Alone Parenting

I’ve written plenty before about the challenges of adoptive parenting or parenting a child with SEMH needs (Social, Emotional or Mental Health needs) and the different ways it can impact you. I’ve written about the need we have, as parents, for affirmation – for someone to tell us now and again that we’re doing a good job. I’ve written about CCVAB (Childhood challenging, violent or aggressive behaviour) – the taboos around this, the terror of it, the ways it can keep you awake at night. I’ve written about external factors like the impact of school and professionals who come on the journey with you, and even how you can feel judged by random members of the public. There are times when I have written pretty frankly about the hard bits of our parenting journey, my anxieties, our messier moments.

This morning I have been reminded that I have revealed and discussed all of this from within the comfort of my supportive marriage. My marriage in which I can be brutally honest with my husband, and him with me. My marriage in which I have a place to off load, to discuss, to compare notes, to problem-solve, to rant, to moan, to cry, to celebrate the tiniest success, to despair, to have a hug. In my marriage, I have a co-pilot who I can switch with and who helps me navigate and make this journey.

Outside of my marriage, I have parents and a parent-in-law and a brother and soon to be sister-in-law who are all there, supporting our journey.

Outside of that, I have good friends who I can talk freely to, who bring their own knowledge to the table, who listen, counsel, support.

I’m very lucky.

This morning, I realised that even cocooned within all those layers of support, there have been times when I have felt desperate and despairing. I don’t think I’ve experienced those things too much on a prolonged basis but there have been times that I’ve felt them. I think all parents do, sometimes.

Then, I thought, what if all those cocooning layers were stripped away? What if a person didn’t have friends who understood their challenges or their child’s challenges? What if their family – their parents, their siblings, their cousins – whoever they have – didn’t understand their challenges? What if – even worse – their partner wasn’t supportive? How desperate and despairing would that be?

What if their partner not only wouldn’t work in partnership but actively avoided things that might help (such as engaging with any external support offered or reading helpful books)? What if their partner were critical or didn’t offer affirmation or a shoulder to cry on or a listening ear? What if their partner refused to co-parent or use therapeutic strategies or just didn’t bother to get their hands dirty with the business of parenting at all?

What if a person had to walk this journey truly alone?

I suspect many of us are guilty of seeing that a person has a partner or spouse and assuming they provide them with the support I talked about above. But what if they don’t? What if their relationship is a lonely place? What if they have polarising view points on parenting or discipline or how to manage CCVAB? What if they can’t even talk about how to parent anymore? What if every chat ends in an argument? What if one of them mentally (or even physically) checks out, leaving the other to deal with everything alone? What if their differences lead to inconsistencies and unpredictable boundaries? What if the children feel this and it further discombobulates them? What if the CCVAB becomes directed to one parent only? What if the other turns a blind eye? What if one is made to feel it’s their fault? That it’s their bad parenting doing it. What if that person’s confidence has become so eroded they think it’s their fault too?

I know you can adopt as a single person. I think the hope would be that the next layers of support – the wider family, the close friends – would step closer, ensuring you are still well cocooned. And this can work as beautifully as a good partnership. But what if it doesn’t? What if they don’t step forward? What if a parent is left with an empty moat where the support should be? What if they experience external judgement and criticism to such a level their confidence is eroded to nothing?

How desperate and despairing would they be then?

I guess it’s hard to speak out about it if you’re trapped in it. You think it’s your fault or just what you deserve anyway. You fear what the speaking out or the being honest could do.

This post is for you. I see you. I see how hard you’re trying. How you’re giving parenting everything but you’re exhausted. And worn down. How you think everyone must be doing it better than you are. How scary the future is. How alone you feel. How difficult it must be to have the courage of your convictions or to make choices about which way to manage challenging situations for the best. Alone.

You do deserve to be heard. You do deserve support. This parenting alone thing – its fucking rock solid, not just hard. It’s hard enough with the support but without it? I don’t know, but I’m upsetting myself imagining it. Please believe that what you are doing is a great achievement, in the most trying of circumstances. You’re doing it. You’re persevering. You’re getting up every day and doing it again and again and again.

Don’t look at the rest of us and imagine we have everything sewn up and tickety-boo. We don’t. We lose our shit, our houses are messy, we cut parenting corners. I mean it’s winter – if you can’t be bothered to iron a school shirt, it’ll hide very nicely under a sweatshirt. Not managed to bath them today? So what? Give them a quick wet wipe.

Sometimes survival is enough, for all of us. It has to be.

I could have a separate rant about the standards we set ourselves and the random demands we think society expects of us, especially in the run up to Christmas – the mountains of presents, the outfits, the bloody elves on the shelves – but I’ll try to resist. Ignore it, if you can. Set your standards, stick to those. You’re doing your level best and at the end of the day, it’s all you can do and it’s all that matters.

I think what I’m trying to say is, if you are truly alone in this, I am truly sorry. Please look after yourself. It shouldn’t be this way, but if it is, be your own warrior. Don’t stop fighting to be heard. Don’t stop standing up for what you believe in. Don’t stop trying.

Twitter used to be an amazing place to connect and get virtual support but it is sadly not as safe as it once was. However, there are still those of us whose direct messages are always open and are more than happy to talk without judgment (@adoptionblogfox). We are all in this together, cocooned or not.

