Being an SEMH-needs family

I suspect this blog is going to be hard to write without coming across badly. I know what I want to say, but it will require an honesty most people may not be comfortable with. You see, when you discover you have a child with SEMH (social, emotional or mental health) needs, you enter this weird dark underworld where reality shifts a little, standards become idiosyncratic and parenting as you thought it might be is turned on its head. You don’t just have a child with some needs; you become a family with needs. Each one of you now has SEMH needs to think about, contend with, manage. You might not have them inside of yourself and I’m not for one minute saying that those of you around the person with the needs suffer as they do, but you do all now experience life with SEMH needs in your pocket.

Some things go without saying (but I shall say them, for clarity): everyone loves the person with SEMH needs. They remain your child, brother or sister, grand-child, niece or nephew and you love them as such. They remain a fun, kind, clever, gorgeous human. Their SEMH needs do not define them and will always be a larger, heavier, more cumbersome sack for them to drag around than for any of you.

Nonetheless, those SEMH needs irrevocably affect all of your lives to one degree or another. This is the bit that people doubtless find hard to talk about because they fear the judgement of those who haven’t walked such a path. They fear them suggesting that the facts in the above paragraph can’t be true if you’re saying what you’re saying, or are directly disproven by your honesty. That if you say that living with a child with SEMH needs is hard work, you are making it about you, when it clearly should be about them. That if you say you are, at times, embarrassed by their behaviour, you are evidently a disloyal parent.

Why? Why isn’t ok to be honest about these things if they are true? Clearly nobody wants to disparage their child and writing or saying disrespectful things about them is never ok. But what about the need for better understanding of such children and such families? How can we expect the public or teachers or other parents to be more understanding if we don’t try to explain to them what this weird underworld we inhabit is like?

Recently, I’ve felt a few things that I suspect many parents of children with SEMH needs feel, but aren’t comfortable being honest about. I’ve felt as though I were being forced deeper into the underworld by these issues; even keener to hide. But my child with SEMH needs is just as entitled to his life experience as anyone else. I am just as entitled to my parenting experience as anyone else. BB is just as entitled to his own particular feelings about being a sibling as any other sibling. Our experience is different. It sets us apart. It complicates things. But it shouldn’t make us lesser. We shouldn’t have to cower in the underworld.

So, you know me, here comes some honesty.

One thing that people don’t talk about is that having a child with SEMH needs make you all individually and collectively more visible. If you’re all together, the noise and behaviour itself tend to draw attention. Everyone always knows you are there. You never melt into the background or pass through an event or situation unnoticed. You are certainly noticed and not necessarily in a good way.

It can be hard not to imagine that everyone in the vicinity is looking at you, observing you, scrutinising how you handle the behaviour. It is easy to feel judged. I know that all parenting involves an element of this but SEMH parenting is by definition more visible. SEMH parenting means that it’s your child drawing more attention than everyone else’s. It is your child breaking the rule, having the tantrum, shouting, throwing something.

It is quite a skill to remain calm in such circumstances and to actively filter out those around you. It takes balls to think that you do not care for their judgement, stares, tutting; that you care only for your child and their needs and you will proceed with supporting them in the way you know works best, despite that most likely being at odds with the ideas of the multiple eyes observing you. The act of forging forwards as you know best in such circumstances is far harder than it sounds. It can require a strength you don’t have and a don’t-give-a-fig-ness not naturally associated with your personality.

It is hard, while we’re at this honesty game, not to sometimes feel embarrassed. We’re British. It’s in our nature to stay calm, maintain a stiff upper lip, act politely and with reserve. Children with SEMH needs don’t tend to have got this memo. SEMH needs don’t discriminate for different audiences – they are what they are, wherever you are. Your child’s behaviour can all too often be completely at odds with the unspoken set of behaviours expected by all, but also by you, in a particular situation. There are times, frankly, when their behaviour is mortifying and you wish you had an invisibility cloak or teleportation device. It is incredibly difficult to parent in the best possible way for your child in these situations, because that way is probably not immediately compatible with the unwritten rules either and consequently you find yourself hissing ‘stop it or else’ type threats at them in a poorly disguised whisper. This isn’t useful, and you know it, but your face is glowing like you’ve overdone a sun bed and sweat is collecting in cold puddles in your arm pits.

Being in public, with your child with SEMH needs can be exquisitely uncomfortable. (And by saying this, no, it doesn’t mean that I’m not also extremely proud of him every single day.)

