IMG_9294Recently I have been learning to choose empathy… to stop hoping my children change, or grow out of bad habits… instead to accept them exactly as they are… accept the rudeness… the sulkiness… the aggression… the anger… not because I believe any of this is right… but because my relationship with them is more valuable than trying to change them… because I don’t want to spend my whole life trying to ‘improve their character’…

This can be hard to understand… as parents we have a responsibility to nurture and encourage our little people… to teach them how to make good choices… to help them discover their own sense of self… to become confident and adventurous… we need to show them when their behaviour isn’t ok and help them learn more helpful ways of coping in difficult situations- to use words to negotiate rather than hitting… to take deep breathes rather than responding in anger…

But what if your children have a lot of challenging behaviours… so many that to address them all would take up most of your day… how would it feel for them to be constantly given different ways of coping… to be relentlessly reminded that it is not ok to talk like that… to spend so much time having to face all the enormous feelings cascading out of them… it would be pretty exhausting… and probably leave them feeling totally inadequate- like everything they did was wrong… everything they said was wrong… in fact probably who they are is wrong. Not exactly the message you want to instil in those gorgeous little people entrusted to your care.

So this is the situation I find myself in… do I remind my daughter about the need to speak kindly every time she is rude even when it happens many many times every day… or do I ask her if she is ok, whether she needs a cuddle, empathise at the injustice of being asked to tidy up the pens even though her toddler sister was also playing with them and only tidied up a couple… or the frustration of being reminded to go to the toilet when you were busy reading a book… or the pain of not being able to have as many playdates as your sister as you find it overwhelming to have too much social interaction…

Do I get frustrated at my girls every time they have a fight because I am not in the room even though it happens every time I am not in the room… or do I find a way to be with them as much as possible… to temporarily separate them if I need to leave the room and empathise about how inconvenient that must be for them when they had just started a very important game together… or had both been desperate to practice some gym moves together…

As a family we face the injustice that situations beyond any of our control have lead us to a place where we have to have different ‘rules’ in place to what we would naturally choose… just as I regularly feel so annoyed that we have to have regular predictable meal times… restricted social times… limited family outings… unusual holidays and many other things… so too they feel and suffer those same frustrations as well as many others… and getting annoyed with them and wanting them to be different, wanting our family dynamic to be different isn’t helping anyone.

It’s far more about adjusting my expectations and choosing to love and accept my children and my family exactly as they are… even if what they are isn’t perfect… because its ok to not be perfect.

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img_2571Generally as parents we are told that we are enough for our children. That they love us more than we can imagine and we can meet all their needs. Parental guilt can make us feel otherwise, but the reality is, for almost every child their parent(s) are enough, usually more than enough. Most children feel, perhaps deep down, that their parents meet their needs and generally don’t even notice it happening. My toddler doesn’t doubt for a minute that if she needs something she will get it, she is very able to express what she wants and although she gets very frustrated when she can’t have it, I can gently calm her down and there is a part of her that knows that is ok to not always have everything she wants. She still feels calm and peaceful and lives her life free from fear.

In contrast, my older daughters rarely ask for anything, years of not having their needs met has taught them that what they want doesn’t matter, there is no point even mentioning it. In the unlikely event that they do ask for something they tend to phrase it in a very abrasive and confrontational way – generally phrases like ‘why can’t we have pudding?’ when I haven’t said we can t have pudding, or ‘why can’t I have heelys’ when they have never requested heelys in the past or ‘how come she gets a cup of tea’ when they haven’t asked for a cup of tea. It can feel like they are having a go at me. It’s important for me to stay focused on the reasons why they talk like this rather than responding in a way that reflects how this language may have triggered me.

As an aside I would say that being able to evaluate how things affect you is one of the most vitally essential skills of parenting adoptive (and in fact any) children, you must be able to reflect on how behaviours and words have triggered you and regulate your own internal state before responding to their actions otherwise you are going to parent reactively and end up in negative cycles.

I spend much of my life establishing a balance between trying to work out what they want so I can put into words what they cannot articulate-  ‘I am wondering whether you are feeling sad because your sister got a new dress and you would like one too’ and trying to help them to express their desires themselves ‘is there anything you want to say or ask right now?’ The girls tend to create a cloud of emotion around themselves when they have a big feeling, so generally such things cannot just be ignored as it affects the atmosphere in the house as well as their own internal state. I also need to be establishing the balance between helping them know what they want matters, whilst enabling them to realise that doesn’t mean they will get everything they want.

Its more than that though, it’s the sense that I get from them that I am trying to withhold stuff from them, that I am intentionally aiming not to give them the best. It’s the belief they have that their life is worse than anyone else’s and that’s my fault. It requires me to again remember where these core beliefs come from, to remember it’s not about them and it’s not about me, I can’t live my life trying to meet their insecurities. I need to love and accept them as they are and not put pressure on myself to be more than is physically possible. I need to be at peace with who I am, it’s not about whether or not they perceive me to be a good parent, it is about whether or not I AM a good parent- that’s not for them to decide!

Another challenge is that no matter how much 1-2-1 time or family time I spend with one of my girls it is never enough,  her ‘love tank’ is cracked and broken, no matter how much love and time I pour in she is still unsatisfied. It was so liberating when I realised I don’t have to fill her up, I am not enough and that’s ok. My responsibility is to be the best parent I can be, to continue to seek to learn to be a better parent, to love relentlessly and to seek to love her as fully and completely as I can.  I do love her and I will continue pouring myself out for her and praying for her healing but I will choose not to guilt trip myself for being unable to meet all her needs because  I do my best for her and that is all I can do and that is ok. I also need to shift my expectations of her and accept her as she is and accept that she will always want more and that’s ok too. Again I need to be at peace with who I am and who she is. We may never have a perfect relationship, I know that we are both doing the best we can and creating the best relationship that the two of us are able to have and that’s ok.