 

 

If you’re a person who sits in judgement, thinking how well you are doing and how good your parenting is and how lacking others’ is in comparison – stop it. Most of the time we have not a clue what does or does not go on behind people’s doors. Until you’ve walked a mile and all that…

 

If you’re the partner who has mentally checked out or withdrawn because it’s easier or because you don’t know what else to do, please talk to your co-parent. This sort of parenting isn’t easy for anybody. But it so much easier if you can find a way to do it together.

 

Apologies for my slightly bossy tone but I’m reaching the end of my third decade, my hormones are pretty fierce and I just cannot be doing with people being shit to one another. Life is hard enough, parenting is hard enough. SEMH parenting or adoptive parenting is next level hard. Doing that alone? Hideously difficult. Let’s have some compassion and look after each other.

Please reach out to someone if you can.

Virtual hugs,

xx

 

Alone Parenting

Parental Mental Health

Thursday 10th October is World Mental Health Day – a chance for everyone to focus on mental wellness, ways to support mental health difficulties and suicide prevention. I wanted to contribute by writing about a niche, slightly neglected corner of mental health: how do you keep yourself well when you are caring for someone else with mental health struggles? Specifically, how do you keep yourself well when your child has social, emotional or mental health needs?

As a parent myself, of a child with SEMH needs, I am all too aware of the toll it can take. No doubt people will accuse me of selfishly focussing on myself and my own needs when it is my child who is in real turmoil, but to them, I say this: when you are parenting a child with such needs, there is barely a waking minute that passes without you puzzling over how they’re feeling, why they’re feeling like that, what you can do to make things easier for them. You can tie yourself in knots wondering how certain situations might affect them and what measures you can put in place to reduce their anxiety or make things easier. You rake over previous situations wondering what you could have done differently, what else they might have needed, what underlying worries or upsets might have been driving certain behaviours. You write social stories, make visual supports, meet with teachers, buy sensory equipment. You read books, blogs, articles to inform yourself; to check you haven’t missed anything. You consider them and their needs in every plan you make.

I’m not saying any praise or accolade is required for that – it isn’t, it’s just you doing your parenting best like everybody else – but it is all consuming and somewhat exhausting.

The very nature of SEMH difficulties means that children who experience them will now and again (or often) present with behaviour that is difficult for people around them. Again, that might sound selfish, but I just mean it factually. It’s the nature of the SEMH beast. And no matter how good you are at looking beyond it, analysing it, understanding it, trying to support it, the fact of the matter is that some of the behaviour you live with is difficult.

In trying to support my child in the best way for him, I sometimes have to dig so deep into my emotional reserve that I know I’ve gone beyond what is actually there. Sometimes the effort required not to rise to provocation, not to shout, not to fully (or even partially) lose my shit, not to enter my own fight/flight state and to instead respond therapeutically and calmly, feels like a superhuman request. I am not superhuman. But sometimes I feel I’ve plumbed superhuman depths and that can’t be good for you. I often feel depleted after particularly tricky situations and that is probably because I am. I’ve used everything I’ve got and more.

This is where concerning ourselves with parental mental health is absolutely not selfish and should be a priority for all. If I am depleted, how can I provide all the things my child needs? How can I analyse and look beyond and generate solutions? I can barely get off the sofa.

This is why caring for carers is absolutely something that should be talked about.

For me, there are three main safeguards: self-care, self-kindness and external support. I have written about self-care before ( Self-Care ) and I generally consider it to be all the boring stuff that you should do to look after yourself and stay well. That is just my personal interpretation – some people include all the self-kindness stuff in there too but in my mind there is a distinction. For me, self-care is things like eating properly (which isn’t fun because I don’t eat sugar or bad carbs like bread but I know that I stay healthier this way), getting enough sleep (despite being a natural night-owl), getting enough fresh air and exercise. I don’t necessarily enjoy self-care but it is all about things I’ve learned from experience that I need to do or not do in order to function the best I can.

Self-kindness  is much more fun. I view it as little treats to yourself that give you a boost and help to fill up your emotional reserves. It can be anything – sometimes the thought of getting into fresh pyjamas and watching Location, Location, Location is enough to help me through a day; at other times it’s some uninterrupted writing time, or being alone for a bit, or chatting to a friend, or now and again, I do need an actual treat.

Though self-kindness is more enjoyable and has the potential to vastly improve your mood quickly, I continue to struggle with allowing myself to have it. I can’t be the only one. We do seem to live in particularly trying times – with the threat of Brexit, political instability and, even more horrifyingly, climate change hanging over us. There is a general atmosphere of unrest and unpleasantness (just dip your toe into social media to see what I mean) and no doubt all these things are contributing to a country-wide dip in mental wellness. I can’t be the only one who thinks about using some retail therapy for self-kindness reasons then gets the guilt that I might be unwittingly ruining the planet. One purchase can lead to a spiralling concern about use of water to farm cotton, tonnes of clothes entering landfill and a general worry about human over-consumption. Whilst I clearly should be concerned about my carbon footprint (and I am), I am finding that my ways of practising self-kindness are dwindling in parallel.

