3 in 1

Have you seen those multi-tools you can buy? The ones that look like a pen knife but when you open them up, they’ve in fact got a pull-out spanner, a pen, a bottle opener, a screwdriver and a corkscrew somehow stashed within them? You buy one tool but you actually get five. Very nifty.

I feel as though these tools are a metaphor for adopting Little Bear: he looks like one child but I’m pretty sure he’s comprised of at least three.

Sometimes it feels more like a whole band of delinquent imps, but I digress.

There’s the Little Bear who is a complete and utter joy to be around. He’s cute, funny and gentle. He’s considerate – he wants to help you and he’s concerned if you’re hurt or upset. In fact, he will be prepared to defend you to the hilt if he perceives some wrong doing towards a loved one: there’s the time he punched a girl in the face because she picked on his brother; the time he pottered down the hall with his dummy and blanket, to give a neighbouring child a stern telling off at the front door, as they had, again, been mean to his brother. That stern word reduced a child three years older than him to tears. It was impressive, I have to say, and totally belied the image conjured up by the dummy and blankie. There wasn’t any malice on either occasion – just a pure sense of love for his brother and a strong sense of injustice. If you had to pick teams, you’d want that Little Bear on yours.

And he’ll tell you how much he loves you. He’ll weave his little arms around your neck and in your hair and he’ll press his face to yours and he’ll say you’re the best mummy in the world, that he loves you to all the planets and back again. That he loves you a googolplex. That he’s never leaving you and even when he gets married, he’s going to live at home with his wife.

That Little Bear is also thirsty for knowledge. He listens intently. He learns at an impressive rate and dedicates himself to improving – thinking about how to get on the next reading level; if he can fill up another Maths book; how to get his mouth around that multi-syllabic word that is proving a challenge. He’s receptive to direction and can show a good level of resilience.

He’s smiley and affectionate. We can take him pretty much anywhere. And when we do, he will doubtless find a person with a dog, approach them slowly, saying, “Please can I stroke your dog?” He’ll pet the dog and the dog will love it. He will thank the owner extremely politely and you will see them thinking what a cute child he is, how well-mannered he is, how unusual it is for a child to ask before touching the dog. You can see him restoring their faith in children.

Then you wake up in the morning and he’s all but disappeared. In his place is another Little Bear who is unpredictable. He’s a bit like the one I just described above one minute, and then the next he isn’t. Sometimes he wants to please you and sometimes he doesn’t. Sometimes he listens and sometimes he won’t. Sometimes he’s kind and gentle and occasionally he will whack you with a toy sword for absolutely no reason. This one can be skittish. He might sit down for a while and play Lego but when it’s dinner time he will hop and climb and do roly-polies on the bench. You can enjoy your time with this one but then you might ask him to do something that doesn’t suit, such as get out of the bath or stop playing football or to turn off his iPad, and he will become miraculously deaf.

This Little Bear is the one who might do something shockingly unpredictable from time to time, such as dip his hands in the toilet or lick the bottom of his shoe or maybe, the cat. One minute you feel like smothering him in kisses and the next like tearing out your own hair. We do meet him quite often. You’d probably describe him as ‘spirited’. He’s loud, incredibly so – in fact you wonder if this one is a child within a child, like Russian doll children, with a combined lung capacity and double-energy to match. This one talks incessantly – literally from waking until sleep – and especially when you are trying to concentrate on driving everyone home alive or conducting an important phone call.

Then he’s a dog. A puppy. And he wants you to give birth to him. Then he’s a gorilla. Then he won’t answer to his actual name because, as he’s just tried to establish, he’s actually called ‘Woof’ and he’s a different species and no, clearly he can’t understand the language you’re speaking to him in because he’s a DOG. Idiot!

And you get to the end of the day and you’re tired, but in a you’ve wrangled a mischievous pixie kind of way, not a you just can’t do this anymore kind of way, and you giggle at his antics and think how cute he is and feel quite ready to do it all again tomorrow, despite the challenges.

But that Little Bear has disappeared. The minute you wake, you sense there’s a problem. Ideally you would reach for your flak jacket and tin helmet before going downstairs, because you already know you will need them. There is a sense of mania permeating the walls. He’s speaking too loud, too fast and with a lot of non-speech noises thrown in. You know he must eat breakfast and that might lead to the return of one of the other Little Bears.

But he won’t. ‘Would you like toast?’ is met with ‘I hate you’ and ‘shut-up’. He flatly refuses to come to the table. Seconds later he is scooting around the living room, on an actual scooter, not wearing an actual helmet, a pre-requisite rule of scooter-riding that he knows only too well. The scooter riding and the circles are winding him up further. You suggest he gets off the scooter but he won’t. He starts to crash it into the furniture. If you somehow manage to get the scooter out of the situation, he finds a ball to kick at the patio door or a toy knife to saw the table with. You mostly end up sitting him in front of the TV because safe containment seems wise. You check back, at regular intervals, but he mostly still hates you, still wants you to stop talking, doesn’t agree with any of your wonderings about the situation and may or may not threaten to head butt you.

Sometimes, foolishly, you wonder if a change of scenery might help. You let him choose, to help with buy-in. Sometimes, things are ok when you get to wherever it is but then other times you might ask him to come back and he will look you directly in the eye and stride in the opposite direction. You might calmly explain that walking along the curb-edge is not wise because a car might clip you and he will look you in the eye and fully step onto the road. You will ask him to come into the ladies toilet because he’s too young to go into the men’s alone and he will purposefully walk into the men’s. You will attempt to intercept him, because what could possibly go awry in the men’s toilets feels frightening and, because he isn’t listening to you being rational, you will make the men’s toilets sound scarier and more dangerous than it likely is and he, because he feels pumped and indestructible, will tell you that he can take these weirdos down and that you are in fact an idiot and the worst parent in the world and you never, ever, even attempt to keep him safe.

You may then lose your shit with him, because you are frightened that you actually can’t keep him safe if he won’t do anything that you say. Your brain starts to fear several aspects of the future: how can this Little Bear ever cope in a mainstream high school? How will he fair in the real world where there are very real rules that really do have to be adhered to because otherwise the Police get involved?

When he’s calmer, you attempt to explain this to him. He says he will punch the Police in the balls. And you think, shit, he might. Then you explain how prison works, not to scare him, but to explain that there are consequences to such actions and he says, ‘I’d like to go there and fight the prisoners and kill them,’ and you think several more unrepeatable swear words.