 

 

 

 

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So I haven’t written for a while…. its not from lack of trying…

First I tried to write about the sibling dynamic… but it was so hard to not overstep my daughters privacy. Then I found this article which explained it rather brilliantly http://www.attachment.org/the-potential-downside-of-adopting-siblings/ (so please do read it).

Then I tried to write about sacrifice…. but it was so hard to express what that looks like and how its different to the ‘average’ parent without sounding whiney or condescending.

Thats the thing… Most of what being an adoptive parent looks like is just like what being a regular parent looks like… but on steroids…. your kid also chews things… ok… are they 9….? do they need to wear a chewy necklace all the time to protect their clothes and hands…? are all their bedclothes chewed to pieces…? are their finger and toenails chewed down way beyond the white bit so they bleed intermittently…?  Is this just one of a myriad of intense behaviours…? No? Not quite the same…

Your child is scared of dogs too… ok… are they 8?9?10? do they freeze as they walk into a park and do a scan of the entire area for any movement…? do they refuse to let go of your hand if their is a dog 500 yards away…? Do they hide behind you, clinging on to your clothes, using you as a shield as you feel the terror creeping off them and into your skin…? Do they scream at the top of their lungs and climb up you if a dog tries to sniff them…? Are they unable to cycle along cycle paths because they fall off their bikes when they see a dog and can no longer concentrate on what they are doing…? Are they sometimes unable to leave the house because they are so consumed with their fear…? Is this just one of a myriad of intense behaviours…? No? Not quite the same…

This brings me nicely to this weeks topic… Fear.

I had no idea how intense and all consuming fear can be.

It is literally like having a huge, heavy lump of steal strapped around your body.

All. The. Time.

Fear is probably the most limiting thing for my daughters, it affects every aspect of their life.

Due to previous trauma, fear has dominated most of their early life, this fear has been internalised and become a part of their core sense of self, their amygdala is enlarged and brain has literally developed in such a way so that their sensitivity to anything that could be perceived as a threat is incredibly heightened. As a result they live out of a place of fear.

Both my girls are incredibly good at singing, dancing and acting. They would love to perform and would be amazing at it. I wish they could. They wish they could.

The reality is its just too much… being in front of so many people… being watched… they might make a mistake… people might be thinking mean things… I am so far away from them… I might have forgotten about them… someone else might make a mistake and they wouldn’t know when they needed to do their bit… something huge might go wrong… there might be a fire… a lion might come on stage and eat them…the list goes on… their fear will drive them to hurt themselves… to sabotage the opportunities… to live in a state of panic for weeks before and afterwards as they contemplate any tiny thing that could go wrong.

We are limited in going out as new places and new experiences are overwhelming… there is so much potential of things that could go wrong… there might be a dog in the woods… a spider in the toilet… a strange looking man at the cafe… they might get lost… I might forget to give them food… we might get stuck in traffic… we might be late… it might be closed… we might not be back in time for tea… I might leave them there… there might be something there that they desperately want to do but are too scared of doing… they might not like it… Again the list goes on.

Life at home is also really intense… 4 years on the girls still doubt I will remember to give them 3 meals, 2 snacks and bedtime milk everyday (as we have for the last 4 years without fail)… they will get anxious and agitated as meal/snack times get close and will become very distressed if they are later than the prescribed times.

They worry that I will forget arranged activities… to get them ready for school or clubs… that I will forget how to get to those places… that I will forget to do things that I have told them I will do (e.g. after tea I will play a board game with you) and their behaviour will be distressed and agitated until the event has happened.

They worry that I will stop loving them or that I will only love one of my children… they worry that there is not enough love to go around. (I would like to say at this point that I spend significant amounts of 1-2-1 time with each child every week and even each day, reassure them regularly that this is not the case and parent each of them therapeutically and lovingly…. as our parenting support worker says- they are like bottomless vases, no amount of love will feel like enough for them).

They worry about making mistakes… that I will stop loving them if they make a mistake… ask them to leave if they make a mistake… they worry that this house… and this family… like the others… will come to an end and one day they will have to leave.

We can’t watch movies above a ‘U’ rating because they are too scary… ‘Finding Nemo’ is too scary.. ‘Wreck it Ralph’ is too scary… ‘Frozen’ is waaaay beyond their capacity… I can’t take them to the cinema without scrutinising IMBD first and showing them every possible trailer and clip to calm their nerves… They choose toddler rides at fairgrounds rather than rollercoasters or merry-go-rounds… they find it so hard to play at all… they set up scenes but the characters don’t interact… if they are by themselves they just wander around aimlessly… they need to be in the same room as me pretty much all the time… if they are away from me for more than about ten minutes they start getting agitated…

These fears are so real to them, they define them in so many ways and limit them. It is heartbreaking.

It also has a knock on affect on the rest of the home… a very real example is our cat has had to been on anti- anxiety meds in the past and is incredibly skittish and anxious… one girl particularly will give the cat her anxious feelings… jumping out at it when overwhelmed or stroking it in a jerky and jolted way when trying to be friendly.

