My Summer of WAF

 

 

 

​There have been plenty of highs and lows for all of us over the last months and years but sometimes it’s nice to dwell on the good stuff.

So here’s some of mine.

 

I want to thank We Are Family for building such an incredibly supportive network of adoptive parents because I am blown away by the families I now have in my life.
Over the course of this summer I have been away on no less than three amazing holidays, all with families I have met through WAF.
Actually I’m forgetting one! There was another glorious weekend camping in the English countryside with two more WAF families.

Our children have played and swum together.

They have eaten and argued together.

They have swapped toys, clothes and stories together (some of which have been extremely helpful to my daughter in understanding her own story).
And we their parents have shared a million thoughts, concerns, experiences and glasses of wine, and become closer and closer.

What a thing! Together We really Are a Family…. a proper family.
So if you’re struggling and need someone to listen to you.
if you want to talk to other people who know what it’s like.
Or if you just haven’t got round to it yet, I urge you to make use of this wonderful resource by attending a parent group or other activity to form these bonds because It’s a wonderful thing! And we should all feel very proud of what we are creating.

Thank you so much We Are Family.

Advertisements

12 blogs under the Christmas tree #10

20161223_131101My one special present under the Christmas tree would be a mini, pocket sized version of our family therapist. I could then pull her out to consult at those moments when I’m a bit lost as to how to respond to our daughter’s more dysregulated moments, or am just in need a bit of a confidence boost. We’ve been so incredibly lucky to find her and to have had six months worth of Theraplay and family support sessions funded by the ASF. We certainly weren’t in what I would call a ‘struggling’ place, so I’m sure we wouldn’t have qualified for support pre the fund. We would have just kept on trucking on. But having our therapist come to work with us with her warmth, expertise, experience and support has been transformative for our family and to my confidence as a mum. Our daughter is bubbly, outgoing, very bright and seemingly coping with everything fine, so many of our non adoptive family and friends couldn’t see any issues – it was a case of ‘oh she’s fine, all kids do that’. But our therapist immediately spotted the challenges our daughter has with hyper vigilance, emotional regulation, control and being extra demanding of me, as her mum, having been let down by so many mum figures in her past. Talking to our therapist made me feel like I wasn’t going mad, there were some problems we could get help with and it was okay to find things difficult. The games we play seem so innocuous and often silly (you should see me with a foam soap ball on my nose!) but gently and subtly they are nudging all of us towards healthier ways of relating and allowing our daughter to truly and deeply accept the loving parenting we so much want to give her.

Realistically high expectations.

20160701_114148I started a Blog a while ago suggesting that adoptive parents needed to have realistic expectations of their children’s school and especially of the child’s teacher. Our children are (usually) 1 in a class of 30 and expecting the teacher to ‘get them’ and to cater for their specific needs is of course a tough ask – especially when we parents can often struggle on a one to one basis at home.

Something stopped me completing the blog and now it is evident why that was so… I was wrong! Which sadly in our case has resulted in us failing to protect our son and failing to do right by him.

Our son displays much of the typical behaviour resulting from trauma that we are told to expect – which can ONLY be controlled through therapeutic parenting/teaching. In his first two years at this school his teachers understood this and did a great job of making him feel secure and valued, however his teacher last year clearly didn’t ‘get it’ at all and this has resulted in a terrible year for our son and as a result of that it has been a very problematic and indeed stressful one for us.

A couple of months into the year we became aware of issues in class and we went into the school to discuss the situation, we attempted to point out our son’s history and his needs, but we were shut down by the new assistant head with ‘of course we know how to deal with adoptive children, we have plenty of experience and in fact we have about a dozen adopted children in the School at the moment’.

We accepted this at face value, as adoptive parents we often feel that we are ‘one step behind’ and we thought that it was perfectly reasonable to assume that professionals in a professional environment would be better equipped than us.

Yet it is now clear to see that these were hollow words and worse still that we were accepting them from the wrong person.

For 6 plus hours a day our children are sent to school and left in the care of another adult – this is likely to be as much time (or indeed for some – more time) than they spend awake with us the parents during a 24hr period – this is huge and the importance of this relationship in their lives can not be underestimated. It is imperative that we make sure that the teacher – and indeed any teachers assistants – caring for our child know their needs and know exactly how to deal with them.

