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. 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.

 

In praise of screen time

It’s the silence I like best, I think.

My children are often lovely, funny, helpful, kind, and generally delightful. And equally often… not those things. They can fidget for England and they really, really love the sound of their own voices. Our lives are conducted with a soundtrack of chatter (I once heard it described as ‘verbal scribble’, which is exactly right) that drives me to distraction.

Enter the Kindle.

Plugged in

Our interest in getting Kindles started as an educational idea: the school used the Mathletics website and app for maths homework, and we wanted the girls to be able to do it on their own machines rather that mine or Pete’s precious MacBooks which are vital for our work and would almost certainly not cope well with an orange squash spillage. (Mathletics, by the way, is awful: the app has limited functionality and the website often crashes, causing much frustration all round. School now seem to have given up on it too.) Having researched tablets, we found that the combination of a Black Friday deal and Tesco Clubcard points meant that they were as close to free as they were going to get, so we bought them as Christmas presents, loaded them up with content, and had the quietest Christmas yet. Success!

Gus on the Go

When the girls are plugged in to their Kindles they are quiet, still, absorbed. They listen to stories. They watch the videos we’ve installed (and we don’t have to be subjected to Frozen on the TV). Joanna reads. (We’re still working on that with Charlotte.) There are games and apps of the ‘education in disguise’ variety, such as ‘Gus on the Go‘, which features an owl who is teaching them French and Russian (naturally) and a bit of surreptitious maths in various shopping games. In short, it is a Good Thing, and because the parental controls are highly customisable, it is locked down to what is safe and appropriate for our children: no internet, no camera, no shopping facility (yikes, the idea). We vet it all and they’re happy.

We tried a ‘Fire for Kids Unlimited‘ subscription for a few months. That filters the content by age and allows the children access to a huge library of videos, books and games for £5 a month (£8 if you don’t have Amazon Prime – these prices are for up to four children, and a cheaper version for one child is available). We filtered out a few unhelpful things by keyword, but Joanna still came across something she found a bit scary, so we cancelled the subscription and now add everything on manually. I check everything and add something new every month or two.

At the moment (as I mentioned recently) they are very taken with the new additions of Gangsta Granny (thanks to a tip-off from Joanna’s teacher that this will be her topic next term) and Madagasgar (a long-term favourite). They’re quite happy watching both over and over again, so the investment (£1.89 and £6.99 respectively) lasts several weeks. Heck, Charlotte is still watching blimmin’ Frozen at least once a week.

I don’t want to give the impression that our children do nothing but stare at a screen. That’s not the case at all – they love making dens in the garden, climbing trees, drawing and colouring, and are in a swimming lesson as I write this. So I feel no guilt about balancing all the activity and noise with an hour or two of screen time in the afternoon (or, in the holidays, a bit more than that) so I have a bit of peace in the midst of the maelstrom because… *self-care klaxon* my sanity is important too.

Our rules aren’t quite as rigid as the picture below but there are sometimes conditions of screen time and it tends to be limited by battery life (for I am the keeper of the chargers, bwah-ha-ha). It works.

Screen time rules: source unknown

tl;dr (short version)
So, in summary, once you’ve got the devices in lockdown from a security perspective, and provided the nippers run about every now and then (which really isn’t a problem for any of the adopted children I know), then screen time is educational and entertaining for them and sanity-saving for the adults and so, as far as I can see, it has no down side.

Even the customer service is great – I needed to contact Amazon about an issue with one of them recently and we were sent a replacement with no hassle within 24 hours. I was impressed.  I certainly wouldn’t be without them now, and… I liked theirs so much I bought myself one too.



A note about links
This isn’t a sponsored post – no money has changed hands – I just like Kindles. That said, I do use affiliate links so if you click through and buy something (say, a Kindle Fire or a childproof case) I get a very tiny amount of cash. Just so we’re all clear.

Sensory-seeking summer: six activities to try this holiday

Around here, as in many adoptive families, holidays are hard work, especially the first few days of adjustment to the different routines. Joanna (7) and Charlotte (6) both have sensory issues caused by their early experiences: Joanna’s are primarily aural (oversensitivity to sound and a fear of loud noises), while Charlotte’s are mainly oral (she likes to chew things – toys, clothes, books – and is very fussy about food and will not countenance the idea of a raw tomato within five feet of her plate). Both are also quite fidgety and love to fiddle with things – to self-soothe because of attachment-related anxiety.

