When friends ask ‘What can I do to help?’

lifebuoy-help

This is another one of those embarrassing topics that make everyone feel a bit awkward. We live in a culture that encourages us to be self-sufficient and hate asking for help. We don’t want to look needy or grabby, and we don’t like admitting that we don’t have everything under control.

This is a bit bonkers. Of course we all need help sometimes. So I’m going to just dive straight in. Please ensure you are wearing your anti-embarrassment suit. Ready? Good.

So. Every now and again I find myself in conversation with someone who knows the girls are adopted, asks ‘How’s it going?’, and actually wants to hear the truth.

Nuanced small-talk-type social skills not being my forté (I am an INTJ to the core), I often struggle to differentiate between these people and the ones who’d prefer to hear the sanitised rainbows-and-unicorns happily-ever-after adoption story that gives us all a permanent joyful radiance springing from the satisfaction of parenting our little cherubs.

I forget that people generally just want to be lied to with a ‘Fine!’ and often only work this out a sentence or two too late when the unicorn people excuse themselves from the conversation in search of someone normal to talk to about their own little Delicate Daisy’s ballet/harp lessons, with a poorly-masked horror when I mention that I’ve been asked to pop in and see the head because Joanna threw a chair at her teacher again.

But once I’ve got that sorted, the good’uns sometimes ask ‘So, what can I do?’. Again, some say this and don’t want an honest answer. But those rare creatures who are genuinely asking are to be encouraged.

And then another problem: it’s difficult to gauge the level of commitment they’re offering. Do I ask for a home-cooked meal for four, or two minutes’ keeping an eye on them while I speak to a teacher? A coffee after the morning school run, or a weekend’s respite care?

Ever practical and resourceful (that INTJ thing again) I’d love to be able to have a wishlist handy to give to people so they can pick something appropriate. I have just about enough social nous, however, to know people would find that weird. So usually I just say, ‘Oh, I don’t think there’s anything, thanks’, or I make a joke, such as ‘a clone’, ‘alcohol’ or ‘sedatives’ with a nod in the children’s direction. (I’ve already asked the GP for those. She said no. Worth a try.)

But I’ve written a wishlist anyway, in hopes that other adopters who wish for the same kinds of things can use my words to ask for help in a nice socially acceptable way (because we love a bit of indirectness, don’t we?). Some are things people can buy and leave on the doorstep and run away, if they struggle with knowing what to say (I know how this feels).  Others are practical things that are more of a time commitment but make a massive difference. These things usually fall to my parents and one local friend, and I’d dearly love to share things out a bit more so I feel less guilt about relying on them so heavily. I have some lovely friends who live too far away to see often, and when I share our latest tribulations on Facebook, chocolates, cakes and biscuits start to appear in the post. This is kind and wonderful and I am very grateful (especially for the liqueur chocolates – they will always be welcome). But our friends-who-send-comestibles often say these things come from feeling too far away to help ‘properly’, and not knowing what else they can do.

So, if you’re offering, here are some ideas – a mix of things to suit those far and near.

1. Childcare. Pick the girls up after school and take them out for a drink and a biscuit so I can have an extra hour’s peace.

2. Coffee. Take me out for a drink and a biscuit and listen without judgement while I tell you how hard it is to live with children who won’t let us parent them. Or if you’re sick of hearing about it, a Starbucks gift card (so I can treat myself after a horrendous school run) also works.

3. Ironing. I always have a mountain of it and am always too tired to do it.

4. Gardening – again, time prevents us keeping the garden under control. Any help there would be amazing.

5. DIY. Specifically, one or two of the little mending jobs we have on a rolling list. The bedroom door that sticks because it’s been slammed too often. The new toilet seat that needs fitting because the girls broke the hinges of the old one. The repainting where they’ve scratched their way up the stairs.

6. Amazon vouchers/book tokens. Because adoptive parents do a huge amount of reading to research how to help their children. Our library service can get hold of some books for us, but not all of the specialist stuff, and often we get them in Kindle form because then we can afford twice as many.

7. Printer ink cartridges. Because of the printing and photocopying of endless forms and letters to try and get help for the children.

Ice-cream shaped bubble pot8. Small (A5ish) colouring books/sticker books/bubble pots/I-Spy books/fidget toys that the children can use in waiting rooms/at church/on the train/etc. Stuff I can have in my handbag to deploy easily to prevent meltdowns (see this post about the contents of my handbag). Blowing bubbles in particular helps them regulate their breathing and calm down when they’re getting overwhelmed/stressed out/stroppy – great on the way home from school if they’ve had a hard day.

9. Water bottles for the girls’ birthday/Christmas presents because they are always losing them.

10. Nametapesthe sew-in kind and the sticker kind. Because everything gets left behind regularly, no matter how much we ask ‘have you got everything?’

Please know that I hate asking – both out of pride (because I like to think that I am superwoman even when the evidence suggests otherwise) and out of a fear of seeming demanding and grabby and whiny and a hundred other unpleasant adjectives. And that if you do any of these things I will be more grateful than I can express. And that if you’ve read this far I love you already. Thank you.

