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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Review | The Special Parent’s Handbook

This book covers it all. From food issues to advocating for your child, via handling meltdowns and battling with paperwork, The Special Parent’s Handbook addresses everything with the humour and practical advice that comes from hard-won first-hand experience. Whether your child’s issues are physical, mental, or emotional/behavioural, there is something here for you.

Professionals should read this too. There is so much here about the impact of being relegated to a mere ‘service user’ on actual human beings. The Powers That Be could learn a lot from The Special Parent’s Handbook about how our mutual interactions can be improved by listening – really listening – to young people and their parents.

Review: Special Parent's Handbook

About the (amazing) author

I first became aware of Yvonne in March this year. She was tweeting about an event she was organising for parents of children with violent, challenging behaviour, or VCB. As I fall into that category twice over, I signed up straight away, and on Saturday 1 April joined 80 other parents in London for the conference.

At the conference, a well as hearing from a number of experts in the NHS and legal fields (find them all on this Twitter list) about their perspective on children with additional needs and helping them to access services, Yvonne spoke about her experience with her son Toby. As is usually the case, the people who live this are the ones who are most helpful. Yvonne talked about how she helps Toby to regulate by reducing instructions to short phrases, often sung to him to remove any stress from her own voice which could cause his behaviour to escalate.

It completely blows my mind that Yvonne wrote this book in four weeks flat having received a terminal cancer diagnosis. Yvonne – I know you’ll read this – you are such an inspiration and I have no idea where you find all your energy. Thank you. What you have achieved in this book and continue to achieve through all your campaigning and bringing people together is amazing, and I know there are hundreds of us who appreciate it all. (Do please remember to put your feet up occasionally!)

So. Why is the book so good?

About The Special Parent’s Handbook

The Special Parent’s Handbook is gold. In my Amazon review I summarised it like this:

This book is great. Yvonne has such a depth of experience and the wisdom that comes from having learned a lot of things the hard way. Her family’s story is told with humour, grace, and insight and in a way that makes it all very relatable. Her advice on accessing services you didn’t know existed and on battling for the help your family needs is invaluable. I related to so much of the content. It should be required reading for all the professionals we encounter as well as for SEND parents and their friends and families.

What it covers

Toby has a combination of disabilities: learning difficulties, autism, and a physical disability which means that he needs to be tube-fed. You might wonder, then, how his mum’s unique experiences with him translate into more broadly applicable advice for other parents. Yvonne has managed this well, by separating the advice into chapters by topic while also weaving in her family’s own story. To give a flavour of the wide-ranging advice, here are a few of the chapter titles:

  • The Advancing Army of Professionals
  • Building your Support Network
  • Siblings
  • Becoming the Expert
  • Being in Hospital
  • Hospital Appointments
  • CAMHS
  • Education
  • Social Services
  • Food Issues
  • Meltdowns

My children Joanna and Charlotte have no physical disabilities, so although I read it cover to cover, I particularly honed in on the chapters to do with support, both formal and informal, and on the behavioural stuff (meltdowns, siblings, and food issues). It addresses these incredibly well. The writing style is conversational and very accessible, making it ideal reading for exhausted parents with little residual brainpower at the end of a difficult day!

Real-life advice

Though Yvonne’s children are not adopted, there is a huge amount of overlap in the types of services she has needed to access, and the battle to be heard and respected as a parent is the same across education, health, and social care. I thought Yvonne’s advice on this aspect of parenting was one of the highlights. It includes tips such as putting a framed photo of your child on the table in important meetings, to remind the professionals that this is about the child, not their budgets and policies. My Kindle highlight facility went into overdrive on this book because it contains so much real-life helpful advice. You know what I mean. Actual practical stuff that helps. This is the book’s focus. She nails it.

Summary

Review | The Special Parent's HandbookI recommend this book wholeheartedly. Whatever additional needs your child has, the guidance on advocating for them, on surviving as a special needs parent, and on doing it all with your sanity and sense of humour intact are all here. Adoptive parents may even rejoice that there is no specific mention of post-adoption support, though social services in general are comprehensively addressed.

