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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Headspin: an update

How do other adoptive parents juggle all the stuff that we are expected to cope with? How does anyone cope with all the advocacy and admin and energy required for parenting two or more children with additional needs of any kind? This week I am really feeling the resulting headspin. My brain has way too many tabs open – too much stuff pending. Too many forms, and emails, and meetings, and phone calls.

headspin

As we hurtle towards half term (how did that happen? It was only Easter ten minutes ago), here’s what’s going on with us.

SEBD school visit

As I’ve mentioned previously, Joanna’s needs are not being met in her mainstream primary school, and she needs an alternative placement. Following the EHCP review, we visited our first SEBD school. I asked most of my questions. The school was good – lots of evidence of good strategies in place for helping the children with self-regulation, lots of breakout spaces for children to use to calm down, staff whose job it is to track children around the premises and help them to return to where they are supposed to be, that sort of thing. The OT facilities were particularly impressive. We liked the headteacher. But I had an uneasy feeling, and I haven’t quite put my finger on the reason.

The boarding dilemma

Part of it is about boarding. We’ve said we’d like to consider weekly boarding. I’m still torn about the boarding side of things – we need the respite, it means fewer transitions and long car journeys for Joanna, but she is still only eight years old, and I don’t want her to think of it as a rejection. When the person showing us round the school said ‘And here’s where we teach them to do their own laundry’ I had to take some deep breaths as I thought about what is in effect someone else parenting my child during the week and her learning all those little steps towards independence from someone else. Once we’d left the school I may have had a bit of a cry about that. Trying to put my feelings aside and focus on what is in Joanna’s best interests is a bit harder than I thought. Turns out I feel pretty horrible about asking for respite when it means my little girl living somewhere else. I need to get over not being able to meet all her needs myself, however much I’d like to. That’s hard. I don’t understand my own thoughts and feelings about it all. How can I be jealous of someone else getting to do that stuff with her and for her and yet at the same time be asking for respite because I am finding it so hard myself?

So. We still have at least two more schools to visit, but I haven’t booked them yet. There’s so much processing to do; so much else going on; so much psyching myself up for it all needs to happen.

Risk assessment

A few weeks back, as well as scaling a 7-foot wall and escaping from school, there was an incident where (a) Joanna ran away from home, (b) we tackled her to the ground in the park after 40 minutes of not-quite-chasing her; (c) a couple saw us grab her, heard her scream and assumed we were abducting her; (d) said couple called the police; (e) I pre-emptively emailed  school and PAS; and (e) the police came round to talk (supportively) about it all. PAS subsequently came out to do a risk assessment to help move things along in terms of the support they can offer. The idea is that by illustrating the constant need for us to be risk-assessing all the possible moves the girls might make, the CPV, the risk of various types of self-harm and putting themselves in dangerous situations… they can justify providing us with respite and putting pressure on the SEN team to speed up the school placement business.

Occupational Therapy

Meanwhile the OT has started working with Charlotte. (A full year after the OT assessment was done, but let’s leave that rant for another day.) Today she is in school talking to the teachers about both girls. She’s also doing an observation of Joanna as part of her assessment. Said assessment will form part of the paperwork for the EHCP review, which should support our case to get appropriate help for her. Obviously the funding isn’t yet in place for the OT to work with Joanna as well, but apparently PAS are working on it.

CAMHS

Joanna is still on the waiting list – that’s 8 months since her assessment. Charlotte is on the waiting list to get an appointment to be assessed. Not even a date for the initial consultation yet. Don’t hold your breath.

Alternative psychotherapy

Joanna’s previous therapist (whose funding didn’t get renewed in the LA handover debacle) has recommended that Joanna have EMDR therapy which sounds a bit strange at first but seems to get great results. An ASF application for funding went in two months ago. PAS are supposed to be chasing it and/or funding it themselves. Again, no news.