But at least in public you have relative anonymity – a fact you can cling to, when things go south. Not so, within school. SEMH needs make your child far more visible than other children. When your child is the one who gets sent to work in other classes, or has their card changed to red again or their face moved onto the sad cloud, or the one who gets suspended, or sent to the Head, or put on a behaviour chart, or taken out of class to work, or has their desk in a corridor, or gets into fights, or heckles the Head in assembly, or tries to escape, or stands in the urinal, or throws something, or hides under the teacher’s desk, or swears in class, everyone knows who they are. Everyone. When this is your child, you can easily guess that households around the vicinity hold teatime discussions about what your child has been up to now. They gain a certain infamy.

I guess everyone handles this differently, but I handle it by trying my best to remain invisible myself. I don’t talk to other parents, I don’t go to parties. I keep away from situations that will further alert me to his infamy. I suppose I do my best to pretend it is happening – what I don’t know can’t hurt me. It helps me to focus on my child, and what he needs and not to care what anyone else thinks, whether indeed they think anything. It’s like I go around with a protective shroud between me and the rest of the parents and as long as I don’t interact with anybody, the shroud does its thing.

Then, a situation or conversation will arise, as one did recently, that will remind me that I am not paranoid, people really are discussing him at their dinner tables. It’s a very weird feeling, knowing this is the case. It’s a mixture of defensiveness (back off, you don’t know him, you don’t understand him), acute discomfort and a realisation that when you walk across the playground being purposefully aloof, that people know exactly who you are and what your child has been up to. It makes you infamous by association. I don’t want to be infamous, or even famous; I want to be invisible, but SEMH needs have eradicated even the possibility of that. It is not a great leap to imagine that we, the parents of the infamous one, are also subject to dinner time debate. Perhaps they thrash out the myriad ways we’ve clearly failed him, for him to be behaving this way.

I think most parents questions themselves frequently and wonder if they’re doing a good enough job. But when your child is swinging from the lampshades and ignoring every request you make, it is far too easy to descend into self-doubt, especially if your patience starts to fray and you find yourself losing your temper. I find it is shockingly easy to make the leap from thinking I know what I’m doing to berating myself for my evident parenting failures, along with the rest of society. It is far easier to imagine we’re parenting well when our children are behaving well. And instead of explaining the transgressions with their actual cause – the SEMH needs – we are more likely, as parents, to think we should have been more therapeutic or calmer or somehow better at this parenting lark.

This is partly why I think we ought to be honest about the realities of SEMH parenting. It’s really bloody hard. It’s hard on a cellular level and many of us expect superhuman levels of self-control and parenting wizardry from ourselves on a daily basis when actually, it’s pretty unobtainable, for the key reason that caring for a child with SEMH needs is a big, difficult, complex task. A task which I think should be better understood and supported by society as a whole.

Perhaps if discussions around dinner tables focussed on what our child’s behaviour might mean about the life challenges they’ve had or what they need their friends to do differently to support them, attitudes might be different. Perhaps if people didn’t approach SEMH presentations with an urge to blame, us parents may not feel so isolated. Perhaps if onlookers were telepathising supportive vibes instead of judgement, we might not be so stressed in public places. I think it’s fair enough that the general public don’t really understand what it’s like or why our children behave as they do, because there aren’t many means of becoming informed, unless they have personal experience of SEMH issues. So, to some extent, it is incumbent upon those of us living it to share those experiences and help people to become better informed. Hence, you know, this blog.

 

I also want to talk about the fact that it is not just parents of children with SEMH needs who feel scrutinised, but siblings too. If you happen to attend the same school as your brother or sister who has gained infamy through their SEMH based behaviours; you are also infamous by association. No doubt you get kids coming to you in the playground, informing you of what your sibling has done now. Perhaps sometimes they are unkind or judgemental or ill-informed. Perhaps they laugh. Perhaps they find it a sport. Perhaps you witness others handling your sibling and their behaviour in ways you don’t think are fair or appropriate or commensurate with what happened. You don’t want to be associated negatively with their high jinks and rule-breaking – you don’t want people to think you are like that too – but you love them, and you can’t stand to see them mistreated either. You are willing to compromise your own reputation to defend them, if necessary. You love them but they embarrass you and draw unwanted attention to you and sometimes, you wish they didn’t and you like them a little less but you feel guilty for it, because they’re still your sibling and they can’t help it and you know that really. Your feelings towards them can be very complicated and overwhelming.

I think being an SEMH family can be a lot for siblings. It requires an emotional maturity beyond their years. Those skills we struggle with as adults – of trying to be Teflon-coated to repel the judgement of others – are challenging and often unachievable for us, despite years of practise. Siblings of children with SEMH needs have to employ those same skills in childhood. It’s an ask which I suspect is routinely underestimated.