It is hard to live with someone struggling with such high levels of anxiety without it affecting you, humans are designed to share emotions and empathise. The girls are desperate to share their feelings with us as parents. We need to be able to take them, make them smaller and pass the feelings back to the girls in a manageable way so that they can process them.

The reality is a lot harder. The feelings of fear are enormous. At times overwhelming even for us. There are times when we just want to yell at them to shut up, or tell them to stop being so ridiculous. It can be incomprehensibly frustrating to say the least. The temptation to get angry or belittle the feeling is strong.

We need to be alert and receptive, reflective as to where the feelings are coming from … I am feeling anxious that we are running late… Is this actually my feeling…? Am I worried about being late…? Will it matter if we arrive at a friends house ten minutes late?… No. I don’t mind… So where is this feeling coming from…?  From there I can then notice who is feeling anxious and help them to process and articulate their feeling.

Sometimes it is far less obvious… a gradual increasing sense of anxiety about something I cannot express… it can take a lot of reflection and thought to catch the feeling and process it and then to try and be with a child who is unable to determine what or where the feeling is.

It is incredibly intense and it can make you feel very trapped so you need to find good ways to deal with this.

The strategies I have found most effective for keeping anxiety levels to a minimum are:

  • Know what situations cause increased anxiety for your children and avoid doing them where possible. Instead find fun things to do that are manageable. A day spent baking and painting is often more peaceful and enjoyable than a trip to a wildlife park. Don’t feel guilty that you aren’t offering your children all the wholesome extra curricular activities and idyllic family days out you hoped you would.
  • Be aware that certain seasons (Christmas/birthdays/returning to school) carry increased anxiety levels and plan in advance to keep these times as low key and calm as possible.
  • Keep sensory input to a minimum especially during times of increased anxiety (eg. don’t have TV/radio on while playing, limit visits from friends/family, don’t change the way your house/laundry smells)
  • Make sure family/friends understand a little about what you are facing and can support and uphold your decisions
  • Help your children articulate their anxiety by noticing behaviours that signify anxiety and turning them into words ‘I have noticed that you are spinning around a lot at the moment and I am wondering if you are feeling anxious… do you know why you are feeling anxious… I am wondering if it might be to do with your netball lesson later…?’ etc give them space to talk as much or as little as they want
  • Have strategies that work for them to help them deal with anxiety in different situations, you may need to remind them to use these… singing… reading a book… finding a calm space… praying… dancing… moving… breathing… cuddling… talking to someone… counting… drawing… writing… bouncing.. etc
  • Prioritise helping your child gain an internal sense of safety. For an adoptive child this will primarily be achieved by spending a huge amount of time with you at home doing gentle and nurturing activities such as reading, face painting, hand massages, building lego, singing, baking and colouring. I highly recommend researching Theraplay.
  • Be really mindful of your own internal state and seek therapy or counselling where possible, at the very least make sure you have a partner or close friend you can discuss this with.
  • Make sure you are regularly doing things you enjoy without your children to give your head some space!

With hard work and persistence, fear does decrease. It is so beautiful, so liberating, to watch my girls do things that before would have been unachievable. To be able to acknowledge and overcome their fear. To choose to be stronger than their fears. From small things like being able to squash a spider instead of running screaming from it, feeling relaxed enough to wait until your friends arrive before eating tea, being able to actually go to a bonfire night celebration despite the darkness and noise to bigger things like finally finishing an ongoing project and being proud of the result despite the fact it wasn’t totally perfect or exactly how you wanted it, being able to spend the night at a grandparents house without me being there, feeling secure enough at home to be able to enjoy spending three days a week at school. My children may always live with fear but my hope is that we can give them an internal strength strong enough to overcome it and live their lives to the full.

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I would have loved to have known beforehand how dependent we would be on others… they say it takes a village to raise a child… they are totally right… as a very independent, problem solving, just getting on with it sort of person it has been a gradual revelation that not only is it ok to need others… its kind of essential…in many ways they carry us as a family and allow us to do all the things we do… its hard for me to ask for help but I am learning that it is ok. I genuinely believe it is almost impossible for an adoptive family to survive the pressures they face without the help of others around them.

Over the years as I have realised the value of community I have worked hard to build a community around us where the children can grow and thrive and where we as parents can feel supported and encouraged. I would like to share some of the moments and situations when our community has been invaluable in the hope that it will help you to understand what you might need from those around you and help you to bring together a ‘village’ around your family. If you know an adoptive family it may inspire you with some ideas of how to help them.

In no particular order here are some examples:

Relationships with other adoptive parents who totally ‘get it’ and who can relate to behaviours, problems and everything else and who are on your wavelength. (Its also great for my girls to have other adoptive friends who sometimes find life a little hard so they don’t feel isolated and different)

Our church arranging for people to cook us meals every night for two weeks after the girls arrived, also when we moved house and when the baby was born.

A good friend and neighbour coming over with no notice and sleeping overnight in our house to look after the girls when I got really ill two weeks after the baby was born and had to spend all night in hospital and my husband had to stay in hospital too to look after the newborn baby and keep her near me to feed and feel safe.

My parents coming up for a few days every month since the girls arrived and giving me some time off, cooking meals, knitting with the girls, baking with the girls, babysitting so I can go out with my husband, taking the girls to the park and bringing lots of chocolate.

Going round to friends houses once the kids are in bed and just hanging out and being with grown ups.

