National Adoption Week: #ProvideAdoptionSupport

If you’re part of the UK adoption community, you can hardly have failed to notice that this week (16–22 October) is National Adoption Week. The powers that be have decided that an appropriate hashtag with which to publicise the week is #SupportAdoption. They’re encouraging people to use it and to join a Thunderclap (a type of Twitter campaign) to get it trending. I’m unclear about exactly what this hashtag achieves other than that it might cause people to say ‘Oh, Adoption, that’s nice’.

So I propose that adoptive parents respond with a hashtag of our own: #ProvideAdoptionSupport. An actual call to action that asks them to show they mean it.

Here’s why.

provide-adoption-support

More than PR

It’s easy to say that you support adoption, but it’s vital to provide adoption support. ‘#SupportAdoption’ is very easy to put on a bumper sticker or a pen to lure in unsuspecting prospective adopters, but proper thoughtful adoption support is what makes a real difference to adoptive families once you’ve signed on the dotted line and all the social workers have stopped their statutory visits. Done properly, it’s a real lifeline, especially when you’ve got real problems such as child-on-parent violence which can lead to the adoption breaking down.

Recruit new adopters with honesty about the challenges, not with cute photos and false promises. Click To Tweet

What does it mean to #ProvideAdoptionSupport?

It’s about more than family-finding using cute pictures of children all over TV shows and in the papers. Finding families is just the start.

It’s about remembering the whole family and making sure that the parents are equipped, resourced and supported and given the mental healthcare they need when they have secondary (or primary) trauma as a direct result of caring for their child.

It’s about respecting the people who are on the front line – parents. Adoption support is not just about children’s therapies, it’s about families. It’s not about being told, as we once were by a PASW, that ‘We don’t support parents – this is Children’s Services.’

It’s about seeing all the different types of impact that adoption can have a family, including the financial implications when you have to give up work due to the demands of parenting; the high risk of family breakdown; the inability to have ‘normal’ holidays and to recharge; the damage to your home caused during a child’s frequent violent rages…

So, agencies, please don’t throw around phrases like #SupportAdoption without really thinking through the implications of what you’re saying.

It’s not only about supporting the concept of children being placed in loving families – who wouldn’t be in favour of that? Finding safe places for children to grow up is about long-term support and making sure that the child and the family around them can all thrive as a unit.

A national issue

It's disingenuous for agencies to say they '#SupportAdoption' while it's so difficult to access help. Click To Tweet

It’s disingenuous for adoption agencies to say they ‘#SupportAdoption’ while making it so difficult for families to access the help they need. My own local authority loves a hashtag and a promotional pen but even they would not dispute that our experience of their post-adoption support has been appalling. They have apologised for the worst of it but we are still only clinging on to some semblance of ‘normal’ family life. It’s not sustainable and they know it, yet they still drag their feet in resourcing us properly to care for the children. And it’s not just us – this is a national problem, as the recent media discussions about CPV have highlighted.

What I’d like to see next year

So by all means recruit new adoptive parents and have a week to focus people’s attention on adoption. Of course we still need more adoptive parents. But recruit them with honesty about the challenges, not with cute photos and false promises.

How adopters can help bring change

adoption-support-thunderclap

I think in general, adopters are far better at this social media business than the majority of adoption agencies. We bring authenticity, lived experience, and genuine compassion for each other into the picture. So let’s use our collective voice to raise awareness, help prospective adopters know what the reality is like, and encourage agencies to up their game when it comes to support.

There are a few ways you can do this:

  • Join our own Thunderclap – this means your account will join others in sending an automated Tweet like this on Thursday lunchtime. Details are here: thndr.me/qxbuKe.

  • Share this post, using the #ProvideAdoptionSupport hashtag. (Sharing links are below.) Maybe tag an adoption agency or two… Or the Prime Minister (@Number10Gov).
  • Tweet your own experience of needing your agency to #ProvideAdoptionSupport.

Let’s get the word out that adoption requires support, not just recruitment.

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CPV: Behind the headlines

Last week was a good week for media coverage of CPV. It helps when you can, as shorthand, say ‘Please listen to last night’s File on 4‘ when you want someone to understand a bit of what it’s like to live with the verbal and physical torrent that pours out of our children.

I appreciate that people in positions of power are starting to listen. I’m grateful for media coverage that reduces the stigma of CPV. I understand that things are starting to change on the macro scale, in offices and meeting rooms somewhere. But it is so hard not to be impatient for the day when I will be able to see and feel the impact on a personal level.

cpv-behind-the-headlines

On BBC Breakfast, Adoption UK CEO Sue Armstrong-Brown repeated the statistic that about a third of adoptive families are doing OK, about a third have some problems that can be resolved with help, and about a third have severe problems.

In the last year I think we have moved from the second group into the third.

Mainly because the help is just taking too long to materialise. The behaviours are becoming well-worn pathways, and we are becoming well-worn-out parents. I have now started describing our situation as ‘blocked care’ – that is, we are so permanently mentally and emotionally exhausted from dealing with the verbal and physical abuse that our children direct at us and each other that it is becoming difficult to do anything much beyond ensuring they are clean, meals are provided (I want to say ‘they are well fed’ but that is another battleground), they have the opportunity to get enough sleep, and they are at school when they should be.