As parents, this is another element we have to be aware of – are the siblings of our child with SEMH needs ok? Are we appropriately supporting them to wander around with SEMH needs also weighing in their pocket?

 

To conclude, life as an SEMH needs family has all these extra layers to it, over and above supporting the child who has SEMH needs, as though those needs radiate out from the child, creating ripples far beyond them. There is a visibility to it which has us trying to hide in the shadows. It can lead to uncomfortable and unwanted feelings such as embarrassment, misplaced anger, guilt. It can be isolating and vulnerable. It makes you grow a thicker skin, bundle yourself in a protective shroud, but beneath that, you can’t help but be wounded by the judgement, blame and insensitivity of others.

 

I don’t want to end on a negative, because being an SEMH needs family is not all doom and gloom. I want all the above to be better understood, but I also want people to know that our family is pretty cool. Yes, we’re different, we’re loud, we struggle with rules, we can be a little shocking to behold but we have a lot of fun. We all work incredibly hard to overcome the challenges we’ve been dealt. We are grafters, survivors, persevere-ers, overcome-ers. We are out and about doing things despite the SEMH needs. Wouldn’t it be amazing if that were cause for celebration? If we could all focus on what our son can do and all the brilliant things he achieves, instead of feeling we have to apologise for his challenges.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Being an SEMH-needs family

Highs & Lows

I have written about the contradictions and rollercoaster nature of adoption before – see 3 in 1 , Adoption’s a rollercoaster, just gotta ride it , Adoption is a dodecahedron. It isn’t something which has gone away (yet) and we have very much felt it over the last few days. There are those who strongly advocate against writing about it but, for many, this sharp upping and downing is their lived reality. I don’t believe my truth is any more or less relevant than anyone else’s and I also don’t want these tricky realities to get shut behind too-shamed-to-open-doors, so I am going to write.

The highs are high and the lows are low – that’s our truth. Take a ‘normal’ scale of what you conceive to be challenging through to amazing, with everything in between, and push those minimum and maximum limits as hard as you feasibly can. Push them until they fall away. That’s the adoption scale of ups and downs.

I don’t know if it should be the adoption scale or the trauma scale or the parenting a child with SEMH difficulties scale. Pick whichever you want – it’s one or all of them in our case.

At the up end of the scale, you go to a Friday night football presentation evening for BB. You want everyone to go but you’re worried about it because it starts after LB’s bedtime and you usually keep that static with good reason. You can also reel off various other similar scenarios that have gone worse than badly so you feel pretty justified in having some doubts about the wisdom of it all. You try to anticipate the issues by taking two cars so you can take LB out of the situation if it gets too much for him, without impacting on BB’s ability to enjoy his night. You worry about balancing the needs of both boys and can’t help thinking the balance usually falls in favour of LB because he can cope with less and needs more. You don’t want to do BB a disservice when you’re already aware he makes compromises and deals with things other siblings do not have to. So you go.

When you see LB joining in with the other children without a bother and staying where you’ve asked him to stay and sticking within the rules of social convention, you are extremely relieved. You are helping with the setting up of the event and realise that you have felt comfortable trusting LB to be out of eyeshot while you do so and he has behaved impeccably. As the night draws on, you are filled with pride at what he’s managing. You watch him sit still on a chair while the other boys and BB receive their trophies. You don’t need to sit next to him and you don’t need to rush over to intervene with any type of unwanted behaviour. He’s got this. You watch as he chooses to join in with Musical Bumps and Musical Chairs and a teamwork balloon game and you marvel at how he’s coping. He gets out early on in the game and you tense, wondering if he’ll blow. He doesn’t. He’s very calm. He takes the whole thing in his stride and helps the leader with running the game. You feel your eyes well as you remember how parties used to be – how you dreaded organised games because LB hated them, couldn’t understand the rules of them, didn’t want to join in with them, fought against them and was prone to embarrassing outbursts during them. You remember that like it was yesterday and you can’t honestly believe how much he’s managing now.

You observe as he plays with the same boy all night. The game is boisterous but it doesn’t get out of control. You watch LB giving the boy a balloon when he hasn’t got one and you think what a kind and considerate young man he’s becoming. When you decide at 9:45pm that BB looks like he’s flagging, you tell LB you’re leaving and he comes straight away. He doesn’t argue. At home, he goes straight upstairs as agreed and gets ready for bed. He settles to sleep without a problem.