Online support groups with parents who have children with similar issues who you can offload to, be inspired by, laugh with and be overwhelmed with. So much camaraderie can be found with these groups of relative strangers, for example they understood me when:

‘Today my 9 yo dropped her socks in the toilet ‘it was an accident’ she tells me. I have been going to the toilet for over 30 years and I have never accidentally dropped my socks in. This is the story of my life.’

So many generous people passing down an abundance of things: beautiful clothes for the girls , a slow cooker,  various furniture items, lovely toys and everything we could need for a newborn baby.

Our new nanny who is calm and patient with the girls as well as being clear and embracing our families routines and ways of doing things even when they are different to what she is used to. For babysitting every week so we can get regular time out together.

Having friends who understand and love my girls and whose children like playing with my girls so we can go and play at their houses.

Our church as a whole being so aware of trauma and how it affects children and being very keen to accommodate our girls needs as far as they can.

My parents being brave enough to have one of my girls for an independent overnight visit at their house and being willing to do this again more regularly.

Children who are kind and compassionate and who love playing with my girls even when they are a bit wobbly.

My husbands sister and her family who go out of their way to accommodate us and our parenting style when we visit even when its very different to ours, who understand the girls need for structure and predictability and make a timetable of gentle activities for when we are there even though thats totally different from what they normally do.

Our families in general being so accepting of adoption and our girls arrival.

A carefully chosen group of people who are regularly praying for my girls and who are committed to them for the long term, who are investing time and energy in connecting with the girls and building up relationship with them so that when the girls reach their teenage years they have other adults who they can trust who they can turn to if things are hard with us as parents.

Having a lady who really cares for my older girl looking after her once a week for a while and giving her lots of time and attention – painting her nails, playing in the paddling pool, doing craft and many other things.

A brilliant nanny we had on placement for a while who was just brilliant with the girls, so kind and playful and accepting of their needs.

My mother in laws consistent gentle kindness with both girls and who is keen to see them regularly.

My sister who actively reads as much as she can to understand the girls and how to support them, who visits regularly and has actively built up a strong loving relationship with the girls whilst at the same time prioritising trusting us and seeking to support us in our parenting.

Some friends being kind enough to have both my girls for a sleepover so we could attend some training in London

Having people who understand about adopted children and who have put time and effort into reading books and doing training and listening to what my husband and I say about our girls so that they are able to really support us and them.

My family being humble enough to accept and adapt to our parenting style and support us in what we are doing.

Being able to call or speak to people when I have run out of myself or when the kids have driven me crazy, like the time when, after a tough day, in the middle of a city in the car one of my girls started screaming at the top of her voice, I panicked, swerved and fortunately safely pulled over to see what terrible thing had happened… there was a spider the size of a full stop within her line of sight (but no where near her) inside the car. I was a little shaken up and called a friend to offload my fury…

A huge community around us who genuinely love the girls just as they are and are very tolerant and patient when behaviour is not ‘perfect.’

Knowing that the ‘teacher’ at my daughters ‘school’ genuinely cares about her and is actively seeking to support and nurture her in a way that honours my relationship with her and allows her to flourish and thrive in the school setting.

My family covering a lot of the cost of going on holiday and coming with us and being flexible to keep going back to the same venue year after year so that my children can cope and enjoy themselves and so that we can relax and have a break ourselves.

A friend taking the girls at very short notice despite them being very dysregulated and looking after them all afternoon despite some fairly crazy behaviour while I dealt with a minor crisis.

Countless friends and family looking after various of my children at various times to allow us to go to meetings and have much needed time off.

In summary try and bring around yourself a community where you have people you can have fun with to unwind after all the intensity of the day… some people who can support you emotionally, who don’t offer solutions but can be empathetic… some people who are willing to look after your children for short and long periods of time and friends for your children who are compassionate and kind and understanding of difference. Try and get quite a big group of people involved, share the load, it does tend to be quite an intense one. If possible try and encourage all your friends to do a little reading or research into attachment and childhood trauma – maybe recommend a book or some articles, I strongly suggest you only allow friends with some understanding of adoption to look after your children as behaviour can be a bit complicated- too much to cover in this post… I would also strongly suggest finding a small group of highly committed adults and children who you really trust who you ask to invest in your children for the long term who can provide nurturing and loving relationships during those teenage years when children will be finding their own identities and potentially pushing away from their parents.

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Babies brains are amazing… they are born only partially developed… between birth and three years old they are forming hundreds of new neuronal connections every second… they are shaped by their environment and relationships… they are learning so much, particularly about managing emotions and relating to others. A baby is constantly watching, taking in new information and learning about how the world around them works so that they can create an accurate ‘map’ of how the world functions and what their place in that is.

I cannot express to you how frustrated I feel when people say things like ‘Oh they are so little they wont remember’ when their baby has a major operation or experiences loss of a sibling or even something smaller like a house move or a parent being absent for a week. Babies do not have a cognitive memory but they do store these memories in an unconscious preverbal part of themselves and it does affect them. They need to be helped to process these significant events just as a child or adult would, even if they occurred very early in their lives (and its never too late to do this- even in adulthood we can process what happened to us as babies).

So what about a baby who has an experienced an immensely significant event… who was removed from their biological parents at birth… placed with a foster carer (even an incredibly loving one)… then passed over to their new family at 6 months… that baby’s early life experience has been characterised by loss…their understanding of relating to others will be very confused… different people will have taught them different things… the foster carer may have had a strict routine for feeds and sleep and their new parents may do it in a more relaxed way… their foster carers may have picked them up and cuddled them with they cried whereas their new parents may try giving them milk… their understanding of how to manage their emotions will be jumbled up… they will take a long long time to learn permanence… commitment… to feel safe and secure with a new family… they may be extra tearful… hard to settle… confused and disorientated… they may be stiff and refuse cuddles or behave much younger than they really are… I recommend wearing that baby 24/7 or as close to that as possible for as long as possible… I suggest co-sleeping and keeping that baby as physically close as you are capable… be compassionate and empathetic towards how they might be feeling and help them to understand it as best as their tiny self can.