I don’t drink, I don’t eat sugar, now I can’t really shop. But I’m still plumbing those emotional reserves and that need for a boost continues to gape. I suspect it is about turning away from having to have things and finding more wholesome ways of filling reserves. Writing is a salve, as is cutting myself enough slack to actually relax without constantly clambering around my to-do list. I’ve realised that buying books is pretty wholesome – even a hardback is a fraction of the price of a new top and unless we buy them, authors can’t make a living – so it’s a multi-faceted win (assuming it’s made from sustainably sourced paper. See? I have self-kindness with a side-scoop of guilt problems). Enid, our puppy, arrives soon and I’m hoping that her furry little face will be a salve in itself.

There are no clear answers, and what each individual needs will be different, but my point is that self-kindness is essential. We must let ourselves have it and find the things that work.

Lastly, parents of children with SEMH needs will require outside support in one form or another. It is too big and too hard to deal with single-handedly. Whenever Grizzly and I have one of our frank chats about how we’re feeling, it is never long before one of us wonders aloud how on earth single parents do it. If I couldn’t air my deepest darkest thoughts without needing to censor them or without fear of judgement, I suspect I would implode. Everybody needs that outlet.

We are lucky that outside of our family of four, we have a wider family of grandparents and aunties/uncles and close friends who get it. They are an informed bunch who listen and are willing to help with the analysing of behaviour and application of strategies as needed. They are happy to give us a break. I’m not sure we take that option enough, because life is a little manic and it requires forward-thinking, but it helps to know the option is there. We are also fortunate enough to have the support of school. I had a meeting with them recently and realised that despite the myriad ups and downs we’ve had with them (and the odd specific person I find it hard to engage with) they are genuinely caring and they do want us all to be ok. I feel comfortable speaking honestly with them too and just that ability to voice your worries and challenges outside of your four walls is invaluable.

Unfortunately, not all parents of children with SEMH needs have this emotional scaffold around them and I can only imagine how lonely a place that is. It must be particularly hard for those who don’t know others in similar positions – there is a very real risk they would consider themselves the only ones in their particular predicament, further compounding worries and stresses over whether they or their parenting may be to blame.

I hope that by being open about the challenges of SEMH parenting it will reassure other parents they are certainly not alone as well as raising awareness for any wider family members or professionals working with such families. For me, the key thing is to ask parents if they’re ok and to give them the time to talk if they are not. Be prepared for tears. Most of the time, it is just an outlet that’s needed, not necessarily a raft of solutions, because those parents are likely to have already tried most things you can think of.

Families of children with SEMH difficulties will have found themselves in all manner of weird and not-so-wonderful situations – please don’t judge them. It is safe arenas in which they can be honest that they so desperately need.

Parents can be made to feel guilty for talking openly about their worries and challenges – as though they are in some way disloyal to their child in doing so – however the real risk of encouraging them to put up and shut-up is that it might well push them to breaking point; a point at which they are no longer able to adequately meet their child’s needs.

As a parent, it is scary to admit that things are hard and that scenarios are arising where you don’t know what to do. Parents already fear they are failing, they do not need their suspicions to be compounded by bad listeners, naysayers and judgmental attitudes. Unless you have over-plumbed your emotional depths caring for someone, you cannot begin to imagine what it’s like.

Actually, I think there is a fourth thing that is needed, as well as self-care, self-kindness and support: niceness. It seems like an outmoded concept these days – it’s faded into obscurity along with other seemingly bland concepts such as beige clothing and magnolia paint. But I really miss it. I think we’re all unknowingly really missing it. Politicians could do with re-inventing it for sure. Since when did it become normal to shout and yell and name-call and judge and troll and alienate and oppose and incite? Just be nice. That would improve everyone’s mental health. Some kind words, a smile, a hug or an “I hear you” can go a long way to improving a day.

Let’s look after one another; we’re all just trying our best.

 

Parental Mental Health

Mislaying The Positives

I think everyone knows that the last few weeks have been a little trying. Between school residentials and transition, there has been plenty to get my knickers in a twist about (if you somehow missed it, see Hysterical , The Big Trip and Is Dysregulation Rocket Science? ). This isn’t unusual, I’m frequently banging on about some issue or other, more often than not relating to LB’s education. I’m aware though, that in getting caught up dealing with the myriad issues, it can be all too easy to skip over the positives. It means that things, that when you stop to think about them are actually amazing, can pass you by with barely an acknowledgement. I don’t want to skip over these things – these achievements of LB’s – because they are massive within the context of his history and should be given the credence they deserve. I’m going to share one thing, in particular, today. First, I need to tell you some facts.

I don’t like bragging. That’s a fact. I can’t bear it when people go to parents evening then write #giftedandtalented on Twitter or Facebook. Or when someone asks you if you’re concerned about your child and you say yes, and then they say how they aren’t at all worried about theirs because they are exceeding expectations in every area. I don’t like it when people brag about how expensive their house is or how much they earn or how clever they are or any of the others ways that people try to seem better than other people. Just, no.

Here’s another fact. When LB started pre-school, his development was measured to be two years behind the typical expectations for his age – so he was functioning round about the level of a two year old, when he was four. That’s a very tricky educational starting point. There were many barriers between LB and formal learning – behavioural, emotional, linguistic.