You chat with your husband about how proud you both are of him; about the things he can do now; about how he has surpassed all expectations again. You re-arrange the upper end of the ups and downs scale, knowing he has just smashed through the barrier you thought was there. You wonder how far he could go; what he’s really capable of. You know it is far more than anyone would have believed. Your heart swells with deep pride.

You are extremely proud of BB and his trophies and his behaviour, as always, but the difference is that the top limit of the ups and downs scale for him is pretty consistent. There is far less traversing up and down the scale and the range of the scale itself is narrower. It is also more fixed. LB’s scale, in comparison, has far wider parameters and is much less predictable. LB’s scale is more likely to surprise you, one way or another.

You are also dimly aware that a high as high as this will have cost LB in energy and this, along with the late night, will more than likely come back to bite. You know from experience this will probably not be the next day, but the one after. The one when you are holding BB’s birthday party. Unfortunately for LB, it’ll be another event that is not about him and that will test very similar skills to the football night.

There is a meltdown before the party and LB refuses to leave the car and there are a couple of flash points while you’re there but LB does very well, all things considered. Everybody has fun, nothing major goes awry, nobody gets broken.

That night, after the party, however, LB will not rest when you ask him to. He will not eat when you know he’s hungry. He will not stop over-stimulating himself on his gym. You know an almighty blow out is building but you cannot succeed in cajoling him into doing any of the things you know could prevent it. Inevitably you are eventually punched, kicked, bitten, head-butted. It doesn’t hurt but it does hurt. The rage is incredible and it hurts somewhere deep within to see your lovely boy so distraught and so intent on attacking you. You use all your skills to remain calm and to soothe, whilst trying to avoid injury or damage to the house. Whilst trying to slow your own heart rate and ignore the butterflies.

It takes quite a while and you worry about BB who understandably gets upset to see you getting battered and upset to see his brother so out of control. You know it would likely upset the hardest of people to see a child so incandescent with rage.

Eventually, after vacillating between hysterical laughter and flailing punches, pausing for long slugs of milk in-between, it is finally over. The behaviour is nothing if not baffling at times.

It feels like a pretty low place – getting set upon by your child, in your home – but you have shizzle to do. You have ironing and birthday presents to wrap and a house to decorate. The show must go on. You pick yourself up and you get on with it. What else is there to do?

Sleep doesn’t arrive as you’d hope it would and even when it does, something wakes him in the night. You very much fear the next day but it’s BB’s birthday. You can’t minimise it or pretend it isn’t happening the way you do when it’s your own – to make things easier for LB – because BB has the right to a proper birthday. He’s your child too.

You start to feel quite anxious that a huge fighty situation could oh so easily arise again and that BB would always remember his tenth birthday for all the wrong reasons. You try to keep things within perspective and not let the fear of the potential behaviour take hold. You do not want to become scared of your own life; of your own child. You do not want to start fearing up-coming situations in a paralysing way, knowing how easily that could become your reality.

You do what you can, within the parameters of it being someone’s birthday, to minimise the demands for LB. You know it isn’t ideal to take him on a day out but this is what BB has chosen and when it is LB’s birthday, everyone does what he chooses without complaint or issue. You try to pre-empt the inevitable difficulties. You chat with LB about him being tired and about how listening will be hard for him and how you are aware of this. You re-iterate the basic rules of ‘please come back when we ask you’ and ‘stay where we can see you’. You re-inforce this is because you need/want to keep him safe because that’s what parents should do.

Things initially go well.

Every followed instruction is acknowledged; every sensible decision praised. The boys decide to go on a bouncy pillow. This looks fun and you sit and watch with your husband, who has brought you a cup of tea. You relax a little. You sit there quite a while. The play seems alright; it doesn’t seem to be spiralling. You keep a close eye. Husband goes to get something from the car.

You notice LB throw some sand so you call him over and ask him not to. Three seconds later you see him do it again. You call him over and ask him to sit down for a minute, to calm and to think about the throwing of the sand. You explain he can go back on the pillow, when he’s ready to be sensible again.

He turns and spits on your arm. Just like that.

You are a little taken aback and suggest that spitting is not sensible and will not lead to getting back on the pillow. You perhaps shouldn’t have reacted but you aren’t sure in which world being spat on is okay. LB spits on you again and onto the ground. You sense people are watching. Your brain chugs into action as you wonder how exactly you should manage this situation which you can quickly sense getting out of control. He moves away and you think this might be good. Then he comes back and kicks and hits at you. You are acutely aware that people will see. You attempt to keep him at arm’s length while wondering what exactly is the therapeutic way of dealing with this. You will not allow yourself to accept being kicked and hit; you don’t know how that would benefit either of you. But you aren’t entirely comfortable with ‘restraining’ him either.