Yes, I still love them. I don’t want to stop being their mum. But this doesn’t feel like parenting. It’s like some kind of state-run endurance test. And I’m not even sure what passing the test looks like. There are glimmers of what might pass for normal family relationships – a hug at the school gates, a few pages read from a school book, a day out at the weekend (though usually we ‘divide and conquer’ because the children cope better one-to-one). But I still feel  the ‘parenting isn’t supposed to be like this’ feelings more often than I’d like.

The email

Recently, after a horrible few days of CPV, I emailed post-adoption support. Again. Specifically, I contacted a manager who has been involved with our family for almost a year and knows me and Pete fairly well. Here’s what I wrote.

The girls’ meltdowns are particularly frequent and intense at the moment and I have mentally drafted an email asking to disrupt about half a dozen times in the last fortnight. I think it is appropriate that you know how close we are to saying we can’t do this any more.

As I write this Charlotte is having another meltdown and trying to hurt Pete because she wants to go in the car rather than walk to school; last night Joanna did her best to kick, bite and scratch all three of us and screamed about wanting to be dead rather than live with us. This is happening daily. When we try to help them they shout abuse at us and try to injure us and break the house. They are so argumentative and aggressive with each other we are having to separate them as much as possible at home. We cannot continue to live like this. If Joanna doesn’t get the residential school place we’re asking for, I don’t see how we can continue.

The response

The manager tried to phone me. I don’t like talking on the phone at the best of times, and certainly wasn’t up to coping with discussing it all. I emailed and explained that. She said that was fine, she’d email. Another few days passed. I had a very brief email back, saying she’d made some phone calls to CAMHS and had a chat with her manager about the respite foster care they’ve been promising for 9 months, when we finally had an apology for the way they’d handled our request for safe holding training. Oh, and by the way, the SEN team’s EHCP meeting to discuss Joanna’s school provision has happened without us, school, or the EP knowing.

Phone calls and chats-with-managers are all very well but make no tangible difference until they result in action. The six-hour sessions of respite on some Saturdays at our local SEND activity club are welcome. They really are. But they barely give us time to fill in the next round of paperwork and have a coffee before the children need picking up again. We need overnights. We need several days in a row to decompress, feel the stress lift, and feel that we have properly come up for air before diving back in.

The meeting

A couple of days after this exchange of emails we had a TAC meeting at school. We gathered in a classroom – me and Pete, the class teacher, the TAs, the head, the SENDCo, the EP and this manager from post-adoption support. The fact that the SEN team’s meeting had taken place was news to everyone else there too. he PAS manager said ‘Obvioulsly they’d prefer to look at day schools first…’

I couldn’t let that go unchallenged. All the way through this process we have said that Joanna needs a residential placement because (a) transitions are part of the problem, (b) we are not coping with both the children at home antagonising and attacking each other, and (c) it would really help her to have a consistent, wrap-around approach. We expect the post-adoption support service to support us and to advocate for us with the SEN department. They won’t, of course, because then they will be asked to pay for the residential stuff that qualifies as ‘social care’.

She started trying to pin the blame on SEN, or on the placing LA. I wasn’t having that. Support for our family has been her responsibility for more than a year now, and after messing that up by stripping out everything  the placing LA had arranged, we are now back to where we were a year ago.

Here goes…

I didn’t lose my temper. Not quite. (I am usually the epitome of calm and professional in these meetings.) But I certainly raised my voice.

‘You are the head of post-adoption support! We’ve told you by email, and now I’ll say it again, in front of all these people…’

I was close to tears now.

‘…that we’re not coping, and that if she doesn’t get this residential placement she is likely to end up back in care. There are only two of us, sometimes only one of us [because Pete travels a lot with work]. We have abuse screamed at us on a daily basis. We’re dealing with self-harm, suicide threats, death threats, and violence. They’ve run away. We’ve had the police round. We need you to make this school place happen.’

I could barely look up, but I could feel the eyebrows of all the school staff rising in unison.

Funnily enough, the manager had to leave for another meeting about then.

I took a deep breath. Pete squeezed my hand in solidarity.

What next?

The school staff asked what they could do to help. They’re kind and well-meaning but there isn’t much. A few more members of staff are getting Team Teach training so they can cope with Joanna at breakfast club and after-school club as well as in the classroom. They’re transitioning slowly from one TA to another with a background in mental health care, who we think is better suited to managing Joanna’s needs. They’re doing all they can.

But the difference, as ever, is that the school staff are responding because they see the need first-hand. They have to cope with (some of) the meltdowns. (Charlotte saves all hers for us.) This manager has never met our children, nor have the people in offices making these budget-driven decisions. They haven’t dealt with the rage, or the sobbing aftermath. They haven’t had to pick themselves up after a school run during which they have been physically and verbally abused and get on with a day’s work. Again.

The media

This for me is what was missing from the media coverage last week. The abuse was mentioned more than it has been before, but I want to hear as much from families as we do from the office-dwellers. I want it all on display – the bruises, the holes in the walls, the broken windows. All of it. I want people to appreciate the full impact on adoptive parents’ mental and physical health. I don’t want to be held up as a saint and told I’m wonderful, I want to be properly supported to be the front line of support to my children, and I want them to get all the therapy they need without having to wait years to receive it.

I’m tired. I cry about this a lot. I used to be an articulate campaigner but I am worn out. I’ve banged on all the doors and they’re staying shut. How much longer will it take?

