“This is not what I signed up for” I silently repeatedly.
Maybe when looking at the self inflicted cuts on my daughters arms. Possibly when another twenty quid disappeared from my purse or listening to more lies. Definitely scrabbling on all fours filling five bin liners with furry food, soiled underwear, dead vodka bottles and unidentifiable sticky bedroom trash.
I did not understand that ‘adoption’ meant trauma would walk through my front door on six little legs.
I expected ‘normal’ kids with some attachment problems, whom my love and parenting skills would transform. 25 years later I know better.
How did I survive? I changed my expectations. Eventually. Frequently. Massively.
I learned about child development, what’s normal, what’s not. How maltreatment distorts their inner world, how their brains are damaged by a boozy womb and that beliefs drive behaviour. This cocktail of knowledge explained ‘nonsensical’ actions.
A useful enquiry: ‘does this child have the capacity, right now, to meet my expectations’?
What’s easier? Changing the child’s capacities or your expectations ? Spoiler alert … it’s you.
Until you change; the child can’t (can’t not won’t). Their behaviour is fear driven and your first job is to help them feel safe in their own bodies. All that self regulation stuff they should have absorbed from attuned caregivers as babes.
In a lightbulb moment in 1999, I realised traumatised children had, in infancy, used metaphorical bubble wrap as a protection against maltreatment. Historically useful, but now it distorted their view of the world and the worlds perspective of them. Our role is to gently peel back the bubble wrap and fill the developmental gaps.
When my kids first arrived, (aged 5,4,2) they liked ‘playing babies, as I pretended to wipe bottoms and bottle feed. It was exhausting. Once I thought it must be lunchtime but the clock shockingly glowed 09.40. The youngest (genuinely in nappies) frequently became distressed seeing her siblings receiving this ‘nurturing’. Regrettably I used this as my excuse to stop. They were showing me how below the bubble wrap they needed ‘babying’ to fill their voids. Because I was expecting my kids to adhere roughly to their chronological age, I missed a huge healing opportunity.
You can chose the height of your expectation bar and hence your emotional state.
Expectations are images we created in the past about how things should be in the future. The more detailed the construction (how it looks, sounds, feels) the greater your commitment.Really useful when it’s 100% in your control, however great potential for disappointment when it’s in another’s hands, especially tiny ones.
That’s why ‘to succeed’ we must adjust our expectations throughout the adoption journey and be life long learners.
That’s why constantly updating our knowledge by reading, attending courses, peer support, mentoring and becoming trauma informed therapeutic parents with a realist view of a child’s potential is vital.
That’s why continual personal evolution, enhanced regulation skills, self reflection, transforming limiting beliefs, increasing self esteem and being a congruent, creative, compassionate, courageous, adaptive person with realistic expectations is vital.
What are you expecting? Joy, satisfaction or sadness? Your choice.
This blog was first published on PAC-UK website, September 2018 during national adoption week
National Adoption Week is always emotive. The intent is to recruit adopters. Unsurprisingly some experienced adopters rant at the saccharine articles in newspapers, knowing that below the rhetoric is a deficit of ongoing, deep, appropriate support.
Failing to take the long view, over decades is a strategic, economic and humanitarian mistake.
PAC-UK had a splendid series of truthful and useful blogs during NAW which might resonate with you. In Mondays PAC-UK blog I explored strategies to avoid disappointment: spoiler alert, it’s you that has to change. Having been quiet for months (completing my next book) it’s the most personal blog I’ve ever written.
Sally Donovansletter to the state (Fridays PAC-UK blog) is a cracker explaining how adopted teenagers require so much from their parents, often for few rewards.
The message of all seven blogs is for me; take the long view. Its hard. Bloody hard. Get support. Be honest with yourself and about your situation.
Also the NAW emphasis on siblings worries me. This video explains why and how their trauma bonds can block therapeutic parenting. (Sorry it has a slow start, as I battle with the flip chart paper, but worth staying with it, imho, as the concept is transformational).