This Little Bear is pretty unreachable. You can try being supremely therapeutic, you can try being very firm, you can try reasoning. But, generally, nothing works. You mainly need to resort to survival – getting everyone to the end of the day, with all their limbs still attached and without having said anything you will live to regret.

Little Bear will say many things he may later regret. This Little Bear will even needle his biggest hero: his brother. He will say he’s going to kill his cat or his future wife (after asking her out first). Big Bear will understandably run of patience with this constant commentary in his ear and will shut himself in his bedroom. Little Bear will not be able to leave him alone, will not heed your instructions to do so, and will wonder why you are getting increasingly exasperated.

This Little Bear will say you’ve hurt him when you haven’t, call you all the bad names he can muster up and, if you intervene physically, to stop him absconding say, he may very well dig his nails into you or bite or hit you.

When this Little Bear visits you are very grateful for bedtime. Parenting has not been a joyous experience and you find yourself really hoping tomorrow will not be like that and that the apocalyptic future you are now imagining will not come to fruition. You wonder if you should start researching alternative high school provisions. You wished you drank and could seek solace in alcohol. Or even chocolate. But you don’t have either so you chomp aggressively on an innocent carrot.

You know, rationally, that Little Bear is not in fact three children in one; he’s one child who is differentially impacted by trauma. You also know that the harder your parenting day is, the more turmoil he’s experiencing and the more empathy he requires. You would also defy any therapeutic parenting expert to spend that sort of day with him and not lose their cool. That Little Bear would laugh in the face of PACE. Or probably punch it in the balls.

You remind yourself about the first Little Bear I mentioned. You struggle to compute that he is the same child as the last one. How could he be? They seem so polarised that you start forgetting the first one exists.

Then you wake and he’s back. A little curly head rests itself on your chest and a voice asks for a cuddle. And you forget about the last one.

Until he visits again.

 

 

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3 in 1

Adoption’s a rollercoaster, just gotta ride it

Sorry to quote Ronan at you, but that song has been playing on loop in my head for the last few days – no doubt my subconscious talking – and it really is the most apt musical accompaniment for how things are at the moment. I have always likened adoption to a rollercoaster – the ups and downs are undeniable. It’s just that usually there are a couple of weeks or months that are good, followed by a trickier patch – a kind of long distance rollercoaster dipping and looping through the years. Not so this week. This week, we have been up and down several times, all in the space of five days and it’s hard not to feel a little dizzy.

I mentioned last week that the start of 2019 wasn’t particularly easy for Little Bear and therefore not for us either. When we arrived at the Easter holidays, we were all flagging and a little more in need of a re-group than usual. We didn’t do too much – a few days out but lots of time around the house too. Pretty much everything we did was low-key, together, and involved a lot of quality time. We have got much better at knowing what salves are required to sooth tired nerves and these tried and tested methods do work for us. By the end of the two weeks off, all was good with the world. The sun had shone a bit, we had all relaxed and re-charged and we all approached the back to work/ school situation with enthusiasm and good cheer.

I was certainly aware of the re-found bounce in my walk and the looseness in my shoulders and the lack of furrow in my brow. Had we turned a corner? In my sunny and optimistic mood, I thought so.

On the first day back, Little Bear knuckled down, worked hard and got himself onto the next reading level. This was brilliant. Not only that, but he seemed to have developed a new level of reading fluency overnight and was tackling the harder books without difficulty. The next day we met the Psychologist (I wrote about that in The Right Eyes ) and had a positive and further optimism-boosting meeting. Hoorah! School were next level knowledgeable and Little Bear’s needs were going to be met and I could further relax. My body and mind were very excited at this prospect. Nothing to worry about! Imagine that! I was imagining it, craving it and just plain ready for it.

The week was only four days long, due to Good Friday, and passed in a similar upbeat manner. Easter weekend was also a beautiful thing. The sun really shone, our vitamin D was boosted, we went exploring down a stream, we hunted for eggs, we saw a friend, we did outdoor sketching, we read books. It was nice. It wasn’t dramatic or exotic but it was really, restoratively nice.

I was very much settling into the relaxed feeling now. There was no reason whatsoever that it shouldn’t carry on for the rest of the term. Spring had sprung, winter had passed and taken with it the doom of the last months. We were at the top of the rollercoaster and due a lengthy stay.

The boys went back to school after the bank holiday weekend and had good days. On the Wednesday, I picked them up from football club and Little Bear told me I needed to speak with the coach. Here we go, I thought. The coach took me to one side, away from the rest of the parents and began our chat with, “I’ll be speaking to another child’s parent too.” Bloody Nora, what had they done? Brawling, I assumed.

I assumed wrong. He wanted to speak with me because Little Bear had been trying so hard and being so sensible both in PE and football that the coach was super impressed. He told me that he and the other boy, who usually have to be separated from one another due to constantly dysregulating one another, had been so sensible they had been allowed to play on the same team. There had been a foul and the coach felt sure this would lead to familiar difficulties. Instead, one had helped the other up in a very sports manly fashion. He wanted to tell me how proud he was of Little Bear; how much he was standing out for him in school, for all the right reasons, and how much he loves him.

The coach is a young guy (God, I’m old) but he just seems to understand children like Little Bear. He doesn’t automatically see naughtiness where others might. He also seems to understand instinctively, that as a parent of a child with behaviour challenges, sometimes you really need to hear good news. I thanked him and attempted to express the loveliness of what he had just done without A. crying or B. hugging him inappropriately.

Yep, we were at the top of the rollercoaster alright. The coach had taken Little Bear to his teacher and had a similar conversation with him too, so I felt confident that the following day would continue to bring positives.

Wowzers. It had been a long time since we’d had a run of positives and it was most welcome.

I was totally blindsided then, when Little Bear woke in the middle of the night incredibly distressed by a nightmare. I have to admit I slept through the drama and poor Grizzly ended up getting in the spare bed with him, even though he was working. But I certainly knew all about it in the morning when Little Bear feigned illness and announced he wasn’t going to school, the second he saw me. Cue a very difficult school run, school refusal and a very tricky ten to fifteen minutes cajoling an in turn sad and angry Little Bear to stay in the building. It took so long the playground had been locked and I had to escape through the school.

