I read this book primarily because I am taking part in the newly-formed therapeutic parents’ book club (#tpbooks), which was initiated by @PedallingSolo on Twitter. (Genius idea. Come and join us. More of that in a moment.)
The premise of the book is that we can improve communication with our children by going about the whole business a bit differently. It’s not adoption-specific, but nor is it full of the sort of advice that is unhelpful for adoptive families (the sticker charts and naughty steps stuff). Adopted children are mentioned as having benefited from this style of parenting, and it’s easy to see why, as it is mainly about being very attentive to children’s emotions.
Here’s the back-cover blurb.
All sounds good to me. But what does it ask parents to do in practice?
1: Helping children deal with their feelings
The first chapter talks about giving children your full attention whenever possible, and about recognising and naming their emotions.
In our family, we have established that asking questions often causes or worsens a meltdown, and that ‘Why?’ in particular rarely gets the intended results and usually causes screaming. The book develops this theme, suggesting several alternative ways to go about the conversation without making things worse.
‘Very often children don’t know why they feel as they do. At other times they’re reluctant to tell because they fear that in the adult’s eyes their reason won’t seem good enough. (“For that you’re crying?”) It’s much more helpful for an unhappy youngster to hear, “I see something is making you sad,” rather than to be interrogated with “What happened?” or “Why do you feel that way?” It’s easier to talk to a grown-up who accepts what you’re feeling rather than one who presses you for explanations.’
When Joanna had a meltdown over a felt-tip pen she felt her sister was monopolising, I tried using the drawing technique from this chapter – just asking her to draw her feelings a few times to show me how she was feeling. Her response?
‘I DON’T NEED TO DRAW HOW I’M FEELING!
YOU CAN SEE HOW I’M FEELING!
I’M NOT DOING IT!’
I described what I saw rather than asking questions. ‘I see that you’re upset because I’ve asked you to sit on the sofa and you wanted to carry on with your picture. I couldn’t let you stay at the table because you were shouting at your sister.’ Did it help her calm down like the boy in the book? Er, no. This happened:
And a lot more shouting. ‘You don’t love me, you always stop me doing fun things, you’re not a nice mummy… (etc)’. So I sent her to her room to read her book and calm down. I asked Charlotte to finish drinking her water. She refused and started a meltdown, so I tried it on her. I drew how I thought she was feeling:
And she corrected me:
‘No, Mummy. For me, life is a perpetual stream of rainbows and ponies!’
Anyway, by the time she’d drawn that, she was calm again. Joanna returned after about 20 minutes clutching a picture she’d drawn and apologising…
…so I make that at least a 50 per cent success rate.
2: Engaging cooperation
This chapter compares different approaches to getting a child to do something (e.g. put on their pyjamas or set the table). These transition-type activities are a frequent trigger for Joanna and Charlotte who struggle with changing activities before they feel ready to. The book says to try describing a problem rather than issuing instructions, so ‘The towel is on the floor’ rather than ‘Hang up the towel’.
I loved the honesty in this chapter, particularly where the authors talk about how it’s important to be authentic and not fake patience you’re not feeling when children are not responding. This is a book I can relate to! I don’t believe any adoptive parent is able to stay perfectly therapeutic at all times.
I like to think that I usually make sure I am describing situations and my feelings rather than lecturing the children, though I admit to asking ‘Who has forgotten to clean the sink/hang up the towel/put their socks in the laundry basket?’ quite often. I made a particular effort to do this when I read this chapter. It did achieve the desired results most of the time, but Joanna tearfully and apologetically told me at bedtime that she finds my ‘calm voice’ (her label) really annoying. And again on the school run. Well. That told me. I can’t win.
But ‘Your bedroom light is on’ has worked with Charlotte where a ‘Please switch off your light’ might have provoked a strop, so I’m going to keep trying this one.
3: Alternatives to punishment
I really liked this chapter. This is something we’ve really struggled with, because we believe there should be consequences for deliberate bad choices, but Pete and I haven’t always agreed on exactly how to handle this.
The book suggests a few techniques, including list-making in order to negotiate a solution. I’m hoping we can try this out and see if it works for us. The idea of sitting down together and writing lists of ideas to solve problems really appeals to both of us, and I think the girls will like it if we can catch them soon enough pre-meltdown. That’s the trick to a lot of this stuff though, and sometimes the meltdown comes on so quickly that there just isn’t any time to do anything other than damage limitation. An example from this weekend:
We get into the car. We drive off.
Charlotte: ‘Can we have the music on?’
Pete: ‘Not at the moment. I want to talk to Mummy.’
Charlotte: ‘I WANT THE MUSIC ON! PUT THE MUSIC ON!’
The shouting/screaming continues for five minutes. Pete pulls over because Charlotte’s becoming dangerous. We pre-emptively remove her shoes. She kicks Pete in the head. We sit there for half an hour waiting for her to calm down. She won’t listen to anything we say to try and help her, just screams what we say back at us. Me and Pete, still recovering from Joanna having a similar episode the previous day, sit there and cry in exhaustion and desperation.