When LB started reception class, he couldn’t count. I’m not exaggerating – he literally couldn’t count to three in the correct order. This was not through a lack of trying on anyone’s part – it was mainly due to his Developmental Language Disorder (DLD See Developmental Language Disorder or DLD & Education ), as well as his tricky start. It did mean that numeracy was going to be extremely difficult. It is impossible to do sums if you don’t understand the currency you’re dealing with. It literally must have been like adding apples and pears for him.

By the end of year 1, though LB had made incredible progress in all areas, he had never quite managed to hit an expected level in any subject. It didn’t matter. We were extremely proud of him because of all the things he had achieved and really, from a starting point of 2 years behind, how could he?

Year 2 felt like a big jump. Year 2 had SATS. SATS were going to be hard for someone working below the expectations of the curriculum; someone who had only been able to count for 18 months or so. Fact. We didn’t even know if we’d let him sit the SATS – if they were going to feel too big an obstacle.

Somehow, despite all those facts, at the end of Year 2, LB managed not only to sit his SATS but to pass his Maths SATS. Not only that, but he smashed it, gaining close to a ‘greater depth’ score. He has also been deemed to be working at the overall expectations of the curriculum in numeracy, so in his report, he got his first green light. In fact, he got one for science too.

Why are you telling us this, if you don’t like bragging? I hear you whisper.

I’ll tell you why.

The ACE’s index (Adverse Childhood Experiences index) came about as a way of measuring the impact in later life of various different adversities that could befall a child. This is important because it is only fairly recently that society has begun to acknowledge that things that happen during childhood can continue to impact a person throughout their life. It is important we understand that childhood abuse, neglect or the disappearance of a parent through divorce, death, imprisonment or moving into the Care system doesn’t stop impacting a person once the event is over. It is really important these things are widely understood. The old adage that ‘the child is safe now so the past can be forgotten’ really does need eradicating and something like the ACE’s movement helps with this.

The ACE index also tells us that the more ACEs a person has experienced, the greater their risk of mental and physical health difficulties, substance abuse and unemployment. In short, the worse your start in life, the higher the likelihood of your life outcomes also being poor. A double-whammy body-blow.

ACES another one

 

It is beginning to be recognised that though this information is well-intentioned and to some extent needed, by encouraging people to count numbers of ACEs, you are really misunderstanding the way trauma works. It’s feasible that a person could score just 1 on the index, for an event that may only have occurred once, on one specific day. The index would suggest that this event would only have a minor impact on the person. However, from what we know of trauma, this is isn’t accurate. Depending on the person and their own reactions, that single event could have anything from a minimal to a profound lifelong impact upon the person. Similarly, because you have a large number of ACE’s, it doesn’t necessarily mean you will end up homeless, addicted to alcohol and drugs and suffering several health complaints, and I think there is a danger in suggesting you would.

ACES

 

For a young person, growing up with the knowledge they have a high ACE score could well make them feel hopeless about their future, and is that really what we want for our most vulnerable children? Surely the message should be that, yes, rubbish things that happen in childhood can impact upon a person and as a society we acknowledge it. We should also be offering all the extras a child could need – therapy, education, social/behavioural/emotional support – to help them in overcoming the impacts of those ACES. We should be acknowledging that children with any ACE score need more from us – more care, more love, more support. We should be flagging them up as at risk of the future harm the ACE index suggests whilst providing them with what they need to negate that risk.

I think there’s a danger in suggesting that something that happens early on will categorically lead to x or y later. These things are not set in stone. With the correct support, children who’ve had adverse starts in life can and do overcome the barriers their early lives attempted to block them with. I’m not saying it’s easy – it will undoubtedly be harder for them than for children without ACEs – but shouldn’t we try? Shouldn’t we aspire for the best we can for all children?

So, when a child comes from two years behind expectations, having experienced neglect and the severing of links with their biological family, and several moves, and despite all that catches up with expectations for children who have dealt with none of that, shouldn’t we be shouting from the roof tops? I think so.

Often, it is the most privileged who brag the most. It is hard to be impressed by the gains of those who already had a head start, but when the one who was lagging behind, who joined the race a long while after the others and kept on running despite being so far back, manages to catch up, that’s truly brag-worthy.

This is not all about catching-up though. Even if LB hadn’t have caught up, but had kept running, that would be a significant achievement too. He’s still running when it comes to literacy and he may always be, as may many of his other adoptee peers who have educational mountains to overcome, and I think it’s important we acknowledge that every next reading level, every percentile, every point on every scale, is harder won for our children with ACEs. But they’re doing it. They’re out there, surpassing expectations all the time. And I don’t want that to be lost in schools that don’t understand their behaviour or in parents having to fight or getting dragged down by the multitudinous battles they’re facing. We mustn’t mislay the positives. These positives are huge and indicative of something bigger even than ACEs. They’re about human fortitude and our ability to overcome. And a beacon of hope for what can be achieved, when we properly support our most vulnerable.

 

 

 

 

 

Mislaying The Positives

The Right Eyes

Today, Little Bear has been seen by another psychologist. This came about because the last time we saw an Educational Psychologist, I became very irate and had to resist the strong urge to tell him he didn’t know his arse from his elbow. You may remember this ranty post which tells you all about it: Conversations

Thankfully, the Bear’s school were none too impressed either and volunteered to pay for a private psychologist to ensure a non-biased, useful report. I know that I have moaned at times, about the school, but things have come a long way. I feel a real gratitude towards them that they genuinely care, about Little Bear and us, and that they are willing to be creative and do things differently if that’s what’s required. In these times of dwindling budgets, I’m well aware that many schools wouldn’t have funded such an assessment.