Once you’ve read the book, I can also recommend connecting with Yvonne online. You can find her on Twitter (@YvonneNewbold), through her website (yvonnenewbold.com), and through her various Facebook pages: The SEND Parent’s Handbook and Breaking the Silence on VCB.

THE DETAILS

The Special Parent’s Handbook
Yvonne Newbold
Amity House
£12.33 (Kindle £7.36)


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Review | The Secrets of Successful Adoptive Parenting

The Secrets of Successful Adoptive ParentingI recently reviewed The Secrets of Successful Adoptive Parenting for the current issue of Adoption Today, the magazine for members of Adoption UK. (If you’re not a member, I recommend it – helpful magazines, local meet-ups, and an excellent conference.)

Space is naturally limited in print, so here is a longer version of the review than the one I submitted.

About the book
This is a thorough guide to how to manage many of the challenges of adoptive parenting, primarily aimed at helping adopters who are still pre-placement to prepare appropriately for the task ahead of them. And it does this job well.

Summary
The book covers a wide range of topics under six main themes: the emotional journey, empathy, compassion, communication, child development and preparations. It includes explorations of parents’ values, children’s memories and grief, and the provision of structure and consistency. The sections on support, brain plasticity, and introductions are particularly helpful. The chapters are short and manageable and it is a straightforward read.

Going deeper
The author bases her advice on her own experiences with her daughter Lucy, who joined their family aged 4, and on six other children whose stories are briefly used for examples throughout the book. These sections bring the theory to life and help to make it relatable and tangible. I would have liked to see more emphasis on these children (though they were anonymised composites) – what challenges did they present to their carers, and how were they resolved? It seemed to me that the author extrapolated from her own experiences with her family to imply that all adopted children can behave as beautifully as her own daughter if parented appropriately. I struggled with this implication, particularly in the context of CPV (child-on-parent violence), which isn’t really addressed. I have no issues with the strategies – in fact we have used the vast majority of them ourselves – but in our case they haven’t all worked as well as the book suggests, because our lives are just not as neat and tidy as that.

Conclusion
In summary, this is a good ‘general overview’ book to recommend to prospective adopters once they’ve started on the assessment process. Perhaps those who are at the ‘still considering their options’ stage might benefit from reading something that talks with a little more unrestrained forthrightness about the challenges so that they know what they’re getting into (such as Sally Donovan’s books which I cannot praise highly enough). Those who are more than a year post-placement are likely to have encountered much of the content already, and to be researching information more specific to their child’s needs. But for reading during the preparation stage, this is just the job.

The details
The Secrets of Successful Adoptive Parenting
Sophie Ashton
Published July 2016
Paperback £12.99/Kindle £8.96


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9 favourite toys for sensory seekers

When you mention that your child is a chewer and a world-class fidgeter (in polite company, a ‘sensory seeker’), there are a lot of people queuing up to advise you how to handle that.

So this post isn’t that. It’s just a list of the things we use around here to help the girls (mainly Charlotte, age 7) with their sensory issues, with links to places to get hold of them if you’d like to try them yourself.

(1) Some parents and OTs talk about the Chewbuddy as though it is magic. It’s a silicone chew that comes with a lanyard so it can be worn around the neck. We tried it, but Charlotte doesn’t like the texture of it all that much. I don’t blame her. It’s basically like a dog toy, very rubbery and not satisfying to get your chops around. It squeaks on your teeth which might disturb people who are bothered by that kind of thing. You can do a fun trick with it though: tuck the legs inside the head and wait for it to uncurl and jump in the air. It’s strangely compelling.

(2) The Cubebot is a fidget toy which we thought might help the girls to concentrate on whatever it was they were supposed to be doing in class. Um, no. He is very fun to play with, and I quite like having him on my desk when I’m writing, but I think he was thrown in the classroom and was generally not a welcome addition at school.