Enter the list of sensory activities to help them stay regulated, happy little sausages during the holidays. You’ll note that all of these are of the uncomplicated ‘buy it and get on with it’ variety, rather than Pinterest-worthy creations that require you to spend a week crocheting the shoelaces of elves first. The only one that requires any advance preparation is number 4, but that’s just putting some stuff in the freezer overnight. Job done.

1: Beads
The beads are a great calming activity – the sorting and threading and concentrating works beautifully to help them stay regulated. Seriously – it’s amazing. I have rarely seen them so calm! As long as there are enough of each type to go around and sibling rivalry doesn’t kick in, all is well. This particular set is £6.00 from Tesco here (you can buy it with your groceries) and has kit for 4 necklaces with lots of beads left over.

2: Playdough/Plasticine/FIMO
An oldie but a goodie – give them a supply of dough, cutters and rolling pins and let them do their thing. (All you have to do is watch it get trodden into the carpet.) Nice and tactile for those who enjoy that sensation and/or the creative possibilities.

3: Baking
Basically an edible version of the previous idea – adding an extra sensory experience into the mix. Use a simple biscuit recipe and let them go mad with the cutters, or for a treat try my chocolate cake recipe.

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4: Frozen archeology
A great idea for hot weather and a new one for us this year. Take some of their plastic toys and freeze them in a big container of water (with food colouring or a bit of orange squash in to hide the toys if you want), then give them a spoon to perform their archaeological dig! (Read a great blog post about this idea with photos here.) This activity provides new tactile experiences to keep sensory-seekers interested and can be combined with playing in a paddling pool for extra entertainment!

5: Water
Charlotte completely lights up with joy when she’s in a swimming pool, and it’s a full-on immersive sensory experience, so our girls have a fortnight of swimming lessons every summer. But if that’s not an option, then a middle-of-the-day bath can work, especially if you colour the water with food colouring. In hot weather, the classic run-through-the-sprinkler game is guaranteed to produce a lot of shrieking and giggling in our garden. In hot weather we sometimes peg out a tarpaulin on the grass and squirt washing-up liquid or bubble bath on it, then put the hose at the top end (our garden is on a slight slope). The girls love sliding down the slope and getting covered in bubbles, then rinsing off in the paddling pool. (Don’t have a tarpaulin? Grab one from camping shops or from Amazon here for under £6.50.)

Our garden bubble-slide.

6: Masking tape racetrack
This one needs a roll of masking tape (washi tape works well too if you have that) and some Matchbox-type cars. The first time we did it I designed a course for them myself, but Joanna added some of her own modifications. I like to include plenty of obstacles to make it more of a sensory experience – cushions to drive over, maybe a beanbag mountain, a cardboard tube tunnel, whatever we happen to have in the recycling box at the time. I find that the girls’ attention span increases if they are allowed to use the tape themselves once you’ve done the basic layout and if there are plenty of props (e.g. people, trees and buildings from their train set and toy farm).

Racetrack

An early prototype

I hope you find these helpful during the holidays. If you you have other sensory play ideas I’d love to hear about them. Let me know in the comments below or on Twitter, Facebook or Instagram.

Lazy Sunday

This morning’s reading material


The children are with their grandparents for the weekend. We had a lie in followed by a breakfast of pancakes and coffee, and are now reading yesterday’s paper. Husband keeps dozing off on the sofa. Later we might go out for coffee or even lunch.

It is quiet. It is blissful.

No one has argued, no one has pestered me for anything, no one has left a trail of destruction after them. 

I haven’t had to concern myself with what anyone else is wearing, whether they have flushed the toilet and washed their hands, whether they are kicking their sister under the table, or whose crayons are whose.

This is what Sundays used to be like. This is what we need every now and then. 

(Thank you, parents and parents-in-law. Can we book the next one yet?)

Summer holiday survival resources: the ‘magic’ activity chooser

Sounds ridiculous. Looks simple. But this thing is magic.