It isn’t just that, but by inviting a knowledgeable stranger into the school, they were laying themselves bare to observation and potential criticism. They took that risk because they want to do the best they can for our son and they are willing to make changes to their practice if advised. There is something about us having these shared vulnerabilities and this shared desire to ensure he reaches his full potential and is as happy as he can be, that makes me a little emotional. I think (I hope) that we have reached that much longed for status of Having A Good Working Relationship. And also Mutual Respect. I hope so, because I do feel like giving them a collective hug.

So, having got the right professional across the threshold, how was it?

Other than the times someone from our post-adoption support service has come into school meetings, this was the first time that somebody with an evident knowledge of trauma and attachment has observed Little Bear and seen what I see. There is a palpable relief in that. It isn’t in my mind; I haven’t concocted his needs; I’m not exaggerating. A knowledgeable stranger has come in and is sitting at the table I have sat at many times before and is observing things and recommending things that I have previously talked about, at that very table. She’s more convincing than me because she’s a psychologist and she certainly couldn’t be accused of being a neurotic mother, but even so, it makes me feel a little vindicated.

It’s refreshing. It’s also reassuring and hopeful. It means that instead of things being okay for Little Bear, maybe there is hope of them being the best they could be. I probably haven’t aimed that high for a while – just hoping we could avoid abject failure. School are willing and keen and they like the Psychologist and she is passionate and full of useful ideas. Surely this is the most hopeful our status has been so far?

I complained in my blog about the incompetent Ed Psych, that I knew more about trauma than he did and I’m sure that’s true. (Incidentally, today’s Psychologist said almost the polar opposite of everything he said. One has to laugh). I’ve written about  Being an Expert Parent and how our children necessitate us being so. I have always been a little reluctant about it though, so when a professional appears who is undoubtedly more knowledgeable than me and more experienced than me and I can learn from them, it’s brilliant. There is a surprising relief in it, that allows me to relax a bit, so I can attend the meeting as a Mum, not some sort of parent/professional hybrid trying to do several things at once. It makes me realise how exhausting navigating such meetings can be and how much of my emotional energy is eaten up week to week, trying to make sure Little Bear has what he needs in every area of his life, unwittingly filling the gaps left by others lacking in knowledge. Perhaps I can relax a little about his education now because between the psychologist and the school, I think they’ve got this.

It also highlights how rarely I’m in a situation with a professional who is knowledgeable enough to give advice about Little Bear’s needs. This shouldn’t be the case – that a professional who is trauma-informed is a rarity. Any professional coming to advise on children with developmental trauma should be suitably trained and aware. It is wrong that we find ourselves in a situation where the only way of getting that expertise is to pay for it, especially as childhood trauma is so prevalent.

Anyhow, with the right eyes on Little Bear, what did we learn?

There are some real positives about how things are currently being done. The Psychologist commented how lovely it was that Little Bear’s teacher and his TA are both willing to be physically affectionate with him and allow him to snuggle close to them. His teacher (a man), calls him ‘mate’ a lot and gives him reassuring pats on the back or arm. In this day and age where figures of authority have to be so careful about touching children, and some establishments have become so wary that they don’t touch children at all instead keeping some kind of unnatural and cold distance, it is heartening that the Bear’s school feel able to react to him naturally and to provide him with the physical comfort/connection he needs.

There are also real positives in terms of a multi-sensory curriculum and learning being fun. Little Bear is largely happy in the classroom and his trusting relationship with both members of staff is evident to a new onlooker. These things are reassuring.

What is more concerning is that Little Bear was not observed to be regulated at any point during the morning-long observation. I’m not surprised though. We achieve periods of regulation at home but that’s because we work really hard at it and we have spent three and half years getting tuned in and figuring out what works. I can see that without a trained eye, it would be difficult to figure out the underlying causes (often linked to Interoception in my opinion). I am still very much trying to untangle Little Bear’s sensory needs and that is with Sensory Integration training under my belt and a lot of time to puzzle. I can fully understand how, without the training or the experience, school would struggle to interpret and manage these aspects of Little Bear’s needs. The good thing is that today’s visit has brought them better understanding and the report will bring many practical suggestions for ‘sensory snacks’ to hopefully improve regulation across the day. I’m excited to read the ideas and maybe steal some for home too.

Little Bear was also observed to be anxious, hyper-vigilant and attachment-seeking in the classroom. Staff were observed to be inconsistent in making Little Bear adhere to the rules and at times punished possible self-regulatory behaviour. The big take home message for school was to ask themselves, ‘what is Little Bear showing us with this behaviour?’ ‘What is he showing us he needs?’ ‘What can we do to make him more comfortable/reduce his anxiety?’ instead of saying, ‘how can we stamp out this unwanted behaviour?’

The take home messages for me were more questions to ask of myself: ‘Are we doing enough to meet Little Bear’s sensory needs?’; ‘Should I get somebody else to assess him in this area?’; ‘Do we make appropriate accommodations for his sensory needs, particularly at mealtimes?’ I do find myself saying “sit down properly” a lot more than I probably should.