Regardless of what the school thinks it knows or how good an understanding it feels it has, it is the direct relationship with the teacher that is most relevant and it is OUR responsibility to make sure that they do indeed understand and have the skills to cope.

My thinking that we should make allowances for the difficulties that teachers no doubt face – although empathetic – was naive and on reflection very foolish. They have a responsibility for our children and they have a need to ensure that our children are being treated appropriately.

Quite simply our son was not, his teacher failed him, the school failed him and we failed him too for not being on top of the situation.

Now we know better and this new year will be different, we have regular meetings with his new teacher and we have made her very aware of his needs and how to deal with him, in addition we have furnished her with books and handouts that we feel will help her in her understanding.

Sadly it is evident that quite a bit of damage has been done and we can see that our son’s relationship with the school, the teachers and in a broader sense adults in general has been badly affected. Great efforts now need to be made to address the issues – and the resulting challenging behaviour – that the year has brought about in him and we are making sure that his teacher is very much part of that process.

Parents need SUPPORT in order to ‘Parent Therapeutically’!

miranda's heartMy take on ‘therapeutic parenting’ is this; a way of parenting that reduces a child’s suffering, which allows ‘emotional’ release which in turn makes healing possible. In fact the kind of parenting that every child would benefit from.

Having trained as a psychotherapist and participated in years of personal therapy, what I know is this. To feel safe in relationship is imperative. To establish such a relationship when one is not born to it takes time. Trust doesn’t develop overnight. Connection is necessary.

Listening is key… deep listening; listening below the words, below the behaviour, below what can be seen and heard; with warmth, without judgement and most importantly with acceptance.

I thought I was ready for that until our little monkey arrived. Children are bundles of emotion; children who hurt, who have experienced trauma, have a layer of intensity that cannot be explained. This sure threw me adrift, found me on my back foot!!

I want to ask you a question…

How does it FEEL, to parent a child who is quietly suffering!?

How does it FEEL, to parent a child who is hurting so bad, they flip into high octane expressiveness in a second?

How does it FEEL, to be with your child’s feelings, to be with such raw emotion – overt or covert?

Do you or can you even allow yourself such reflection? Exhausted, drained… how to fill your emotional tank, let alone strengthen your own resilience in the face of such emotional intensity!?

Yet, here we are, parents of traumatised children, expected to be able to listen and support our children’s feelings when we can hardly handle our own!!

In the helping professions it is a known fact, that caring for people who have experienced highly stressful events (trauma) puts the caregiver at risk of developing similar stress-related symptoms, also known as secondary traumatic stress.

Have you heard of compassion fatigue? vicarious trauma?

What about your own life story?

After our daughter arrived I read “The Primal Wound” by Nancy Verrier. It was one of those aha! moments where it dawned on me that my life story began with a disrupted attachment. That was the beginning of me realising, with some certainty, I needed to tend to my own wounds if I was to be able to do the same for our daughter.

If you have your own unresolved or unconscious developmental/relational traumas, if you have had some difficult times growing up; they too will likely be re-stimulated. You may recognise such moments; these are our triggers, hot spots, the times we feel our buttons pushed, our blood boil or feel like we are losing our minds, going crazy. If you are unaware of being re-stimulated, chances are you frequently experience feeling controlled and/or manipulated by your child and their behaviour.

Where is your emotional support?

All parents need and deserve support for the hard and complex work they do. This is a key ethos of the We Are Family community. It is imperative for adoptive parents – for anyone who becomes a parent to a child from care… foster carers, kinship carers, special guardians!! We are at risk! We live with our children’s trauma 24/7! That’s before even looking at our own attachment or trauma histories. Please don’t get me started….

I advocate that we parents need regular, personal emotional support! At a bare minimum each and every one of us needs someone to listen, a “Listening Partnership”, where we can offload emotional tension, brainstorm solutions and ease the pressure and judgements we place on ourselves. A “Listening Partnership” is a way to get back to being the authentic parent you want to be.

You don’t love me anymore.

20160214_153718Social workers are just people doing a job and of course like all of us they are sometimes less than perfect; however they are dealing with people’s lives so even simple mistakes can be emotionally wounding. We became very aware of this through our own experience and also that of friends who have also been through the adoption process. It can be as simple as failing to immediately tell you of a change in the panel date – which of course means a huge amount to you, but is just a correction in a diary to them – to fundamentally not “getting it”.