FASD assessment

We continue to pursue an FASD assessment for Charlotte. The paediatrician has bounced it back to the GP with a permissions form for us to complete. Sounds straightforward, but they expect us to sign to say that we’ll accept the panel’s verdict about what happens next, which could mean Charlotte actually seeing the paediatrician, but could be them sending us on a parenting course. That is one of the options they can prescribe and if we sign the form, we’re saying that’s acceptable, which it isn’t. Obviously. I’m very much up for any course that is FASD-specific, but not as an alternative to actually seeing a medical professional who can make a diagnosis. So we haven’t signed, and the school nurse is having a conversation with the GP about it all. Again, no news for a week or so. I’m expecting a call any day.

The book

After a ridiculously long hiatus which we’ll put down to ‘dealing with life’, I’m resuming work on my self-care book. (Hurrah.) This week I’ve completed a first draft of the first chapter and have sent it to some agents I’m meeting next month. (If I say that quickly it doesn’t sound as scary.) More details will follow, and there will almost certainly be more requests for people to be case studies for various aspects of self-care in the weeks/months to come. Watch this space.

Self-care

I between all this, I have my now annual self-care week – a solo trip to soak up some restorative mountain views, sleep, practise my excruciatingly poor German language skills, shut down a few of those headspin-inducing tabs for a whole, and generally be Hannah, not just mum. That’s coming up in a couple of weeks, or to be precise (not that I’m counting…)

I. Cannot. Wait.

Peace! Sachertorte! Mountains! Strudel! Maybe the occasional yodel… I am so thankful for the airmiles that Pete clocks up with work.

So in the next 24 hours I’ll be sticking my Teach Yourself German cassettes on again (‘Ist der Garten schön? Ja, der Garten ist schön…’) and battening down the hatches for half term. I hope yours is a (relatively) peaceful one.

PS I’m sorry if you’re sick of seeing this on Twitter. But I’d be so grateful if you could spare a minute to vote for me in the #BiBs awards if you like what I have to say about the importance of self-care for adoptive parents. Thanks.


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30 questions to ask SEBD schools

Having started the fight to get Joanna into a specialist school in the last couple of weeks, we’re keen to keep up the momentum and arm ourselves with plenty of first-hand knowledge from Actual Visits so we can make the best possible case to the SEN panel. And here is where it begins: my 30 questions to ask SEBD schools.

They want paperwork, they’re going to get paperwork. I’m going to write a masterpiece comparing and contrasting the various options. Bring it on.

30 Questions To Ask SEBD Schools

To recap: we’re looking for a specialist SEBD (social, emotional and behavioural difficulties) school for our eight-year-old daughter, Joanna. Her current mainstream primary school can’t meet her needs or cope with her dysregulation and violence. We are struggling at home  with both girls’ CPV and fighting each other. (Read more about our CPV experience here.) There have also been a couple of running away incidents lately – one from school and one from home. Arrrgh.

We’ve just had an EHCP review (brought forward after a rash of exclusions for violence last term) and although we had a good argument for a particular school based on a lot of Googling and scouring of websites, we agreed that we also need to visit the three schools under discussion in order to make an even more informed choice.

30 questions to ask SEBD schools

We’re going to see the first school (our current first choice) this week. I’ve been thinking up questions. Here’s my list so far.

The home–school relationship

1) How do you keep in touch with parents?

2) How frequent are communications – not just about academic progress, but behavioural and general comments in what’s going on for her?

3) What does the partnership with parents look like in terms of consistent strategies around behaviour to make sure Joanna receives the same messages at home and school?

Academic issues

4) How does the transition from mainstream work? What would that look like for Joanna?

5) What would the year 4 timetable look like for Joanna?

6) How do you measure academic progress?

Therapy and behavioural issues

7) What therapies are available on site?

8) Are class teachers/TAs trained in issues relating to early trauma?

9) What proportion of the pupils come from a similar background?

10) Would she miss lessons for therapy? How does that work?

11) Is therapy delivered 1:1 or in groups?

12) Joanna has been working happily in class for 90 minutes and is then given a maths question that she can’t immediately work out. Her self-esteem is threatened and she suddenly becomes angry, shouting, throwing a chair at someone and running out of the room. In your school, what happens next?