We talked a lot about difficulties with executive function and employing strategies to support that, such as visual supports, timers and short sharp bursts of learning, interspersed with sensory snacks. We talked about positive feedback, a proper meet and greet, a better transition for the end of lunchtime and closer supervision if unstructured play is leading to difficulties.

One of the main reasons we initially sought psychological input was due to the upcoming need to re-apply for funding for Little Bear. Today’s Psychologist was strongly of the opinion that Little Bear’s supportive adult should not be removed from him – he needs her support to get going with tasks and frequent check-ins to help him complete them. He cannot learn without adult support currently – an opinion we also hold strongly and one of the key reasons I got so frustrated with the LA Ed Psych who thought we should be working towards independence. The fact that today’s Psychologist independently and without any vested interest, drew this opinion is a great outcome and will hopefully add significant weight to our case for funding. I would love to say I’m not worried about that but I am because there are a few wider things also happening, relating to staffing at school and some problems with our back-up plan, should the funding application be rejected. There is always something to worry about it seems, but, today, I’m going to bed hopeful that now Little Bear has been seen through the right eyes, we might be on the right track to him getting the right support.

The Right Eyes

Speak Up For Communication

With absolutely no mention of decorating downstairs toilets this week, I am back talking about the serious matter of children’s speech, language and communication needs – SLCN.

Last year, I wrote this post – Ensuring Children’s Speech and Language Needs Are Met: A Call to Action– about The Bercow10 report – a damning reflection of the state of speech and language therapy services in the UK and the enormity of unmet need. RCSLT and ICAN last week began a new campaign highlighting the changes that have been successfully brought about in the year since Bercow10 and asked for renewed efforts to speak up for SLCN.

Of the 47 recommendations made in last year’s report, 17 have already been fully actioned, which is a promising start.

You can see some of the key successes here:

Bercow10 key successes

I mentioned the petition begun by @GillianRudd at the end of last year’s blog post. Following an incredible effort, this was successful, gaining 11,622 signatures and leading to a debate in Parliament. The government have stated they are committed to meeting the needs of children with SLCN, and Teresa May herself has committed to change during Prime minister’s question time.

However, there is widespread agreement within the speech and language therapy profession that this is not enough. Budget cuts have decimated speech and language services up and down the country. Yesterday, there was an article in the Daily Mirror about children languishing on waiting lists for as long as a year before getting any sort of meaningful help (see Mirror Article). The NHS department I used to call my professional home no longer exists – its contract having been lost to a private provider – and those children I work with in independent practice talk of long waits, minimal input and quick discharge in their NHS services. I never thought I would have to end up working privately to be able to give children the quality therapy they deserve and part of me is still saddened by it, not least because private services are out of reach for so many vulnerable children who need them.

Pressure on NHS speech and language therapy departments has been growing over a number of years, with an increase in need and a decrease in funding. Clinicians are under pressure to move children through services as quickly as possible and to be inventive with the budgets they do have. The department I worked for, put a heavy emphasis on others, such as speech and language therapy assistants and teaching assistants, carrying out therapy with children. This was part of being ‘lean’ and making savings but ultimately I think it has devalued the work and knowledge of speech and language therapists and contributed to the demise of services. We also worked to an ‘episodes of care’ model, in which children were seen for a block of therapy to target a specific aim and then discharged, with the plan for them to come back again when they needed more. Although this was effective for some children – the ones whose parents or school would make sure they did come back – I’m sure it put vulnerable children with poorer support networks at increased risk. Although the service was designed for children to come in and out of, I think it gave the message to some people that nothing else could be offered and that children’s needs had resolved, where they hadn’t, and were unlikely to for their lifetime. In trying to be frugal, I suspect some services have inadvertently misrepresented the severity and long-term nature of some SLCNs as well as lessening children’s chances of getting the additional support they needed at school (funding is difficult to justify if a child isn’t actually under any external services).

As it stands, Little Bear has also been discharged from speech and language therapy. He too could be re-referred but that would require energy I’m not sure I have. I would need to prove his needs were severe enough to get through referral criteria and no doubt start back at the beginning of the initial assessment to waiting list process again, which took a year last time. He clearly does have ongoing needs – he has Developmental Language Disorder – but proving the daily impact on him would be difficult now his needs are more subtle. Like any parent of a child with SEND, I am already pretty stretched with managing behaviour, seeking funding, trying to get school to understand his needs etc. etc. I’m not sure that I should have to jump through hoop after hoop to get him the help he needs. Yet I would have to. And so too do parents of children with SLCN in all corners of our country.

For me, it has been far easier to create a speech and language therapy programme for Little Bear myself and to train his TA to carry it out myself. Clearly this is a perk that other parents cannot rely on.

The majority of clinicians want what’s best for children and many are deeply frustrated by the limits of the services in which they work. In an unprecedented move, RCSLT and ICAN wrote an open letter to government last week, asking for SLCN to be given the attention it deserves. It was countersigned by 60 organisations, ranging from Autism charities to fostering and adoption charities, who share a deep concern about the future of children with communication difficulties. You can find it here: Open Letter

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Five key areas requiring change have been identified as priorities for action and are the five areas the open letter asked the government to act upon. They are:

Joint commissioning of Services – as SLCN impacts upon children’s emotional wellbeing, education, future employability and likelihood of involvement with the criminal justice system, a joined up approach to meeting need would be ideal. It is hoped that this would also help to iron out the postcode lottery which currently exists in the provision of speech and language therapy services.