There was one incident by our sons’ social worker in particular that resulted in upset to us and great distress to our eldest very early on in the placement.

He and his brother had been with us for just a few weeks. It had been weeks full of every effort from us to build a bond and to get the boys to attach, every effort to prove our love to them and to convince them of the fact that we were now a forever family.

Things were going well; they are warm and loving little boys and from the very beginning they were open to our relentless hugs and kisses and really seemed to accept us and indeed start to attach very quickly.

We had lots of fun and we were making the most of the time together as a family while I was off work. They seemed happy – on the surface anyway – and they both seemed to like the fact that we were their new parents and that this was their new life.

We used the term ‘forever’ as much as possible and would break into the 1970’s disco classic ‘We are family’ at every opportunity – it’s amusing to see that our support group was equally inspired by that track.

It was early days and I don’t for one moment think they were fully bonded or attached, but they certainly seemed to like the idea that this was forever.

Their social worker was new and quite inexperienced and on her first post-placement visit we remembered the advice from prep group that it can be a difficult and confusing time for the children and we thought we had prepared the boys well in advance and that they understood that she was coming to see them and to see how they were doing. She arrived and the boys greeted her with smiles and hugs and kisses and after 20 or so minutes they were sent upstairs leaving us adults to talk through our first few weeks as parents.

At that stage – still well in the honeymoon period – things were good and we had few issues to bring up, and looking back we realise that the social worker’s inexperience meant that she asked very little and offered very little, consequently she was soon ready to leave.

We called the boys down to say goodbye and only the youngest came. My partner went to find his brother and returned saying that he was acting very strangely, hiding under the sofa and refusing to come out. As he tried to coax him out he was told, “Go away; I know you don’t love us anymore.” My partner said it was clear that he was very upset.

At this point the story of a close friend who had also adopted came flashing into my mind. It was the first visit of her daughter’s foster parents whom the child loved dearly and as my friend opened the door with her new daughter in her arms, the child took one look at who was on the doorstep and turned with a look of total bewilderment and grabbed my friend with all her might. Clearly the presence of the foster parents from her old life was threatening and in her little mind could mean only one thing; that they were there to take her away from the security of this new forever family.

Which is exactly what our son was thinking, upstairs, alone, hiding under the sofa. Then – and only then – I recalled being told to look out for exactly this situation during our preparation.

Suddenly it was all very obvious to me and I immediately took control of the situation. With my partner left to say goodbye to the oblivious social worker, I went to sit with our son and reassured him that he was safe and secure with us and that she had not come to take him back. He was not immediately convinced and stayed in his hiding place until I went to the window and told him that she was now in her car and he could came and wave goodbye from the safe distance of a first floor window.

It was all so very obvious; both my partner and I were truly ashamed that we had not anticipated the inevitable and saved the anguish that the situation had so clearly caused our son.

Yet our prep group had been nearly two years before this and dealing with two children coming into our lives and turning everything upside down meant that nothing was as obvious to us as it should have been.

However, the meeting was organised by the social worker and although new, surely she had a responsibility to be prepared, to make sure we were prepared and, more importantly, to make sure that the children were too?

She didn’t and as a result our son was deeply upset, which of course hurt both of us too.

I guess it could be considered a small oversight on her part, but it is exactly situations such as these where their professionalism is essential and – novice or not – some things are just too important not to get right. The incident has stayed with us and it has made us extra-cautious of anything from their past coming back into their lives.

It also made us very aware that social workers, like all of us, are fallible and not the perfect professionals we sometimes need and perhaps unrealistically expect them to be.

Points of view: A two-pronged review of Gareth Marr/Scott Casson-Rennie and Hermione Michaud’s talks at Southwark Library on Wednesday 24th February 2016.

WAF LOGO DEC 14Hearing that We Are Family and the South London Adoption Consortium were running a presentation on “Why Children Placed From Care Need Support In Schools” was exciting news for me on multiple fronts. As a prospective adopter, I am trying to gather as much information as possible to help me prepare for life as an adoptive parent, but additionally, by day I work as a Deputy Headteacher at a London Primary School, and am always keen to learn more about how I can support vulnerable pupils at school.