13) Do you have much sensory OT work incorporated into the classroom?

14) What are your expectations of her? What happens if she fails to met your expectations?

15) What measures do you have in place to stop her running away?

Boarding

16) What is in place for keeping in touch with Joanna during the week? Can she call us?

17) What routines are in place in the mornings and evenings?

18) Who would be looking after Joanna in the mornings and evenings? Can we meet them?

19) What happens if she’s ill?

20) Can we see what the rooms are like?

Social skills

21) What help is available to Joanna for developing social skills, building friendships, etc?

22) What are the male/female ratios in her year group? In the school overall?

23) Are there any extra-curricular activities available (eg football, chess, drama)?

24) Joanna really struggles with transitions. What do you have in place to help with different types of transitions (on a daily basis, between school years, and from primary to secondary)?

25) What behavioural issues is she likely to learn from other pupils? What are the main issues they face?

Securing a place

26) If we really want Joanna to come here, what are the arguments you’d recommend us putting to the LA in the EHCP review paperwork?

27) What’s your relationship like with the LA’s SEND team?

28) Do you have any other advice for navigating the system?

29) How competitive is your admissions process?

30) What do you think is the school’s best selling point?

More questions

These 30 questions are just a starting point. I’d love to hear other people’s, especially if you’ve navigated this process already or are doing it at the moment. Is there anything you think I’ve missed? Let me know in the comments or on social media (see below).


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Eye contact in adopted children: attachment, FASD, or autism?

Charlotte (age 7) is struggling with eye contact. And therefore so are we. Is it an attachment issue, FASD, or even autism? How concerned should I be? And should I be starting the fight for yet another assessment? Where do I start to find out? What information is there about eye contact in adopted children? Here’s what I found out.

Eye Contact In Adopted Children: Attachment, FASD Or Autism


Not today, thank you

It’s hard to know what Charlotte wants at any given time, as she changes her mind a lot. Sometimes she demands that we look at her, other times she screams at us not to look at her. Sometimes she wants to look at us, other times she refuses to. On extreme days, our children even scream at us for looking in the car’s rear-view mirror while driving. Not because we are looking at them, just because we’re using it to drive safely! Argh.

Possible diagnoses

I’d like to find out what this problem is about so that I can respond appropriately. Is it primarily an attachment issue? Is it part of FASD? Could it even be a sign of autism? Without a diagnosis it’s hard to know where to start. Is the advice for dealing with eye contact within each of these diagnoses the same or different? I did a bit of research to find out.

(Disclaimer: I’m not a medical professional. What follows is based only on my own experience as a parent and a bit of Googling.)

Eye contact in attachment disorders

John Bowlby (Mr Attachment Theory himself) lists eye contact as one of the critical factors in healthy attachment. His view is summarised by Psychology Today:

‘If the caregiver is responsive to the child’s signals and interacts with sensitivity, a secure attachment will be formed, reinforcing the child’s own positive emotional states and teaching him or her to modulate negative states. Deprived of the mother’s gaze, the area of the brain that coordinates social communication, empathic attunement, emotional regulation, and stimulus appraisal (the establishment of value and meaning) will be faulty. Such children are likely to develop “insecure attachment” along with all sorts of subsequent losses in self-esteem and feelings of belonging.’

So for Charlotte, whose birth mum wasn’t able to provide this for her, attachment looks like a possible contender. She probably didn’t have consistent doses of eye contact in her first few months of life. As a consequence, it may just be too threatening for her now.

Side note: though we were taught as prospective adopters that attachment theory is basically gospel truth, I am increasingly hearing of respected professionals calling it into question. I’m hoping to cover that in a future post.