You use the most minimal touch you can, to keep the onslaught at bay, whilst getting showered in more saliva and you know that when you thought last night’s epic meltdown was the lowest you could get, it wasn’t. It’s this, being spat on in public by your seven year old son.

Being spat on is surprisingly demeaning and difficult to bounce back from. You do, because husband has swapped places with you and the change of face has diffused the situation. They have talked about it and LB has apologised to you. Also, it’s still BB’s birthday and you don’t want to make any bigger deal out of the situation than absolutely necessary for him.

But it’s a new low and you do need to decompress afterwards. You need to be alone and you need to write about it – that’s your outlet. Because it happened and you know that you can’t just keep absorbing these lows like they’re normal. And you need to move on. You need to be ready for the next thing and the next thing, so you can handle it the best possible way for LB. And you don’t want to pretend it didn’t happen either, because it did and it does in houses, and public places, up and down the land. I don’t see why it has to be a dirty little secret I’m not allowed to talk about.

This isn’t ordinary parenting, yet I’m an ordinary parent. There are lots of ordinary parents out there dealing with extraordinary things and we need each other. We need to talk about this shit that we struggle to deal with; that anybody would struggle to deal with. This stuff that’s hard.

I cannot, and will not, accept the punches and the kicks and the great globules of spittle. I’ll do my damnedest to look beyond them; to understand and to support; to respond with kindness and compassion. But in silence? Why should I?

This is our truth – neither greater nor lesser than anyone else’s – and the lows are low and the highs are high.

 

 

Highs & Lows

The Big Trip

Last week I was getting all irate because I couldn’t get LB’s TA to understand the magnitude of LB going on a residential – see Hysterical . I was also worried about how LB himself would cope, following moments of distress and him struggling to sleep.

After that, things improved a bit, seemingly because they’d spoken more about the details of the trip in school, resulting in LB realising they weren’t in fact camping out in tents. The idea that they were must have been worrying him because he did settle when he realised they weren’t. I have no idea where he got that idea from in the first place – it just goes to show that not all worries are predictable.

I didn’t press any issues with school because things seemed to be ok.

The night before the trip, LB grew anxious again. He really struggled to get to sleep and got himself in quite a state. He was worried about “missing us too much”. The next morning, we woke to him to him crying and shouting the house down. It was such a shame to hear because it isn’t like him to get so distressed.

LB came into bed for a cuddle and soon rallied. He started doing my make up while I was still half-asleep and, despite, or perhaps due to me looking a state, it cheered him up considerably.

When BB got up, he did a fabulous job of encouraging LB – telling him that he was nervous when he went on the trip too but that all his friends would be there and it’d be ok. He is so instinctive that boy, it really does make my parenting job easier.

It was almost as though once LB got his head straight that he wanted to go and that it would be fun, even if he was nervous, he just focussed himself on getting ready. Soon we were at school, amongst a throng of similarly excited children and LB was fine. He didn’t struggle to separate at all (as I thought he might have) and went right on in.

I had a quick word with the TA and impressed upon her the importance of calling me, should he need her to. I could see her reluctance, but ensured I got my point across.

 

It was a very strange evening at home, that night. It was so quiet. And so tidy. And something was palpably missing.

Our thoughts were not far from LB all evening. I checked my watch every ten minutes, trying to think what he’d be doing at each point. I was surprised by how much BB worried about him – he too wondered aloud about him much more frequently than he would if he had been staying with grandparents, for example. We all knew this was a huge deal and could have gone any which way.

From about 8pm onwards, I kept thinking my phone would ring any second. But it didn’t.

I kept checking the school Facebook feed but it hadn’t been updated since 4pm so that revealed nothing.

By about 10pm, I figured it was safe to take my shoes off and have a cup of tea, whilst simultaneously wondering if they would call the second I sat down.

But they didn’t. It seemed unlikely they’d call during the night so I assumed this was us: he was really doing it. It would have been really appreciated had someone taken a couple of seconds to send me a message saying he was fine, but that didn’t materialise either. I half thought, due to them having me down as mildly hysterical and neurotic, that they would have sensed the need for such a message. But there we go.