Before you go…

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Advice for prospective adopters

I’m an adoptive parent who is quite vocal on the subject. So every now and then I’m approached by friends, or friends of friends, asking about my advice for prospective adopters as they are starting the process. I’m always happy to talk adoption, don’t claim to have all the answers, but do have a few pieces of advice. I wish I’d had this stuff drummed into me when we started the process seven years ago. What follows is an adaptation of an email I sent to a friend recently.

In answer to the main question – should I/we do it? – my answer is yes. Yes, it is often incredibly hard and I regularly question my sanity, but I am still very much in favour of adoption. If reading about child-on-parent violence and the questionable delights of post-adoption support haven’t put you off, then here’s what I think you need to know.

advice-for-prospective-adopters

Gather information. Lots of it.

I recommend you take these six steps during your decision-making process, so that you have as much information about the reality of adoption as you possibly can. You’re not adopting a child who is a bit sad but can be cheered up with a cuddle and a multipack of Freddos. You’re inviting a small person who has been neglected and abused into your home, where they will process all that stuff for years to come and often be difficult to help. Regardless of what they tell you at this stage, your agency’s post-adoption support may or may not step up to help you as your child destroys your home/marriage/sanity. You need to be prepared for this.

1. Read all the books

Sally Donovan’s books are amazing. It should be compulsory to read No Matter What and The Unofficial Guide to Adoptive Parenting. While you’re at it you should probably get hold of Billy Bramble too, ready to put on your child’s bookshelf.

[If you don’t see a shiny widget here, containing my recommended reading list, click here to see a less shiny version.]

I’ve included a couple of books about FASD (Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders) on my list. A huge proportion of children in care (some estimate 80%) have been affected by alcohol exposure to some degree. You can find out more from the FASD Trust, the FASD Network and NOFAS-UK.

There are also reviews of other adoption-related books on my blog pretty regularly, and there’s a Twitter-based book club for therapeutic parents that theoretically ‘meets’ at the start of each month but has fizzled out a bit lately. Search for #tpbooks or the organiser, @pedallingsolo.

2. Use social media

Get an anonymous Twitter account – anonymous so you’re less easy for birth family members to find. Follow adopters – I’m @hlmeadows and I’m usually about several times a day. Some other accounts to get you started are @sallydwrites, @mralcoates, @gayadoptiondad, @mumdrah, @frogotter, @mizzanels, @meandminimees, @suddenlymummy. There are loads of adopters and it’s a really friendly community. Several of these people experience child-on-parent violence (CPV) so that features in our conversations quite frequently. You might find this glossary of adoption-related abbreviations helpful.

There are a lot of adoption Facebook groups, many of them secret and reliant on meeting members offline. (I find all the drama and cliques there a bit exhausting and generally stick to Twitter instead.) This Facebook group for prospective adopters is good.

3. Follow adoption blogs

The two best places to start are Full-Time Tired’s Weekly Round-Up and The Adoption Social’s Weekly Adoption Shout-Out. They’ll give you a pretty balanced picture of adoptive families’ everyday life.

4. Lurk on the Adoption UK forums

They frightened the life out of me before we adopted but it was all good preparation! Find the Adoption UK forums here.

5. Listen to podcasts

Start with The Adoption and Fostering Podcast (Al Coates and Scott Casson-Rennie) and The Honestly Adoption Podcast (Mike and Kristen Berry). The latter is American but still very applicable to the UK experience.

6. Talk to lots of adopters

adoption-uk-conferenceYou could come to the Adoption UK conference in Birmingham in November to hear what’s going on for adopters nationally. It tends to be a mixture of discussion of government policy and AUK campaigns, discussion of child psychology and how to parent children with a history of trauma, and stuff that is helpful to adoptive parents. Pete and I will be there, and you don’t need to be a member to attend. (Everyone will look exhausted. This is the default setting.)

If you decide to go ahead…

Having made the decision to start the process, my main piece of advice is not to be in such a hurry to get through the assessment that you make decisions that set yourself up for problems later. Take your time in making these choices, because you’ll be living with them for a long time.

1. Investigate voluntary agencies as well as the local authority

We went via our local authority and support has been decidedly patchy.

PACT have a great reputation for support, but there are also Coram, Barnardo’s, Family Futures and others (First4Adoption has a full list). I’d suggest having conversations with several and getting a good sense of what post-adoption support they offer. Also be aware that all the adoption agencies are in the process of being regionalised – joining together to combine resources. This may be a bit of a shambolic business for a while but should ultimately be an improvement.

2. Think very carefully before adopting siblings

We thought we’d save the hassle of going through the process twice and be doing something helpful as siblings are harder to place, but it has been very hard dealing with that dynamic. Ours have different issues and drive each other crazy and fight All. Day. Long.

3. Don’t sign on the dotted line until you have a support package in place

We raced through the process in order for Joanna to have our surname before she started school and didn’t do this, so some of our concerns were put aside and it was then a fight to have them taken seriously. We’d probably still do the same thing. But if you have the option of waiting and getting everything ironed out while they are still the local authority’s responsibility, then that’s probably better in the long run.

4. Get your church involved with Home for Good if it isn’t already

home-for-goodAdoption and fostering charity Home for Good runs training for churches in how to support adoptive and foster families appropriately. Their booklet on support is also excellent – I give these out by the armful at every opportunity. Try to take people from your church to the Home for Good summit (annually in the autumn) to help them ‘get it’. Don’t do what we did and change churches during the process so no-one knows you and getting support is much harder.