Eye contact in FASD

It was harder than I expected to find good information about eye contact in FASD. One helpful resource is produced by psychology students at McMasters University in Hamilton, Ontario. They have a blog, ‘Live and Learn with FASD‘. There’s also an associated YouTube channel on which they have a series of videos for young people with FASD to help them improve their eye contact. They say:

‘It has been shown that some children with FASD experience problems with maintaining eye contact, and will typically look elsewhere on someone’s face when they speak. Their amygdalas, which play a role in processing emotions in the brain, tend to be less dense than in children without FASD. … While individuals [with FASD] tend to look at the centre of a picture of a face that is not moving, when a person’s face who is talking appears they tend to look at the mouth instead. This is because when the mouth is not moving, the eyes are more of a stimulus than the mouth in general, but when the mouth is moving, the mouth is a more important stimulus for the proposed pathway along which the information is processed’.

Eye contact in autism

Eye contact is well-known as a symptom of autism. An article from the charity Autism Speaks, ‘Why is it so hard for someone with autism to make eye contact?’ explains:

‘The act of making eye contact is extremely stressful for some people affected by autism. There are many books and articles written by adults with autism who describe the terrible stress they felt when well-meaning parents and teachers tried to force them to make eye contact during conversations. In many cases, they describe being further distracted and unable to focus on the conversation because of this insistence.’

This does sort of sound like Charlotte at the times she screams ‘STOP LOOKING AT ME!’ She has a few other behaviours that I’ve seen described as autistic traits, too. She loves pretending to be a dog, she likes lining things up, and she has sensory issues, especially around food, which can lead to massive meltdowns. Tomato on her plate? Salad leaves? She’ll scream, push the plate away, and either hide under the table or leave the room, slamming the door behind her and shouting. However, there is also a lot of overlap between FASD and autism, which leads to the question…

Which is it?

This helpful printable chart summarising the overlapping behavioural characteristics in FASD and other diagnoses indicated that FASD and autism are both possibilities. (I took this to our GP and it was a really useful tool to discuss it.) As Charlotte’s behaviour ticks all the boxes for FASD, I think it highly likely that she has it. Autism, though? Though I occasionally wonder about it when she exhibits certain behaviours, I don’t think so. This chart from MOFAS (below) is helpful in explaining the differences.

Differences Between Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders and Autism

Source: Dan Dubovsky MSW SAMHSA, FASD Center for Excellence

FASD Autism
Occurs as often in males as in females Occurs in males 4 times as often as in females
Able to relate to others Difficult or impossible to relate to others in a meaningful way
Restricted patterns are not commonly seen Restricted patterns of behavior, interests, and activities as a core area
Verbal communication may be slow to develop but is not commonly significantly impaired Difficulty in verbal and non-verbal communication
Difficulties begin at birth Difficulties may begin after a period of normal growth
Difficulty in verbal receptive language; expressive language is more intact as the person ages Difficulty in both expressive and receptive language
Spoken language is typical Some do not develop spoken language
Spontaneously talkative Robotic, formal speech
Echolalia not common Echolalia-repeating words or phrases
Stereotyped movements not seen Stereotyped movements
Ritualistic behaviors not commonly seen Ritualistic behaviors
Repetitive body movements not seen; may have fine and gross motor coordination and/or balance problems Repetitive body movements e.g., hand flapping, and/or abnormal posture e.g., toe walking
Social and outgoing Remaining aloof; preferring to be alone
Difficulty with change and transitions Inflexibility related to routines and rituals
Can share enjoyment and laughter Lack of spontaneous sharing of enjoyment
Can express a range of emotion Restricted in emotional expression
Funny; good sense of humor Difficulty expressing humor
Microcephaly more common Macrocephaly more common
Considered a medical disorder in the ICD.  Not in the DSM-IV Considered a mental disorder in the DSM-IV

I’ve added colour to indicate where Charlotte’s behaviours fall definitively on one side – and that is mainly on the FASD side. She does have some language issues, such as becoming non-verbal at times of stress, using a made-up language and babble, and often preferring to communicate through grunts. (Some might say that sounds like a typical teenager.) But in other areas her social skills are generally OK. Yes, her level of empathy is a bit lower than I’d like. But she certainly prefers to play with others rather than alone, and she is very, very talkative. She also has a fully-functioning GSOH. Hmmm.