An extra message for churches
Please get hold of the free booklet ‘Supporting those who adopt or foster’ and give it to everyone who is willing to read it, and certainly all the leaders and pastoral care people. I can’t recommend it highly enough. Details are on my resources page here.

Fellow adoptive parents: what else would you put on your wishlist? I’d love it if you shared your ideas in the comments.

Notes
My post was inspired by this one by Pamela Wendel.
Amazon links are affiliated.

Why I’m an adoptive parent

I wrote this post a couple of years ago for another blog, and someone asked me about it recently, so here it is again. Our family is going through a tough time at the moment (more on that here) and I’ve found it helpful to read this again and remember why we chose to adopt.

why-i-am-an-adoptive-parent

On being unusual
When my husband and I told our assessing social worker that we hadn’t tried to conceive because overpopulation concerned us, we cared about children who needed parents, and that adoption was therefore our first choice for creating our family, she raised her eyebrows, put on her professional face, and said ours was an ‘unusual’ decision. (‘Unusual’ is social worker speak for ‘crazy’.) We’ve heard this more than once, and we’re fine with that. Well, we’re fine with it in that it doesn’t hurt our pride at all. We’re less fine with the business of it being unusual. We’d like it to be much more normal to adopt as a first choice.

I’m passionate about adoption. I’ve had this passion since the morning of Wednesday 27 February 2008, when meeting a little boy in an overseas orphanage flipped a maternal switch in me that I’d previously thought was missing from my circuitry. I am even more enthusiastic now, having lived the reality of parenting two fabulous adoptive daughters for just over a year. Of course it has changed all our lives. It is unquestionably hard work. And – here’s the bit where people say we’re unusual – I believe it’s better for the planet. And I’m passionate about that too.

Sex and statistics
According to the Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF), ‘If everyone in the world consumed natural resources and generated carbon dioxide at the rate we do in the UK, we’d need three planets – not just one − to support us. The impacts – not least climate change, deforestation and the loss of numerous species – are already starting to affect us all.’Figures for the US are higher still, requiring a hypothetical four planets if we all consumed the same amount of resources as an average American. WWF add, ‘Human population dynamics are a major driving force behind environmental degradation. One aspect of this is the overall size of the global population, which has more than doubled since 1950 – to 7 billion in 2011 and is forecast to reach just over 9.3 billion people by 2050.’2

It’s not rocket science to figure out that more people consume more resources, and that in addition to curbing our consumption, reducing the size of the population, particularly in countries that consume more than their fair share per person, makes ecological sense. But, like others, I found out the hard way that people don’t like to hear about this perspective, even when it isn’t posed in a personal or confrontational manner. There is a perception that people have a right to choose the size of their family, to create as many children as they wish, and that this is an intensely personal matter in which no one else has the right to express an opinion but those doing the procreating.

Where the two meet
As a Christian, I am particularly interested in this place where care for God’s creation intersects with care for vulnerable children. There is a Biblical mandate for Christians to look after both the planet and those the Bible calls ‘orphans’ or ‘the fatherless’. (In our day they may not be literal orphans with no living parents, but they are still in need of parents who can meet their needs appropriately.) I have the sort of personality that means when I see this connection, I assume it is such an obvious piece of logic that everyone will immediately agree and we will all rush out and solve it together. Overpopulated planet? Children needing families? Then the answers are contraception and adoption! But I am aware that not everyone sees things in such a clear-cut way. In researching the subject, I have become aware of exactly how complicated it is possible to make this discussion, especially when it comes to the delicate topic of international adoption. But the bald facts remain: there are children already born who need loving families in which to thrive, and the people already on the planet are overconsuming its resources and causing lasting damage.

I long to see the church take the lead in adopting children and tackling our overconsuming lifestyles. As far as I can see, the two are thoroughly biblical and intrinsically linked. Much has already been written about the lifestyle part of this equation, and the church is gradually waking up to the need for adoption, so books are appearing on this topic too. This is wonderful. But my passion is for both. Understood and acted upon together, they make a powerful statement to the watching world about who our God is and how much he cares at both ends of the scale – for the individual, setting the lonely in families3, and for the whole world, having created the Sabbath rest not only for the benefit of people but also the earth itself.4 As James Jones puts it,

‘The doing of God’s will on earth as it is done in heaven requires us to challenge unjust structures, political and economic, and to insist on fair trade and sustainable methods of food and fuel production. The earthing of heaven requires it.’5

Just to clear up any misunderstanding, I’m not suggesting that everyone should adopt. I am saying that (multiple births excepted) the ideal is that no one should add more than two children to the planet, and people who want larger families should endeavour to adopt where possible. But I’m also saying that many, many more people should consider adoption as a first choice and not just view it as ‘the last resort of the infertile’.

Where our story started
On the morning of Wednesday 27 February 2008, we’d been on what would be a five-week trip for all of four days. We were with an international organisation that places Western volunteers with local NGOs who can make use of their specialist skills. Our remit was to visit an NGO for the morning, interview people and get a good picture of their work, then write about the types of skilled volunteers who could be used by the charity. (This was the third of 25 NGOs we’d be visiting over the course of the five weeks, to do the same thing, in two different countries. Yes, it was really very busy indeed.)