 

By school pick up time yesterday, I was very keen to get him back again. I had half envisaged him running out of the classroom door to be swung into a swirling hug, but, this being LB, our reunion was a lot more nonchalant. I had forgotten that we’d probably get a bit of the cold shoulder because we had been separated for twenty-four hours. That’s always the way of it. But, in the grand scheme of things, it was ok. He didn’t hate us, he was just a bit quiet and standoffish.

He was also, what Gary would technically describe as, “dead dog tired.”

It happened to be parents evening, so between the information LB shared, the chats I had with his teachers and accusations made by random children in his class, I managed to piece together an accurate-enough account of what actually went down. I think he enjoyed it overall. Apparently at teatime on the first day, LB began to droop and asked to go to bed. He does go to bed early and his body is very much ruled by a strong circadian rhythm, and affected by not sticking to it. The staff jollied him along because they hadn’t done the bonfire and marshmallows yet. LB managed to power through but then, obviously, went beyond tired and by the sounds of it, struggled to get to sleep. I suspect there was a degree of high jinks. However, I’d rather that than him be upset and crying for us. And, according to his TA, “all the boys were a nightmare for bed.” And, well, I did warn them.

I suspect the second day was trickier – LB was tired and no doubt struggling with regulation. But, he came back in one piece and so did all the staff.

I think this is a probably a time where I don’t need to worry about the details too much – instead focussing on the bigger picture. That picture is that LB, at seven years old, with a history of neglect and trauma, has managed his first residential, without any significant ill-effects. What a guy.

I thought he’d have been fast asleep early last night, but no. I suspect if there are any lasting effects, it will be tricky bedtimes for a few days, while he re-adjusts and maybe a dysregulated weekend – no big deal.

I hope that him going away and us still being here when he came back is powerful for him. We all told him how much we missed him and how weird the house was without him. We told him how proud we are of him for managing it. I hope it’s another step forward with his attachments, and with his self-confidence too.

LB might be the smallest member of our household but my goodness he’s a big presence. Even when he’s asleep, the house feels fuller and more complete when he’s in it. I think the trip gave us all a strange vision of what life would be like without him. It would undoubtedly be tidier – the tornado of discarded clothes and toys notably missing; quieter and calmer. But, jeez, it’d be boring. Who wants sedate when you could have exuberant, unpredictable and hilarious? I know which I’d choose, and there’s no contest.

 

Addition – Saturday

As you can tell from the above, I thought we’d survived and were kind of okay.  I didn’t anticipate that I would be called into school on Friday evening, faced with teachers who were surprised at LB’s lack of ability to control himself and have a smiley face chart waved under my nose as a supposed cure-all.

I actually despair.

Surely it is not that difficult to attribute dysregulated behaviour the day after a trip, to the trip? Surely, it should have been obvious to all that Friday would be a very tricky school day? Surely, or so we naively imagined, the demands and expectations would be reduced accordingly, to accommodate LB’s temporarily reduced window of tolerance? Surely?

Err, it would seem not.

Instead there was outrage that LB wouldn’t do what was asked of him and that he was rude to some teachers. We just cannot accept this behaviour, there have to be consequences.

Groan.

Then, without consulting any of the members of staff who know him best, and without reading any of LB’s paperwork, two members of the senior leadership team thought they knew how to sort him out. A smiley face chart. Seriously. I think they actually thought I’d be pleased with this new fangled invention.

I’m just so frustrated that every time we think we’re there; that school understand LB’s needs and how to support him, something like this happens to suggest the polar opposite.

Grizzly and I now feel we shouldn’t have let him go on the trip. School clearly aren’t able to accommodate and support his needs properly when dysregulated. They can’t even recognise that he is dysregulated. Essentially, they can’t keep him safe. And if that’s the case, they can’t take him on any trips. Its so frustrating because I told them and I told them, but they thought I was exaggerating. Then when the behaviour we predicted does occur, they think its nothing to do with the trip, it’s him getting spontaneously extra naughty. Not my words – how I imagine they think of it.

I could scream.

And while I’m ranting, getting dragged into school means my children are left in the playground, to their own devices, which is clearly unwise for LB. I’m discussing his behaviour while he’s given further opportunity to misbehave.

It is exhausting being a parent of a child with behaviour needs – not because of their needs – but because schools just cannot wrap their heads around them, despite training and meetings and about a gazillion discussions. The patience of a saint is required and mine is running out.

 

 

 

The Big Trip

Adoption is a dodecahedron

Adoption is like a dodecahedron it has so many sides. Adoption is love: parent to child, brother to brother, grandparent to grandchild. But adoption is also loss: of biological connection, of love, of place.

Adoption is contradictions and opposites.