Conclusion

Problems with eye contact in adopted children are not desperately unusual. People have discussed the topic in a couple of threads on the Adoption UK forums, for example. It could ‘just’ be a consequence of early neglect. I’m aware that neglect in the first 18 months of a child’s life has a massive impact. (This was the age at which Charlotte was taken into care.) But my gut feeling is that it’s more than that. This is partly because I have Charlotte’s sister Joanna to compare her to.

Joanna was in the same birth family for even longer (nearly 3 years). Eye contact is occasionally an issue for her, but not to the same extent, and with Joanna it is almost always shame-related. Charlotte’s seems to be fuelled by something else: I get the sense it comes from overwhelm of some kind.

Meanwhile, we’re pressing on with trying to obtain an FASD diagnosis, and I’ll ask these questions when I’m finally face-to-face with someone who knows about this stuff. And as I find out more, I’ll update this post. If you have other sources of information on this topic, please leave them in the comments.

Further reading

I recommend these two books about FASD, both of which contain very practical advice and strategies, including a bit about eye contact.

You might also like to visit:


Have you experienced eye contact issues in your child? What are your thoughts? Please let me know in the comments.


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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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Review: Self-regulation Strategies and Techniques 

Joanna’s therapist lent us this DVD. I was hopeful. The presenter is an occupational therapist and it says it addresses the sorts of issues we see most days. I was going to write an upbeat review of how it was going to be life-changing for our family. No. Not so much. 

Warning: sarcasm follows.

There are a couple of small things I’d be happy to give a try, but overall it doesn’t seem to be designed to deal with children who operate on the same level of intensity as our two. More of that in a moment. 

Here are some of the key suggestions from the DVD:

An hour of gymnastics or swimming twice a week should help a child to regulate and the effect should last a couple of days. If you say so. We have had some epic meltdowns in swimming pool changing rooms. They seemed to last a couple of days…

Throwing a weighted ball back and forth should help a child calm down in about 30 seconds. Seriously?! We’d get it thrown at our heads.

Wiggle cushions and therapy balls can help children sit still (e.g. at school). They’re welcome to try them. 

Playing the CD ‘Sacred Earth Drums’ by David and Steve Gordon to a tantrumming child ‘usually calms them down in 30 seconds’. Ha ha ha ha ha. I found this on Spotify. (It’s a New Age-y drums, pan pipes and jungle sounds thing, which is really not my style at all. I’m fairly sure the girls will hate it.) I’ll let you know how that goes. 

‘Imagine you are a melting ice cream, dripping down your face, your shoulders, your chest, your arms… until you end in a puddle on the floor. Now imagine you’re a tree… your roots are growing… grow roots again whenever you feel anxious.’ They actually showed an ice cream melting on screen for this. It troubled me.

Stretching before bedtime releases energy built up in the muscles and helps them relax. Try stretches or yoga. Yes, because my children have such a shortage of procrastination techniques and could do with broadening their portfolio.

Using sensory fidgets can help calm a child down and stop them becoming overwhelmed. They can also be one more thing to get lost, and they will probably still chew their cuffs anyway because sensory fidgets are a horrible silicone texture that they don’t want to chew.

Switch off screens 90 minutes before bedtime, or at the very least, monitor the content for excitement. Right. 

Transitions can be difficult. Use a visual timetable. Use carpet squares for children to sit on and when you want to move them, ask them to move their carpet square to the new location. Sing ‘Here we go to Mrs Smith’s class’ [to the tune of ‘Here we go round the mulberry bush’] as you skip down the corridor to your next lesson. That won’t get you any strange looks. Oh no.

Taking a child for a massage every week helps them get rid of their anger. Pulling the energy out of their muscles gets rid of a child’s wiggles. Now watch a small boy having a massage for ten minutes while we play some twinkly guitar music at you because you cannot imagine this concept for yourself.

You have to love the optimism of this DVD. We laughed out loud most of the way through, particularly at the repeated ‘this usually works in about 30 seconds’. None of the children were shown being taken from full-on rage to zen-like calm. There was no intensity of emotion shown at all. ‘William is mildly disgruntled. Oh look, he’s been on a swing and is fine again now.’ Because naturally the children never go from nought to sixty on the rageometer in under five seconds, they become dysregulated nice and gradually so you only ever need to use the techniques preventatively.