(3) The Tangle toy is available in a variety of colours and textures and is another great fidget. It’s probably not recommended for chewing because it breaks into sections and pieces could be swallowed. I suspect Charlotte sucks on it more than chewing it – I haven’t yet found any bite marks! It’s very fun and tactile, and another one we’ve sent in to school with her. Again, I like playing with it too if it finds its way onto my desk.

(4) When Charlotte had her sensory assessment, the occupational therapist suggested a body sock would help to provide the proprioceptic feedback that Charlotte needs. You can buy them online, but we made ours (thanks, Mum) from Lycra fabric and elastic. It’s probably a bit bigger than is ideal, but she loves it. We call it the calming-down bag. She gets in and we call out the names of objects and she makes their shape – banana, tree, football, star, etc. We encourage her to hold the large shapes which require her to stretch against the resistance of the bag for a count of ten.


(There is a child in there somewhere.)

(5) Not a sensory-specific toy, but one that has a a texture that Charlotte enjoys using. We used to call them Sticklebricks when I was a child, but these Bristle Blocks, along with Lego, encourage fine motor skills and visual planning.


(6) Another chew toy – this bracelet is a slightly more discreet wearable option. The disadvantages are that they can flick saliva at people sitting nearby (ask me how I know), and that they are very easily dropped on the floor and then put straight back in the mouth (nice).

(7) A solution we use most days at the moment is this combination of a safety lanyard and hard plastic chew. I should make very clear that these chews are intended to be sewn inside fabric toys, not to be used on their own as we do. However, we examine them frequently (every day or two) and replace them as soon as they are starting to reach a point where small bits of plastic might come off and be ingested. Use this with caution and take note of the safety warnings.

(8) In an attempt to make the cuffs of her school uniform less attractive as a chewing option, we gave Charlotte a box of cotton hankies for Christmas. They have her initial embroidered with flowers on one corner, which she loves, and they’re much cheaper to replace than school jumpers, can travel with her to school or live under her pillow at night, be sprayed with my perfume if required, and generally provide a soft chewing option.

(9) This teething chew has been a long-lasting favourite. I found ours in Sainsbury’s but you can also get them on Amazon. It provides several different textures and is one of Charlotte’s favourites (she likes the squishy green section best).

Do you use any of the same toys, or do you have more recommendations? I’d love to hear your comments.


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You Baby Me Mummy

 

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Review: Improving sensory processing in traumatized children

In preparation for tomorrow night’s #tpbooks chat (a Twitter-based therapeutic parents’ book club initiated by @PedallingSolo) I finally read this book which has been on my shelf for months. It’s quite a quick read – two hours or so if you are uninterrupted and distraction-free. (We can but dream of such an eventuality, eh?)

51w38o77qtlIt’s not academic or wordy so is very accessible, both for worn-out adopters who can’t be doing with reading degree-level textbooks at the end of a long day, and for lending to teachers and others who have contact with your children on a regular basis but don’t necessarily have any prior knowledge of the subject.

I liked it. It’s a good introduction to sensory processing issues, is straightforward in providing questions to help parents form an amateur diagnosis of where help might be needed, and includes some suggested exercises in the form of games to play at home and a few tips for things that could also help at school.

The parts I liked best and would like to force our social worker to read aloud in meetings are in the first 20 pages. This passage (pages 7-9) describes Charlotte very accurately:

We noticed a group of children who were so out of tune with themselves that they really struggled to manage to think about any sorts of feelings – even things like if they felt hot or cold or whether they could make their hearts beat faster by running around. Foster carers often talked about children seeming to have no sense of whether they felt hungry or full … the more we heard about it and the more we worked with these children the more we realised that … they were dysregulated to the extent that they literally couldn’t register how they felt on the inside.

The author then discusses how it is important to address this dysregulation before attempting to use psychological therapies to explore the emotional impact of trauma.

