CPV: Behind the headlines

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

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

cpv-behind-the-headlines

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

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

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

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

The email

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

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

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

The response

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

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

The meeting

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

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

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

Here goes…

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

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

I was close to tears now.

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

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

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

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

What next?

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

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

The media

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

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

Before you go…

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10 mental health challenges for adoptive parents

It’s Mental Health Awareness Week. To mark the occasion, and because I believe that the mental health of adoptive parents is both (a) critical to the success of adoptive placements and (b) massively overlooked and under-resourced, here are my 10 mental health challenges for adoptive parents.

Keep reading below for my five possible solutions, and my rallying call for a new campaign.

10 Mental Health Challenges For Adoptive Parents

10 mental health challenges

These are just some of the things I  – and many others – deal with on a daily/weekly basis. Any one of these is difficult. Taken in combination they are a threat to good mental health.

  1. The fight to be respected as an authority on what is best for my children, not dismissed as ‘just Mum’ because my professional qualifications are in a different area.

  2. The fight to get them the support they need. The constant stream of forms, appointments, phone calls, waiting lists, and rejected applications.

  3. Frequently explaining to professionals and passers-by that actually, it isn’t our parenting that’s the problem.

  4. Battling to stay regulated while the children scream in my face, throw things at me, and try to hurt me, because I gave them their lunch, or asked them to put their shoes on, or said it was bedtime. (Read more about child-on-parent violence in adoptive families.)

  5. Helping them to become regulated again after a meltdown when I want to curl up under the duvet on my own and release some of the stress with a good cry.

  6. Trying not to dwell on the hurtful things they said while they were angry, and convincing myself they didn’t mean them.

  7. Living in fear of confrontations with other parents because of my child’s behaviour towards theirs.

  8. Making time for self-care, only to have it interrupted by a call from school because they can’t cope and want me to go and calm my child or collect her.

  9. Trying to ensure the children hear consistent messages about their worth and behaviour at school and at home; that they’re not thought of as ‘naughty’.

  10. Being the administrator and communications hub for every aspect of my children’s care. The meetings. The emails. The phone calls, the form-filling. The trying to get all the different parties – PAS, GP, CAMHS, OT, EP, psychotherapist, school – to speak to each other and just copy me in on emails. Trying to manage them all is a full-time job in itself. On top of my actual job. And therapeutic parenting. Oh, and self-care. And having a marriage that benefits from time spent together outside of childcare and meetings and paperwork.

Aaaarrrggggghhhh.

So what’s the solution? If only there was a neat answer. I have a few suggestions though.

5 possible solutions

  1. Prioritise self-care. MummyWriter wrote an excellent post on this recently, and you can use my free self-care resources to get started. Until things change on a wider scale, we have to manage this for ourselves. I’m sorry, it’s rubbish that it’s like this, but it is. Look after yourself. Start here.

  2. Connect with the adoption community. Reach out to other in the same situation. Twitter is especially excellent for this, but I also go to Adoption UK’s local meetings and other informal gatherings of adopters. I recommend going to adoption conferences and training courses whenever you possibly can, not just for the content, but to meet other adoptive parents and to experience being among people who understand. I don’t know how people manage without the support of other adopters. This is such a massive source of sanity for me.

  3. Don’t sweat the small stuff. When you’re feeling overwhelmed, pick your battles, both in terms of the children’s behaviour and the stuff you fight for with school and support services. Sometimes (most of the time?) you can be fighting battles on multiple fronts simultaneously. Of course you’re exhausted. You need support. Get the people who are supportive to fight some of them for you. Put some of the others on hold until next week. And then go and have a sleep.

  4. Don’t vote Conservative. I’m sorry to get political here but the cuts to social care imposed by Conservative governments have played a huge part in getting us into the current mess, where tiny budgets and understaffing restrict the help received by vulnerable people. THIS IS HORRIBLE. Vote for those who will fund social care, mental health, and the NHS in general. We need those things.

  5. Ask the powers that be for a proper national campaign, like the ‘Maternal Mental Health Matters’ one that ran last week. Not just the constant recruitment ads for new adopters. Adoption agencies need to care for the adoptive parents who are already living this, in at the deep end, because without us the whole business falls apart. The adoption charities need to work together on this. The voluntary agencies are probably a bit better at this than the LAs. Let’s share good practice and be open about what’s needed.