So what then about the child who wasn’t removed at birth and rather spent those first few formative years in a home where they witnessed and experienced horrendous domestic violence… where food was rarely available… where they cried and cried and no one came… what are those babies learning… what do their ‘maps’ of the world look like?

When your children already older than 2 or 3 years arrive you need to know that they will already have a very clear map of the world… It will be ingrained on every part of their being… and it will be totally incompatible with what their new world looks like.

I once heard of a game where you take a map of London and then go and visit Hong Kong. You then use your London map to work out where you are (Eg. opposite the library) and decide where you want to go (eg. the Hilton Hotel) and then follow the directions from the map (eg take the third left, then the second right and then walk straight for two miles) and see what happens… Pretty sure you would end up totally lost… its a bit like that. Your child has a map of London and they have just been placed in your Hong Kong home.

Alternatively imagine a fairly well balanced kid you know (a friend or a neighbours kid perhaps)… then imagine not telling them but popping them on a plane then in a taxi and leaving them with a family in the middle of rural India… Suddenly nothing makes sense… they don’t understand the language… the food is so different… the music… the expectations… just everything… and they have no idea why they are here or how long they will be here for… it would be completely terrifying for them… Its also a bit like that.

So this new child has this map… this map with motorways that say ‘you are not important’…. ‘you wont get fed today’… ‘you may get beaten later’… ‘your caregiver is incredibly dangerous but also essential’… ‘change is life threatening’… ‘cuddles are terrifying and confusing’… ‘if you want to eat you must steal’… ‘pain is a constant and needs to be ignored’… and so many other things… so these motorways are their default thought patterns… the motorways are where they live… where they drive… (this is actually fairly scientifically accurate as when a new neural pathway forms if it is used regularly it will be myelinated which makes the speed messages travel along it faster and means it is even more likely to be regularly used.)

Then you come along and lovingly say things like ‘oh you look pretty in that dress,’ or ‘come and have a cuddle’… you provide delicious meals and lots of snacks… you arrange lots of lovely activities and events… you move the furniture in the lounge so their is more space for toys… you invite an old friend who they have never met to tea…

And then they scream… they kick… they bite… they smear faeces… they bite themselves… they refuse to leave their room… they retreat into themselves.. they hurt the pet… they smash their toys… and you are left totally confused… what on earth just happened?!

You need to help them rewire their brains, you need to help cut new roads… you need to get out your machete (figuratively), get alongside them, and bash through the deep undergrowth and create a new path… ‘you matter here, your feelings are important’… then the next day you need to take that machete again and bash it down again… and the next day… and the next… and by the second month there will be a hidden footpath for you to walk down… and by the next year there will be a narrow dirt track… and if you persist on walking the path together and if you don’t give up… then maybe 3 years later it will be a little road that they can drive down… and 10 years later maybe it will be a motorway that they choose to use instead of the old motorway which is now a disused and weathered… it really does take that long and it really is that hard… although a child’s brain retains a level of plasticity, rewiring a child’s brain takes a lot longer than wiring a babies brain… there is also another boom of plasticity during early adolescence, unfortunately this is a time when children are often beginning to rebel against their parents… as a result I strongly suggest building up a network of children and adults around your child who you trust who can influence them at this vital time (I will cover community more thoroughly in another blog)

That moment when your child chooses to take the path you showed them without needing to hold your hand is incomprehensibly precious.

Sometimes it doesn’t take so long… I remember saying to one of my girls ‘here we love you even when you are naughty’ (not a word we use but it was one she understood from the past) during the visits with us when she was still living in foster care… She looked at me in total shock… The next day she was a bit of a pickle and then cautiously said ‘but here you love me even when I am naughty’ she was uncertain… she was testing… but there was a sparkle of hope in her eyes… that jungle became a narrow road within a month…

Its not always that ‘easy’… one of my girls is totally terrified of making mistakes… 4 years down the line we still have to get out that machete and cut a path every time she makes one… the journey has been made particularly difficult as I too struggle to make mistakes so I am not role modelling this in a positive way and I too am cutting down my own new path… role modelling using the right paths is one of the fastest ways to strengthen them… currently I am very grateful for my daughters ‘school’ where she has made more process in the past year in this area than the three years previously…

I think this was (and is) one of the biggest challenges for me as a parent… when I adopted I thought that with therapeutic parenting… with love… in a safe and nurturing home… the girls would feel safe and would become more ‘idealised’ within a few years and we would function as an idyllic family… time has told that this is not the reality… the safer they feel the more tricky behaviours and big feelings come out (thats a separate blog)… rewiring brains is a long and intense process… its a long term commitment… there is a lot of tricky behaviour for a long time… new big feelings pop up on a regular basis… it takes a long long time to for the narrow country tracks to become wide enough to be the path of choice… it takes a long time for the children to adjust to a totally different world… a different culture… just as many people who have grown up in one country and moved to another have a part of them tied to that birth country… so too your child will still have strong ties to their birth culture and all its dysfunction years after they move in with you…

So in conclusion… much of your parenting journey will be spent teaching your child where the safe paths are… cutting down the jungle that is currently blocking them… walking with them along them and teaching them how to keep walking in them so that hopefully there will be a time when they can choose themselves the right paths…

Strongly recommended reading:

Why Love Matters: How Affection Shapes a Baby’s Brain

Sue Gerhardt

ISBN: 978-0415870535

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I started writing a blog on things it would have been so helpful to deeply understand before I adopted as I found the 4 day mandatory training provided by the council to be similar to attending reception class for a week and then being given a traumatised child is like sitting  a degree level exam paper…  turns out I had a lot to say and every paragraph needed its own blog… so here goes… a blog series begins… I am hoping to release one post a week until I am done… lets see what happens.