Then on page 14:

Some children are able to use their new families to make sense of their early experiences and can absorb the loving care and opportunities they have in their new family. However, another group of children struggle to do this and seem to continue to react as if they were in an abusive environment. They seem burdened by their experiences and are often too agitated to be able to make use of talking or play-based therapies. Even interventions designed around improving the relationship between the parent and the child can be too difficult for very dysregulated children – they find it too difficult to be in a room with a therapist and can be very hard to contain and manage in a way that allows any therapeutic work to take place. Therapy often has to stop because the child has destroyed the toys or hurt the therapist or themselves.

And on page 15, this bit about teachers could equally be said of adoptive parents:

[The author and a teacher] talked about how stressful it is, with school staff absorbing and managing huge amounts of stress and dysregulation, but because it’s an education[al] and not a clinical setting, there’s no supervision to help them understand and manage their reaction and response to the child. And that was before we started talking about how deskilling it is that all the normal strategies that teachers might use to set the culture and tone of a classroom get completely scuppered by children with such profound difficulties.

Here’s that paragraph again, but changed to focus on adoptive parents instead. My changes in bold.

[The author and a parent] talked about how stressful it is, with adoptive parents absorbing and managing huge amounts of stress and dysregulation, but because it’s a family home and not a clinical setting, there’s no supervision to help them understand and manage their reaction and response to the child. And that was before we started talking about how deskilling it is that all the normal strategies that parents might use to set the culture and tone of a home (not not mention other major aspects of their lives, such as their ability to do paid work) get completely scuppered by children with such profound difficulties.

A minor quibble – the book could really do with another proofread if it goes to a reprint. I noticed a number of issues such as missing words (particularly in the first few pages) and flipped images which I’m afraid have the effect of undermining my confidence in a publication. Sorry. Also the habit of referring to the fictionalised primary caregiver as ‘Mum’ throughout rather than alternating between ‘Mum’ and ‘Dad’ or giving them Actual Names Like Human Beings Who Exist Outside Of These Roles annoys me more than perhaps it should, though it is by no means unique to this book.

14889145758_3443961d5b_zImage: www.personalcreations.com

My main question on finishing the book was about the practicality of introducing these therapeutic games into our family life. All seem very doable when written about in the singular (‘your child’), but the dynamics of the relationship between Joanna and Charlotte would mean that unless one child was occupied elsewhere and I was able to give the other my undivided attention, there would be jealousy and bickering and control issues at play. And if I set up a pop-up tent or blanket fort with sleeping bags and cushions and what-not (to encourage them to spend time lying on their fronts), how long is that going to remain uninteresting to the other sibling? This isn’t the fault of the book, of course, but does limit its application in our household. I’d happily try it if only the children were amenable to taking turns or doing something together without it turning into a fight.

How do others get around this issue? It seems to be something we come back to a lot – spending time one-to-one with the girls is difficult but surely not impossible. I’d love to hear how you manage ‘sibling issues’ if this is something relevant to your family, and I’m looking forward to talking about all this and more in tomorrow’s #tpbooks chat.

You can buy this book on Amazon here.

 

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Five ways to help an adoptive family at Christmas

You know an adoptive family. Maybe they’re a part of your extended family, or your friends, or neighbours. You want to help, but you’re worried about doing the wrong thing and putting your foot in it. But unless the adoptive family in question is quite unusual, they are likely to be delighted with any expression of desire to help out. So go for it.

Or maybe you haven’t given it much thought, but you are keen to treat adopted children exactly the same as all the other children in your life because you don’t want to discriminate or make them feel different. That’s great, and there will often be a few adoption-friendly tweaks you can make to make your efforts even more helpful for this particular family.

1. Simplify. Keep things as straightforward as possible so as not to overwhelm the children. One present, not five. One small family gathering, not a tour of the country. Predictability, not surprises. Many adoptive families have enough internal stress without adding any external pressures. Keep things relaxed and low-key. Think chilled-out gathering at home, not formal restaurant where impeccable table manners are required.