5. Ask questions

No question is too big/small/silly when you’re making a life-changing decision. I’m happy to answer anything – leave your questions below or find me on social media.

Before you go…

  • If you found this post helpful or interesting, please vote for it. Thanks! 🙂
  • You can find me on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and Pinterest. I love to talk to fellow adopters.
  • You can also sign up here to receive my monthly newsletter. It contains my recent blog posts, my favourite adoption-related blog posts by others, and relevant resources from around the web.

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Self-Care Camp for Adoptive Parents

At the end of August I participated in a self-care camp run by The Open Nest and The Adoption Social. There’s a piece about it in the latest issue of Adoption Today, which is hitting doormats this weekend. Here’s the longer version of the article I wrote.

self-care-camp

The Open Nest and The Adoption Social are both legendary in adoption circles as safe spaces for adoptive families to be themselves – free of expectations of ‘normality’ – and to receive support. I was excited to be invited to lead a self-care workshop as part of a two-day self-care camp in August, co-hosted by both organisations at La Rosa Campsite – a place I’d been hearing wonderful things about for years.

Safe spaces

The Open Nest’s Amanda Boorman explains: ‘The Open Nest has been providing safe therapeutic spaces for adoptive, foster and kinship families for four years. This year the charity decided to run a self-care camp just for parents and carers. We know that taking time out in natural and peaceful environments is often good for those who love and care for children who have faced major challenges and disruption in their lives. Regulating and caring for ourselves helps us to care for and regulate others. The Open Nest believes in supporting wherever possible those who are doing intensive care.’

Set just outside Goathland in the stunning North Yorkshire Moors, The La Rosa Campsite Extraordinaire is just isolated enough to feel that you have properly got away from it all. Its shared with plenty of wildlife – I loved showering in a barn with a swallows nest over my head, while the adult swallows swooped in and out to feed four chicks! The caravans themselves are quirkily decorated on themes such as Elvis, Mary, seaside and jungle – all designed to raise a smile. Throughout the two days, The Open Nest’s Amanda and Claudia provided amazing homemade food. There were also goody bags including candles and prosecco from Inner World Work. (Thank you!)

What we did

Camp started with putting the world to rights around the campfire on the first evening. Next morning, my workshop about self-care encouraged participants to identify their specific self-care needs and collaborate together to find creative ways of meeting the needs within the constraints of their own situations. In the afternoon Sarah from The Adoption Social led a very chilled-out, beginner-friendly yoga class, a pleasing amount of which involved lying down. This was followed by relaxing massages provided by Ingrid and Claudia in front of the fire in a tepee. Blissful.

The camp was uncomplicated. We all just gathered, talked and listened, over cups of tea and glasses of prosecco. Or did our own thing – that was fine too.

How it helped

I asked some of the participants what they had found most helpful about the self-care camp.

‘One of the things that’s been really supportive is sharing each other’s stories. Sometimes that’s quite a painful thing to do, but it’s also really comforting. When you’re having a difficult time with children who are really challenging and you’re quite isolated because of that, then to be with a group of people who are experiencing the same thing helps to normalise it, and you know that you won’t be judged.’

‘[I’ve found it helpful to have] the space to explore the whole scope of what self-care means. It unusual to have this space to relax and talk and take care, so it’s quite special. I’ve never experienced anything like this before.’

‘The location, the really generous hosts and hospitality, and that sense of space – there’s no pressure in this space, you’re quite welcome to retreat or join in.’

‘I can’t help but be calm here, because I have no [mobile phone] signal!’

‘Something I found helpful from the workshop was that sometimes I feel guilty [about prioritising self-care] but if it helps to say you’re doing it for someone else then we are doing it for the children. …I know I’ll be able to cope better with the pressures [at home] because I’ve taken time out and come away.’

self-care camp: What next?

Will there be more self-care retreats in future? Yes, almost certainly. There is a recognised need and The Open Nest is committed to meeting it wherever it can. I’d love to see more of these events in other parts of the country, too – making them as accessible as possible for the parents and carers who need them. If you’d like to see one in your area, leave a comment below

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Halfway Day (or Schedules, scones, and screaming)

Today marks the halfway point of the summer holidays for us: it’s day 20 of 40. It feels like much longer. The words I’m seeing from other adopters are ‘relentless’ and ‘incessant’. These words are used all year round, of course, but the summer seems to amplify those feelings because culturally it is supposed to be a holiday. It isn’t. It’s six weeks of dysregulated children being given nice things and days out and not appreciating any of it and telling you what a horrible person you are. All. Day. Long.

halfway-day

There are those parents who look forward to the summer holidays as a time to frolic in the sun with their little cherubs, picnicking on home-grown houmous and organic mini-quiches, unfettered by the constraints of the school run. Good for them.

I am not one of these parents.

As I have mentioned ad infinitum, I have a schedule. This is what keeps us all on the right side of sanity. (Just.) Anything remotely unfettered causes meltdowns for them and more stress for me.