A British volunteer met us and took us into the NGO’s daycare centre: a facility in the grounds of the orphanage into which they were allowed to bring some of the children for a few hours’ attention: singing, trying foods with interesting textures, and some physical therapy. We sat and joined in, taking a few photos of the children beaming as they sang and played percussion instruments. Next we were taken to the orphanage itself, which was run by the state. This was a strictly no photos area. And we soon saw why. The children were in blue plastic beds, which resembled vegetable crates, on the floor. It was silent. The children – mainly toddlers with a range of disabilities – were fed and changed but knew better than to ask or cry out for attention outside of those prescribed times. Seeing a room full of silent children was eerie. A few children were outside in high-sided cots, in the shade under the eaves of the building. We said hello to a little boy, and he grinned back. I guess he was about six and we think he had cerebral palsy. His smile was irresistible. Unable to communicate verbally, we tickled him. More grinning and giggling. I – the woman who wasn’t all that interested in children – was won over.

We learned from the volunteer showing us round that he had recently broken his leg and didn’t even call out to the staff then – they only found out later. We asked his name. No-one knew. Finally an answer came back. And that was the moment that I knew I wanted to adopt. Or to be more precise, the moment that I knew I couldn’t ever justify procreating when my resources – emotional and financial – could be better spent caring for vulnerable children like him. Now I had seen the face, held the hand, and knew the name of a little boy who needed a family.

I’ll probably never see his face again, and I don’t even have a photo to remember him by. But he changed the course of our family’s lives. Though I had no idea at the time, back in the UK, our elder daughter was already on her way. Five years further on, we legally adopted her and her sister.

I still remember that little boy’s name, and the giggle that changed our lives.


WWF, ‘Building a One-Planet Future’
WWF (2012), Living Planet Report
Psalm 68:6
Leviticus 25:1–7, Exodus 23:10-11
5 James Jones (2003), Jesus and the Earth, SPCK, p34.

Letterbox contact: a template letter

dear-birth-parent

The annual letter to your child(ren)’s birth family can be difficult to write. How do you sum up a year in a page or two? How much information do you share, and what do you withhold? And for many, it’s difficult to write cheerily to the people who caused our children so much trauma, especially when you don’t fancy your chances of receiving a reply.

(A note at this point: I’m writing from a UK perspective where most children are adopted via the care system, and am aware that elsewhere (eg open adoptions of relinquished babies in the US) this may not apply in the same way. No offence is intended, but it is important to acknowledge that many birth parents who have had children removed from their care have chaotic lives and are often unable to respond to contact letters.)

The bit I struggle with the most is painting a rosy picture of domestic harmony when the truth is that it is often exceptionally hard and we deal with tantrums from dawn ’til dusk. (You can read a typical day in our family life here.) I don’t want to tell our girls’ birth mum that actually it is horrible to have those weeks/months where I sit and wait for school to phone and ask me to go and retrieve my child because they can’t cope with her violence. I’m fine blogging about it, obviously, so what’s the difference?

I think it’s that I know her perspective is different. She cares about them and wants the best for them, but probably wouldn’t cope well with any negativity. I don’t want her to worry about them. I feel that that’s our job now, and what she needs is just reassurance that all is well and a few appropriate anecdotes. I want her to be able to see us as a solution for the children’s problems, and to know that we are coping.

This is the format I use: a list of questions that help when I’m faced with the blank page and that ‘I really must write it this week’ feeling.

  • How are they doing at school – what are they enjoying? Do they like their teacher(s)? Is there a nice quote from their school report you can include?
  • How is their health? (I keep this positive and gloss over the trip to A&E!)
  • What are their current hobbies or clubs? Are they enjoying football or Brownies or art after school? Or do they prefer doing Lego at home?
  • Are there any funny stories to tell?
  • What books, TV shows or films have they enjoyed? Is there a particular character they like?
  • Is there a message from the child, or have they drawn a picture?
  • If you send photos, what’s the story behind the picture?

So a typical letter goes something like this:

Dear Tracey

How are you? I hope you had a good summer.

Joanna and Charlotte are doing really well. They’ve just gone back to school and are enjoying being in their new classes. Joanna especially loves reading and won a prize for her reading at school last term. She has read all the Roald Dahl books – her favourite is Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Charlotte is enjoying art – she is always bringing home new pictures. They both go to nature club after school and have been growing vegetables in the school garden.

They’re very healthy and growing so fast! Apart from a few colds and a bit of hayfever they don’t ever seem to get ill, which is great. They still wear glasses and love going to the optician to choose new ones.

Joanna has started recorder club after school. She is excited about playing in the school concert at Christmas. Charlotte likes the Lego club she goes to on Saturdays. She likes building shops, castles, and giant slides for the Lego people to use!

In the summer holidays they had swimming lessons and went to a sports club. They both love swimming and being outside, climbing trees and making dens. We went away for a week at the seaside and they swam in the sea, made sandcastles and flew a kite. They really enjoyed being on the beach and jumping in the waves.

The girls both say hello and have drawn you some pictures of our holiday. As you can see from the photo, they were especially keen on the ice creams – especially the crazy flavours like bubblegum with jelly beans in! They’d love to know what ice cream flavour is your favourite.