2. Give experiences, not stuff. Many adopted children break things exceptionally quickly. Mine have been known to break Christmas presents before they were even out of the wrapping paper. They are just not very good at being careful with things. Sometimes they don’t feel worthy of nice things and so they break them to restore them to their idea of normal. Others (including our girls again) feel enormously overwhelmed by presents from all and sundry, and opening a huge pile of things sends them into a cycle of extreme highs and hyperactivity followed by a big crash into a meltdown. So it’s helpful to give them an experience instead: a homemade voucher for a trip to the cinema/theatre/zoo/planetarium provides an opportunity for you to give attention to the child and almost certainly helps out the adoptive parents at the same time. (Hint: all the adoptive parents I know would love this.) If you’re too far away to offer this, then you could get creative. Vouchers for things they can download to a tablet, perhaps, or cinema vouchers if you can’t take them yourself.

When thinking of gifts for adoptive parents, remember that they can probably buy their own alcohol and chocolates, welcome as these things are! It’s a cliché, but your time and friendship are priceless. Give them a list of dates when you’re free to take them out for coffee and listen to them/look after the kids so they can have some respite/be available to do DIY where the children have broken things. Or give vouchers for ironing/lawnmowing/dinner-delivery/whatever you can offer. You get the idea.

Adoptive parents are pretty much all constantly exhausted. Be gentle.

3. Lower your expectations of what they can manage, especially in terms of gatherings and parties. The children may not be able to sit still for very long, regardless of their age (children don’t ‘grow out of’ being neglected and abused and may be emotionally and/or developmentally ‘stuck’ at a lower age). They may be extremely attention-seeking and oblivious to the usual rules of social interaction. The family may not be able to arrive on time (because of meltdowns when getting ready, and/or leaving the house, and/or during the journey). They may need to leave early because they can see before you can the signs that a child is heading for a meltdown, which could be due to a new environment/too many people/Uncle Mike’s aftershave/being asked questions/something being not as they expected. Understand this and don’t take it personally. Assume they are all doing their best and don’t pressure them. Adoptive parents are pretty much all constantly exhausted. Be gentle. Don’t ask them to bring anything that requires hours of baking to the bring-and-share lunch. Do ask if there are things that will make it easier for the children to manage, such as specific foods they will eat happily, somewhere quiet for them to decompress, someone they feel safe with who can take them to the park for half an hour to burn off some nervous energy, etc.

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4. Think laterally. Give books about adoption and/or the child’s specific needs to other family members or mutual friends you know to be supportive. Ask the family for recommendations, or try some of my favourites:

No Matter What
The Unofficial Guide to Adoptive Parenting
Building the Bonds of Attachment
Why Can’t My Child Behave?
and for teachers, What About Me?

(For a more extensive list, just Google ‘adoption reading list’ and you’ll see lots to choose from. My advice would be to choose something down-to-earth and practical rather than an adoption memoir.)

Gone are the days of lying of the sofa for a week with a stack of all the books we got for Christmas, only moving to replenish our plates of mince pies.

5. Remember that Christmas may well not be downtime for adoptive families. When children thrive on the regular routines of school and predictable daily life, they can find school holidays hard to cope with. When you add it all the extra expectations and emotions that surround Christmas, it’s no surprise that they find themselves confused, overwhelmed, and stressed. Therapeutically parenting children in this state of dysregulation is very hard work, even if adoptive parents sometimes manage to make it look easy.

Gone are the days of lying of the sofa for a week with a stack of all the books we got for Christmas, only moving to replenish our plates of mince pies. Downtime only comes when the children are asleep, by which time we can barely keep our eyes open enough to watch the Doctor Who special. When you see an adoptive parent in January, better to ask ‘And how was your Christmas?’ in a cautious tone of voice than to launch in to ‘I bet you had a wonderful time with your children’ and make presumptions of yuletide jollity which may not be accurate. I believe it is possible to have an enjoyable Christmas with adopted children, it’s just that we are still waiting for it to happen here.