So let’s start working towards the launch of an Adoptive Parents’ Mental Health Week. Heck, I’m claiming the #APMHW hashtag now.

Join in! Tweet a few LAs and VAs and ask them to think about it. Something like this, perhaps:

Let’s make this happen. Because we’ve earned it. 


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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).


BEFORE YOU GO…

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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)


BEFORE YOU GO…

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Thank God It’s Monday: adoptive parenting at the weekend

It’s another of those things that separates me from the other parents at the school gate. On the rare occasions that I find myself engaged in a conversation outside school and not ducking in early to retrieve Joanna after some misdemeanour, someone will inevitably pipe up ‘nearly the weekend’, with a sense of joyous anticipation.

I don’t share it.

‘That Friday feeling’ for me is one of dread.

Welcome to adoptive parenting at the weekend.

Thank God it's Monday: Adoptive Parenting at the Weekend

Them and us

For them, the prospect of a weekend conjures up mental images of fun, relaxed family time. A spontaneous day out, perhaps, or a kickabout with a football in the garden.

For me, being kicked about is closer to the mark.

I wonder what the weekend will bring. Not what Pinterest-worthy craft projects we can do together, but,

Coathanger‘How intense will this weekend’s meltdowns be?’

‘Will this be the weekend the patio doors get a stone thrown through them?’

‘is this going to be the day she succeeds in bashing a hole in our bedroom door with a wooden coathanger?’

‘Will the stuff she throws at me – or worse, one of the others – from across the room cause a serious injury?’

‘What are the triggers going to be this time? Dare I ask her to brush her teeth? Or tidy up after herself? Or might that be the thing that provokes a rage?’

It all depends

In our family, weekends divide between Saturdays with childcare and without, and Sundays where we make it to church and those when we don’t have that fight. (See ‘Adoption and the Church Thing‘). We usually book the childcare several months in advance. The Sundays tend to be a bit more tentatively planned, and sometimes we abandon our plans in the face of a meltdown like this one.

Two types of Saturday

On the Saturdays we have be somewhere at a certain time, a violent outburst about getting dressed/brushing teeth/etc is more likely, but the bonus of a day’s respite childcare is like an oasis for us. The girls often go to a playscheme for children with disabilities, for which they qualify because of their sensory issues. (Naturally it wasn’t post-adoption support who told us about this possibility, but other adoptive parents.)

On the Saturdays they’re not doing that, we will usually try some combination of activities usually including time outside (in dry weather) or screen time (in wet weather). These are the most reliable ways to help them stay more-or-less regulated for an hour or more. There will still be meltdowns. It’s a very unusual day that doesn’t include one. Days out rarely fall into the category of ‘family fun’ – there are the fights in the car, the bickering over activities, the transition meltdowns when something is over, and again when we arrive home… exhausting doesn’t really cover it. It’s relentless and overwhelming and horrible.

The Sunday Dread

I’ve already talked about Sundays,  which are either filled with church, or a film, or an outdoor activity, or some combination of those, interspersed with a bit of door-kicking and eardrum-splitting screaming (when Charlotte explodes) or shouting and stamping and sulking and muttering (if it’s Joanna’s turn). It’s unusual for us to have childcare on a Sunday, so Sunday is the one that has to be faced pretty much every week, with that conversation at about 8.30am:

‘Are we going to try for church today?’
‘I suppose we should…’

Which isn’t really the way I want to feel about churchgoing.

How do we change it?

Ah, there’s the question. if only there was a nice neat answer. If another professional asks me if we’ve done any parenting courses I may reel off a list of exactly how many specialist courses, workshops, seminars and books I have absorbed over the last six years. I mentally wrote this list in the shower this morning along with a snarky diatribe about exactly how much of my time is spent (a) practising; (b) researching; (c) writing about and (d) discussing therapeutic parenting techniques.