Long-term support for SLCN – although support has improved in the early years, support for the 10% of older children and teenagers who will have ongoing needs continues to be poor.

Professional Development – there is a pressing need for all teachers and those working in the field of childhood mental health to be aware of SLCN and the many ways it might present. Professionals need to be able to identify SLCN and be aware of clear pathways to support.

Incentivising schools – budget cuts are impacting on education settings too. In these times of reduced funding and fewer EHCPs, it is imperative that schools are supported from the top down to identify and meet SLCN. The anniversary report asks for provision for SLCN to be considered during Ofsted inspections.

Supporting vulnerable groups – as children who have been excluded from school, those in Care, those with mental health difficulties and those who are involved with youth justice are more likely to have SLCN and are more at risk of their needs going unidentified, improvements need to be made to the support available for these groups as a priority.

This is the main area where I have tried to make an impact – providing training workshops for adopters and prospective adopters to arm them with knowledge of communication development; how to identify red flags and what to do to best support SCLN at home. Myself and another speech and language therapist adopter have also written a social communication group specifically for children with trauma backgrounds which is currently being advertised. It is good to see that work is beginning to happen with children who have experienced, or still are experiencing the Care System in other areas, and training for speech and language therapists in this previously neglected area is becoming more common too.

There are pockets of hope but in short, our work is far from done. RCSLT and ICAN are asking for our ongoing activism. We need to continue speaking up for communication and for children with speech, language and communication needs. We cannot stand by and do nothing.

If you would like to help, here are some things you can do:

  • Use the hashtags #SpeakUpForCommunication and #SpeakUpForSLCN on social media
  • Make a Vox Pop clip to pledge your commitment to speaking up for SLCN and share on social media (advice here: Vox Pop Guidance ) . I’m still pondering how I can get involved with this anonymously…
  • Visit the website here: www.bercow10yearson.com where you can download speech bubbles and get tips on other ways to join in
  • Write to your MP, or tweet them. Are they speaking up for communication? They are our representatives in Parliament – we need them to know about SLCN and Bercow10. We need them to speak up most of all.
  • Retweet and share this blog
  • Tell anyone who will listen about SLCN

Perhaps if we all shout loud enough, real change will happen.

Speak Up For Communication

Conversations

Firstly, I’m sorry, I’m in a bad mood at this moment and I rather suspect it will be evident as this blog post progresses. The reason for my mood will also transpire.

Earlier in the week, we had some workmen over to do a job for us. I didn’t know them but we got chatting, as you do. Within minutes I had learned that the man’s son had ADHD and they’d had difficulties with his schooling. Feeling an immediate kinship, I felt I wanted to tell him that I also have a son and he also has some behaviour and learning needs. I was cautious though because I distinctly remember sitting in adoption preparation groups doing a practical exercise on who you should and should not share information with about your child being adopted. Workmen were a clear ‘no’. They knew where you lived: they did not need to know that an adopted child, who may be vulnerable, lived in your house. This was in the back of my mind but I also knew that this man had walked a walk which I understood. I decided to trust he was a decent bloke and shared that I also have a son with needs.

We shared some similar anecdotes and then he asked me what diagnosis, if any, my son has. I knew this would happen and this was the bit I had considered avoiding. However, I didn’t. I explained he’d had a traumatic start in life, was now adopted and his diagnosis was Developmental Trauma. The man understood what I was talking about and it turned out he knew an adoptive family well and their son had similar needs. It also transpired that the man himself was adopted so we chatted about that too.

It was a conversation I perhaps shouldn’t have had, but it was a thoroughly positive experience.

Today, we had a meeting with an Educational Psychologist about Little Bear. This was an official conversation I had to have but ironically, this was the conversation I wished I could undo. As I’m sure you’ve guessed, this is the reason for my furious mood. As a parent of a child with additional needs, when you have a meeting about those needs with a professional who is supposedly more knowledgeable than you are, the very least you can reasonably expect is to come away feeling understood. You would also hope to come away with some useful tips or strategies. You would not expect to come out sweaty-angry because things have got a little heated.

We’ve seen the Educational Psychologist (EP) before (see Seeing the Educational Psychologist and SaLT, EP & an Assembly ) and despite me having some misgivings, it went brilliantly. The man in question was knowledgeable and trauma-informed. Unfortunately, that EP has moved on and we have a new one.

Things started okay with this fellow. He’d done an hour’s observation first thing then we had met for a consultation, with the SENCO, class teacher and Little Bear’s TA also in attendance. The main purpose of the meeting, in my mind, was to review where we were up to in terms of re-applying for funding going forwards. I am fully aware that funding is not within the jurisdiction of the EP. However, I have been in enough of these situations to know that as a professional, you are often called in to inform a funding decision. You make an independent assessment and you write a detailed report detailing a child’s needs. It wouldn’t bother me in the slightest if people wanted to discuss funding in my presence. I wouldn’t be able to say whether a child should have it or not but I would be very clear about their needs and what measures are required to meet those needs appropriately. I thought the EP would do the same.