BTW: Over the next few weeks the cost for Trauma Triggered Behaviour on line course will be increasing incrementally. (Because it is being licensed elsewhere, I will be price matching). Buy now, while still in double figures. Risk free with a 100% money back guarantee.
Ever wonder why adopted and foster children behave in apparently nonsensical ways?
Why do they self sabotage?
Why do kind or constructive words fail to impact their behaviour?
It’s because beliefs drive behaviour.
That concept rocked my world back in February 2002 on the morning of my first NLP course. It explained so much about my kids. It changed my life trajectory.
Robert Dilts, the creator of the Logical Levels model has generously agreed to do a Facebook Live with me, sometime next weekend during the NLP conference in London. It will be posted on the FAB Parents Facebook Page. I promise you will find it both fascinating and useful.
Will post details on Facebook and Twitter when we finalise the timings. Robert is speaking at the NLP conference and has kindly agreed to fit in “a FB interview”. Not too late to attend the conference.
Last sunday I cooked my own meals, bought myself some flowers and uncharacteristically drank an entire bottle of wine and had a good cry.
Because yet again, on Mothers Day, I received nothing from the three children I adopted 25 years ago.
We’ve had minimal contact for the last seven or eight years. By minimal, I mean a handful of cyber messages.
But the possibility they might send a card is the emotionally charged dark cloud that hung over me a couple of weeks before Mother’s Day.
I didn’t expect; but I did hope. Hoping for something totally out of your control is ridiculous, however it is a very human quality.
Twenty Five years ago I had both hopes and expectations. I had visions of family meals sitting talking about everything and anything. That dream was one of my motivations for creating a family.
I knew the 5, 4, and 2 year old who walked through my front door in the early 90s had a tough time before I met them. Even though, I expected some challenges I expected that my love, caring and parenting would fix them.
All those expectations. Those movies I created in my head of how family life would be. Those fantasies, those stories I told myself. That happy ever after stuff. I expected it to be tricky but okay.
The reality was very, very different.
After a few years I realised my kids were significantly different to others, I started exploring the impact of infancy maltreatment and neglect. I struggled on, being a pretty good parent but not a therapeutic parent because that model had not yet been created. We knew a bit about attachment, but not about trauma, brain wiring or neuroception.
However I hoped that my full-time excellent parenting would be enough
I hoped for the best, but did not have fall back plan for the worst case scenario.
I hoped conventional therapy would help – it didn’t.
I wrote a series of large cheques for high quality attachment therapy, which had some impact on two of the three.
I expected I could make a difference. I hoped it would be alright in the end, that I could change their life trajectory. .
I think I altered it by a few degrees, but not as much as I’d have hoped.
Why I’m sharing this tale of woe? Because I want others to learn from my mistakes.
Are you an adopter or foster carer currently deluding yourself? Hoping that normal parenting will heal your little darling: believing things will magically get better.
They wont. You must view your children through the lens of trauma. Immediately.
Our kids need therapeutic reparenting to fill in the gaps and heal the damage. Start now.
Are your expectations realistic?
Are you looking at your children through rose tinted glasses?
If nothing changes, how will their current behaviours escalate over the next decade? Will you be visiting prisons, secure units or be on first name terms with the local police after countless runaways or child on parent violence incidents?
Get real. Hope for the best. Plan for the worst.
When I was approved as an adopter I did not expect to spend Mother’s Day alone (or my birthday or christmas for that matter). Equally I didn’t expect to travel the globe, learning from pioneers and world-class trainers about parenting , trauma and healing and for these learnings I am truly grateful.
Sometimes our path takes us to unexpected and enlightening places often via dark scary tunnels.
I have no regrets about my journey even though it’s not the outcome I would have chosen.
Tonight I’m celebrating Mother’s Day with three friends I made when running the local adoption support group. We will laugh, reminisce, share stories about our current lives, children grandchildren, police interviews, court appearances, drug overdoses, sexual abuse, self harming and intergenerational trauma. We will also share our professional triumphs and our varied travel exploits. Our friendship formed during years of adversity is precious and real. We prefer a private table so our conversation and laughter does not disturb other diners.