Love from Hannah, Pete, Joanna and Charlotte

And then I post it off (sometimes with help from the children so they’re involved, sometimes quietly so they don’t dwell on it for weeks, depending on how settled things are for them at the time). And then I breathe a sigh of relief for another year. It’s done.

You can download both the list of questions above and the sample letter as an editable template from my resources page. I hope you find it a helpful starting point for writing about your own child(ren).

As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts. Please get in touch through the comments or on Twitter or Facebook.

 

Not-so-secret weapons: the ten transition-time tools I keep in my bag

When we were preparing to meet our children, I remember ceremoniously swapping my compact handbag (which typically contained keys, wallet, phone, and maybe a lip balm and a book) for The Mum Bag, which was comparatively cavernous and contained everything from nappies to plasters to finger puppets via emergency chocolate (yes, that last one one was mainly for me).

As the girls have got older, the contents of my bag have changed a bit, and thankfully it’s no longer full of ziplock bags of pants, but the contents still fall in to the same categories:

  • entertainment/distraction,
  • calming/comforting, and
  • health/hygiene.

These tools are usually deployed at times of transition: coming out of school, waiting for doctors’ and dentists’ appointments, in the car to their grandparents’ house, that sort of thing. This is the time when they struggle most with their behaviour and I whip out one of my not-so-secret weapons to help them cope.

handbag-numbered

Entertainment and distraction
To entertain and distract I carry fidgety/chewy toys for Charlotte (1), an I-spy book for Joanna (3), and colouring and puzzle books for both of them (7 and 8). If they get bored they can get grumpy very quickly. I’m fine with letting them get a bit bored at home so they learn to entertain themselves, but that’s not always what I want in the doctor’s waiting room. The sensory stuff helps to stop Charlotte chewing/breaking other things she happens upon – also a plus when we’re out and about.

Calming and comforting
To calm and comfort them we have snacks (5), reward stickers (6) – for cheering them up when they didn’t win the game/get a house point/get to sit where they wanted at lunchtime, and bubbles (9) – these are incredibly useful for calming our children down from a meltdown, because they regulate their breathing and distract them from the strop, all at the same time. I have learned to love bubbles, and so there’s always a slightly soapy ziplock bag in my handbag.

Health and hygiene
Our two are permanently covered in mud/pen/snot/lunch so I carry wipes (2) to try to make them presentable, and I also have plasters, not usually for actual injuries but for Charlotte’s many scratches and cuts – imperceptible to the naked eye – that require my attention and TLC, usually when there’s something she doesn’t want to do. Plasters are a kind of magic for Charlotte’s behaviour, and if it works, I’m going to go with it.

Self-care
Obviously those Freddos (4) are mainly there for me. (As if I need to spell that out.)

I don’t usually have all of these with me unless it’s a long journey or there’s a likelihood of sitting in a waiting room for a while. But the snacks, stickers and bubbles are permanent fixtures, and the rest get added in depending on what I think is likely to be deployed on any given day.

I’m always on the lookout for small, portable things to help Joanna and Charlotte manage transitions and find that the party bag filler section of the supermarket can be brilliant for small entertainments. Amazon has lots of party bag fillers you can buy in bulk – things like those little plastic mazes, small notebooks, chewy bracelets, etc. I also whip the toys out of McDonalds happy meals before the children get hold of them (they really don’t need any distraction at mealtimes) and save the decent ones for producing when required.

I’m curious about what other parents have in their bags. Is yours similar to mine? Or are there other things that work well for your family? Let me know in the comments or on Twitter or Facebook

A typical day in the Meadows household

calendar

It’s now three years since we got our adoption order, and our post-adoption support is about to transfer from the placing authority to our local authority. We’ll be asking for another formal assessment of our family’s support needs and so I’m putting together some documents to show what support we want and why we need it. This ‘day in the life’ is one of those.

6.00ish The girls wake up. Our rule is that they play quietly in their rooms, but sometimes Charlotte will sensory seek elsewhere, eg decorate the bathroom with a tube of toothpaste, put suncream on the walls, or go downstairs (which is out of bounds at that time). As soon as I am the tiniest bit awake, my ears are on high alert for any sounds that might indicate Things They Should Not Be Doing.

7.30 The girls come to our room and we all go downstairs for breakfast. Often Charlotte will have a tantrum about something – one of us looking at her, someone sitting where she wants to sit, etc – and she can take a very long time to finish her (small) breakfast (often one slice of toast). This is about control – she doesn’t want us to take it away but she doesn’t want to eat it either. If there’s any arguing over a seat to be done, Joanna is likely to join in too.

8.00 The girls get dressed. Sometimes this is done quickly, other times they procrastinate and get grumpy when we ask how they’re getting on. There are often meltdowns when we tell them to stop playing and to get dressed, to brush their teeth, that they will need a jumper, that it’s time to put their shoes on.

8.25 We leave the house (often with a bit of transition-related stropping) and walk to school. Usually at least one of the children will be grumpy en route, because of the transition, because they have poked each other, because we’ve said no to something, because they’d rather go in the car, because they want the other parent to take them, etc. Sometimes this will involve violence – to each other or to us, especially to Pete.