Yes, it’s just like the ‘fortune tellers’ we made as children, but with activities in. (If you need a quick set of instructions, there are some here.) I’ve chosen activities that our children can do without much intervention or set-up from me, for those ‘I’m bored and I don’t know what to do’ moments that happen about seventy times a day in the holidays.

Fold it up, colour in the sections, and when the little cherubs use the b-word, whip out your magic activity chooser. Ask them to choose a colour, then another colour, then – ta-da! – decision made. The beauty of it is that the children feel that they are making the decision, rather than us telling them what to do. So (this is the magic bit) they actually do it, instead of having a strop.

Yes I know it sounds too good to be true. But it’s got to be worth a try, right?

(Pro tip: I’ve used colours rather than numbers because obviously the children memorise what is under each colour. So mix it up by spelling out the name of the colour and opening/closing the chooser as you say each letter.)

Mizz picked up this idea and ran with it when I shared it on Twitter on Wednesday. This first tweet from last summer:

Then this week:

Mizz came up with some other ways to use this concept, including one for all the activities to get ready for bed! I’m sure there are other ways you could deploy it – perhaps for little jobs to earn pocket money, for example.

I’d love to hear how other people use it and to see your pictures. Please share them with me below or on Twitter/Facebook/Instagram.

Summer holiday survival resources: the schedule

We are now 24 hours in to the summer holidays and things are more or less on track.

The girls have now been with us for four Julys. We have established that Joanna in particular Does Not Like Them, and that the last day of the school year is especially hard for her as she says goodbye to her teachers.

  • First year: Bit her nursery key worker and hit some other staff as a statement of ‘I’m going to reject you before you “reject” me’.
  • Second year: Cried at bedtime for a week when she left her reception teacher.
  • Third year: Cried as soon as she was out of sight of school and at bedtime for three days because she missed everyone.
  • This year: 20 seconds of crying outside school, much sobbing and clinginess at bedtime on day one… we’ll see how long it lasts.

We always skip the leavers’ assembly in order to avoid prolonging the goodbyes, so I collected them from school at 1.30, emergency calming-down bubbles on hand (but not deployed), and whisked them off to Sainsbury’s for a bit of distraction. They chose some new crayons to take on holiday and some ice creams, then we went home, they ate the ice creams, and I revealed that I had added Madagasgar (an old favourite) and Gangsta Granny (which is Joanna’s class’s first topic next year) on to their Kindles. They promptly plugged in for two hours, suitably happy and distracted. Parenting win.

I was able to field questions about plans for the holidays by producing the summer holiday schedule that I’ve used with them for a couple of years now (see large version here).

Summer Schedule (image)

Joanna (age 7) can read this and understand it well, and I create it primarily for her benefit so that she knows that there is a plan.

Charlotte (age 6) struggles with the concept of time, frequently mixing up ‘yesterday’ with ‘tomorrow’ or ‘three days’ and ‘three weeks’. This schedule doesn’t completely solve the problem but it does help as a tool for explaining (repeatedly!) how many days there are until we go swimming, etc.

I don’t stick to it rigidly, and I don’t include a lot of detail that is likely to change, but the stuff that’s booked up in advance is enough to give us a sense of structure and sanity, and this really helps with the transition from school time to holiday time.

You can download a copy to customise and use yourself from my resources page.

Tomorrow: the ‘magic’ activity chooser.

 

Why we won’t be Finding Dory this summer

I’ve written a piece for Standard Issue about Finding Dory. (And the editor kept my terrible puns in. Win.)

Finding Dory

On the same day last week, we had (a) an email from post-adoption support about the potential for the content of the film (separation from/reuniting with birth parents) to be decidedly unhelpful for adopted children, and (b) a leaflet home in the girls’ school bags about how wonderful Finding Dory is in connection with the NHS’s ‘Change4Life‘ campaign.

I thought this displayed a complete lack of joined-up thinking on the part of the NHS, who are supposed to care about our children’s mental health as well as their weight. I didn’t appreciate the blatant advertising for a film that they’re likely to find upsetting.

You can read my article here. Let me know what you think. (Feel free to suggest better puns…)