So with two hats on, I felt like I was well placed to write a review (or two) of the evening. Thanks to We Are Family for giving me the chance to share my thoughts!

As a prospective adopter

My wife and I are underway with stage 2 of the adoption process, and keen to absorb as much information as possible to help us prepare as best we can. This fascinating talk was both worrying and massively useful for us in thinking about supporting an adoptive child through school.

The evening began with a (needlessly) nervous Scott Casson-Rennie taking to the stage to deliver Gareth Marr’s thoroughly researched presentation on the issues surrounding adoptive children in schools.

This part of the talk highlighted the serious problems that are evident for a worryingly high proportion of adopted children (and children under Special Guardianship Orders) in schools. Adopted children are much more likely to be permanently excluded from a school, and adoption disruptions are much more likely to happen around times of school transition (e.g. starting school at Age 4/5, and especially moving to Secondary school at age 11).

Despite these worrying figures, the level of support in place for adopted children falls well short of that available to children in care, who are supported by a “Virtual School” within each Local Authority. The Virtual School Headteacher plays a key role in supporting schools to do the best by these pupils, putting Personal Education Plans in place, and provides guidance to teachers in schools who may have limited experience working with children who have suffered trauma and loss. Once the permanence order is in place – no such luck.

Scott shared some of his experiences as an adoptive parent to 3 boys, all of whom had experienced difficulties at school. These clearly resonated with many of the current adopters in the room; children having angry outbursts at school, struggling to cope with changes in routine and working with different adults, and clearly, a sense that too many teachers had no understanding of the background or context of adopted children.

Scott and Gareth warned that too many schools lack training and understanding in how to best manage children who present difficult behaviour that is surely a result of their experience of trauma and loss. Scott told us how he came to dread collecting his boys from school some days in case he was intercepted on the playground by a teacher telling him about what a bad day it had been for their behaviour. The nods in the audience told me that this was a feeling many had shared.

Already, I was making mental checklists of the issues I will need to think about to help deal with this. How will I help prepare my child for starting school, or moving school? How and what will I need to share with my child’s teacher/s to help them understand? What will I do when my child lashes out in frustration at school, and I am confronted with this on the playground at the end of the school day?

Hermione Michaud then took the stage to share her expertise as the Virtual School Head for the London Borough of Islington. She was clearly not only knowledgeable, but warm, approachable and empathetic to the needs of traumatised children and their parents; in short, just the sort of person you would want overseeing your child’s education. Encouragingly, Hermione has extended her oversight to include Islington’s adopted children as well as those currently in care.

She told us that early in her teaching career, she had known very little about the impact that trauma can have on young lives, and that teacher training had not prepared her for how best to work with children no longer living with their birth families. Now, as an experienced teacher and Virtual School Head, she clearly has a wealth of expertise, and systems in place to share this with the Islington schools that need to hear it, not least through providing training to teachers to raise their awareness of the needs of such children.

Hermione advocated being involved and informed as a parent choosing a school; looking beyond an Ofsted report and taking the time to visit schools to get a sense of their ethos, and how welcoming and supportive they are to those children who can find things more difficult than most (more notes for the mental checklist!).

As prospective adopters, the highlight of the talk for my wife and me was the list of questions she provided to ask a school before enrolling my child. Asking things like “how does pastoral support work at your school?”, “What training have staff had on attachment and the impact of early trauma and loss?” and “is there any support for children during less structured times like playtimes?” will give us a clear sense of whether the school is going to be willing and able to meet the needs of our child when things don’t go to plan. More than ever, our focus will be on finding a school that understands that prioritising children’s wellbeing is the route to achieving the best academic results, all the more so for adopted children.

Overall, it was an incredibly useful, if sobering, event, and has helped equip us for yet another possible future challenge as an adopter. It was encouraging to hear that both Gareth and Hermione are looking at ways to get their message across to the Department for Education and to schools – that Virtual School (or similar) support for children post-adoption is crucial to securing the best education for them. We can only hope that there are some keenly listening ears out there to help make this a more widespread reality in the very near future…

As a Primary School Deputy Headteacher

As a Deputy Head, I often find myself with the opportunity to stand in front of a group of people and share my thoughts, and hopefully inspire some of them along the way. Listening to this talk put me on the other side of that fence – and it was not a comfortable place to be. Through the evening I felt a growing need to take a turn with the mike and have my voice heard. What did I want to say? In bold: “It doesn’t have to be like this!”