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Self-Care Week, Day 6: Spirituality

How have you found Self-Care Week? I hope it’s been helpful.

I’m continuing this series of about the seven components of self-care which I first published in early 2015. I’m using the hashtag #selfcareweek on Twitter and Instagram and would love it if you’d join me. Self-Care Week continues over the weekend and it’s a subject I love talking about.

If you missed them, here’s where you can find the previous posts:
1: Sleep
2: Support
3: Sports
4: Sustenance
5: Space

And today, it’s…

Spirituality

God is our refuge and our STRENGTH

Photo credit: Taz + Belly


Do a Google image search for ‘self-care’ and you see a lot of yoga and meditation pictures. It seems lots of us recognise that there is a spiritual element to taking care of ourselves. I’m a Christian and not keen on yoga (which is strongly linked to worship in Hinduism and also forms a part of Buddhist spirituality). I am into music and prayer and being community and reading the Bible and trying to apply my faith in really practical ways, hence the whole adoption thing, à la James 1:27 (NLT):

Pure and genuine religion in the sight of God the Father means caring for orphans and widows in their distress and refusing to let the world corrupt you.

So. This post isn’t about bashing anyone over the head with my faith or singing platitudes about how Jesus will make all your child(ren)’s trauma and attachment issues disappear. It’s just an honest outline of the ways in which my faith helps me parent my children.

Why it matters
Why bother with spirituality? When many people tick the box marked ‘none’ when it comes to describing their faith, why should we add spiritual practices to our already over-full to-do lists?

The UK’s Mental Health Foundation describes the benefits of spiritual activities:

‘Being able to express and explore our spirituality is a basic human need and a universal human right. This right applies to everyone and is enshrined in European and UK law, based on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. …

Spirituality can help people maintain good mental health. It can help them cope with everyday stress and can keep them grounded. Tolerant and inclusive spiritual communities can provide valuable support and friendship. There is some evidence of links between spirituality and improvements in people’s mental health, although researchers do not know exactly how this works. …

Spirituality can also help people deal with mental distress or mental illness. Spirituality can bring a feeling of being connected to something bigger than yourself and it can provide a way of coping in addition to your own mental resilience. It can help people make sense of what they are experiencing.’

I certainly find all that to be true.  And this stuff matters to me. It is a huge part of who I am and how I hope to parent our girls: teaching them unconditional love and endless grace and hope and honesty and integrity (and, here’s hoping, perhaps a bit of self-discipline one day). So here’s what it all looks like in practice for me at the moment.

Music
Even before I was an adoptive parent, I was tired a lot of the time. Now, on less sleep and more stress, some days are a bit of a fog. I just don’t have the mental capacity, let alone the free time for reading the more academic theology books that I used to love, so I now feel that I ‘connect’ more through music. My current favourite albums are:

    

I have these CDs in the car and I have the MP3s on my phone and computer. They help me calm down, cheer up, and generally regulate and get a bit of a broader perspective on whatever’s on my mind. It helps that (with absolutely no coercion on our part) the children love them and will sing these songs with gusto when they wake up in the morning and are ‘playing quietly’ in their rooms. I think they find them helpful too.

Prayer
I’ll be honest. Making time to pray and try to stop thinking about my to-do list sometimes just doesn’t happen. We pray with the girls at bedtime every night. We pray at church. Pete and I pray together when we remember and are both in the same room at the same time. We have previously had an arrangement that we pray together after lunch on the days he works from home, but his schedule has been crazy recently and we have forgotten a lot. I rely very heavily on God’s grace (knowing that he’s not keeping score) and on what some people call ‘arrow prayers’ – things like ‘Please help me not mess up this important conversation’ and ‘Please let them be asleep before the babysitter arrives’ and ‘Thank you that that revolting stain on her school uniform came out in the wash when I was expecting to have to make an emergency shopping trip’. That kind of thing. But I do find prayer helpful. It isn’t always answered in the ways I would like, of course, but if God always did what I wanted there wouldn’t be much point in him being God, would there?