8.40 We arrive at school five minutes before everyone else comes in and sometimes manage a proper handover with the staff. Sometimes Joanna’s one-to-one assistant isn’t there or is doing something else.

8.55 The parent doing the school run gets home, exhausted, and then starts a day’s work.

During the day Hannah checks Charlotte’s room for contraband: things she has found or ‘borrowed’ from elsewhere in the house, at school, or in the street. These have included stones, feathers, Joanna’s toys, toys from school, used plasters of indeterminate origin, medication she found on the train(!) and hundreds of tissues and pieces of toilet paper, often chewed into little wads and put under the bed, or torn into confetti and left around the room.

During the day on Thursdays Hannah spends two hours at school attending Joanna’s therapy session.

During the day school may phone and ask Hannah to go in and help Joanna calm down, or to collect Joanna after she has been angry, violent and/or upset.

During the day Hannah returns calls/emails about the girls when she is supposed to be working.

During the day Pete often has to take time off work to attend meetings about the girls.

3.15 One of us collects the girls from school. Often there will be a strop immediately, especially if we accidentally ask them how their day has been. Often there will be another strop on the way home if we don’t take their preferred route or play with their friends on the way (obviously they will both have different preferences that cannot both be met).

3.40 We get home. The instant the front door closes marks the entry into the Peak Strop Zone (from now until bedtime). The other parent sometimes accidentally triggers another strop by looking at Charlotte/asking a question about their day/saying something that has already been discussed on the way home ‘and I AM NOT SAYING IT AGAIN!’ The girls play bicker together/go on their tablets/watch TV. There will be at least one argument at some point, and one or both will end up stamping up the stairs and slamming their bedroom door, then shouting about how they hate everyone. This transition from school to home is the time when they are most likely to be violent. (This is what that violence is like.)

5.00 Dinnertime. This will rarely please both children, who don’t approve of the menu/don’t want to stop what they’re doing/hate salad. Charlotte may have a massive tantrum, especially if there are tomatoes or anything green on her plate. Something will be spilt/dropped on the floor/hidden in her clothes because she doesn’t want to eat it and will put it in the bin/toilet later.

5.40 We all play a game together, as suggested by Joanna’s therapist. If Joanna doesn’t win, she has a huge meltdown, stamps up the stairs, slams her door and shouts/screams about how everyone hates her. We patiently go through all the therapeutic techniques with her (that we have established with her therapist), or she shouts at us that she is NOT DOING THEM.

6.00 Bedtime. The girls procrastinate about getting changed, brushing teeth, etc. If we ask how they’re getting on, or why they’re not in their pyjamas twenty minutes after we asked them, or what they’re doing naked in the other one’s bedroom (etc), there’ll be another meltdown. A meltdown at this point in the day can last up to 90 minutes.

When the girls are asleep

  • Pete works, if he needs to make up time lost to meetings and/or meltdowns during the day.
  • Hannah works, if meetings/calls from school have caused a delay during the day.
  • We discuss emails that need answering and whatever forms we are currently completing (there’s usually at least one on the go).
  • We read and comment in Joanna’s home–school communications book.
  • We check Charlotte’s school bags for contraband.
  • We analyse the events of the day and consider what to do.
  • We have no social life.

10.00–11.00 We go to sleep. Often Hannah will be awake at 3.00/4.00/5.00 worrying about the latest incident with the girls and what to do next.

And repeat.

Do you relate to this? If it sounds familiar I’d love to hear from you. Please get in touch through the comments or on Twitter or Facebook. If you missed my recent post on our experience of child-to-parent violence (CPV) you can read it here.

‘But they look so innocent’: our CPV experience

(‘Sorry Daddy for hurting you, I hope you get better.’)

(‘Dear Mummy, I am sorry I hurt your lovely husband.’)

When your mantlepiece is routinely filled with cards like these, something is really not right. These are this week’s, written by Charlotte, age six, after she kicked Pete so hard in the stomach that it left him unable to move, even to stand up, for several hours.

All he’d done was to tell her it was bedtime.

Our children saw a lot of domestic violence in the birth family home – Joanna for nearly 3 years, Charlotte for 18 months. It’s not their fault they learned to deal with strong emotions by resorting to force. They didn’t have the opportunity to learn anything different.

They had six months of play therapy in the first half of this year, whereupon the therapist decided it wasn’t helping either of them (we knew this before it started, but post-adoption support couldn’t/wouldn’t give us any other kind of therapy). Joanna is now having weekly CBT sessions, which is a definite step in the right direction, but still isn’t the intensive thrice-weekly psychiatric intervention that we and the current therapist agree she needs.

Charlotte is currently not receiving any help at all, though she is ‘in the system’ awaiting an OT, having had an assessment. She has ‘attachment-related sensory-seeking’ issues, which isn’t quite an SPD diagnosis, as far as I can tell (put me right if you know better), but in practice means she chews a lot of things (toys, clothes, bedding, paper, toilet roll, blutac…), will have a meltdown if there’s a tomato or too many salad leaves on her plate, and is very wary of trying new foods.