It’s funny how a bad drop off can really set the mood for your day. You can’t help worrying about how they are and half expecting a phone call. I did get a call, at break time, but it was mostly to reassure me. He wasn’t on top form but he was doing ok. I’ve never had a call for reassuring purposes before, perhaps school really were getting to grips with what might help us.

I think we were all in peril in Little Bear’s dream, which had triggered attachment and separation anxiety things again. What a shame after such a positive few days! Eeh, well. The rollercoaster plummets and you just have to ride it.

The next day was better. Just a blip. Up we went again.

On Friday, a different teacher opened Little Bear’s door and my heart sank a little. The school have introduced a new curriculum this term, which I feel pretty excited about, but none of us had really extrapolated what that meant for Little Bear. It means having a teacher who doesn’t know him and whom he doesn’t have a trusting relationship with every Friday. Hmm. His TA was there though, I reassured myself.

When I picked him up that evening, he was pale and furious looking. “Did you have a good day, darling?” was met with a very definite ‘no’. And things deteriorated from there. The evening part was ok but by bedtime, Little Bear was refusing to go upstairs, trying to break things, calling us names and threatening to punch me in the face. I somehow managed bedtime safely but it wasn’t exactly enjoyable.

The next morning, things were no better. When it came to getting ready for horse-riding, Little Bear wouldn’t, despite his brother wanting to go along to watch – the kind of carrot that would usually take Little Bear anywhere. We tried firmness, persuasion, therapeutic-ing. The works. In the end, I laid his things out and just told him they were there and gave him the space to make his own decision (I was trying to go for a Demand Avoidance friendly approach). It didn’t work. He didn’t get ready and so he didn’t go. The fact that he somehow perceived this as having got away with something, seemed to rattle him further and he began to (seemingly) purposefully escalate the situation. Anyone who has experienced that will know exactly what I mean. I realised he needed a firm barrier and told him if he wasn’t riding, he’d have to just sit on the sofa. Rampaging around the house wasn’t actually an option.

Five minutes later, he came back to find me, breaking his heart crying, saying he regretted his decision and now really wanted to go horse-riding. It was too late for that, the lesson was half done by now, and while on the one hand it was kind of helpful for him to have dealt himself a natural consequence (perhaps this would lead to a different outcome next time?), it was upsetting to see him clearly so conflicted and upset within himself. I held him like a baby and lay with him while he cried.

Obviously, my first and foremost thought was his distress and I did attempt to therapeutic the shizzle out of the situation. However, on a practical level, I hadn’t managed to get dressed, I needed to cook lunch and organise myself to get to work that afternoon. Trauma is so energy-sapping for all. Plus, what was going on with this bloody rollercoaster? Weren’t we supposed to be at the top?

The more I thought about it, the more I could link his behaviour now to having had a stranger teaching him on Friday. He’d spent the whole day feeling unsafe. Of course this had disrupted him. How bloody annoying that something so avoidable had happened and undone all our hard work during the holidays getting us back on an even keel.

I was annoyed with myself for not spotting this would be a problem when I first heard about the new curriculum. I was also annoyed that school had not anticipated any potential problem either. It was barely a week since we’d met with the Psychologist and I had got excited that they were finally on it and I didn’t need to worry any more. Sadly, it seems I was deluded. I know they won’t have meant for this to happen, and they will care when I tell them. It’s just that, for once, it would be so nice if they could take some of the responsibility for noticing these things and rectifying them, without me needing to point them out. Even better, they could start anticipating some of these things before they happen because they do have enough knowledge to do that now. And it is blindingly obvious to anyone who knows Little Bear that having a different teacher for one day a week, without any preparation isn’t really a good idea.

I have e-mailed and the SENDCO has replied, at the weekend. They are lovely and I know they will try to sort this. However, riding the rollercoaster as we are, and have been for the last months, is exhausting. We’ve barely recovered from one thing, when another thing happens. I was so desperate for that feeling of relaxation that I experienced for about a week that I’m spending quite a bit of day-dreaming time willing it back again – in between threats of head butts and absconding.

And the SENDCO, who is the saving grace in all this, is heavily pregnant and leaving for maternity leave imminently. She will send our renewal funding application first but she won’t be here when the results come in…

My brow is re-furrowed, my shoulders re-tightened. But what can you do? Adoption’s a rollercoaster and you just gotta ride it.

 

 

 

Adoption’s a rollercoaster, just gotta ride it

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

Boys Don’t Cry

This morning, I have spent a bit of time reviewing the various bits of writing I have created over the last six months or so. A couple of pieces have found a home but I was sorting through the homeless ones, deciding what was going to be entered in upcoming competitions etc. There is one piece which I really want to have a home because the content of the story is extremely important and, I suspect, would be enlightening to many. I have been pondering where it should go and think I have concluded that I will really struggle to sell it to most (all?) mainstream short story publishers. Why? Well, it’s pretty gritty, northern, and I suppose, angry. It is also extremely sweary.

Anyhoo, to cut a long monologue short, I think I’m going to publish it here. It’s risky because it isn’t my usually content and there is a risk of offending you, my lovely readers. However, it is essentially a fictional account which passes comment on the state of our Care and Education systems and raises important issues which I feel should be heard and should be thought about by a wider audience.

TRIGGER WARNING: If reference to self-harm/ being in Care/ frequent moves/ domestic violence/obscenities might upset you, please don’t read on.

If you’re cool with all that, feel free to share with those who might like it/ be enlightened by it.

For all the Vinnie’s out there:

Boys Don’t Cry

Vinnie slouched along Penn Lane, his rucksack hanging languidly over his shoulder. Every now and again he saw a piece of litter or a stone in his path and booted them. Last night’s ‘chat’ with Barbara ran on a loop in his head. She was his Social Worker, his fourth to be exact.

“Vincent, I’m sorry love, but Marianne just isn’t coping with you. It’s the swearing, Hun. The coming in after curfew and she says what finally did it, was you stealing from the kitchen again. She’s tried her best, she has, but she can’t cope any more. So, I’m really sorry, but we’ve had to find you a new place…. I’m, err, I’m sure you’ll like this one Vinnie…. It’s a couple, Les and Maureen. They’re going to come and get your stuff tomorrow while you’re at school and they’ll meet you in the car park afterwards. Ok, love? Now, Vincent, try your best this time eh?”