Adoption is hard and easy. It is easy to love a child you didn’t create; far easier than most would imagine. You might not love straightaway – it does take time – but a little cheek against yours, a hand in your hand, a small arm slung around your shoulder? The love comes and it bowls you down. But it’s hard, because adoption brings trauma and trauma is almost an entity of itself. Trauma needles and furrows and clings. Trauma demands energy and patience and dedication. It begs a resilience you don’t always have.

Adoption is happy and sad. A child filled to the brim with mischief and curiosity and cuddles and laughter is the ultimate in happiness generation. But their tears? And their nightmares and self-loathing? Deeply sad.

Adoption is push and pull. It’s moving towards danger, not running from it. It’s ignoring the push and being resolutely present. It’s standing firm, no matter what. It’s allowing the pull of a cuddle or the pull to play even when you’re busy. It’s prioritising. It’s you, being present.

Adoption is angry and calm. Adoption is fighting for understanding; fighting for support – being your child’s warrior. It’s avoiding fists and teeth and nails and words that sting. It’s curling up on the sofa for a cuddle and a film. It’s playing board games and just being. It’s a smile and a wink.

Adoption is delay and progress. It’s ‘working towards’ and ‘below expectations’. It’s additional support and funding and an intricate knowledge of the education system. It’s learning times tables when you couldn’t count. It’s learning to read when your early years tried to stop you. It’s standing up in assembly and saying all your lines perfectly. It’s surpassing all expectations. Adoption is overcoming. It’s success, despite the odds.

Adoption is yours and someone else’s. It’s a birth mother with empty arms; birth siblings missing a brother. It’s foster carers who remember and a social worker who will never forget. It’s the speech therapist and the nursery and the psychologist and the school.

But at night, when things are escalating? It’s just you.

Adoption is not for the faint of heart.

Adoption is challenge and reward. Adoption is plumbing the depths of your patience and self-control. It’s not reacting. It’s reacting differently. It’s counter-intuitive. Adoption can be desperate. But it’s also amazing, humbling and heart-swellingly proud. It’s unquantifiably special.

Adoption is holidays and new experiences and discovery. It’s transformative. It’s wide-eyed and surprising.

Adoption is getting a new sibling. It’s the hardest thing and the best thing to have happened in your life so far. It’s worrying about your toys and your space and your parents’ love. It’s gaining the funniest playmate you could find. It’s about football and gaming and forming a gang of two. It’s ‘I love you’ and cuddles and someone who wants to be you.

Adoption is acceptance.

Adoption is a new home, a new bedroom, a new family. It’s new pets, a new school, new friends. Adoption is your life turned upside down and inside out. Adoption is safety. Adoption is unlocking your potential. Adoption is scary. Adoption smells different. Adoption is new rules, new expectations, new behaviour from grown-ups. It’s the best and worst thing that’s ever happened to you. Adoption is confusing. Adoption is a muddle of questions.

Adoption is simple and complex. The complexities of behaviour and education and life stories and language development and birth families and continence and sensory needs and, and…are tangled and without end.

But adoption is simple: the unconditional love of family.

Adoption is a dodecahedron.

 

Adoption is a dodecahedron

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.

 

Birth Siblings

Guilt

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Guilt

The Bears Talk Adoption

In November of last year I asked Big Bear if he would mind writing his thoughts on adoption down for me. He knew about my blog and was very excited about the idea of his words being published on the web. This was the result: Adoption by Big Bear

At the time he was 7. I have been wondering, now that another year has passed and he is a year older and we are that bit further into the adoption, how his views have changed. He was excited at the prospect of being famous (!) again so we agreed to try an interview this time. Here it is:

Me: What do you think adoption means?

Big Bear: Adoption’s like when um, when a family, a normal family, have loads of children who they can’t handle. They’re like naughty and stuff and they can’t handle them so they go to live with foster parents who try to look after them for a period of time so then, erm, so some very kind people who want to adopt the children, they go to visit the foster parents and have a little talk with them, like how well behaved the child is and gossip like that. Then they start having little time with the child, you know like to settle them in? They have a little journey to the adopter’s house then they, erm, they like settle down, look at their bedroom and see what toys they’ve got and then they think ‘I like it here, it’s not bad’. When that happens, it’s really like very kind to the foster family and the other family.

Me: Ok. Do you think there are any good things about adoption?

Big Bear: Yeah. Adoptions like thinking you’ll have a family forever and you’re not gonna move. It’s like staying in the same place.

Me: Do you think there are any bad things about adoption?

Big Bear: Well yes I do because the children that have been adopted will probably miss their foster parents and just say that they want to go and see their foster parents.