Both have caused us a number of injuries in the time they’ve been with us. In week one of placement, Joanna bit me on the tummy, drawing blood even through my jeans. More recently, during our two-week holiday, she bit Pete, pushed Charlotte into a metal grating that caused a graze up her arm, and scratched my leg with a fingernail while I was restraining her during a meltdown.

Pete tends to get the brunt of it – he has been kicked while driving several times, once in the head. I mainly get scratched and bitten rather than kicked.

At school, Joanna is worse. She is violent to staff there at least once a week, often two or three times. Teachers have been bitten, kicked, scratched, hit, had their hair pulled, had things thrown at them, and had drinks poured on them. Whenever the work is a tiny bit challenging (ie she doesn’t know the answer the instant she sees the question), she finds it too threatening and the fight/flight response kicks in.

Charlotte, on the other hand, is fine at school. She’s behind academically, we think mainly because she’s emotionally immature and therefore not ready to learn. But she is never violent there. This is both good news (for obvious reasons) and bad news (because no-one else sees the problem and it’s therefore much harder to get help for her).

So what do we do? We ask for help All The Time. I update post-adoption support every time we have a major incident, so it is all logged on our files. We have made three applications to CAMHS – one each via school, post-adoption support and the GP, all of which were turned down or didn’t even get off the starting blocks. The fourth application (via our excellent GP) has gone in this week, and the fifth is going via school at the start of term. If I need to, I will keep on going at least until we hit double figures. What’s the alternative?

Living with two angry and violent children is hard. Very hard. It’s exhausting, emotionally and physically. But if we don’t continue to pester people to help them, we’ll eventually have two violent teenagers, and to be honest, I think that might well end in a disruption. We’re not quite at breaking point yet, thankfully, but I can see that it could easily happen. We love these girls, and we intend to honour our commitment to them with everything we have, but there may come a point where it is Just Not Safe for them to live here anymore. That prospect feels horrible. I feel guilty typing it out. But there it is.

The right sort of help is a long time coming, though. I’m not entirely sure what it will look like when it arrives, but I’m hoping it’s going to involve the girls shouting at a therapist occasionally and getting things properly dealt with.

It’s going to be a long haul.

If you’ve had, or are having, a similar experience, I’d love to hear from you. Please get in touch through the comments or on Twitter or Facebook

The back-to-school letter to teachers

Dear Teacher

At the start of every school year, (or if we’re very organised, the end of the previous one) we write a letter to the girls’ new teachers, filling them in on their background and giving them information on things that the girls are likely to find helpful and unhelpful. This ensures they have at least had the opportunity to gather information, talk to us, and prepare. Here’s one of this year’s.

Dear Miss X

We thought it would be helpful to provide you with some additional background information about Joanna. She is bright, funny and fabulous, but also has some challenges.

As you know, Joanna is adopted. She was taken into care in 2011, aged [X], having experienced neglect and domestic violence. Life in her birth family was quite chaotic with lots of moves and family members appearing and disappearing. She and Charlotte had just one foster placement, which lasted 18 months, before they moved to live with us in 2013.

The girls have a half-brother, Tom, who is in a different long-term foster care placement. They have only letterbox contact with him – i.e. we exchange letters/ drawings/photos via social services. This is next due to happen in October, and the reminder that they no longer see each other is upsetting for Joanna. Her behaviour can be a bit more turbulent for about a week afterwards – we’ll use the home/school book to make sure you know when it’s happening.

Because of the risk of being traced by her birth family, it is also very important that Joanna’s photo doesn’t appear online, and that other parents are reminded not to put pictures or video on social media whenever they are likely to be filming or photographing the class at assemblies, concerts, plays, sports day, and when class photos are sent home. (This is often overlooked and causes us to panic!)

Though Joanna has generally settled extremely well, she often finds transitions (i.e. moving between activities, people, and places) especially difficult. Changes from the routine such as mufti days and lessons at [the nearby secondary school] can make her anxious. Other topics likely to be upsetting for Joanna which might crop up at school include:

  • family trees
  • family resemblances
  • babies
  • siblings
  • [town] (where she lived previously)
  • evacuees/refugees having to leave dangerous situations
  • war/violence

When she is struggling with big emotions she lets adults know by stamping, shouting and occasionally being violent. Miss Y and Mrs Z will have told you their strategies for helping Joanna with these times of anxiety. Do feel free to talk them through with us too if that would be helpful.

Because of the uncertainty she lived with at an early age, Joanna shows some signs of hypervigilance, i.e. always needing to know what is happening, who is where within the room, etc., in order to feel settled and able to concentrate. She finds loud noises frightening because she associates them with arguments and violence in her birth family. She will find it helpful to sit near an adult whenever possible, and to be in a position where she can see a lot of the room, so she can monitor what is happening and isn’t distracted by turning round to check that she’s safe whenever there is a noise.

Other things that are helpful to Joanna include:

  • knowing the timetable for the day and avoiding surprises
  • warnings when an activity is about to end (‘five minutes left…’, ‘one minute left…’)
  • talking about resilience and ‘the power of yet’ when she is struggling with work
  • lots of positive reinforcement (verbal and stickers) when she does things well/has a good day

We have found it helpful to have a brief face-to-face handover with one of the classroom staff at about 8.35/8.40 each morning so we can all be up-to-date. If there’s anything else we can do, or if you have any questions, please let us know. Joanna’s therapist is in school every week and will also be keen to talk to you and offer any help she can. If you have any time to read about attachment that would be amazing. Louise Bombèr’s books are particularly teacher-friendly and practical, and school has copies of them.