We have taken the Road less travelled. You may be on it too. So get equipped, skilled and find some mentors. Those who can guide you through the dark tunnels and black holes.
What are you expecting from this parenting journey and your children? Are you being naive and hoping for a fairy tale ending? Are you being real?
Plan for the worst. Hope for the best. Expect the unexpected.
Today’s Daily Mirror featured a sibling group of four looking for one set of adoptive parents.
I’ve read the article with increasing anger. The children had a chaotic background, but had settled in well ….. blah, blah. Unlike prospective adopters; I and other adults experienced in parenting traumatised children could read between the lines. These kids are deeply damaged.
My guess is that, similar to my three children (placed together at 2,4,5) these kids will have different attachment styles (Take your pick from avoidant, anxious, ambivalent, disorganised, none will be securely attached). This matters because different attachment patterns require a specific, appropriate and distinct parenting style. The Theraplay model explains the different levels of Structure, Nurture, Engagement and Challenge that are required, depending on the child’s attachment pattern.
How can two adults provide different types of parenting styles to four hurt children every day 24/7 for 20 years? Because that is what each of these individual children need: bespoke parenting, to fill in the developmental gaps and heal the trauma; both of which is unique for each child. That is beyond any humans capability and capacity. It’s asking the impossible.
Remember these four kids will, like all adopted children, have already experienced “significant harm”. That’s why they were removed from the birth family.
Each of the children need parents who can help them fill in their developmental gaps, melt their trauma, provide an environment that feels safe to the child, where playfulness, acceptance, curiosity and empathy are always available from calm, self regulated adults.
How can child #3 feel safe when child #1 is angry and violent? How can adoptive Mum nurture child #2, while child #1 and #4 are fighting or masturbating each other? (Oh yes that does happen).
Often siblings like these have a trauma bond, not a healthy bond. Trauma bonds play out over years and decades. They may feel obligated or wired to support each other because they have been through so much. Desperate phone calls “I need money now, otherwise the dealer will beat me up”. Sometimes they hate each other, which manifests in violence and constant arguments. The recent BBC File on Four survey and Julie Selwyns disruption research, evidence this dynamic.
If siblings have a toxic bond which excludes adults; how can proper attuned parenting occur? The emotional barriers which worked in the old traumatic home environment will block therapeutic parenting in the new adoptive family. All the old (now unnecessary, unhelpful) behaviours will continue between siblings unless there is a dramatic interruption to these patterns.
Providing an environment where a child has the opportunity to form healthy attachments and heal past trauma is more important than staying with siblings. Attachment is thicker than blood.
Siblings need to know that their brothers and sisters are safe and thriving in a new home with adults they can eventually trust. This can, and is, achieved with regular contact between siblings placed in different adoptive families. Healthy relationships and regular connection rather than retraumatising each other daily. Thats future-proofing.
This media story is based on “Find My Family” adoptions (pre-contraception and abortion) which are decades old and bear no resemblance to adoption today. They were often the result of an unlucky yet responsible, intelligent woman living in a strict society where pregnancy outside marriage was shameful.
By contrast, today kids are removed and placed for adoption “when nothing else will do”, having experienced “significant harm”, resulting from frequent maltreatment and/or neglect and/or exposure to drugs and/or alcohol and /or prostitution and/or poverty and/or domestic violence and/or paedophiles and/or mental health difficulties.
Remove them from that environment, place them with a foster family, give them decent food, baths, haircuts and clean clothes; put them in front of a professional photographer and they look adorably cute. The internal damage only visible to trauma informed specialists who can see below the presenting behaviour. They know that children #3 and #4 are “very friendly” indicating serious attachment issues. Child #1 never cries while child #4 never stops. None is ‘normal’ age appropriate behaviour.
Any prospective adopters taking on these four cute looking, but traumatised, children is being set up to fail.