I thought about printing out some of my book reviews to have on hand for such occasions. Then I could thrust them huffily at those who ask this question without thinking that the person they are addressing sounds like she might have a brain, possibly a degree or two. Do they not therefore think she might have acquainted herself with all the possible avenues of support on offer? Or that they are the first person to suggest parenting violent children might require a bit of extra learning?

More Saturday childcare is one answer, but it’s not a very satisfactory one. I adopted because I do actually want to parent my children, not just clothe them and make their packed lunches. The childcare gives us respite, but it doesn’t solve the problem of family time being a complete rollercoaster of giggles and reading books one minute, and door-kicking and threats to kill us the next.

To be continued

We don’t want to disrupt. We want help to continue to parent them. But the crux of the matter is that if we are not allowed to restrain them, eventually someone is going to be seriously injured or killed. Pete and I cannot provide the level of care they need without being trained and supported in the use of restraint: it is not something we enjoy but it is a necessary part of parenting violent children.

And so, though the thought makes me feel as though I am failing them, we are seriously considering asking the LA to fund at least one  place at a specialist boarding school which caters for exactly the needs our girls have. Including violence, sensory issues, FASD, and the impact of early trauma. Yes, there is actually a place that can provide all this support and an education. An outstanding one, if you care about what Ofsted have to say about these things. But that is a story for another day, and doubtless a protracted battle for funding if we do pursue it.

Meanwhile, if you’ve been in this position, I’d love to hear from you. And if you have positive things to say about boarding school, please do leave a comment.


BEFORE YOU GO…

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

WSWD Limerick

By happy coincidence today is both World Poetry Day and World Social Work Day. I wrote this humble offering in the car this morning before returning home from the school run.

Social workers round here in the Shires
Just don’t like it when someone enquires,
‘What help is there, please,
to address CPV?’
They only talk at us about how we’re not allowed to restrain and there isn’t the budget for family therapy and ‘How about we have another meeting?’ and we still have to live in fear of our children’s violence and the whole thing never satisfactorily resolves.

You can read more about CPV (child-on-parent violence) – my story and others’ – on my CPV stories page.


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Rage and me, the human sponge

Adoptive parenting: sometimes it feels as though you live in a parallel universe. I don’t think most people realise that this is our reality: frequently dysregulated and violent children; a lack of support; and after having tried everything you can possibly think of, still feeling helpless to make anything change for the better. And still they rage.

beware-children

‘Beware children’ by David Howard on Flickr. Creative Commons licence.

The door

This was our bedroom door at 9.45 this morning (Saturday). We were locked inside. Charlotte (age 7) was on the other side.

The trigger

We’d just told her (after the usual five-minute warning) that her TV programme was over and she needed to get dressed. She went from calm to this in about 20 seconds, and none of the recommended calming strategies made the slightest difference. We’d tried kneeling down on her level, using very calm and quiet voices, offering cuddles and labelling her frustration, rocking her like a baby as she was obviously regressing… but she wasn’t having any of it. After receiving a particularly painful pinch in the chestal area (yes, OW), I gave up on the therapeutic approach for a bit and just locked the door, because I was very much on the verge of becoming dysregulated myself.

I only filmed one minute, but this lasted 40 minutes. It then took another 20 to get her from curled in the corner of her room, nonverbal, to calm enough to dress her (while she stayed under a blanket).

The aftermath

And then, slowly, gradually, we started to get on with our day. But although I felt some relief in my having remained regulated (just), prevented any breakages, and come out the other side, there was – is – still a deep dissatisfaction with the situation in general and how we are equipped to handle this.

The analysis

Is this really the best we can do for her? Is this really the best PAS can do for us as a family? Just telling us to walk away while she rages? It doesn’t sit comfortably with me that there isn’t anything else we can do to help her. No therapy. Not even a diagnosis yet, despite my firm belief that this is ARND we’re dealing with and there ought to be some professional help available.

The effect

I feel like a human sponge. All jaunty and squishy when looked at from afar, capable of absorbing all the rage the children throw at me, soaking up Pete’s grief and frustration at not having the family he envisioned because this is not something he can fix with firm boundaries and refusing to give in. But I am at capacity. I can feel it leaking out. I do a lot of crying when I have the house to myself. Or in the shower. Or wherever else I feel I have ‘permission’ to show it. I can’t keep on mopping up everyone else’s stuff unsupported.