You can’t argue with the personal experience of those, like Scott and Gareth, who have not felt supported by schools in the past. And the picture painted by both the data, and the collected experiences of adopted parents, is clear – schools are a source of major anxiety to far too many adopted children and their parents. But the vibe in the room that evening towards schools was very negative, which I worry is nothing but counter-productive in helping to improve the situation for our children.

You see, my experiences of working with children who are living with trauma and loss have been overwhelmingly positive. Not that they have all been calm, happy and well-behaved – far from it! I have been punched, head-butted, spat at, kicked and sworn out more times that I can count. But I have seen first-hand that when schools work with families to deal with these issues, things invariably improve. Communication, and a united front are key: if a child sees that home and school are on the same page whether things have gone well or badly, they get the consistency and security that they so desperately need. If school and home are not talking, or saying two different things to the child (or both), then things can begin to go badly wrong.

Though I’ve never worked at a school where a child has been permanently excluded, I have only ever seen that possibility on the cards when the relationship between school and home has broken down. In these cases, I’ve seen parents (maybe unintentionally) undermining the school’s approach to supporting and addressing their child’s behaviour.

One case that has really stayed with me illustrates the power of the home-school partnership. Seb (not his real name) joined my school aged 9, having just been removed from his mum’s care for the third time. He had previously had failed placements with a foster family and his paternal grandparents whilst mum struggled to cope with alcohol addiction and a turbulent relationship with dad (now in prison). Seb was now moving from the North of England down to London for a new start with his paternal uncle Dave and aunt Sophie (again, not their real names).

Uncle Dave made a point of coming to meet with me before Seb started at school. He was frank and open about what Seb had experienced in his young life so far, and let me know about the difficulties Seb had in his previous school. Immediately, I was able to talk to the teacher whose class Seb was due to join, and help her begin to think about how she would make Seb welcome, and plan for what to do if he was struggling to concentrate, distracting others, or becoming angry.

When he started, it was clear that Seb was a funny, cheerful and charismatic boy with a beaming smile. He was also on the move non-stop, didn’t know how to manage his friendships without sometimes upsetting or physically hurting people, and had crushingly low self-esteem about his academic ability, especially in writing. In short, he was a real handful for a class teacher.

We had some issues; big ones. I held meetings with Dave and Sophie on several occasions dealing with the fallout of incidents that included violence, persistent disruption and racist language. I’ll be honest – Dave and Sarah didn’t always agree with how I had handled things; sometimes feeling that I hadn’t taken Seb’s point of view into account enough. But they were polite and reasonable in letting me know how they felt, and crucially, always backed me up in front of Seb.

Over time, we saw fewer of the big issues. Seb was settling well at home with his Uncle and Aunt, who clearly lavished him with love, got stable routines in place for him and gave him space to talk whilst still making sure he got his homework done. At school, we arranged to spend Seb’s Pupil Premium Plus on weekly sessions with a play therapist. We kept talking to Dave and Sarah, I would always make a point of chatting to them at the start or end of the school day, and sharing all the good things that were happening for Seb. Dave and I would stand together at the touchline while Seb was playing as goalkeeper for the school football team, cheering him on and celebrating every save he made.

Ultimately, Seb left us at the end of Year 6 with a good set of test results (which hadn’t looked likely when he joined!) But more importantly, he was enjoying school, had positive friendships and much improved self-esteem. I am convinced that it was the relationship that we managed to forge with Dave and Sarah that made this happen. And I am convinced that for other families and other children, the same is possible.

So my plea to adoptive parents is this. Firstly, take Hermione’s advice and take the time to visit a school and check that they support an inclusive approach; that they want to work together with you to understand what your child’s needs are and will do their level best to meet them.

Second, talk to your child’s school before they start. Tell them about your child and how they can help them. Tell them if you are uncomfortable with being approached on the playground with bad news and ask them to give you a phone call instead, or write it in a note, or in a behaviour book (like it or not, the school will have to tell you if your child has punched someone, or spat at them, or done something else fairly serious). And make sure you share the successes and the positives with them too, as they hopefully will with you. Thank them when you know they have done something to make school a better place for your child.