This story generated much gasping and horror in the experienced adoption community. By “experienced” I mean those with at least 12 years parenting under their belt. Adoptive parents who are now living with hostile and/or disturbed adolescents, who having failed to receive the frequently requested support and therapy they desperately needed to melt infant trauma, are now self medicating with drugs and alcohol and/or are self harming or suicidal.
Other experienced adopters have been forced to return their kids to the care system for everyone’s protection. Other kids are now “secure’; either in prison or locked in an institution. Slow motion car crashes, painful for all.
I will not stand by and witness another set of well intentioned, compassionate, hopeful adults slowly be destroyed by a system which fails to identify the real needs of traumatised children and then a few years later blames the inevitable disruption and breakdowns on the adoptive parents. It is systemic abuse. I’ve seen too much of it already.
“Aren’t you wonderful to adopt, especially a sibling group”, people said to me in the early stages. They didn’t say that years later, when my kids hit their little darlings, when they stole, lied, disrupted lessons or self harmed. They didn’t offer to help me when I was an exhausted, highly stressed, now single parent, trying to be therapeutic. Between 6 and 7 on a school night I spoon fed a tired 16 year old (filling a gap from her toddler days), helped with GCSE homework, discussed contact with birth family and explained the fraud perpetrated by one of my kids to a visiting police officer. That was pretty typical.
Tapping into an unrealistic, sentimental idealised view of the perfect ‘happy ever after family’, successfully adopting a sibling group of four is a media fantasy. Society wants to swallow it too, to make themselves feel better. Watch Gogglebox if you don’t believe me. We all love a feel good story.
Adoption today is frequently a car crash, due to inadequate ongoing support, poor understanding, lack of trauma informed therapists, and naive professionals who do not see the long term outcome of the children they place. However that car crash could be avoided or reduced to a minor dent with a better route map and a full detailed robust assessment of the children and the adults before the journey starts. Then instigate frequent five star servicing from a Formula 1 support crew in a high tech specialist garage which constantly updates maps and tools. We’ve had enough of Slack Harry wielding his rusty spanner (which includes setting a £5000 limit on the Adoption Support Fund).
Please do not send four traumatised children to a set of prospective adopters. It is not in the childrens interest or the adults. It may be cheaper short term and produce a few paragraphs in newspapers, but long term it will be a disaster, because the childrens needs can’t be met in that environment. Please make a courageous decision, not a saccharine choice.
Radical proposal. Lets start assuming siblings should be separated unless there is robust evidence from expert assessors that they should be placed together. Monthly meet ups, long weekends in holidays can keep the “blood’ tie active. Maybe harder short term, but long term it will enable a child to blossom into their own space, unhindered by a toxic bond with a sibling in a home which never feels safe.
A successful adoption is one that works over decades, not years. It satisfies the needs of the child and the adults.
Adopted teens reconnect to their birth family (thanks Facebook). We must add that to the mix. Birth families grieve for the children removed. We must support them (more PAUSE projects please) so that inevitable reunion can be positive for all sides.
Adoption is complex. Done well it heals hurt children and provides adults with rewarding parenting experiences. Done thoughtlessly is makes things worse. Done by media, ignorant of the deep issues it can be destructive.
I’ve made a video to dive deeply into the impact of poor self regulation skills on siblings and parents. It’s here.
I hate being right. The article in todays Guardian documents the massive steps a mother took to get help for her son. It was constantly refused (below the threshold). She pleaded. He killed. Two families and a network of friends shattered. Society incarcerates, while judging the behaviour disregarding the root cause.
This is what happens to a hurt child without intervention. They grow into hurt, scared, rage filled traumatised adolescents then adults.
Children grow into adults! Who knew?
This is why I continue to write and train in the child trauma world and bang on about need for early interventions. It’s how we future-proof children. We have the audacity to call ourselves a civilised society. Because of blind short term thinking everyone suffers long term. Consider the financial and emotional cost of this single case then justify lack of trauma informed work with hurt children. (Seen my Cost of Trauma April 08 article, almost a decade later and its still true. Gggrr).