Community
I love the church when we get it right. It can be the best kind of support network – if there are people there who ‘get it’, it can be a place to offload, to find excellent childminders, to find people who like ironing way more than I ever intend to and are willing to take yours on… there all kinds of ways  they help. Yes, there are also those who are less helpful, but with a bit of determined explaining and teeth-gritting, even those can soften eventually.

It’s through the church that we have organisations like Home for Good, encouraging more Christians to get involved in adoption and fostering and explaining to the rest of the church that these families often need extra support.

The Bible
This one’s kind of a big deal to me. From where I sit writing this, I can see 16 Bibles on a bookshelf in various translations, including Scouse. I also have the Bible on my phone and my Kindle. I have BibleGateway bookmarked on my computer for looking up passages I have only half-remembered or topics I want to investigate.  I try to read it every day, though I don’t manage it all the time. I use all manner of different resources to help me understand and apply it, though my current favourites are the She Reads Truth app and Beth Moore studies which are either a DVD or download, and a workbook (I have done the ones on Esther, James and Knowing God).

[Update: My favourites at the end of 2016 are now Wordlive and Rob Bell’s podcast, The RobCast.]

Though I rarely live up to my own desire to read more (I set an alarm to be Mrs Spiritual Bible-reader at 6.00am, but it often gets ignored), when I do, it helps me focus on what is important, and reminds me that I am not, and don’t have to be, in control of everything that happens to every member of our family (I need reminding of this a lot. I have control-freak tendencies. Ask my husband, or, well, anyone who knows me). Anyway. The Bible is full of advice on how to life ‘life in all its fullness’ (John 10:10) and how to get on with others. Also good adoption-friendly advice for families, like

‘Children, do what your parents tell you. This is only right. “Honour your father and mother” is the first commandment that has a promise attached to it, namely, “so you will live well and have a long life.”

Fathers, don’t exasperate your children by coming down hard on them. Take them by the hand and lead them in the way of the Master.’

(Ephesians 6:1–4, The Message)

Applying faith
The book of James is one of my favourite parts of the Bible. I love the way the author is delightfully blunt.

‘What good is it, dear brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but don’t show it by your actions? Can that kind of faith save anyone? Suppose you see a brother or sister who has no food or clothing,  and you say, “Goodbye and have a good day; stay warm and eat well” – but then you don’t give that person any food or clothing. What good does that do?

So you see, faith by itself isn’t enough. Unless it produces good deeds, it is dead and useless.’

(James 2:14–17, NLT)

Mine and Pete’s faith is a huge part of why we adopted. It wasn’t from a deep yearning to be parents, but a deep acknowledgement that we couldn’t not adopt, having become aware of the need of children for families. More of that story another time, perhaps.

[Update: that story is now here.]

Summary
Though I practise my faith very imperfectly (imperfection and grace being part of the deal), I get a huge amount of strength and peace and guidance from it. In terms of self-care, these are big pieces of the jigsaw.

If you have questions about any of this, I’ll gladly answer what I can if you leave a comment below. If you want to know lots more, I’d also recommend you find an Alpha Course near you (see ‘further reading’) where you can ask all your questions in person (and usually with free food – there is almost always a pasta bake involved).

What are your thoughts on the importance of spirituality to your own self-care? Is it something you are making a deliberate part of your life, or are there reasons you prefer not to? Are there particular practices you find helpful as an adoptive parent? Please share your comments below and join in the conversation on Twitter with the #selfcareweek hashtag. Tomorrow’s topic – the last in the series – is treats, or, for the sake of alliteration, superfluities. Hurrah.



Spirituality: further reading
The Alpha Course
Home for Good by Krish Kandiah
The Fringe Hours: Making Time for You by Jessica Turner (about self-care in general)

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