Home. That’s what they call it. They’re not your parents like, but they’re gonna look after you as if they were. That’s what they say. ‘Make yourself at home Vinnie’; ‘This is your home now Vinnie’. But they don’t mean it. Cos if you eat food from your own fridge, in your own home, they say you’ve been fucking stealing.

Six weeks he’d been there now, at Marianne’s. It was just starting to feel normal, like maybe it could be home but turns out she’s just like all the others. Two-faced bitch. Vinnie felt tears prick at his eyes and that familiar ache in his stomach. All he wanted was a home. A place. His place. With people who gave a shit. He was so jealous of his mates with parents. Why couldn’t they have just let him stay with his Mum? She was a total smack ‘ed, he got that, but any shitty excuse for a human would be better than this – getting wafted about like a piece of dirt. The tears were filling his lower lids, threatening to overspill. “Man up,” Vinnie told himself, scrubbing at his eyes with his blazer sleeve, “Boys don’t cry, you pansy.”

He turned the corner onto the high street. So he was moving then? This would be the twelfth time in five years. Twelve ‘homes’. He should start one of those tallies prisoners etch on the wall in their cells to count down the days. He didn’t know where he’d put it though, seeing as he didn’t even have a wall. He had less than a prisoner which was fucking sad. Maybe he should etch the tally on his body instead cos that was the only thing that went everywhere with him. Yeah, he might do that later, with his pen knife.

Vinnie stopped outside of the newsagent, waiting for someone who looked likely. Kath from the bungalows shuffled up so he asked her. “Get us some fags will ya?” he said, pressing a note into her hand.

“Ooh love, haven’t you given that up yet? Filthy habit it is.”

“Kath, you smoke forty a day!”

“Well, yes love, but I’m old, my lungs are screwed aren’t they? But you’re young. You’ve got your whole life ahead of ya. Well, go on then, but make this the last time eh?”

The vapours calmed him a bit. He concentrated on the in, the choke-inducing hold then the out. Long, slow, deliberate.

He had Maths first thing with Mr ‘knob-ed’ Charles. He hated it. Maths made him feel proper thick. The numbers moved about sometimes, twisting and bending and making his brain throb. He could do it, if he had enough time but Mr. Charles seemed to go too fast on purpose, like getting kids brains tangled up was a sport for him. Sick, he was.

Vinnie pushed open the door and lumbered over to his desk, vaguely aware the lesson had started already.

“Vincent Capoletti!” boomed Mr Charles, “How dare you disrespect me and my Maths class by wandering in late! What time do you call this? It is Monday morning and this is your first lesson. What excuse could you possibly have for this level of tardiness? Hmm?”

“You don’t wanna know Sir”

“Well, actually young man, I do want to know, that is why I have interrupted my teaching to ask you. So?”

“So, what?”

“So, Capoletti, why are you late?”

“I’m just late Sir. Sorry. Can we drop it?”

“No, Capoletti, we cannot drop it. Not only are you late but you are rude. Stay behind at the end. And tuck your shirt in!”

Vinnie wasn’t in the mood for this. He rarely was but today school was making him feel more claustrophobic than ever. Trapped. I’m really sorry, but we’ve had to find you a new place… I’m sure you’ll like this one Vinnie…. It’s a couple, Les and Maureen.

Les and Maureen. Vinnie wondered what they were like. Maybe they collected those shit pottery dogs that all old people have. Maybe they were into really kinky stuff like swinging and that. Oh God, he hoped they didn’t have other Care kids there. He couldn’t bear it. Another life ruined by social-fucking-services. Another screwed-up brat who he wouldn’t be able to get on with cos he was scared of ever becoming them. Even though he was them already. One of those kids that literally nobody wants.

“…Capoletti! The square root of 25? It isn’t even hard and I’ve asked you twice already!” “Erm, I dunno Sir, 3?” Vinnie could hear the cool group who sat nearer the front sniggering at his ineptitude. It was alright for them and their detached houses and parents with professional jobs. They had time to care about this shit.

Vinnie was feeling edgier by the minute. He tried jiggling his leg to release some energy. It was like Krakatoa inside of him. He’d learned about it in Geography, one of the only lessons he’d ever enjoyed. It was like Krakatoa, the volcano, was inside of him, simmering and hissing and getting close to a catastrophic eruption. He tried to dampen it down, distract himself with his thoughts. All thoughts led back to that chat with Barbara though or to his sad excuse of a mother or to Marianne. He didn’t want to think about her. He could really do with a fag.

Mr Charles made him stay behind at the end for one his righteous teacher monologues. Apparently Vinnie didn’t actually need to answer any of the questions. They were ‘rhetorical’. Mr Charles took great pleasure in telling him so. He was on Report now which was just effing-fabulous.

He’d missed five minutes of break already but was so desperate for a smoke that he took himself to the far edge of the field, where the big tree was, and smoked three fags one after the other even though there wasn’t enough time. He gave himself a liberal spray of Lynx before rushing, of a manner, to French.

“Miss, can you sign my report card?” he said, wafting it in front of Madame Trudeau.

“You want me to sign your card? To say you are on time for my lesson?” she enquired in her fake-sounding French accent.

“Yes miss”

“But you are not on time for my lesson Vincent. Sit down.”

Seriously! Why would no-one just give him a break? Why did teachers have to be so up their own arses? Two tiny minutes late, that was all. Vinnie threw his bag onto the floor and scraped the chair noisily back. He put his elbows on the desk, jabbing his fists into his eye sockets. Krakatoa grumbled and threatened.

“Vincent, I will not ‘av this lack of respect in my classroom. Sit up and take your arms off the desk!”

With great effort, Vinnie did as she bid.

“Where is your homework Vincent? You owe me two pieces now.”

“I, err….”

“Well, do you ‘av it or not?”

“No, I fucking-well haven’t!”

Oh shit. He didn’t mean to say that. The words had just come out of their own accord. His tongue had run away with him as his Nan used to say. It’s the swearing, Hun. Vinnie’s heart pounded and adrenaline coursed through his veins. His body pushed him up to standing. His arms thrust forward and he shoved the table. Hard. He upended his chair, grabbed his bag and slammed the door with such force a glass panel fell out. The noise on impact with the polished floor was ear shattering; the moments afterwards foreboding in their silence. Dagger shaped shards scattered like sinister marbles and crunched under his shoes.

For a second, Vinnie felt compelled to reach for a sliver to slice his flesh with. To bleed the pain away. He’d have done it too but Mr McDermott appeared ghost-like from nowhere and dragged him off to Isolation.

