On 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.