Lessons with Sally Donovan

SD Unofficial guideOn September 15th we hosted a workshop with Sally Donovan in collaboration with North London Fostering and Adoption Consortium. It focused on therapeutic parenting as seen through the eyes of an adoptive mother. The workshop was based on Sally’s upcoming book ‘The Unofficial Guide to Adoptive Pareting’. These were gentle but penetrating words of experience, of lessons that were hard earned. Of wisdom, in my eyes.

Sally gently criticised much of the adoption training as either setting out the theory and science but not delivering answers or simply setting the bar too high. Her workshop and book come with another label altogether: ‘Warning: contains real life!’

Especially the first half of the day welled up deep emotions in many of the participants. The session focussed on us as parents, on our engrained and often inherited beliefs and values that we are bound to repeat if we remain unreflected about our own childhood. Sally underscored the need to examine them closely. Soul searching is a cornerstone in therapeutic parenting; without self insight there can be little overall progress. And that takes bravery on the part of the parent to realise and pursue.

Closely related to parental self insight is the non-punitive approach. This is a stretch for many, since this is the parenting we know; it is what we were brought up with. But this approach is very likely to feed straight into the hand of their traumas. ‘Trauma is stronger than any of us’, as Sally put it. Our children will always have reasons to behave as they do. And it is our job to try to work out what these are, or – if we can’t – accept them none the less. Sally also stressed the importance of facing our children’s stories – warts and all -, without looking away. Herein lies the root of true empathy for them.

Being more mindful of how our children might see the world was a lesson that many took home. Sally taught us strategic and gave examples of what this might look like in daily life.

It was refreshing beyond words to hear these words spoken so compassionately and softly by an adoptive mother. Sally’s elegant workshop was down to earth and practical. Useful in a world of often useless and superfluous words (quite often my own I might add!). No nonsense kind of stuff. I’ve said it before but I will say it here again: I am tired of before talked down to. As a mother, and as an adopter. Not infrequently by experts who haven’t adopted or who haven’t been adopted. Sally spoke peer-to-peer. Eye height.

There were social workers present too. Some commented how refreshing they too found the workshop. Some found the ratio 3:1 adopters/social workers just right. Whatever the ratio, it showed the powerful beauty of delivering the same message to both groups of people – at the same time.

Today I am still touched by Sally’s musings as they continue to bounce round in my head. There are no quick and easy fixes. But there is an approach and a recognition that will take you further as a parent and as a family. At the core of this is self care and support for all parents, because therapeutic parenting is demanding and hard work. A belief that tallies strongly with that of We are Family. Only when we feel supported can we start to heal our children’s traumas, because only then have we got the patience and stamina to contain them and their emotional lives. We need to look inwards before we can look out. Well before we can listen and attune ourselves to our little ones.

It was a truly excellent workshop. I will be reading the book cover to cover as soon as I can get may hands on it!

I hope Sally will run the workshop again somewhere, and if she does – be sure to go, if you possibly can.

Sally Donovan’s The Unofficial Guide to Adoptive Parenting will be published by Jessica Kingsley Publishing in November 2014.


chaosThe chaos of living with two traumatised children is sometimes completely overwhelming. But um, oh dear, hang on…

I speak, or write, as one who is, I regret to say, a bit chaotic myself. This failing makes their chaos a lot more difficult to unravel and remedy and all our lives a lot harder full stop. I try, I really do, but not a day goes by when I don’t lose my keys/ purse/staff pass / planner / phone / mind. I forget EVERYthing, even to have or follow my own plans – and that’s since I’ve had those miraculous weekly brain-fog-busting B12 jabs, so god knows how useless I must have been before them.

There is no known reason for my chaos, even if I did go through a few traumatic, death-swamped teenage years of my own, my chaos has been a part of me from earlier childhood. I’m sure the menopause, pernicious anaemia and the stress of parenting don’t particularly help but they are not the cause. I met up with some old (very old, how did we get so old?!) school friends a few months ago who reminded me again how very untidy I always was. My sisters are similarly shambolic (one of them masks it very well!) and my mum really wasn’t much better, may she rest in messy peace.

Our children have much more of an excuse. According to the experts, one of the casualties of developmental trauma and dysfunctional attachment is likely to be their executive functioning skills. The brains of babies who are not properly nurtured don’t process information in a ‘normal’ way and so they end up approaching tasks the wrong way round.

Both Django and Red seem verbally able and can be extremely charming, so anyone could be forgiven for thinking, what’s the problem? Their early need for survival skills has given them an extraordinary knack of knowing exactly what to do to impress when necessary but it often masks a real inability to break down and complete the simplest of tasks. Django still struggles with all the basics: eating, sleeping, toileting and cleaning himself. We have to overtly remind him to do things in order, repeating our ‘January, …., March, …..’ mantra ad infinitum, waiting for and helping him to fill in the blanks. In spite of his evident verbal skills, he still stumbles over the order of the months in the same way that he struggles with putting his clothes on before he goes out, sitting at the table before eating or going to the loo before it’s too late.

My own chaos is rooted in essential laziness and an unremitting faith that things will turn out ok even if I fail. I know deep down (if I take time to think about it) what I have to do and every so often I revise whatever is holding me back with a complete physical or mental, environmental or emotional declutter. Thus I turn my chaos into a stuttering order which just about works for me, for a little while anyway.

My lack of a well-made path towards anything permanent still drives my husband nuts and sometimes I worry that doesn’t really help the children either. I have enough order in my brain to know what they should be doing and guiding them toward it. They are learning to overcome their chaos in spite of mine, but it’s no surprise that they have started noticing the hypocrisy of me telling them to be tidy / organised / careful while I langour in the disordered squalour of a string of bad habits I’ve never quite managed to conquer.

At least living with their chaos makes me more aware of mine. We are helping each other.

Time for another declutter methinks.