I spoke to the New South Wales Child Protection conference recently (one hour live streamed) illustrating that what lurks below there behaviour of a hurt child needs forensic thinking and early intervention. I wish TIM (Traumatised Infant Maltreated ) and TAMIE (Terrified Anxious Maligned Insecure Emotionally) didn’t exist, but they do and we have to facilitate the melting of their trauma. Here is link to my keynote address .
You could proffer this video to budget holders and decision makers, maybe with popcorn and soda or a cuppa and plate of cookies. Keep them sweet and informed. If they get the “why”, they will work out the “how to”.
“Adoption is no longer fit for purpose”. Those are the sentiments expressed recently by many adopters and a few enlighten professionals. I’m independent, so I can voice it publicly. Many others can not.
The capping of the Adoption Support Fund at £5000 was the tipping point.
Its introduction was much heralded and deeply appreciated in the adoption community. It provided money to facilitate the often lengthy therapeutic work that all adoptive families need and was promised before their children arrived. However its implementation has been fraught and the recent imposition of a cap is intolerable.
In the past few weeks I have spoken to experienced adopters whose:
Son (20) received a six year prison term
Daughter (14) has been admitted to A&E twice this week with overdoses
Son (15) has been terrorising the family for over two years with threats and violence, frequently absconding from home and school
Daughter (7) has violent rages for hours
I could easily add another 20 examples
A common factor was a refusal or inability from the local authority to provide robust effective interventions despite numerous requests. (They can’t give what they don’t have). Sorry Social Services but a bit of sympathy and offer of parenting classes just won’t do.
Meanwhile prospective adopters are told that ongoing support will be available. In their ignorance, they believe the promises. They expect normal children with a few difficulties. What walks through their front door are the most damaged children in our society. Courts intervene with adoption when “nothing else will do” (Sir James Mumby, The President Family Division).
Adopters have better things to do (like therapeutic reparenting) than plead with ill equipped professionals for help. Frequently these children are completely out of control because earlier requests were dismissed due to budget constraints. Hence only a series of full blown crises often involving police (criminal activity, child on parent violence) hospitals (for the child or their victims), drugs, alcohol, self harming, school refusal etc force interventions. That just won’t do.
Individually people are doing their absolute best: but systemically adoption is broken; primarily because it disregards the legacy of trauma.
Hence my assertion that adoption, in its current form, is no longer fit for purpose. We are setting up adopters to fail. Maltreated children have a legacy of trauma which, unresolved, leads to a lifetime of fear fuelled rage. Currently adoption support rarely offers trauma informed, ongoing, deep, therapeutic interventions throughout a child’s life. Sorry but shoehorning them into existing (ill fitting) services or a few CAMHS sessions just won’t do.
I believe in the concept and principles of adoption. When implemented skilfully it can transform the life trajectory of a child and bring joy to the adults. However a lack of funding and poor comprehension of the lifelong issues, result in adopters being unpaid foster carers, without the benefit of social work support. The overall cost (emotional, physical, psychological, financial) to the adults is now too great and not outweighed by the benefits to the child. However; short term, adoption is the cheapest option.
The ASF was capped because demand was twice the forecast level, demonstrating the desperate need. Believe me, I’m an adopter of 25 years who self funded most of our therapy. You don’t do that lightly. No parent will abuse the ASF. You plead because you are exhausted, hopeless, fearful, angry and desperate.
Adults who decide to offer a permanent home to the most damaged children, saving society millions, deserve uncapped robust support from our government. Nothing else will do.
Yesterday I read a blog from yet another adoptive parent who’s adopted son is reconnecting with his birth parents. (Befuddled mum) It’s a scenario I have witnessed many times in the last eight years; watching hundreds of adoptive families grieve as their teenage rejected them and returned emotionally and/or physically to their birth family. Sometimes they stayed connected to their adoptive parents, sometimes they didn’t.
Some adopters feel they have lost their child forever. Uncontactable. Lost but not dead. They grieve, but with a tiny glimmer of hope still flickering. Maybe this year a birthday or mothers card? Adopters unable to digest the loss of their “forever family”.