Anyway. If you want to give this a go with some well-mannered children of your acquaintance, good luck to you. I spent an hour of my life watching this and have reviewed it so you don’t have to.

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

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

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

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

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

handbag-numbered

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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‘But they look so innocent’: our CPV experience

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s going to be a long haul.

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

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Weekend in focus: prizes and pilfering

In Weekend in focus I review the weekend and look at our therapeutic parenting successes and failures, with the aim of learning something each time.

Win, win, win
Friday night was about celebrating successes.

Joanna has been going to football club on a Friday night since January. She seems to have a bit of a talent for it, if I say so myself. And this week after school we watched her save two penalties. She was astonishing. I cheered. (Perhaps a bit too loudly, but I don’t care.) Afterwards the coach said ‘Did you see her in goal? She’s really good! I beamed and agreed. (Possibly too enthusiastically again. Never mind.)

While Joanna was in ‘official’ football training, me and my mum sat nearby, and Charlotte and two of her classmates had their own unofficial training. I’ve never seen Charlotte play like this before, but she was dribbling round trees like a pro and tackling a boy from her class like she’d been doing it for years. I was impressed. I can see her joining her sister next year (our after-school clubs are only open to year 1 and above).

We got home from school and opened their book bags. Joanna had suddenly remembered that she’d been made ‘Pupil of the Week’ at school. Wow.

Pupil of the Week JM

Let’s rewind to the autumn term to explain what an achievement this is for her. Having experienced too many major goodbyes in her life already, she – quite understandably –
hated the transition from reception to year 1. Hated saying goodbye to her teacher, hated moving classrooms, hated all the extra expectations that were placed on her in terms of explicit learning rather than the learning-through-play she was used to. Her teacher was new to the school so it wasn’t someone she’d had a chance to get used to, and she was also very young and inexperienced, unlike the veteran reception teacher who oozed wisdom and confidence. So she showed all this by refusing to join in with lessons. By screaming and shouting. By hitting/biting/kiching the teacher and TA most days for about six months.

But in the last fortnight something seems to have clicked for her. I’m not sure if it’s that she has finally got used to the routine, or that she has built a really solid attachment to her LSA, who has been with her almost all day, every day at school since November, or whether us copying the daily schedule she has at school (details here) throughout half term helped her settle… but whatever it is, it seems to be working.

Charlotte had also come home with a certificate for earning ten merit points during the week. She doesn’t seem to know what she earned them for – she lives in her own little bubble a lot of the time – but she was duly rewarded as well. I’d already bought Joanna a new football and Charlotte a toy broom (her choice) on Friday in recognition of how hard they’ve been trying, and am really pleased that school recognised and rewarded it too.

The girls had their usual Friday night pizza (a tradition in our house) and Pete and I basked in the warm glow of pride in our girls.

Consumption and construction
On Saturday morning Pete took the girls out for an all-you-can-eat breakfast – another reward for their achievements. I went back to sleep for an hour and then worked until they came in at 11.30. Charlotte bounded up to give me a cuddle and in her enthusiasm headbutted me hard on the nose. Ouch.

Earlier in the week I’d bought Pete a Lego double-decker couch (from The Lego Movie, a big favourite around here), so making that was next on the agenda. Charlotte lost interest very quickly, but Pete and Joanna enjoyed it a lot.

Charlotte and the biscuit cache
After lunch, Pete saw Charlotte attempting to sneak upstairs with the bottom part of her T-shirt folded up – obviously hiding something inside. He asked what she was carrying. ‘Nothing.’ Hmm. He discovered a couple of biscuits in there, and asked where she’d got them from. Our tub of biscuits was on top of our fridge-freezer, well out of Charlotte’s reach, and he was concerned that she’d climbed up on the kitchen worktop to get them. No. Evidently she had taken them earlier, because she led Pete to her little cache of biscuits, hidden on the shelf where we keep all the girls’ colouring books and stationery.