“I don’t know what’s got into you Capoletti! It’s only 10:30am on Monday and somehow, somehow, you’ve already got yourself on Report, annoyed Mr Charles, annoyed Madame Trudeau and destroyed school property! That’s good going even for the likes of you. Now, you’re in here for the rest of the day. Miss. Rivers is supervising. No talking. If I were you lad, I’d get my head together.”

Why do teachers always stink of stale fucking coffee, Vinnie wondered. It was disgusting. Someone should have a word with Mr McDermott about his oral hygiene.

Vinnie chose the booth in the corner and sat himself down. He allowed his head to fall onto his folded arms and closed his eyes. They’re going to come and get your stuff tomorrow while you’re at school and they’ll meet you in the car park afterwards. He wondered what they’d put his stuff in this time. A black bin bag again? Not that he had anything much. Just a couple of trackies and his memory box. He’d have packed himself but Marianne disappeared last night so he couldn’t ask her for a bag. Locked in her room she was. She hadn’t come out this morning either so he hadn’t even got to say goodbye. She must really hate him. Maybe she was scared of what he’d do now she was turfing him out? Did she think he was a fucking thug? That he’d knock her about or summat? Treat her like his Dad treated women?

A yoghurt. That was all he’d had. He was starving and he hadn’t wanted to disturb her.

Anyway, what did it matter? He’d never see her again. He’d add her to the list later, with the other eleven, then he’d forget about her, like the others.

The tears threatened again. Vinnie squeezed his fists hard, so his ragged nails jabbed his skin. What he wouldn’t give for a hug. He couldn’t remember the last time anybody had touched him. A squeeze on the shoulder or a friendly pat, even. Nothing. They don’t touch you in case you accuse of them of rape and that. He wouldn’t do that though, he wasn’t a knob, he just wanted someone to hold him. Just for a few minutes. A memory floated into Vinnie’s mind of him as a little lad, lying with his head on his Nan’s lap, her gently stroking his hair over and over. The old feelings of safety and love pricked at him, cruel reminders of what he no longer had.

Vinnie started to panic again, a heady cocktail of cortisol and adrenaline thrumming through him. He lifted his head to look for a distraction. The booth had three walls, hemming him in. Everything was white. It was like a fucking padded cell. Vinnie was struggling to stay still. His muscles were twitching and flexing. He jiggled one leg then the other. He jiggled faster but the feelings wouldn’t stop. Krakatoa was really threatening now. Vinnie was terrified of the eruption. Catastrophic they said. No coming back from that. Part of him wanted it though. The obliteration.

His thoughts raced. His mum. In a dirty dressing gown, half her teeth missing. One of the houses. Another. Marianne. Barbara. The glass smashing. His blood.

Vinnie drove his head into the surface of the table to make it stop.

“Oi! Mr. Capoletti! How dare you disrupt Isolation! SILENCE!”

Shouting. His Dad. His mum’s black eye. A police car. That noise, of the siren. Terror. Piss soaking into his back in the bed.

Images kept coming. Ones he’d shut away ages ago. He didn’t want to see them. He was hearing the siren like it was there and he just needed it to fucking stop. He was on his feet. His leg kicked the chair over; his hand drove itself into the wall. It was happening. The magma was hurtling upwards.

He was vaguely aware of Miss Rivers radioing for the senior leadership team. Fuck ‘em. Fuck the lot of them. No one gave a shit about him anyway. No one, in the whole fucking world. The desk was upturned now. The paper contents of his bag shredded, creating an eerie juxtaposition of snow against bloodshed.

Mr McDermott was there and some of the others, handling him.

“Don’t fucking touch me!” Vinnie screamed, flailing. “Get the fuck away from me.”

“Vincent, you need to calm down son. You can’t behave like this in school. Do what you like on the streets but its zero tolerance in here. Calm it or we’ll have to involve the Police.”

The Pigs. No, he couldn’t see them. He had to get out. Away. He couldn’t breathe. He needed air. “I’m fucking going you cunts. Chill out,” he spat, grabbing his bag and pushing to the door.

“Vincent, you can’t just leave school. You have to be here. We’ll be calling your fost…” But he was gone, sprinting, his legs driving him forward. Pumped. Lava spewing out, excoriating his thoughts.

*

Later, Vinnie couldn’t remember it too well. He didn’t know how long he ran for or where he’d even gone. He had no fucking idea where he was now. He sat on a wall and looked at his phone. Ten missed calls and several messages from Barbara. He didn’t bother reading them. He was suddenly very tired. Exhausted. It was like there was nothing left of him, a gaping caldera where he should have been. Vinnie tried to think but his brain didn’t work. He couldn’t make a plan. His thoughts wouldn’t do it. There was nothing. Just emptiness. It should have been better, not having the pictures in his head and the words on loop. But it wasn’t. He was so hollow it was terrifying. If nobody was missing him and he couldn’t even feel himself, was he even real? Would he just float into the air like a spec of dirt? Would be dissipate? Dissolve? Just go?

Vinnie needed to feel something. Anything. The knife was still in his pocket, reassuringly cold and solid. It felt good in his palm; weighty. Then, the satisfying click of the blade.

 

 

 

 

Boys Don’t Cry

Navigating Adoption Support Conference

Last Thursday, The Centre for Adoption Support ran their first conference, all about post-adoption support, which I was excited to attend for both professional development and in my parenting role. I thought I’d tell you a bit about what happened there, the key messages that were shared and why it was an important event.

The day began with a keynote speech from Sir John Timpson, of Timpson’s shoe repairs fame. I knew a little about him in advance – that he was a keen supporter of helping to rehabilitate prisoners by offering them employment opportunities (they make up 10% of his workforce) and that he did other altruistic things such as offering free dry-cleaning of suits to the unemployed. I also knew he and his wife had fostered many children. I was looking forward to hearing him speak but hadn’t anticipated he’d be quite so inspirational and amusing to listen to. Without meaning to sound disrespectful, what I think Sir Timpson is particularly adept at is cutting the crap. He isn’t concerned with policy and red-tape and oh that couldn’t possibly be done attitudes. He is concerned with people and creating environments which allow people to thrive. By his own admission, he doesn’t bother with psychometric testing or CVs or previous experience – if somebody is smart, keen and willing to work, they can have a job. His attitude is that a boss’ roll is ‘to help people do the best they can’ and he does that by taking away wider life stresses such as debt (he has a hardship fund for such occasions), by incentivising people to work hard (with free holiday cottages to use, birthdays off and a Dream Come True scheme where one employee per month gets to choose a life-changing event such as a holiday) and by crediting employees with common sense (they can give sums of compensation to customers without manager approval, be flexible with the pricing structure if there’s a sound reason and are not given lessons in customer service, being encouraged to simply treat people as they’d hope to be treated).

