this occasion – just combative.

I suppose another theory is that it could be an anxiety-based behaviour. Perhaps the end of the bath triggers something in his mind about the beginning of bedtime and the fact that sleep is soon and sometimes he has bad dreams. Perhaps he is attempting to stave that off by causing an escalation.

Another feeling of mine is that sometimes Little Bear remembers a situation similar to the one he is in and recalls a situation or behaviour that has happened before and for whatever reason is moved to recreate it. We’d certainly had a similarly difficult bath time a week or so before and the following evening from the incident described above also featured a sudden switching and similar behaviour. I can’t really explain why this would happen but there are certainly times when I feel it does.

There could also be an argument for saying that because I had voiced my concern about what could happen in the situation (me trying to be open and honest etc.) I had somehow created a self-fulfilling prophecy. There is certainly a truth in the more Little Bear knows you want him to do something, the less able he seems to do it. He’s pretty oppositional like that.

As if I hadn’t already muddied the waters with enough theories, I have more. Could this behaviour be linked to poor situational understanding/ poor cause and effect? I feel as though I don’t have many of these challenges with Big Bear because it is obvious to him that if he messes me around in this way, I won’t give him similar concessions in the future. However, this type of A + B = C thinking seems challenging for many adopted children. Perhaps Little Bear doesn’t realise he is cutting off his nose to spite his face, as it were? I have started asking him what he thinks might happen if he does such and such, at times. The confounding this is that he is often able to tell me what a logical consequence might be. I can’t tell whether he isn’t bothered so just does the thing anyway or whether there is a disconnect between knowing in theory and changing his behaviour in practise.

A final theory is that demands of any kind make him anxious because they feel as though they are clawing at his need for control (see Control where I’ve written all about that). Someone on Twitter mentioned Pathological Demand Avoidance to me (PDA for short, a sub-diagnosis of Autism) and it is something I’ve turned over in my mind before because Little Bear is undeniably demand avoidant. However, whenever I check out the diagnostic criteria I don’t feel he meets them. There are elements that ring true but I don’t believe Little Bear lies anywhere on the Autistic Spectrum. As with any child who has experienced developmental trauma, I always think it’s essential to consider the impact of that first and foremost. I would love to see a document like the Coventry Grid though, which instead of drawing out the similarities and differences between ASD and attachment, drew out the similarities and differences between PDA and demand avoidance within an attachment/trauma presentation. I think I might e-mail Heather Moran and see what she thinks (why not?).

One of the reasons I don’t feel Little Bear has PDA is because his ability to manage demands fluctuates enormously. Sometimes he can do everything you ask without difficulty. At other times every tiny request is difficult for him. I think a child with true PDA would be much more consistent in their demand avoidance. Little Bear’s behaviour tends to be pretty unpredictable. I know there would be other days when we could have had exactly the same bath time scenario and he would have got out of the bath the second I asked him, like an angel. What is difficult is predicting which days would be like that. If Little Bear is having a day where every demand is a battle, I would never have even considered entering into a promise-based scenario. I would have made sure the rules were really firm and clear and it would have been an early bed.

However, on the particular day in question, everything had been going well. Little Bear had done well at school, eaten his tea, come off his I pad and come upstairs as requested. The stars appeared in alignment so I was sucked in by the promise of a promise. The switch from co-operative to oppositional happened in a nano-second. I have to say that I find this type of scenario difficult. Because I don’t see it coming and because I have already given ground, it is extremely difficult not to feel taken advantage of and really rather annoyed. I coped much better the second night when I was able to anticipate the behaviour I might be confronted with in advance.

So why do I do it? Why do I allow him to get into a making promises situation if I know he might not be able to stick to it? I’ve asked myself this question a lot. Part of it is because I find myself keeping the rules much stricter for Little Bear than for Big Bear and that can feel mean. I let Big Bear stay up late sometimes or negotiate on what order he’s going to do certain tasks in because he has proved over and over that I can trust him to do that. I’d be quick to reign things back in again if I thought he was exploiting me but I have very little need to. However, because Little Bear has more difficulty sticking to promises and has reneged on many, I am less inclined in the first place to give him a chance. I suspect that is with good reason and that with firm, immovable boundaries and rules, he feels safer and happier. I also don’t like putting him in situations with a high risk of failure because in general, that doesn’t do anything helpful for his self-esteem.

There is something about me not trusting him to have a go though: I don’t want him to think I don’t trust him and don’t believe he’s capable of keeping promises. I know that he can (given the right set of circumstances) and I would like him to have a go from time to time and feel successful at it because otherwise he will surely grow up thinking he is a person who can’t stick to their word. He certainly finds it harder, given the myriad possible reasons I’ve cited above, but I don’t believe it’s impossible, and like anything else, I’m sure he’ll get there in the end.

 

 

*Also, how complicated is this adoptive parenting lark? One tiny scenario, a gazillion possible explanations. Maybe he just didn’t feel like getting out the bath?

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Promises, Promises

Football: A Yardstick for Progress?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And my heart melted.

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

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

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

 

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

Football: A Yardstick for Progress?