Thirdly, let your child know you support the school and trust their decisions. Let the school know politely if you don’t think they’ve made a good decision in dealing with something, but make sure your child doesn’t know you think that. It is important that they carry on seeing home and school as a united force trying to do the best for them (even if sometimes that means both sets of adults putting in place consequences for a bad choice).

Working in a positive partnership with school isn’t going to be a magic wand to fix all the issues your child is experiencing with school but I’m convinced that it is by far the most likely approach to lead to improvements.

Overall, the evening of talks was a disheartening experience for me as a Deputy Headteacher. But I did come away with a better understanding of how many adoptive parents feel about the school system, and a stronger resolve to do everything I can to build bridges with the families of vulnerable children. At a time of unprecedented change and considerable stress in the school system, many thanks to Gareth, Scott and Hermione for bringing our attention to what is clearly a vital issue to be tackled.

Thank goodness for the parent group!

WAF LOGO DEC 14We soon realised – and it was a shocking realisation – that we were in it over our heads.

We had listened intently at the prep’ course, read copiously, had scoured the internet, picked the minds of the experienced parents around us; we thought we were prepared. However, can anything truly prepare you for the impact of an adopted child coming into your life? Especially when a child displays the trademark – and oh so challenging – behaviour of a traumatised child?

We are taught what to expect and indeed one of the biggest criticisms of social services by many of our fellow adopters during the adoption process was that they were overly negative and continually painting the bleakest of pictures. Even if it’s not as bad as it could be, it seems that most adoptive parents go through a tough time once that initial ‘honeymoon period’ is over; it takes us by surprise and immediately rocks that solid foundation we thought we had built with all our preparation. Some of us had years to prepare, yet when we are faced with the reality we realise that it’s simply nothing like we expected.

The impact of a child arriving in your – often calm and in hindsight easily manageable – life is truly huge. Apart from the immediate pressure of the responsibility for these little lives and the exhausting non-stop care and consideration that they require, there is the enormous emotional turmoil that I am sure none of us could have anticipated.

Before placement and in the early days I think many of us can be in denial; a child is just a child and our son/daughter is going to be just fine regardless of what we are being told. I think this can be especially true of adopters of babies or very young children. When the reality of our children, our family, our new life hits it can be frightening and with social services stepping back it can feel worryingly lonely.

To use a cliched metaphor, for me it really did feel like being in the middle of an endless ocean on a rickety raft; I truly felt adrift and uncharacteristically helpless. On good days it felt like I had oars that could dig deep into the water and make progress, on other days it was oars that barely skimmed the surface or indeed on the worse days (and there were plenty) with no oars at all – bobbing along at the mercy of what life was throwing my way.

For somebody who likes – no, needs – to be in control this was new territory and I was far from comfortable with it.

I needed a life line – oh how I needed a life line – to help me pull the raft ashore and to give me some control again. Turning to our network of family and friends helped tremendously, but as we all no doubt discover, advice and help from parents of birth children is not always what is best for us parents of adopted children.

Then I was introduced to the We Are Family Parent Group – which has proven to be exactly the life line I required.

I can’t say it has ‘solved’ my family’s problems, but it has helped me understand them and most importantly helped me to put them in to perspective. It has made me realise that we are not alone and that what we are dealing with is not exceptional; that others out there are struggling just the same as we are and that it is just fine to be doing so.

The parent group is for sharing – sharing your experiences (good and bad) and your worries and your fears – and the group is also about listening, listening to others who clearly understand what you are living through and dealing with as they too face the same challenges and indeed the same joys.

No advice or suggested solutions tend to be offered directly – as nobody is qualified to do so – but by sharing our stories, our problems, our difficulties and of course the many positives we are experiencing, we support each other and we can take away what we feel we need to take or what we feel can help us.

It is most certainly not all about the difficulties we face. Between the tough times we are all equally overwhelmed by the wonder of being new parents and by the marvel that are our children and this is just as important to share, if not even more so for some.

If nothing else, the group just gives us a chance to vent – to let it all out – and not to feel judged on any level while we are doing so. That is enormous, that is appreciated and if you have never been along, that is highly recommended!

For more information about times and locations, or if you think you may be interested in starting a group in your area please click on the contact us button in the menu.