This combination of cutting to the chase and being highly proactive has evidently served Sir Timpson well at home too. With his wife, they have fostered 90 children and adopted at least one and it was clear from the anecdotes he shared that as a family they have been around the block. He seemed refreshingly un-shockable. When he has seen opportunities to make things better for fostered or adopted children and for their parents, he has: creating guides to attachment which are available for free in all his stores, offering free holidays for foster carers and getting involved with his children’s school when it was threatened with closure. He stepped in with both financial help and by applying his bottom-up, cut the crap management style to the school. The school was soon full and rated Outstanding by Ofsted.

Sir Timpson continues to be involved with education and trying to make schools attachment and trauma friendly. He believes schools need to be maverick – to be willing to break out from the rules and regulations and limitations imposed on them by LA’s and other bodies – and to give teachers freedom to do what is best for individual children. He believes in inspirational head teachers, whole school approaches and safe spaces. He believes in children with developmental trauma having a consistent mentor within school – crucially he advocates that person being chosen by the child (not inflicted on them) and them being any member of staff, be that a dinner lady or caretaker if the child so chooses. I can’t help feeling that Sir Timpson would be an asset to any organisation, such is his clarity of thought and determination to do what is right, despite any barriers placed in his way. I came away certain in the knowledge that he’s my new favourite maverick and there is hope for our children’s education yet.

The second speaker was Sir Mark Headley, a retired High Court Judge. Having been a judge in the child and family division, a foster carer and adopter, he too had much to contribute. His talk was mainly about the current legal context of adoption, both in the UK and globally. It was fascinating to hear that adoption has only existed within the law since 1926 in this country, and in the four adoption acts passed since then, its purpose has changed from being about ‘the homeless child for the childless home’ to having a welfare role. Apparently our adoption laws are considered ‘draconian’ and ‘excessively hard line’ by other countries and Australian judges consider our system ‘barbaric’. This is because our laws differ in two main ways. Firstly, in the UK, when a child is adopted, the law treats that child as ‘having been born to the adopters in all respects’, in essence extinguishing any link to their birth family (in the eyes of the law) and stripping birth parents of any right to their child. I didn’t get to ask how things are done differently abroad but I’m assuming there is more contact allowed or some ongoing sharing of parental responsibility.

Secondly, in the UK, it is within the law to ‘impose adoption on unwilling parents if the welfare of the child requires it’ but other countries consider this improper or even immoral.

I haven’t ever stopped to think too much about the legalities of adoption but it was certainly enlightening to realise our laws are viewed this way.

Sir Headley went on to talk about the Judge Munby rulings which he feels have been misinterpreted by many as suggesting there should be fewer adoptions. He clarified that Judge Munby’s point was not to reduce adoptions necessarily, but to be clearer about justifying decisions to make placement orders. He talked about it being imperative to consider whether adoption is the best solution for a child and the only solution for them. If the answer to both questions is yes, he believes our laws are justified. If the answer is no, every other possible solution should be considered and ruled in or out first. He advocates ‘not having inflexible mind-sets’ and ‘keeping the welfare of the child central.’ And when he puts it like that, I can’t help thinking he’s right.

After the first two speakers, we all filtered off into parallel workshops that we’d picked in advance. The first one I attended was entitled, ‘Adoption Support: Problems, RAAs and implications for the 3rd Sector.’ I have to admit that all the talk of policy and neoliberalism tied my brain in a few knots. Like Sir Timpson, I am not a fan of policy and policy changes and have already had my fill of it in the NHS so it was tricky to get my brain in gear. The basic point that I gleaned was that the whole shift to Regional Adoption Agencies (RAA’s) isn’t working very well. It seems there is a lot of trying to stick square pegs in round holes going on and the needs of children and families have got a little lost. This is just my interpretation of what I heard – maybe don’t quote me on it.

One major problem for Voluntary Adoption Agencies, such as ours, is that, as I understand it, any assessment of need to inform an application to the Adoption Support Fund (ASF) has to be carried out by an RAA. This means VAA’s hands are a little tied and they need to wait for RAA’s to do the assessing bit. It also seems that instead of parents approaching a post adoption support service (PAS) for help and the PAS assessing and deciding what therapy a young person needs, the assessing teams aren’t knowledgeable enough about the range of therapies available, how they should be applied or how proven/unproven their efficacy is. So, the reality is that parents ask for help and the RAA say, ‘what help do you want?’ and the parent doesn’t know what choices there are and neither do the RAA. It means that applications for funding are not well informed and may not be in the best interests of children. I am speaking in blanket terms but I’m sure some RAA’s are much more informed than others.

I find it difficult knowing some people’s experience of PAS is so horrendous when we are extremely lucky to have the services of The Centre for Adoption Support (CfAS) available to us, where all the members of staff are knowledgeable, highly trained and specialise in PAS. I can’t help feeling that all this tendering and competition in the market is a huge mistake and causes more problems than it solves, as I believe it has in the NHS.

Anyhow, I didn’t like to dwell on such issues and went for some lunch where I had a very interesting conversation about high schools, high-fiving (not a friendly thing but clapping someone on the back hard enough to leave a print – apparently it’s a thing) and Hate Books (also a thing where kids write all the things they hate about each other to bully people with. It sounds lovely) and concluded I’d prefer for my children to just skip high school.

My next mini-lecture was ‘Navigating a Child’s Journey in School’. This was really enlightening for teachers or other professionals and essential listening. For me, I have spent many an hour plumbing the depths of the topic for Little Bear and though I agreed wholeheartedly with the content, there wasn’t anything novel in terms of Being an Expert Parent. However, I suspect the people I had been discussing internal exclusions with would have gone away with significant food for thought.

The talk did introduce me to the term ‘emotional differentiation’ which sums up well what we really want teachers to do for our children. I have never thought about it in those terms yet we talk about ‘educational differentiation’ or ‘differentiation of the curriculum’ but what many of our children need is emotional differentiation. This is also a good rebuttal for the times when someone inevitably argues that you can’t have one rule for one child and another for the rest of your class. You can and this is why.