A little warning that this series will be intense… raw… challenging… painful… it is brutally honest and is designed to equip potential adopters with the kind of understanding they will need in order to be the best possible adoptive parents that they can be.

When you welcome a child who you did not carry in your own womb into your home you need to realise that they will need more support than an ‘average’ child (if such a child exists, in fact as I do not believe they do, I shall refer to such a child as the ‘idealised child’ – the fantasy child of which all parents dream and who exists only in our imaginations). The degree of additional time and care that your child will need will depend on so many factors… age at adoption… experiences in the womb… time spent with their biological family… experiences in their biological family… time spent in foster care… experiences in foster care (the good times and the bad ones)… the presence of a caring and stable adult at any point in their life… number of foster care placements… prenatal drug exposure… prenatal alcohol exposure (this is a big one, please research FASD, many many adopted children have it and it is rarely diagnosed so you may not know your child has it until they have been with you for a while)… the presence of any other additional needs/genetic disorders… biological parental mental health… to name but a few.

Every one of these factors will have a significant impact on your new child and as a result it is worth pushing for as much information as possible into each of these areas during the matching process. Do not underestimate how much these things will affect your child even if it is not evident in their foster care placement or when you see that first photo of their gorgeous little face!

I cannot emphasise how different adoption is from birthing a child… there is not a huge all encompassing sense of love and deep connection that binds you together in an intimacy beyond anything you have ever experienced before when you adopt (in fairness many biological parents do not experience this as well). If you choose to adopt you need to mourn that loss deeply now, before the matching process begins, you need to process the disappointment and sadness or it will cause heartache and division between you and your children. They cannot meet your needs because no one met theirs when they most needed it, they do not understand how to connect, they do not have the innate desire for intimacy that a biological newborn does. Their ability to form relationships is fractured and dis-coordinated, they will trigger any weakness in you and test you to your core (I will explore that reality in more depth in a future post).

Adoption is more like a marriage. Its a choice. A decision to commit. Even when things are tough… even when they are driving you up the wall… even when you are holding on by the thinnest thread… even when they have driven you to insanity… you will not give up… love is not just a feeling… it is a commitment…  and it is a sacrifice.

My girls are teaching me what love is on a whole new level, there are so many different types of love… the love I have for them is fierce and relentless… it fights and stands its ground… it is kind and accepting… it is a love that is willing to learn and grow… a love that is not satisfied with how things are but desires more depth… more intimacy because it knows that is what is needed… it is a love that requires hard work and persistence… a love that is a decision and at times a battle… It is a love that never gives up.

And so… you need to do your research, to find out how adopted children tick… how trauma affects brain development… what attachment really means and what a child who struggles with attachment really looks like… you need to talk to other adoptive parents… read books… watch documentaries… ask questions… you truly need to realise this is not the same as giving birth and having a biological child and prepare yourself accordingly!

These are a list of books that I consider to be essential reading prior to adoption – I have not put links as I would love you to support local businesses and order them from your local bookstore rather than via amazon where possible.

Principles of Attachment Focused Parenting: Effective Strategies to Care for Children

Dan Hughes

ISBN: 978-0393705553

Building the Bonds of Attachment: Awakening Love in Deeply Troubled Children

Dan Hughes

ISBN: 978-0765704047

From Fear to Love: Parenting Difficult Adopted Children

Bryan Post

ISBN: 978-0984080120

The Simple Guide to Child Trauma 

Betsy de Thierry

ISBN: 978-1785921360

Not an adoption/trauma focused book but an excellent parenting book:

How to Talk so Kids will Listen and Listen so Kids will Talk

Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish

ISBN: 978-1848123090

An excellent simple guide to Foetal Alcohol exposure and its effects

Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder: Parenting a Child with an Invisible Disability

Julia Brown

ISBN: 978-1500851880

img_4883_2When our family was first formed our girls were 5 and 6, as a result we got two weeks at home with them before we had to send them off to school, 7 hours a day, 5 days a week.

I cannot begin to express to you how disruptive this was for them, to be suddenly in a whole new family with whole new rules, new smells, new foods, new people, far away from anyone they knew or loved, totally confused about why they were here, how long they would be here for, how they were going to be treated, what on earth life was going to look like from here on in. Then to be given two weeks to adjust to this new family and then to be put back into school.

School, with its overwhelming abundance of colours, smells, noises, complex social interactions to navigate, behavioural expectations to conform to (different from those you are trying to adjust to in your new home), routines to adjust to and a syllabus to try and keep up with. Are you feeling overwhelmed yet? Your feelings aren’t even close to what is going on in that highly traumatised, confused and fragile little persons brain.

John Bowlby himself emphasises the need for a secure base from which to explore the world – how can a disrupted, traumatised and confused child who has known their new attachment figure only two weeks be thought to have a ‘secure base’?