‘See it as a game’

I have a counsellor. I’ve had five sessions with her now. She’s very friendly and everything but I can see that what I tell her about our reality shocks her. I was hoping she’d be more robust. I don’t really feel I can fully offload there, either. So it’s stuck. Is the solution another counsellor? Perhaps. But is the energy I’d expend on the search likely to be worthwhile? I’m hoping, as she gets the measure of it all, she’ll move on from saying ‘Try seeing it as a mental challenge to get what you need from post-adoption support – a sort of game you can enjoy’ to ‘Let’s look at ways you can avoid having to deal with them at all and get your family the help you need within the next six months rather than the ridiculous cycle of requests, funding applications, waiting lists and rejections.’

It’s not a game, though. This is our life.

To be fair, I did start to have this conversation with her this week. I said it would be easier to swap my freelance work (which I love but isn’t especially regular or well-paid) for a part-time job with a regular salary in order to reliably fund the therapies our family needs and avoid the need to engage with the LA’s gatekeeping of the ASF cash (and, ideally, avoid our hopeless PAS full stop). I hate the fact that I have to choose between going private (which as a lefty, I have fundamental objections to) or sacrificing my family’s wellbeing and waiting for the state services to kick in – if they ever do. That’s a whole other blog post. But for now, I am job-hunting. I’m hoping that this way lies sanity.

Note: if you found this interesting, or have your own CPV experience to share, you might like to visit my new CPV stories page.


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Review: How to talk so kids will listen

I read this book primarily because I am taking part in the newly-formed therapeutic parents’ book club (#tpbooks), which was initiated by @PedallingSolo on Twitter. (Genius idea. Come and join us. More of that in a moment.)

The premise of the book is that we can improve communication with our children by going about the whole business a bit differently. It’s not adoption-specific, but nor is it full of the sort of advice that is unhelpful for adoptive families (the sticker charts and naughty steps stuff). Adopted children are mentioned as having benefited from this style of parenting, and it’s easy to see why, as it is mainly about being very attentive to children’s emotions.

Here’s the back-cover blurb.

All sounds good to me. But what does it ask parents to do in practice?

1: Helping children deal with their feelings
The first chapter talks about giving children your full attention whenever possible, and about recognising and naming their emotions.

In our family, we have established that asking questions often causes or worsens a meltdown, and that ‘Why?’ in particular rarely gets the intended results and usually causes screaming. The book develops this theme, suggesting several alternative ways to go about the conversation without making things worse.

‘Very often children don’t know why they feel as they do. At other times they’re reluctant to tell because they fear that in the adult’s eyes their reason won’t seem good enough. (“For that you’re crying?”) It’s much more helpful for an unhappy youngster to hear, “I see something is making you sad,” rather than to be interrogated with “What happened?” or “Why do you feel that way?” It’s easier to talk to a grown-up who accepts what you’re feeling rather than one who presses you for explanations.’

When Joanna had a meltdown over a felt-tip pen she felt her sister was monopolising, I tried using the drawing technique from this chapter – just asking her to draw her feelings a few times to show me how she was feeling. Her response?

‘I DON’T NEED TO DRAW HOW I’M FEELING!
YOU CAN SEE HOW I’M FEELING!
I’M NOT DOING IT!’

I described what I saw rather than asking questions. ‘I see that you’re upset because I’ve asked you to sit on the sofa and you wanted to carry on with your picture. I couldn’t let you stay at the table because you were shouting at your sister.’ Did it help her calm down like the boy in the book? Er, no. This happened:

And a lot more shouting. ‘You don’t love me, you always stop me doing fun things, you’re not a nice mummy… (etc)’. So I sent her to her room to read her book and calm down. I asked Charlotte to finish drinking her water. She refused and started a meltdown, so I tried it on her. I drew how I thought she was feeling:

And she corrected me:

‘No, Mummy. For me, life is a perpetual stream of rainbows and ponies!’

Whatever.

Anyway, by the time she’d drawn that, she was calm again. Joanna returned after about 20 minutes clutching a picture she’d drawn and apologising…

…so I make that at least a 50 per cent success rate.