Screaming: a day in the life

This weekend we tried the frolicsome picnic thing – well, as near to frolicsome as we get. We took our picnic to a National Trust place with huge grounds, headed straight for a picnic bench and got started on lunch. Barely two bites into her artisanal organic roll pizza bread, Joanna started a strop, saying she wanted to live on her own in the woods (a favourite idea of hers when she is overwhelmed by the idea of family). We had no idea what had triggered it, so I put down my quinoa salad pork pie and took her aside for a chat.

She continued. Suicide threats. Wanting to see what children’s homes are like so she could think about living there instead. Hating her sister. Being extremely jealous of Charlotte’s new second-hand-from-eBay bed. (Joanna was given a brand new desk at the same time, something she has wanted for ages. This was not enough, obviously we love Charlotte more, etc.) I listened and let her get it all out of her system. I didn’t have anything much to say apart from a bit of PACE-esque wondering about why she thought she’d be better off without us and what she thought that would be like.

Once she’d finished, we rejoined the others, and the meal continued, with regular ‘sensory breaks’ – ie sending them to run around a tree, push against a tree, do press-ups, etc. That worked really well for Charlotte, who is unable to sit still for long. But not Joanna. She was determined to stay angry.

Stopping and listening

After the picnic – which was curtailed after another dose of insults from Joanna – we carried on. The plan had been to do a ‘Gruffalo trail’ which was set up all around the grounds. But following someone else’s route and activities was not to madam’s liking, so we abandoned that for a while to let them run off and make dens in the hedges while we had a sneaky cream tea. Hurrah.

Eventually we finished the trail and got them into the car, where Stephen Fry’s reading of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone worked its magic on them again. This has been one of the successes of this holiday. I thoroughly recommend trying Audible if you haven’t given it a go yet.

The Harry Potter books are particularly good value via Audible because they’re so long – on a monthly subscription each credit is £7.99, so it works out much cheaper than buying them without a subscription (and you still get to keep your books even if you cancel). The first one is nearly nine hours. The second one, which I bought today, is more than ten hours. HELLO, calmer journeys and mealtimes. I am sold.

(Yes, this is an affiliate link. To – if you choose Harry Potter – at least NINE FREE HOURS of audiobook. You’re welcome.)

The schedule: does it help?

There are a few places where we’ve deviated from the schedule – mainly because of the weather, which has meant swapping some of the days around – but otherwise it is working well. My definition of ‘working well’ means that the activities are happening and at least one member of the family is deriving a modicum of pleasure from them. (See how my standards have fallen!) The girls are used to consulting it to see what’s happening, and if that saves just a handful of meldowns and ‘Muuuuuummmm’s then it’s worth the effort. So yes, it helps.

What’s next?

This week we have five days of childcare, one day scheduled for shoe and uniform-shopping, and one initial visit to Joanna’s new psychotherapist (more of that anon).

Next week is a hodgepodge of days out with grandparents, bribing incentivising the children to help clean the house, a sprinkling of sanity-saving activities, and packing. On the Friday we are Yorkshire-bound for our ‘holiday’.

For the last week of the holidays we will be based in the Dales, where I will be spending a couple of days at self-care camp (exciting!) and the rest of the time with Pete and the girls. They usually find being away from home hard, so I anticipate plenty of dysregulation and stress all round. There should just about be time on the Sunday to squeeze in a transition visit to school before they go back on the Monday. Aaaaand breathe.

How is your summer going? Can anyone report back from the new school year and tell us it’s going to be OK? 😉 Let me know in the comments.

Before you go…

  • If you found this post helpful or interesting, please vote for it. Thanks! 🙂
  • You can find me on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and Pinterest. I love to talk to fellow adopters.
  • You can also sign up here to receive my monthly newsletter. It contains my recent blog posts, my favourite adoption-related blog posts by others, and relevant resources from around the web.

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10 things to pack for holidays with adopted children

Clothes… suncream… weighted blanket? What are your essentials when taking anxious children away from home? As the school holidays get underway, here’s an updated post from the archives for those about to embark on holidays with adopted children.

10-things-pack-holidays-adopted-children

Here goes…

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. This works a treat.

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. Another alternative is to use the Postsnap app to create postcards. (Use code 3D04BE to get £2.00 of free credit on the Postsnap app after you make your first purchase.)

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

10-things-pack-holiday-adopted-childrenMainly 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.

I’m not sure what it is about these three games in particular that really engage our two – possibly that they are very visual and quite tactile, so there are things for them to hold, which helps to keep their attention as sensory-seekers. They are definite favourites though.

 

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.

[Update: recent favourites in our house have included Sing and The Lego Batman Movie. Both are highly recommended, though as ever, check out the reviews at Adoption At the Movies to get an idea of what’s right for your particular child(ren).]

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 Lego boxes (lunchboxes full of Lego with the green Lego mats glued to the lid as a building surface) based on an idea I saw on Pinterest, and they were a hit.

  

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’ (a.k.a. meltdowns).

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 we dispense it 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… and my bag of transition toys comes into its own.

Other ideas

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

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6 sensory activities for summer

The end-of-term transition anxiety has kicked in here this week. The dysregulation has moved up several notches. Both the girls are tired. There have been lots of tears and slammed doors and shouting about how terrible we are followed by apologies and more tears and cuddles and a bit more wailing and then calm (more-or-less). Time to break out a few more of my tried and tested sensory activities to see us through to the end of term and into the holidays.

6-sensory-activities-for-summer

Note: this is an update of a post I wrote last summer. This stuff works really well for us, so I’m sharing it again.