With thanks

Hannah and Pete Meadows

I hope this is helpful to those writing these letters for the first time. I’ve made it available for download here so you can use it as a starting point for writing a letter about your own child(ren).

If you’ve written this sort of letter before, what else did you include? Please let me know in the comments.

How to survive taking adopted children on holiday

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Photo credit: Henry Burrows (Creative Commons licence)

Yes, I love them. No, that doesn’t make holidays with them any easier.

For our family (and probably for many others), a family ‘holiday’ is just about moving all the usual stress of adoptive family life, and adding in some travel (stress), a new environment (stress), transitions and possible homesickness (stress) and a barrage of new sensory experiences – sights, tastes, smells and sounds (stress). We manage all those things as well as we can, but there is very little actual rest or relaxation for us as adoptive parents. We’re happy to have a holiday with our children and to give them that experience (despite the stress, they do enjoy it). But we have come to see how much we need respite from our little treasures in order to recharge and be all they need us to be, too.

Hopefully in the next twelve months I’ll be able to report back on a week’s child-free holiday with my husband. Meanwhile, following my post on what to pack, here’s what I’ve learned this week while away with Pete and our children.

  1. Although we’ve tried it once before, with similar consequences, we have now established once and for all that our daughters cannot share a bedroom without annoying each other and being generally disruptive. This makes for very expensive holidays, so we need a different plan next year. (Joanna will be old enough to go to a residential camp. Do we dare try it?)
  2. The girls need a clock in their room(s) in order to be able to stay quiet until a specified time, and many holiday places don’t have clock in bedrooms. Always travel with a clock.
  3. Amazon Prime is a wonderful thing (see point 2). Ditto grocery deliveries.
  4. Doors must remain closed when rooms are unoccupied to reduce the temptation for Charlotte to ‘borrow’ or damage things, just like at home. Example: wax crayon on our pristine white sheet and duvet dover. Gah.
  5. Wax crayon can come out in the wash (or the owner of our flat is very kind and a good fibber).
  6. Do not leave washbags unattended in the bathroom (see point 4). A large amount of toothpaste and half a can of shaving foam went down the toilet because Charlotte thought that would be interesting.
  7. Planing holidays around childcare works well for us. The beach mission holiday club the girls are at is amazing and they love it. It’s the second time we’ve done this (different locations, same organisation). Two hours to ourselves every morning makes such a difference.
  8. Kindles are a massive sanity-saver. We’ve set them so they work from 6am to 6pm, in the hope that they will be asleep from 6pm to 6am. I’m also installing new (free) games every few days.
  9. Bribery Motivational rewards for staying quiet in the morning work well. Rewards issued so far include kites, colouring books, pocket money, sunglasses. (But after the first night’s 3am alarm call I have been waking up at 4.30am regardless.)
  10. We can survive family holidays with sanity-testing children provided we have enough sleep, caffeine and cake.

It’s important for me and Pete to remember that our children won’t behave the way we want them to just because we need a rest. They can’t. Something we’ve talked about a lot this week is not projecting our own childhood holidays on to them and expecting them to cope. They won’t sit and read or do a jigsaw quietly for a couple of hours so we can read our books. They won’t bicker any less than they do at home. There will be more enquiries about what and when the next meal might be.There will be a mix of overexcitement and boredom. There will be a lot of reminders that this is supposed to be a holiday for everyone. And despite all the tantrums and biting and 3am awakenings, there will be a handful of photos at the end of it all that show ice creams and sandcastles and cuddles and smiling faces, which make it look like we we all had a lovely time – two full weeks of jollity. Thankfully that is what they seem to remember.

Ten things to pack when taking adopted children on holiday

We’re off on holiday this weekend and the packing is underway. It’ll be our fifth holiday with the girls and I have a mental list of things we need to take to keep things as calm as possible.

1. Pictures of home
Though they’re prepared for seeing the holiday cottages we stay in and have an encyclopaedic knowledge of all the area’s amenities well in advance of our arrival, the girls still tend to have pangs of homesickness (I think this is generally a good thing  in terms of feeling rooted in our home). So on the morning of departure, we go around the house saying goodbye and taking photos of them in all the rooms on my phone. Then I can whip out my phone when required, and show them it’s still there.

2. Postcards to colour
Any old postcards will do, but the colour-in ones provide an extra keep-them-occupied activity. These can then be sent to friends, family, and teachers. Teachers are especially important to Joanna and Charlotte because of  the between-classes limboland that the summer holidays represent. If we send postcards there’s a chance it will remind the teachers to reciprocate, making the transition in September a bit easier. I like these ones and these ones.