Maslow outlines in his hierarchy of needs that the basic needs should be met before the higher level needs can be addressed, depending on their past experiences  a newly adopted child may not even yet know their most basic needs such as being fed and being kept safe from harm, will be met in their new home so their ability to form relationships or engage in academia will be incredibly restricted.

Moreover, children (and adults) who are in a state of fear are functioning from their brain stem, the primitive part of the brain, concerned only with survival, such children are not able to make rational decisions, think logically or respond appropriately in social situations and thus putting them in a school environment is putting them in a situation where they are set up to fail, only once we feel safe, loved and nurtured can we move to the pre frontal cortex and start learning.

We kept them in school for almost a year, their teachers were really supportive, nurturing and encouraging, their peers were accepting and accommodating, we couldn’t really have asked for a better school environment.

Yet they still weren’t coping, every day I went to collect our eldest I was gently informed of her climbing on the furniture, eating other children’s lunches, sneakily having a school dinner as well as her packed lunch, finding it almost impossible to wait her turn for any teacher attention, hiding in the toilets to cut her hair, being unable to engage in circle time, running into others classrooms, using the monkey bars obsessively until her hands bled and other kids weren’t getting a turn, having physical fights with her peers, it was very clear she was not happy.

My youngest, who is more compliant and naturally social was keeping herself to herself, always doing the least she possibly could, not really participating in the community dynamic and doing whatever she was told by friends or teachers whether she wanted to or not.

They would be dysregulated and grumpy every day after school and confused and disorientated when the routine changed at the weekends. It felt like we got the leftovers of them and we were giving the best part of them to school.

I tried going into the school one day a week and spending a morning in one class and an afternoon in the other, it was enlightening to see them in this settling and just so evident how much my presence in the space meant to them (it also showed me how i could easily teach them in a focused hour everything they learnt in school in a day).

For me the final straw was when my oldest climbed over the school fence and ran down the road to try and get home as she just wasn’t coping. I took her out first and within a month I realised how amazing being at home was and asked my youngest if she wanted to come out too, she did. Things have never been the same.

There are so many brilliant things about home education. I get to be at home 24/7 with my girls, I can gauge the day on their emotional state, if they are behaving like babies and needing to be nurtured we can read stories, cuddle, sing, play games, have massages and have lots of therapeutic time. If they are bouncing off the walls we can go into the woods, build fires, swing, spin, find mushrooms, paddle in streams, pick fruit, catch minnows, walk through fields, swim outdoors, dance, enjoy the seasons, see friends, we can do this together, be together. If they are driving me up the wall we can watch documentaries, go to friends houses, play learning games on their ipads or find quiet activities to do separately. If they are feeling a bit poorly we can play lego, play board games, talk about the world. If they are feeling relaxed we can go to the library, make anatomically correct eyes out of satsumas and icing, build volcanoes, launch rockets, pretend to be tudors and go to museums. We grow and learn and explore the world together, all the time I am there, their primary attachment figure, to guide them through struggles, help them understand complicated situations, assist them with relationships, show them that we are a family, we are in this together. It is amazing.

Its easy to paint a rose tinted perspective as my overall opinion and experience of home education is that it has revolutionised my family life and enabled me to gain a far deeper connection with my daughters and myself, however, it is of course not that straightforward. There is no where to escape when the builders are in and making so much noise and you have the kids at home with you all day, you need to put aside any dreams of a spotless house (although make sure they help with age appropriate housework), there is no break when you are feeling really sick and can’t crawl out of bed, there is no compassionate leave when you have a family bereavement, it is 24/7 and it is relentless, but that is family, that is life, it is only a season, their brains are only young and plastic for a short time so take a deep breath, make a plan, savour the beautiful moments and remember this too shall pass (which is a good and bad thing!).

This is real life, the girls are living it with us and as a result they are learning skills they actually need to navigate the real world, how to tell the time, how to use money, how to cope when things go wrong, how to use the washing machine, how to look after younger children, what to do when there are builders in the house and how to structure time in order to deal with the varying demands of the day.

We get to do loads of the things that really matter for their future and less of the stuff that they are unlikely to need, their ‘syllabus’ is uniquely tailored to them. Both of my girls have as yet undiagnosed (our choice) additional needs linked to foetal alcohol exposure and acute anxiety, as a result they are unlikely to be ‘doctors and laywers.’

My eldest loves to cook so we can concentrate our efforts on teaching her about food, what is healthy, how to cook and bake, how to shop for food. My youngest is undecided, she loves to jump and climb, we are nurturing whatever we see in her and giving her space to explore what she her interests and develop her sense of self. I believe if they were at school a lot of their time and emotional and mental energy would be wasted trying to learn things they may struggle to ever grasp. Both my girls are kinaesthetic learners, they need to move to learn, to experience things, to see the relevance and learn in context, in our community environment more than anywhere else I can provide these opportunities.

We parent therapeutically and having the girls at home allows so much space for gentle, consistent nurturing. After 3.5 years with us they are still consumed with anxiety, I cannot imagine what their hearts would look like if they had been at school all that time. I am aware that so many children shut down and go inside themselves because its the only way they can navigate the complex world around them, my children are opening up more and more every day, understanding their own needs, noticing their body cues and being aware of their emotions. They know what things they can’t cope with and choose not to watch certain films or go to certain places because they know they would find them too overwhelming.

The main argument I hear against home education is that the children aren’t ‘socialised enough’ – I find this laughable as the plethora of activities that are available to home educated children on any given day means that I would never need to spend time at home if I didn’t want to, there are so many opportunities to be with other children.