Around here, as in many adoptive families, holidays are hard work, especially the first few days of adjustment to the different routines. Joanna (8) and Charlotte (7) 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 was £6.00 from Tesco and has kit for four necklaces with lots of beads left over. I haven’t been able to find it there this year but there are similar kits on Amazon (try the WINOMO Alphabet beads or Melissa and Doug Deluxe Wooden Bead Set).

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. Alternatively, our OT recommends the gloop made by mixing cornflour and water. It’s great for making fingers work harder and giving that feedback their muscles need.

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. (This cake is EPIC and also completely foolproof.)

chocolate-cake-small.jpg

4: Frozen archeology

A great idea for hot weather. 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! This activity provides new tactile experiences to keep sensory-seekers interested and can be combined with playing in a paddling pool for extra entertainment! Joanna and Charlotte love this.

sensory-activities-for-summer

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 reliably produces 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. We then put the hose at the top end (our garden is on a slight slope). The girls love to slide down the slope and get covered in bubbles, then rinse 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) and some Matchbox-type cars. The first time we did it I designed a course for them myself, but Joanna added her own modifications. I like to include plenty of obstacles to make it more of a sensory experience. We have 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 when they can use the tape themselves after I’ve done the basic layout. They also enjoy using lots 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.

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6 ways to help an adoptive family in the summer

For many parents, the idea of filling a six-week summer holiday with endless activities, day trips, the library’s summer reading challenge, and new-school-shoe-shopping is enough to make them want to hide under a large beach towel for the duration.  And if you’ve been in the vicinity of an adoptive parent whose child(ren) struggle with end-of-year transitions, you may be aware that they have more holiday apprehension than most. Our children’s behaviour is often less predictable, more volatile, and especially when they are struggling with the ‘all at sea’ feeling of being out of routine, they can just lose the plot. It’s very demanding to parent these children, who need specialist therapeutic techniques to calm their oversensitive, maladapted fight/flight/freeze responses. How can you support them appropriately? Here are my six ways to help an adoptive family in the summer holidays.

6-ways-to-help-an-adoptive-family-in-the-summer-holidays

1. Don’t mention the transition

When talking to adopted children, remember that they are more likely than average to struggle with the end of term, the summer holidays, and the prospect of adjusting to a new teacher, new classroom, and the added pressure to keep up at a higher academic level. They may be missing friends, upset at saying goodbye to a teacher they have become attached to, and generally feeling sad and wonky. A jolly ‘I bet you’re excited about the end of term/the holidays/being in year X’, while well meant, might not be tremendously helpful. Unless they initiate that topic of conversation, stick to something safer. Remember that although they might be fine with you, any stress may be hidden and stored up for release when they feel safe at home later, ie, a meltdown aimed at their parents.

Statements, rather than questions, often feel safer when a child is getting used to being around someone new or a new place. Something along the lines of ‘Hi Joanna, it’s good to see you again. The biscuits are here, you can help yourself, and George is on the swings if you want to play’ is the sort of thing that would put my children at ease. Even a simple ‘I like your T-shirt’ is a good way to avoid talking about school and school holidays.

2. Offer childcare

Offer to take the children out for a day. Or for an afternoon. Or just to the park for half an hour. A little bit of breathing space to mentally regroup is likely to be very welcome. If you have more cash than time, maybe offer to pay for a holiday club, or swimming lessons. If it’s not appropriate for the children to be separated from the adoptive parents at the moment, maybe you could bring an activity to the house – a craft to make, or a game to play, so Mum/Dad can have a lie down in the the next room, for example. Or all meet up at the park/for a picnic/at soft play/etc. Just having an extra adult present can sometimes help children contain some of their more ‘exuberant’ behaviour (and sometimes not, so take your cue from their parents).

3. Send postcards

You don’t have to be on holiday to send a postcard. One from your home town will be fine – if the children have been there and recognise the picture, so much the better. It’s lovely for them to know that others are thinking of them when they are elsewhere, and especially when they’re out of their routine. If you want to go a step further, you could seek out the postcards that are also jigsaws (my children love these), or use a company such as Photobox to create your own. Pete and I use the Postsnap app to send postcards to the children when we’re away – you upload your own photos and it creates and sends a postcard from within the UK, meaning that it arrives sooner than a traditional postcard from overseas. I recommend it. (Use code 3D04BE to get £2.00 of free credit on the Postsnap app after you make your first purchase.)

4. Check in with the parents

While the family is out of their term-time routine, they might not have their usual support systems in place – people at the school gate, teachers, social workers, others, to talk to. Offering them a chat, either in person, on the phone, or by text, can give them a place to offload. Just send a message to say you’re thinking of them. Offer to get the coffee and meet them somewhere the children are occupied.

5. Offer resources

They may not have the time or energy to use all of them, but there are some great resources online. Keep it simple – stuff they can print and do rather than things that need a lot of preparation. For example, you could point them towards the excellent downloads on Twinkl for summer holiday activities and for transitions. Twinkl membership costs £48.99 for a year, which sounds a lot but is good value if you make the most of it. We get our money’s worth by using the printable sheets for practising tables, the visual timetable cards, colouring sheets, games, labels, telling the time – it even has child-friendly mental health resources. Some other alternatives can be found on Pinterest (but beware ‘Pinterest perfectionism’), and I have a few of my own humble offerings, including the summer holiday schedule.