Me: If there are any people reading my blog, like another child who might be getting an adopted sibling, do you have any advice for them?

Big Bear: I’ve got a lot of advice. So just if you don’t wanna see them to start with you can just stay in your room for a bit but like then you need to start playing with them and they’ll start liking you more and they’ll just think you are a superhero to them. They’ll think you’re amazing if you start playing with them. You don’t really have to let them do anything with your stuff. You don’t have to let them in your room. You just have to make them happy. If you don’t want to play with them sometimes it’s absolutely fine but you’ve got to play with them sometimes because you might actually think it’s fun.

Me: So now you’ve had an adopted brother for 2 years, how are you finding that?

Big Bear: I’m finding it fine. But when we started having him it was a nightmare but now I think he’s quite good. I play with him a lot and it’s quite amazing really because his behaviour has come on a lot. He used to be a nightmare when he came but now he’s good as gold. Like really, just get playing with them and they’ll get better.

Me: So are you having fun with him now?

Big Bear: Yeah I have a lot of fun. They start doing sports that you like and yeah, you have a lot of fun.

Me: Does it make any difference that he is adopted?

Big Bear: No. It’s not an excuse for anything. No, he’s just a normal person.

Me: Is there anything I have missed? Is there anything else you would like to tell people?

Big Bear: Really, if you want to adopt somebody, you need to be kind people. If you are not kind people, don’t bother. Just settle them in.

Me: Do you have any advice for helping children settle better?

Big Bear: Yeah. Just get them stuff they can squeeze or punch. It calms them down. They can always like bring them into class if they’re struggling at school because it could just calm them down. It helps them a lot. Like a squeezy thing or a fidget spinner.

Grizzly (not wanting to be left out): How do you think it feels for a child to come to a new family?

Big Bear: Well, um, I think it’s pretty scary at the start. They have to get used to the house. When they’ve got used to their environment they’ll get used to their parents and when they’ve got used to them they’ll get used to their brothers or sisters and then they’ll get used to their friends and then to their school. Then they’ll get used to sports and doing spelling.

 

Bless him! This is the edited version as Big Bear was in his element and chatted for a good ten minutes. My initial thought is that I probably need to do more work with him about why children end up in Care in the first place! I certainly haven’t told him it is because they are naughty. It is a little scary how I can hear some of my own words coming out of his mouth though – like ‘just try playing with him you might actually think it’s fun’.

Overall I think it does reflect his chatty, thoughtful nature and the relationship he has with his brother. He is certainly less in denial about liking him now which I’m pleased about. I’m glad he can be honest though, we have worked hard at making sure his views are listened to and ensuring that he is comfortable to say how he really feels, whether positive or negative.

 

I have been really mindful this year that I would love to let Little Bear have a voice on my blog too. It is trickier with him because it is hard to make sure that he fully understands what I’m asking of him and what I’m going to do with the information. I explained that I write about adoption and that I’d like to interview him too. He was up for it and co-operated for a short time. Here are his thoughts:

 

Me: What do you think being adopted means?

Little Bear: You live in a different house and you come here.

Everybody in my class is adopted but not in Big Bears class.

It’s really nice.

Me: Being adopted is nice?

Little Bear: Yeah

Me: Why is it nice?

Little Bear: Because I just like it.

Me: Do you think there are any good things about being adopted?

Little Bear: Being good and being protected.

Me: Do you think there are any bad things?

Little Bear: No. (Gets distracted thinking up all the bad things he can like getting shot or murdered. I felt he’d had enough of my questions).

 

 I have to say I was pretty surprised by what Little Bear had to say. I’m amazed he said “being good and being protected”. It is typical of him though to be a man of few words, but to hit the nail squarely on the head. It was also one of those brief glimpses into his complex internal world: there is so much going on in there.

I was most surprised that he was so unswervingly positive about it. I genuinely thought he would have talked about missing his foster carers and perhaps he would on a different day. I’m not naïve enough to think he will always be this positive as there is still so much Life Story work to come but for now, what he has said has been lovely to hear.

The point he makes about everyone in his class being adopted is because he knows that there are 4 others in his class who are and that nobody in Big Bear’s class is adopted. This came about because recently he started listing people we know to find out if ‘they came out of their Mum’s tummies or not?’

 Hopefully, if both Bears are ok with it, we’ll have a similar chat in a year’s time and see how things have changed.

 As always, I’m extremely proud of them both and grateful that they humoured their Mum and answered my questions.

 

 

 

The Bears Talk Adoption