The final workshop I attended was, ‘Good Practice in Working with Families Affected by Violence and Aggression’ and I have to admit that by the end I was like a woodland creature blinded by headlights – wide eyed and frozen to my chair. I am totally down with the need to be open about Childhood Challenging, Violent & Aggressive Behaviour (CCVAB) , to reduce shame and bring it out from behind closed doors. I just think it is a bit scary to be living with a child who is unpredictable and at times, does tend towards the aggressive. I find that I start workshops like this feeling keen and interested and leave them a bit freaked out for our future. That wasn’t anyone’s intention and the content of the workshop wasn’t designed to shock in any way. I was aware even as I was sat there, that I was bringing my own fears to the table and that was colouring what I was hearing. I think talk of calling the Police and having a Family Safety Plan, avoiding victim-blaming and CPVAA being the main cause of children leaving home prematurely is essential but, simultaneously, I can’t help fearing those things could be in our future and desperately hoping they aren’t. It is certainly different to listen to the facts as a social worker versus as an adopter who can envisage such things in their reality.

I know knowledge is power, but sometimes fear makes you want to bury your head in the sand instead.

The day was finished in record time – I attended the plenary and before I knew it I was wandering back to my car in surprising sunshine. I thought it was a brilliant day. I had found all the lectures engaging and my earlier fears that I might struggle to sit still and concentrate were entirely unfounded. It was great to have social workers, adopters, adoptees, teachers, psychologists and legal representation all under one roof, with one common aim – of making things better for adopted children and adoptive families. The concept of post adoption support is a relatively new one but now there is a recognised need for it, we cannot become complacent. We need to continue to innovate and hone services to make them the best and most responsive they can be. Events like the conference trigger debate which will hopefully disseminate outwards to improve knowledge and set the wheels of change in motion.

This was the first conference run by CfAS but I certainly hope it wasn’t the last.

 

Navigating Adoption Support Conference

Promises, Promises

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

Me: It’s bedtime, Little Bear

LB: Aw, can’t I have a bath?

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

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

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

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

Me: Are you sure?

LB: Yes, I PROMISE. Straightaway.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

Promises, Promises

Control

I have to admit that I have been dithering this morning. I knew I needed to blog but it’s dark, rain is pounding the window as though the world is weeping and I feel like getting wrapped in a blanket and hibernating. Part of the problem is that I haven’t been particularly kind to myself with my choice of topic this week. I have decided to write about control and controlling behaviour but it’s quite meaty and I’ve needed to hit the books first. It is always easier to write the kind of post that just flows out of my head but sometimes a topic comes to mind because I don’t understand it enough and because I need to use the blog as an opportunity to learn a bit more. So, mind over matter, here I am, semi-researched and ready to type.

Controlling behaviour is certainly apparent in our house and it always has been, ever since Little Bear arrived. Admittedly, it isn’t as present as it used to be but there are certainly times when it is and it can be pretty tricky to manage. Initially, Little Bear sought control in every interaction. If we said ‘do this’ he said, ‘no’. If we said, ‘don’t do that’, he would say, “I certainly will.” He went further than that. If somebody sat somewhere he didn’t like, he would threaten them until they moved. If we gave him food, he wouldn’t eat it. If we didn’t want him to eat something, he’d eat it. His need for control made him contrary and oppositional in pretty much every interaction.

It can be extremely difficult, when faced with this type of behaviour, not to go head to head with it; not to threaten and shout and vie to be in control yourself. As a parent of a non-traumatised child, we were used to being in charge; to him pretty much always doing what we asked of him so this new world where a three year was attempting to rule the roost was shocking to say the least.

In order to properly explain why he was behaving like this, I’ve done a bit of reading. Bruce Perry (my favourite guru), says, “Because youth who have been through trauma often come from homes in which chaos and unpredictability appear ‘normal’ to them, they may respond with fear to what is actually a calm and safe situation. Attempting to take control of what they believe is the inevitable return of chaos, they appear to “provoke” it in order to make things feel more comfortable and predictable”. This rings true. From what we know of Little Bear’s birth family, life was chaotic. There was little or perhaps sporadic adult supervision. There were older siblings who may or may not have tried to exercise control over the younger ones but in general I suspect everyone ran wild and free. Unfortunately, this pattern continued in foster care, where Little Bear also received little supervision and seemed to spend his days entertaining himself in dangerous and risky ways.

This isn’t okay. However, for Little Bear, it was all he had known. To him, chaos and lack of supervision was normal. When he arrived here, to an environment of constant supervision (we literally didn’t take our eyes off him for the first months because we didn’t know what he might do) things must have seemed totally upside down. I suppose it might have felt smothering and claustrophobic. To him, this was chaos. This was abnormal. It must have felt very unsafe, hence his need to regain control by refusing to comply etc.

This is where things get a little tricky. Obviously, I wouldn’t want my son to feel unsafe at home. However, it isn’t healthy to allow a three year to control everything. That could only lay down the foundations for far larger problems later. As scary as this was for him, Little Bear was going to have to get used to environments where adults are in charge and where demands are made of him because otherwise school and work were going to be impossible. Hopefully, over time, he would learn a new type of safety, where grown-ups, not children, are in charge.

It is hard to pick apart how we succeeded in that because we did a lot of things that tackled a lot of different issues. Sometimes we got it right and sometimes we got it wrong. Vera Fahlberg tells us about how it should work: “The supportive approach to control issues is twofold. First, the adult demonstrates to the child that the child does not lose when he complies with reasonable demands, but instead everyone wins. Second, the adult provides as many opportunities for the child to be autonomous as is appropriate, given the child’s age.”

I think we were lucky that Little Bear could tolerate praise and in fact lapped it up. It meant that we could praise good decision making and co-operation. We were careful to praise every single tiny step of positivity. We didn’t just assume that he should put his shoes on when we asked. If he did co-operate, we made a big fuss (in a good way). If he didn’t co-operate we got pretty practised at ignoring a lot of the less positive behaviour (throwing etc.) and waiting, silently, for him to co-operate. We would always praise the part where he did do what was asked and try not to comment too much on the more negative bits that had happened first. We tried not to feed the control monster.