6. Read a book

If you’re planning some summer holiday reading of your own, you might consider swapping one of your novels for something that explains a bit more about the realities of adoptive parenting. Some suggestions:

Sally Donovan’s No Matter What
Dan Hughes’ Building the Bonds of Attachment
Amber Elliott’s Why Can’t My Child Behave?

All of these will equip you to support your friends with a greater understanding of their experience and parenting techniques. (Read these already? Check out my reviews to find something else.)

Thank you

Many adoptive parents say that friends who support them are few and far between. Your willingness to help an adoptive family in the summer, in sensitive and appropriate ways, is very much appreciated. Thank you.


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Create your easy-peasy summer holiday schedule

That long expanse of summer holiday fills some with joy and others with horror. For those of us with children who thrive on routine, the summer can be a difficult time. They find it hard to adjust to the differences and anticipate September transitions to new classes and new schools.

Enter the summer holiday schedule.

creatre-your-easy-peasy-summer-holiday-schedule

Using the summer holiday schedule

This is an easy-to-edit Word file that I update every year. It’s not complicated, just the dates from the end of one term to the beginning of the next, with an activity or two marked on for each day. a the moment that tends to be about as much detail as they want, though we also have a Twinkl visual timetable on hand for days when they need a bit more clarity about a simple day at home (‘But what are we doing after lunch?’).

I use them in the Christmas and Easter holidays too, because Joanna and Charlotte thrive on knowing what to expect. If I could add a meal plan for the entire holiday that would make them happier still.

Here’s ours for this summer (click for larger version).

How I fill the summer holiday schedule

This is Joanna’s first year at a residential summer camp (I’m not sure which of us is most excited about this prospect) so that was scheduled first (purple). Charlotte will be spending a few days with my parents so we can have some time off (pink). Then the SEN activity club the girls love – I booked as many slots as i could for that (yellow). Then because I’m talking part in the self-carecamp in Yorkshire at the end of the holidays, we’re turning that into a family holiday by hiring a cottage nearby, which fills out the last week (green). We’ve just renewed our national Trust membership and are determined to recoup the cost, so I scoured the magazine for local child-friendly activities (brown).

Being outdoors is great for Joanna and Charlotte, so, weather permitting, there are also a smattering of days where it simply says ‘park’ and ‘garden fort’. (Note: this is an excellent garden fort kit that keeps them occupied for ages, especially when combined with an old shower curtain for the roof. Highly recommended.)

The rest is filled in with things like a ‘jobs and rewards day’. This is code for ‘get them to tidy their rooms, do the hoovering and clean the bathroom, which is pleasingly endorsed by their OT, in return for a small supply of Freddos, new crayons and those awful magazines with plastic tat attached’. There’s also a pyjama day. This basically means ‘you can watch DVDs while I do all the laundry from the holiday and if you stay in your PJs it means you’re not creating any more for me to wash’.

Your own summer holiday schedule

Of course your family’s schedule will look different from ours. You may not have childcare. You may have exotic holidays. Maybe yours involves a lot more time at the beach, the swimming pool, or the ice cream shop. (We can but hope, hey?) But scheduling your holiday in advance takes a huge amount of stress out of the whole business. It gives children a sense of certainty about what to expect, and it helps parents not to flounder in the face of weeks of nothingness.

To make your own, I’ve produced a blank template. You’re welcome to download and edit it to suit your family’s needs. Some people do a text-only one like mine, others like to add clipart or their own drawings. Whatever works for you.

blank-summer-holiday-schedule

Download yours here:  HLM Blank summer holiday schedule 2017 (MS Word)

More tips

If your children struggle with the back-to-school transition, you might like to try a couple of things we do. First, schedule a school visit to the new classroom for the end of the holidays, to go and say hello and refamiliarise them with where everything is. We arrange this with the headteacher in July (so it’s not yet on our schedule above). Second, plan something fun for the first weekend of term, and include that too, so that it doesn’t look like the fun stops when school starts up again.

I’d love to hear how you get on with this summer schedule – or summer holiday planning in general! Leave me a comment or let’s talk on social media.


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Review | Neurodiversity

Barb has autism, and Lois is her therapist. Neurodiversity is their story. And it’s great.

Review Neurodiversity

It’s not a word I use often, but I think it’s fitting here. This book is a romp through the authors’ various neurodiverse experiences, both personal and professional. These include autism (this is the main focus of the book), ADHD, anxiety, dyslexia, and being gay.

It doesn’t sound like hilarious subject matter, and at times it was deeply moving, but it is also very funny. Their sense of humour is on display throughout the book. They have a lot of fun with tales of their experiences, anecdotes from therapy, brilliant success stories from Lois’s other clients, and just being generally amusing.

How is this book useful to adoptive parents?

First, a disclaimer. There’s nothing specifically about adoption in the book. But keep reading! Obviously if you or a family member have autism, ADHD, anxiety or dyslexia, there’s something here for you. It covers all these topics with both realism and wit. There’s also a pleasingly political bit about the fight for same-sex marriage legislation in the US.

The focus of the book is Barb’s autism – ‘the really bad kind’ – and the way she has overcome many people’s expectations of her to become a writer and podcaster despite being mute and only able to communicate using one finger to ‘peck’ at the keys of her laptop. She describes herself as ‘disguised as a poor thinker’ – a brilliant description of what it must be like to have her intellect and creativity stuck inside a brain and body that won’t cooperate in a typical manner.