Instead, he was so touchy about funding (even though we didn’t mention it any point) that I came away believing he had a (not very well) hidden agenda. It meant that he wouldn’t give a straight answer about what level of support he believed Little Bear to require and wouldn’t comment in any detail on his needs. He kept saying, “I have no influence on funding”. We kept saying, “We know, we aren’t asking you to comment on funding”. At one point Grizzly said, “So, are we on the same page?” (in relation to a specific point) and the EP replied, “I’m on my own page”. When we tried to establish what that page was, he wouldn’t tell us. It was most baffling.

I also felt he had little to no knowledge of trauma/attachment. It was when we started discussing independence that things started to unravel.

The key reason that Little Bear has 1:1 support now is due to his extremely poor emotional resilience and lack of self-confidence. I’ve talked about it before and I think my post Jigsaws illustrates my point most powerfully. The EP evidently thought (though he only said so cryptically) that Little Bear has too much support and does not do enough work independently. He felt independence in his learning was a priority. I disagreed with this because I feel his biggest priority is building resilience, a love of learning and the confidence to tackle new tasks when faced with them. When those things are in place, he will manage independence. I struggled to get the EP to understand this.

He kept saying that Little Bear can be given a task he knows how to do first to break him in gently to a task he’s never done before. That makes sense in theory but what he doesn’t account for is Little Bear’s alertness to new tasks and the fact that, without the nurturing support of a trusted adult by his side, Little Bear will baulk at the task and not be able to begin. The EP, in his uninformed wisdom, reckons that with practise of working independently, Little Bear will learn to complete tasks alone. He won’t if he doesn’t have the requisite skills or belief. He will disengage and learn diddlysquat.

The EP went on to patronise us all by saying that children need to experience success in order to build resilience. I KNOW. I feel as though I have said it a million times myself. However, Little Bear currently needs adult support to begin and engage with a task. He needs an adult to support him to stay on task and reach the point of completion and success. Without that support, he will not experience success. You can’t remove his safety net and expect him to get there by himself.

I pointed out that we put him in challenging positions all the time. I didn’t labour the fact that we tirelessly work to match activities to ability (see Our Just right challenge) and carefully dampen or increase our level of support to ensure his success. He said, “But do you though? Do you do it enough?” It was an open question to us and school but I would like to have seen him take Little Bear canoeing when he was still in the feral phase or take him for a skiing lesson or horse-riding or on a plane or on a skidoo or a bike or supervise him with a sharp knife or a power tool. We have done all of those things and more and I did not appreciate the inference otherwise.

Grizzly had done well keeping fairly quiet throughout this debate and I wondered if it was just me. However, the EP went on to suggest a strategy of “planned ignoring” for when Little Bear interrupts or shouts out in class. Grizzly stepped in to point out that there is an attachment reason behind this behaviour and Little Bear shouldn’t be ignored because, if anything, it would inflame the problem. He needs to know the teacher hasn’t forgotten him and is holding him in mind, even if shouting out is not an appropriate behaviour. The teacher’s approach of saying; “That’s a lovely answer. I’d love to hear it when it’s your turn/ when you have your hand up” feels much more appropriate.

Overall, I felt the strategies the EP suggested were extremely basic and I felt defensive of the school who are already working hard and employing so many more complex strategies. The suggestions he made indicated a lack of knowledge and understanding of the complex behaviours we all experience.

The final straw, which we were unable to resolve, came when he said he had made a tally of the number of times Little Bear’s TA intervened to help him during a task. Apparently it was, “considerably more often than she intervened with others”. I queried this because Mrs. C is employed with Little Bear’s funding as Little Bear’s TA. I would expect her to help him more than others because that’s her job. I couldn’t understand the point of it as a statistic. The EP seemed to suggest the number was meaningful so we asked him what his interpretation of the number was – did he mean that Mrs C steps in too frequently or that Little Bear requires a high level of support? He refused to be drawn, saying he is there to gather the information, not to comment on it. He then returned to his rhetoric of not being allowed to comment on funding.

The Head, who was working quietly in the room, but not in the meeting, said, “They aren’t trying to trick you, I think they just want an answer” to which, there was no answer.

The more I reflect on it now, the more bizarre it seems. I get the impression this EP is used to coming to meetings, asking lots of questions, writing down the answers and going away again. I don’t think he is used to informed parents who ask difficult questions of him. I’m pretty sure he went away thinking we are a royal pain in the backside but I don’t really care. It isn’t okay to provide mediocre or downright rubbish services to parents because they don’t know otherwise. Services should be excellent because these are the most vulnerable children in our society. What we do now and what support is put in place for Little Bear now is going to be crucial for his life chances in the future.

I know people are under pressure because of funding cuts and I suspect he did have an agenda along those lines but children’s needs are their needs, irrespective of funding and I’m not sorry that I will fight for Little Bear’s needs to be met. I’m sorry we crossed paths with that particular EP and I’m sorry we have to have another meeting with him in a couple of months. I suspect it would have gone considerably better if we let our workman from earlier in the week chair the meeting.

I am sure it will all work out and with a child with additional needs, a meeting or three like this are par for the course. But they shouldn’t be. It isn’t ok and our children (and us if we’re honest) deserve more.

I do want to give credit to school though and specifically to Little Bear’s teacher, who has really listened and changed his approach and referred several times to ‘doing things differently’ in the meeting. I am extremely grateful to them.

Conversations

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