So we haven’t tried this yet. We did have a few conversations about grace when they were calmer, and how ‘I am giving you this packet of Haribo because I love you, not because I like your behaviour’. Whether they can process that I’m not sure. I think it helps to draw a line under things and move on.
4: Encouraging autonomy
This chapter is about allowing the children to take responsibility for their actions by giving them opportunities to decide how they are going to fulfil a requirement eg to finish their homework by a certain day, remember to take things they need to school, etc. I like the idea of giving a child suggestions and telling them work out a solution that they can have ownership of. I think Joanna would respond well to this. Charlotte probably would on her good days, but I don’t know that she would manage to do it consistently – a symptom of what we suspect is FASD. We’ll try it though, and see what happens.
The emphasis of this chapter is on being more descriptive of children’s good behaviour. Not just ‘good job!’ but ‘I see that you’ve made the bed, cleared everything off the floor, and tidied your shelves – excellent organisation!’ It also says to say how this makes you feel, such as ‘This room feels so calm and relaxing now’, and to include a one-word label for the behaviour – ‘organisation’, or ‘reliability’ or ‘punctuality’, for example.
The day I finished the book happened to be the last day of school before half term, and Joanna has had such a massively improved work ethic so far this term that I thought she needed rewarding. I left a new book for her on her bed (the much-longed-for Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban) along with a note about how hard she’d been working at school and on the de-escalation techniques she’s been learning in therapy. I admit to feeling a bit twee and Californian about writing ‘but the best reward is how you can feel proud of yourself’ – I come from a long line of stiff-upper-lip Brits who don’t really talk like that – but our family does do talking about emotions, and it’s what she needs, so I got over myself.
I didn’t leave Charlotte out – we had a trip to the library and the café while Joanna was at after-school club. Reading is much more of a struggle for her so I wrote her a voucher for a treat to go with her hot chocolate. She chose a biscuit and happily read me three books and a set of vocabulary flash cards from school. I felt like supermum for that hour. Then we picked Joanna up and Charlotte had two sit-down protests on the walk home because she ‘couldn’t walk’ (her ability to run in the other direction was miraculously unaffected) and wanted to bring a stick home and didn’t have enough hands (my fault, of course). Eventually we got home and I managed to stay therapeutic throughout two long hours of tantrum, but I’m afraid I had had enough by hour three and finally shouted at her to GO TO BED in a decidedly untherapeutic manner. I am human after all. Phew.
Summary: I think maybe we need to give the praise thing a bit longer to have the desired effect. I love the idea but it’s going to take some remembering.
6: Freeing children from playing roles
This was an interesting one for me. I have been very conscious of not wanting to label the children, mainly as a feminist issue. I certainly don’t do it in a conscious way, but when I read this chapter I stopped to think. Actually, truth be told, there are a few. Not all are said to their faces, but they are words we often use to describe them, if only in our own heads.
Noisy. Bright. Destructive. Impulsive. Loud. Fussy. Argumentative. Beautiful. Boisterous. Violent.
So I tried to challenge these and to praise quietness, hard work, gentleness, thoughtfulness, acceptance, and teamwork. A couple of times I slid notes under their bedroom doors after they were asleep, praising the good stuff I’d seen that day.
Is it working? It’s too early to say. Again, this stuff almost certainly has a cumulative effect and requires us to remember and think of things to write and muster enthusiasm for doing it after a long day. Maybe a reminder on my phone would help.
7: Putting it all together
This summary chapter is hard to disagree with. ‘We want to find a way to live with one another so that we can feel good about ourselves and help the people we love feel good about themselves.’ ‘We want to find a way that makes it possible for our children to be caring and responsible.’ Yes. Of course. Don’t we all?
I like this book and I could list a handful of situations where we have helped the children to de-escalate using the technique of empathy and labelling (‘I expect you feel frustrated that there’s no time to watch TV because you were hoping to watch it before dinner.’) But sometimes it doesn’t work. Sometimes they’ve yelled ‘NO I AM NOT FRUSTRATED!’ and other times they’ve gone for ‘NO, YOU ARE FRUSTRATED!’ – either way, rejecting the idea that we could possibly understand and empathise with them. And yes, this was frustrating. There’s an irony there somewhere.
So in summary, this book has some useful tools which we’ll continue to explore. For our situation, we need to supplement them with some others, but I can see how the techniques here would work to help build the girls’ self-esteem and resilience if used consistently. Now if someone can just help me with the energy to put it all into practice every day, we’ll be laughing.
The therapeutic parents’ book club
If you liked the sound of this book, you can buy it on Amazon here. And if you’d like to join us, the therapeutic parents’ book club meets on Twitter on the first of the month between 8.00 and 9.00pm. We use the hashtag #tpbooks. Come and join the conversation tonight, or read the next book [details to be confirmed] and participate next time.