For the teens who reconnected, generally their hopes have been dashed on the rocks of credibility, reliability, bitter experience and broken promises. Often overwhelmed by confusing emotions, their young lives are irreversibly impacted by this derailment. (Exams missed or failed, college places lost, self harming, dropping out of university, mental health deterioration, arrests and convictions).
Few birth families provided the answers, intimacy or security the teens craved. Many birth parents are still entwined in the same problems which originally caused their children to be removed. Drugs, alcohol, criminality, transient and hedonistic life styles still evidenced. The dark parts of ‘Benefit Street’ and Trainspotting. Worst of all, the continued denial of any wrong doing and failing to take responsibility for any harm suffered by the infant. Unable to comprehend that “I always loved you” is, and never was, a substitute for consistent nurturing parenting.
SOLUTION – “LIFE CHRONICLE”
We must share a child’s history with them. 100% truth telling in a sensitive, age appropriate way. This needs to be a “Chronicle” (a factual, written chronological account of important events) not a “Story” (an account of events or people told for entertainment).
We must evidence their history with accurate information; a coherent narrative. Court reports which show all perspectives. Photographs of the squalor they lived in, not just smiling birthday snaps. Medical reports documenting bruising, malnourishment and health concerns in black and white. Police videos. We must stop the saccharin half truths frequently shared with adopted and foster kids in “life story books”.
Obviously kids will need help processing this information. They need creative, therapeutic methods to make sense of their childhood experiences, not just words. It is the meaning the child makes of their experiences which will either enhance, or damage, his self concept. Was it really Tim’s fault (as he believes) that as a two year old his mummy beat him? It’s what she screamed at the time (I hit you because your crying made me angry). Reworked in drama therapy eight year old Tim can see it wasn’t his fault and reframe that event into: “sometimes mummy got angry and lost control; that was wrong, she could not look after any child”.
We must provide adopters (and foster carers) with ongoing support which:
honours the permanent parents role in the child’s healing
gives the child an age appropriate full and balanced picture of their birth family (she prioritised finding drugs above caring for you … and was really good at PE and science in school … and left you with strangers for 5 days … and has a good sense of humour … and … and … and). Every dimension: the good, bad, ugly and beautiful.
allows safe contact between child and birth family wherever possible so curiosity is sated, gaps are filled, fantasises punctured. This benefits every corner of the adoption triangle.
In 2012 I wrote Bubble Wrapped Children: How Social Networking is transforming the face of 21st century adoption, because of my own and other peoples experience of contact via Facebook. Since then, many vintage adopters saw their children reconnect to birth family via Facebook. This exacerbated the existing problems and challenging behaviour of these teens. Sadly some of these families cracked or disintegrated. Some adoptees, racked with pervasive shame have disconnected from both their birth and adoptive family, cast adrift with no family support.
Put simply; we must preframe the issues throughout childhood, rather than repair during adolescence.
So, if you are an adopter, foster carer, social worker of therapist; how do you prevent contact via Facebook becoming a massive emotional crisis for a child?
Answer: you drip feed material. You share information throughout childhood. If its safe, establish some level of contact while you can control it. You can manage a 6/9/12 year old relatively easily. By 15 its a thousand times harder; they vote with their feet.
We must recognise and accept that an adopted child has two families and needs to know the ongoing truth about both of them throughout childhood; not the historical “wait till your 18”. Facebook destroyed that option. We must honour the inner turmoil of an adoptee who is pulled in two, often contradictory, directions and strengthen them from the inside.
Yes, this may mean complex contact arrangements with birth family, which may impact daily life in the adoptive home. Think of it like a pressure cooker. Without the slow exhalation from the pressure release valve, a massive explosion will inevitably occur.
Todays adoptive families know about the Facebook threat. Are they prepared? Are you taking avoiding action now? Are things so tough you can’t even contemplate this?
Future proofing = Hope for the best and plan for the worst.