Postcards to colour

3. Social story books
Being away can sometimes stir up transition anxiety relating to school, so we take the girls’ social story books with us in case we need to talk about how their day will be the same and how it will be different next term. The school produces these books for us each June (with a bit of a nudge from us) and they are helpful. (If you’re not familiar with this idea, it’s a photo-based book that talks them through the day: ‘I go in through this door, I hang my coat here, I say hello to Miss X, I sit here, etc’. More about writing social stories here.)

4. Favourite toys
Mainly a teddy of their choice and a few portable games we play as a family at home – Uno, Dobble and Qwirkle. These help to provide a bit of normality.

5. Kindles
I’ve already written about my love of the Kindle. In our family, they are a sanity-saver in the early mornings when the children are Very Awake at an hour when we wish to remain comatose. Providing access to their Kindles at 6am might help them manage not to start swinging from the curtains or mooning passers by from their bedroom window (yes these things have happened on holiday before). Worth a try.

6. A new DVD
Yes, more screen time. This year, we’re introducing them to Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone and I am possibly a bit overexcited about that. Joanna is desperate to see it, having read the book at school. I have also bought her the book of Chamber of Secrets. I think that’s the rest of the holiday sorted.

7. Lego
It’s a bit of a holiday tradition for us to have new Lego on holiday. Last year we had a campervan holiday and made a Lego campervan to match. I also made these Lego boxes based on an idea I saw on Pinterest, and will be doing that again this week.


8. Bubbles
Great for regulating breathing and therefore for calming down – we tend to use bubbles several times a week at home, so they will definitely be coming with us on holiday, where there are often plenty of ‘opportunities to calm down’ (spelt t-a-n-t-r-u-m-s).

9. Medical kit
While a first-aid kit is probably a good plan, I pack a medical kit that is probably at least 50 percent placebo: plasters for putting on scratches that are imperceptible to the naked eye (cartoon ones for bonus points); E45 cream (our go-to placebo); hayfever medication (actually necessary some of the time, when it is given at bedtime to make full use of any drowsy-making side effects); and Calpol (ditto).Enchanted unicorn plasters

10. Sensory stuff
Because the new environment is endlessly fascinating/potentially overstimulating from a sensory perspective, with all kids of new textures in soft furnishings, different sounds,  different smells, etc, I try to anticipate this by being on high alert the second I step in to the place. Knick-knacks are moved out of harm’s way, windows are locked, things that are supposed to be fiddled with are put in their room(s) to try to divert them: fidget toys, chewy toys, a body sock…

Other ideas I’ve heard but not tried

  • Pillowcases from home – for familiar smells to help them sleep
  • Portable blackout blind – to help with early rising
  • House rules – a reminder of consistency

The five love languages… for adopted children

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Last night I was listening to Happier, a podcast by author Gretchen Rubin and screenwriter Elizabeth Craft, and they mentioned that they’ll be discussing The Five Love Languages (the bestselling book by counsellor Gary Chapman) in an upcoming episode. [Edited to add: the episode is now online here.] As they listed the five ways in which a person ‘hears’ love from another person, I thought of my daughter Joanna, and the ways she ‘hears’ love.

The theory is that people tend to have one preferred ‘language’ that is particularly meaningful to them, and if you show love primarily in the way you like to receive it, it might not be hitting the mark for the recipient. You need to work out what they need to receive and no that in order to connect – to make them feel loved.

The languages are:

  • time
  • service
  • touch
  • gifts
  • affirmation/praise

As I thought about Joanna, it occurred to me that she displays a need for all of these, constantly. When you consider The Wall and Maslow’s Hierarchy of Need and all those exercises we do in adoption preparation, this makes a lot of sense. None of these needs were met in the first three years of her life. She craves everything, all the time.

Time
She can never have enough time with me. Ideally one-to-one – that’s what fills her tank. A weekend away together, just the two of us, makes her feel loved.

Service
This is the one which comes most naturally to me. I tell my children constantly ‘Of course I love you – who cooks your meals, washes your clothes, buys your toys…?’

Touch
Joanna loves to sit close to me. Really close. Both the girls like to wedge themselves into any tiny space on the sofa, no matter how uncomfortable, in order to be close to me, and especially closer than their sister, of course. Both want to sleep in my bed with me, and whenever Pete’s away with work they ask if they can take his place.

Gifts
Oh, the gifts. The girls have a major case of ‘Mummy can I have…’. If I bought them a pony at 10 o’clock, they’d want a castle and a unicorn by half past. It is a bottomless pit of want.

Affirmation/praise
‘Mummy, do you like my picture?’ ‘Am I pretty?’ ‘Did I do a good job?’ (Subtext: ‘Am I better than my sister? Am I your favourite?’)

The thing I find hardest is that the need is never fully met. As soon as I think I’ve shown her, definitively, that she is loved unconditionally, with the biggest gestures of love I can provide, she makes it clear that she wants more from me. More time. More presents. More praise. It’s rare that it lasts more than five minutes before she’s asking for the next thing. The unspoken request: ‘Show me that I am the most important person in the world! More!’

Is this true for your child too?
All of this leads me to speculate that this is is likely to be similar for many children who have experienced neglect. Does this resonate with other adoptive families? If so, how do you address all these needs when it seems like everything falls into a bottomless pit? I’d love to have this conversation – please add a comment below, on Twitter, or on Facebook.