I can’t, hand on heart, say that we handled all situations as well as this. There certainly were times we went head to head with him and we learned the hard way that it is ineffective, as I suspect most new parents of traumatised children do. I can’t, hand on heart, say that there aren’t still occasions when I just want him to ‘do what he’s bloody asked’ and handle it less than therapeutically. We are human.

A lot of this is about relationships. As time went on and we were still there and we said sorry when we were out of order and we repaired things when it had gone awry and we talked and we wondered, Little Bear’s need for control itself gradually subsided.

Interestingly, Vera (I hope she doesn’t mind first name terms) also says, “Parents who know they can take charge whenever the situation warrants are not threatened when their children make decisions that don’t work out well. If a parent doesn’t know how to take charge when a child is out of control, the young person senses this and becomes frightened.” She goes on, “If the parent continues to be unable or unwilling to control the child in such a situation, the child’s inappropriate behaviours usually escalate.”

From the first day I met Little Bear, as well as being shocked by his behaviour (not mentioned in any paperwork, anywhere), I knew I should never show his behaviour any fear. I had met many families of children with complex needs through my work and many times seen parents so frightened of their children’s behaviour that their lives were ruled by it and it paralysed them from making changes which might ultimately help. From the onset, we reminded ourselves that Little Bear was a small child and we didn’t need to fear him. It did help us to remain calm when he was losing control. There were many times I held him and said, “I’m not going to let you hurt me” when he was lashing out. We did take control when he was losing control. We removed items he was too overstimulated to use. We stayed with him no matter what he did.

Again, I can’t pretend we always handled these situations appropriately. Tiredness, illness, hormones all impact your ability to stay calm no matter what. I know that sometimes it did feel like a battle for control and that Little Bear was trying to push and push to get a reaction because he felt out of control and he needed to check whether we were reliably in charge or not. Dealing with control issues is certainly not easy. I like to think we got it right enough of the time to make a difference.

In general, these days, I’d say we walk a line between encouraging Little Bear to co-operate (with reasonable demands) and giving him the autonomy Vera talks about. Depending on what else is going on, we make adjustments to keep us on the line. For example, if Little Bear is finding life a bit tricky, we reduce the demands we make of him. We might feed him his tea or help him get dressed so that he can manage the rest of the demands of his day.

Giving him autonomy is tricky because he may still exploit it. If we say he is in charge of a task, he would then think he was in charge of that task forever. He might also think that ‘being in charge’ of something means he can speak to people involved in a very bossy way. It can be hard to give him manageable autonomy that doesn’t lead to a spiralling need for more control. It tends to help if we give autonomy with very clear parameters. As an aside, we have always felt it important to put him in challenging situations with a high likelihood of success e.g. helping Grizzly with a job involving power tools or going canoeing or helping with cooking. They are often situations he can’t believe he’s been let into and in which he rises to the challenge. Being able to succeed in these highly supported but risky activities has many benefits, one of which is feeding his need for control safely.

We have noticed that Little Bear’s control issues come to the fore when he is anxious, frequently in the car. He makes irrational demands such as ‘take over that car’ or ‘drive into that field’ or he tries to control the songs we have on or which windows are open. I increasingly wonder whether journeys scare him and throw him back to a place where chaos ruled. I suppose that as a child, being put into a car and taken somewhere is totally beyond your control, especially if that place is a contact centre or a new home. As I write this I think there is more we could do to calm him at these points (visuals of where we are going, though we always tell him verbally, perhaps a task to be in charge of) but I have to admit this is a time we are firmly in charge and don’t tolerate his spiralling demands.

Another big challenge has been getting school – a place that is institutionally controlling – to understand and manage Little Bear’s controlling behaviour appropriately. There have definitely been times when they haven’t listened and they have tried to use a very authoritarian approach which has backfired spectacularly. Earlier this term, I noticed that Little Bear’s behaviour was spiralling at home and school. He was less co-operative and getting him to comply with any requests was becoming a battle ground again. Sometimes, when you’ve had a good period, a period of relative compliance, a change can put you on the back foot and you forget for a while that you have much better strategies up your sleeve than the ones you are reflexively using. Guilty of slipping into traditional parenting ways, I tried to step back and think. Why was Little Bear seeking control left, right and centre again? There was only one logical explanation: he felt out of control somewhere in his life. Coupled with school refusal I could only assume that place was school.

I continued to speak with school but wondered whether there was anything that could be done at home to keep us on the line I talked about. Little Bear’s bedtime routine had become difficult again, with refusal to comply with each part of the now very familiar routine. To try to reduce the demands, I tried a visual timetable. I explained to him that as he finds us asking him to do things difficult, he could be in charge of the tick list and hence the whole of getting ready for bed. In theory, it would be possible for him to do all the stages without me making any verbal demands at all (i.e. autonomously). I should really have anticipated that his need for control is such that he would have to test the parameters of the new system, rather than just using it. So far, he has tried adding more boxes, demanding things that are not on the list, rubbing out all the ticks half way through, using crosses instead, refusing to give the list back and writing on himself with the felt pen. This is a good example of him seeing what the parameters are. Rather than ditching the timetable, I am trying to be very clear about what is and is not part of the timetable process. If he can’t manage to stick within it, I guess it will show me he isn’t ready for this level of autonomy. However, I think he is. The other night, he had a wee, washed his hands, brushed his teeth, put his night things on, added a box which was ‘put clothes in the washing basket’, actioned that box and got his reading book all without me speaking. I was there though – I don’t want him to think he gets less attention for being independent – and gave lots of praise at the end.

Similarly, in the mornings, I used to give out commands, one at a time, until the routine was done. It worked for a while but then we started falling at the final hurdle. We’d get to going out the door and Little Bear would refuse to put his shoes on. I’m not quite sure how it happened, but somehow Little Bear figured out (maybe with some help) that if he just did all the jobs that needed doing, one after the other, I wouldn’t need to ask him to do anything and he would get a longer period of uninterrupted I pad time (“the child does not lose when he complies with reasonable demands, instead everyone wins”). By some miracle he now does that and is fully ready, by 8:10am or so, teeth brushed, shoes on and can go on his iPad for 20 whole minutes without interruption.

At the moment, I make very few verbal demands of Little Bear at home but the expectations are the same. I’m still in charge but he has autonomy in how he meets the expectations. I suspect this could be the key to managing his need for control going forwards.

Right, sorry for that massive thought-vomit. Better out than in as they say. I’m off to ponder managing car journeys…

 

 

Control