I believe that the groups available to home educated children represent society in so many ways and they cover a huge range of different activities from purely social meet ups to forest schools to sports clubs and art sessions. In these spaces children play with others of all ages, backgrounds and beliefs, my eldest daughter who is young for her age can play with five year olds in an age appropriate and sociable way which frees her to develop her social skills at her own pace rather than being in a class of similar aged children who she would struggle to interact with.

My youngest is a social butterfly who forms strong friendships with children with similar interests irrespective of age or gender and is welcoming and inclusive in her play. Being at the social events with my children means I can keep an eye on them and, without interfering at the time (unless absolutely necessary), reflect with them afterwards on things that were tricky and help them come up with solutions for similar situations in the future as well as noticing where they have been kind or dealt well with difficult situations.

We have learnt through experience that it is important not to do too much and to choose priorities wisely. Things that have worked really well for us include forest school, fun science lessons and free swim sessions. We also prioritise playing musical instruments (violin and piano), a hobby each (gym and dance), and the ability to swim. Our girls have a selection of close friends who we ensure they see regularly.

I don’t want to say too much about our particular way of doing home educating as I think its essential that you make it work for your family, every home educator has their own way of doing things, its all about finding the pace and style that works for you. Whether thats lots of table work, following a syllabus, spending your time out in the countryside, doing projects, following your child’s interests or something totally different, relax into it and don’t put too much pressure on yourself or your kids- part of the journey is working it out with your child.

Be kind to yourself, you will get it wrong, you will have off days, off weeks and sometimes off months, thats ok- how you treat yourself will teach your kids how to treat themselves. Something that helped me was just to write a few sentences each day about what the kids had learnt – anything from how to recognise coins to how to work with friends to build a ‘zip wire’ -this enables me to notice how much they learn each day and acknowledge them and myself! I also think it helps to write something you are pleased with yourself for the day but thats a whole different subject!

We started noticing the difference in our children within weeks of home educating (and I have observed similar changes in the children of friends who have made the same choices), and after three years they became more relaxed, more curious, more open, they understand themselves better, they have better relationships with other adults and children, they are able to communicate more effectively, are more aware of their internal state and more capable of regulating it, they feel safer inside themselves and are developing a truer sense of independence (rather than the controlling avoidance of adult authority they had before). Although much of this may have been achieved anyway in a loving and therapeutic home I believe removing them from school has amplified this process exponentially.

As a result after three years and much progress we sought out part time alternative schooling options as a kind of ‘nursery’ experience of learning to function away from their primary attachment figure. We have been hugely fortunate in the spaces we have found; my eldest daughter was approved for an educational health care plan and after a visit from an educational psychologist has acquired a place for two days a week at an outstanding local school for children with additional needs. She started a few months ago and is really flourishing there, she is building good friendships, learning to navigate staying regulated while away from me and loves to engage with all the different subjects.

My younger daughter who is really active has a place three days a week at a fantastic outdoor education setting three days a week where emotional literacy and learning how to learn are the priorities, she is also excelling in that environment.

So both girls are now in alternative placements for a few days a week, at a time when they were ready to go in to them, thus allowing them to flourish as they have not been pushed. The places have been carefully chosen looking at the individual learning and emotional needs of two little girls who I barely knew when I had to choose their initial school so could not possibly have known exactly what would have been right.

Our journey of home education has taught me so much as well: forced me to read countless books on how to parent children who didn’t behave in neurotypical ways, how to be therapeutic while still being a Mummy, how to communicate without controlling and how to discipline without using consequences. I have had to battle my own demons, apply what I am teaching them to myself and learn to listen to my own needs. My perspective on education has changed dramatically, I now see it as a journey the whole family is on, we are learning together, exploring the world together, discovering new things together – I learn as much as they do as we explore our passions and interests, it has strengthened our bond as a family, despite the fact they now spend some days at school, I still see their education as something that primarily happens within the family unit. it is certainly not the easy option, but in all honesty, if you have chosen to adopt, you haven’t chosen the easy option and i believe this will allow for the best possible futures for my daughters, it comes at a sacrifice but it is a sacrifice I am willing to make.

This brings me nicely to an absolutely essential point: DO NOT start home educating unless you can get definite regular consistent time off for yourself, home educating is incredible and exhausting, it can take all of you. It is vital that you have time to relax, do something you enjoy, be away (yes actually away) from your children. Find someone who can look after them at least one day a week, a childminder, a nanny, a friend, a relative (you may be entitled to help with childcare costs from the government) and make sure you spend that time doing something lovely (NOT tidying, planning or just sleeping- though a bit of that is fine!) doing an art course at a local university, drinking tea with friends, playing an instrument, exploring the countryside, going to the gym, writing poetry- whatever it is you love to do, do it. This is fundamental, it will refresh you and give you the energy you need to keep going, it is also really important for your kids to have some time away from you as their primary attachment relationship is also overwhelming for them (no matter how badly they behave away from you- I have been there too, persevere, communicate with them, explain why you are doing it and try and make sure they are doing something they enjoy too).

We have been very fortunate as the myriad of professionals involved in our family at this time have all been very supportive of home education although I am uncertain as to the thoughts of our matching social worker. As social workers and professionals, what are your fears about allowing families to home educate? I would be really interested to hear them in the comments and will respond to any thoughts I hear.

I would also love to hear any comments about your personal experiences home educating adopted children – what worked for you- what are your key tips?