It’s not the first time she’d taken something without asking, and we don’t really mind her having a few biscuits. But having read stories of adopted children for whom hoarding food becomes a big issue, alarms were set off in my head.

2015-03-07 14.27.21

Our little biscuit-hiding squirrel

Charlotte is forever pilfering bits and pieces, both at home and at school. Not the classic ‘I want something that’s special to you to keep with me while we’re apart’ sort of pilfering that you read about a lot in adopted kids, but just little tactile objects like coins, bits of Lego, anything small enough to hide in a pocket and put in her mouth. She’s a sensory-seeking kinda girl and loves chewing things. (Yes, we have tried giving her chewing toys (these ones). They just don’t seem to do it for her.)

Anyway. While I read up on how to handle the food-hoarding, the girls played in the garden with Joanna’s new football and we had half an hour of (relative) peace before dinner. Bliss. They got completely covered in mud, of course, but nothing the washing machine and a bath couldn’t handle. Then Joanna got soap in her eyes and that was the end of the world. Never mind that she’d been putting bubbles in Charlotte’s face. They were now in hers and that was cause for a big meltdown. She was not going to put her pyjamas on, she didn’t want a cuddle with Pete, she definitely wasn’t interested in doing any calming-down breathing. So Pete left her in her room to calm down (not many other options when she just wants to fight him) and when the volume had decreased a bit I went in and did the sit-her-on-my-lap-and-talk-quietly-until-she’s-regulated thing.

Sunday
Less drama on Sunday. We managed a bit of a lie-in while the girls played, and headed off to church at 10.30. I’ve learned to provide Charlotte with plenty of sensory input (bouncing on my knee, backscratches, anything rhythmic) to keep her regulated when we’d like her to sit quietly with us, and she did pretty well at staying still-ish and quiet-ish for the 25 minutes until it was time for the children to go out to their groups.

Home for lunch, and again, all was calm. No complaints about leaves on her plate (never popular with Charlotte). Other than during church, the girls had been listening to their iPods all morning (that purchase was one of my best ideas ever) and so they sat around quite happily and we enjoyed the quiet… until Joanna’s headphone cable broke. She was devastated (that’s the second of her Christmas presents she’s broken in the last few days). There was wailing. Pete got cross with her for breaking them (she likes to twiddle the cable when she’s wearing them, while Charlotte, of course, chews hers). I looked up the online reviews for these particular headphones and disovered they are prone to doing this, so consoled her by giving her an old pair of in-ear ones that came with an old phone of mine. But arrrgh. I do expect children to break a certain amount of stuff – they haven’t yet learned how to be gentle with things – but it is still a bit galling when it’s just one broken toy after another.

Anyway. Replacement headphones provided, she happily watched several episodes of Octonauts in her room, while Charlotte fell asleep in hers. Thus we whiled away the afternoon and – shock – read our books in a quiet house with the children present! It was really lovely – the way Sunday afternoons should be!

Naturally the idyll didn’t last all evening. After dinner Joanna suddenly wanted to talk about her birth family and was upset about a sibling she misses (they only have letterbox contact for various reasons). That was hard. I know it’s the right decision for them but they are both innocent parties and were very close. All I can say to her is that I have some understanding of how rubbish she must feel, that’s it’s OK to miss each other, and how about we write a letter and draw a picture soon?

After we’d said goodnight I came downstairs and made her a hot water bottle to comfort her. I went back up with it, but she was already asleep, so I just tucked it in beside her. Even if it’s cold by the time she finds it, it shows her I was thinking of her and I’m doing what I can to help.

Summary

Successes:

  • football in the garden without arguing!
  • iPods for a quiet life (most of the time)
  • remembering to give Charlotte sensory input at church

Failures:

  • not being entirely sure how to handle the biscuit-hoarding

Next time:

  • I’ll provide some new CBeebies programes for their iPods (we haven’t added anything since Christmas and it might buy us an extra hour’s peace and quiet)
  • we’re thinking of providing a tin of snacks so there’s no need to hoard anything

Do you have any tips to share? I’d love to read your comments.

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