Some days the words won’t come, because she doesn’t think in language.  Some days she bites her own arm until she draws blood. Sometimes she attacks others. But she refuses to let the autism win. It’s inspiring stuff. It’s encouraging to those of us with neurodiverse children. I’d say that it’s worth a few hours of your time to read it. And it’ll make you laugh.

Also, there’s some useful stuff about the therapeutic techniques that have worked for her. Things such as

‘I am not in the penitentiary today because I have a swing in my front yard and I know how to use it.’ 

See? Useful. Practical. Stuff we can work with.

Neurodiversity: what’s it about?

The book’s blurb describes it as follows:

A candid, practical, and defiantly funny guide to embracing neurological differences – from a bitingly witty autistic mute and her dyslexic, ADHD-wired, lesbian therapist.

Shattering the conventional notion of disability, Neurodiversity sheds light on autism spectrum disorder (ASD), attention deficit disorders (ADD/ADHD), dyslexia, and other neurological differences as natural human variations with their own challenges and strengths. While backed by brain science, the authors write from personal experience. Speechless (literally) due to severe autism, Barb Rentenbach communicates by typing one letter at a type. (Though “disguised as a poor thinker,” she’s imaginative, dedicated, and exceptionally patient.) Her therapist and friend, Lois Prislovsky, Ph.D., is an educational psychologist whose distinctive traits include dyslexia and ADHD. (She’s also married to a woman, a mom to a teenage son, and enjoys any new challenge – the wackier the better.) In alternating chapters, Barb and Lois share real-life stories, mind-opening insights, and down-to-earth advice to encourage everyone to see beyond labels, treat others with respect, and help each unique person become his or her highest self.

Written with honesty, compassion, and ribald humor, Neurodiversity offers reassurance and practical tips for parents, educators, employers, LGBT families, and anyone who loves someone who is different. Readers will discover:

  • The payoff of presuming competence and listening well (even to non-verbal people).
  • Do’s and don’ts for managing anxiety. (Do facilitate optimism. Don’t overprotect.)
  • Ways to help ADHD children excel, without medication. (Tips: Limit access to video games but don’t make unrealistic restrictions on movement.)
  • …and much more.

“Autism is my prism, not my prison,” Barb Rentenbach declares. A fun take on serious issues, Neurodiversity presents two wonderfully different perspectives on understanding how different brains think and maximizing our collective human potential.

Excerpts

These are some of my favourite parts of the book.

‘The truth is, aggressive outbursts have always been a part of my autism.

The frequency of my aggression has decreased significantly over the years, as I have become able to communicate more efficiently and REGULARLY. I don;t think I can report the severity of the attacks has waned. But to be fair, I bite my own self more than I do others. I find that makes me more popular.’

‘The brain automatically responds to threat. The limbic system can;t discern if danger is physically real. Despite orthodontic differences, a saber-toothed tiger and the cruellest popular girls in school heading your way may elicit the same physiological response. In The Fear Cure, Rankin classifies these as “True” and “False” fears. True fear is triggered when life and limb are threatened, and False fear is in your “imagination”. Both types of fear are bad for your health if sustained, as our bodies are not designed to be frightened often. Chronic reaction to stress is toxic if unrelenting. The good news is that both True and False fears can be beneficial, if you learn how to filter the messages.’

(The authors signpost readers to a lot of other useful and relevant books. I love this.)

For parents:

‘Children need to practice handling stress, fears, deadlines and mistakes. The acceptance of “not always getting it right” is a lesson we need to demonstrate and teach. It promotes brain growth and life-long learners.’

‘Persevere and remember to laugh. Laughter is like cross-fit for the brain. It engages and strengthens multiple regions across the whole brain and promotes flexibility.’

‘Don’t be too permissive. Letting children do whatever they want, whenever they want, does not “take the pressure off”. In fact, too much freedom may cause a child anxiety. Children become fearful and overwhelmed when given too many choices and denied limit setting. Set boundaries. Provide structure and clear, consistent rules so your children may concentrate on learning, growing, and exercising self-control, leaving the responsibilities of mature decision-making to you.’

Summary

Though not adoption-specific, there’s a lot here to encourage those of us parenting neurodiverse children who struggle with living in a neurotypical society and conforming to its rules and expectations. Those of us whose families are a little (or a lot) unconventional will find no condemnation here, just a useful collection of ideas to try, anecdotes to laugh and cry with, and the feeling of having connected with two authors who are immensely relatable and engaging. I recommend it.

The details
Professional Reader

Neurodiversity:: A Humorous and Practical Guide to Living with ADHD, Anxiety, Autism, Dyslexia, The Gays, and Everyone Else
Lois Prislovsky and Barb Rentenbach
Mule & Muse Productions with Sojourn Publishing
£20.33 (Kindle £7.62/FREE on KindleUnlimited) (Audiobook £14.60)
Published 1 June 2017

Disclaimer: I received this book free via NetGalley in return for my honest review.


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  • You can find me on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and Pinterest. I love to talk to fellow adopters.
  • You can also sign up here to receive my monthly newsletter. It contains my recent blog posts, my favourite adoption-related blog posts by others, and relevant resources from around the web.

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