2: Engaging cooperation
This chapter compares different approaches to getting a child to do something (e.g. put on their pyjamas or set the table). These transition-type activities are a frequent trigger for Joanna and Charlotte who struggle with changing activities before they feel ready to. The book says to try describing a problem rather than issuing instructions, so ‘The towel is on the floor’ rather than ‘Hang up the towel’.

I loved the honesty in this chapter, particularly where the authors talk about how it’s important to be authentic and not fake patience you’re not feeling when children are not responding. This is a book I can relate to! I don’t believe any adoptive parent is able to stay perfectly therapeutic at all times.

I like to think that I usually make sure I am describing situations and my feelings rather than lecturing the children, though I admit to asking ‘Who has forgotten to clean the sink/hang up the towel/put their socks in the laundry basket?’ quite often. I made a particular effort to do this when I read this chapter. It did achieve the desired results most of the time, but Joanna tearfully and apologetically told me at bedtime that she finds my ‘calm voice’ (her label) really annoying. And again on the school run. Well. That told me. I can’t win.

But ‘Your bedroom light is on’ has worked with Charlotte where a ‘Please switch off your light’ might have provoked a strop, so I’m going to keep trying this one.

3: Alternatives to punishment
I really liked this chapter. This is something we’ve really struggled with, because we believe there should be consequences for deliberate bad choices, but Pete and I haven’t always agreed on exactly how to handle this.

The book suggests a few techniques, including list-making in order to negotiate a solution. I’m hoping we can try this out and see if it works for us.  The idea of sitting down together and writing lists of ideas to solve problems really appeals to both of us, and I think the girls will like it if we can catch them soon enough pre-meltdown. That’s the trick to a lot of this stuff though, and sometimes the meltdown comes on so quickly that there just isn’t any time to do anything other than damage limitation. An example from this weekend:

We get into the car. We drive off.

Charlotte: ‘Can we have the music on?’
Pete: ‘Not at the moment. I want to talk to Mummy.’
Charlotte: ‘I WANT THE MUSIC ON! PUT THE MUSIC ON!’

The shouting/screaming continues for five minutes. Pete pulls over because Charlotte’s becoming dangerous. We pre-emptively remove her shoes. She kicks Pete in the head. We sit there for half an hour waiting for her to calm down. She won’t listen to anything we say to try and help her, just screams what we say back at us. Me and Pete, still recovering from Joanna having a similar episode the previous day, sit there and cry in exhaustion and desperation.

So we haven’t tried this yet. We did have a few conversations about grace when they were calmer, and how ‘I am giving you this packet of Haribo because I love you, not because I like your behaviour’. Whether they can process that I’m not sure. I think it helps to draw a line under things and move on.

4: Encouraging autonomy
This chapter is about allowing the children to take responsibility for their actions by giving them opportunities to decide how they are going to fulfil a requirement eg to finish their homework by a certain day, remember to take things they need to school, etc. I like the idea of giving a child suggestions and telling them work out a solution that they can have ownership of. I think Joanna would respond well to this. Charlotte probably would on her good days, but I don’t know that she would manage to do it consistently – a symptom of what we suspect is FASD. We’ll try it though, and see what happens.

5: Praise
The emphasis of this chapter is on being more descriptive of children’s good behaviour. Not just ‘good job!’ but ‘I see that you’ve made the bed, cleared everything off the floor, and tidied your shelves – excellent organisation!’ It also says to say how this makes you feel, such as ‘This room feels so calm and relaxing now’, and to include a one-word label for the behaviour – ‘organisation’, or ‘reliability’ or ‘punctuality’, for example.

The day I finished the book happened to be the last day of school before half term, and Joanna has had such a massively improved work ethic so far this term that I thought she needed rewarding. I left a new book for her on her bed (the much-longed-for Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban) along with a note about how hard she’d been working at school and on the de-escalation techniques she’s been learning in therapy. I admit to feeling a bit twee and Californian about writing ‘but the best reward is how you can feel proud of yourself’ – I come from a long line of stiff-upper-lip Brits who don’t really talk like that – but our family does do talking about emotions, and it’s what she needs, so I got over myself.

I didn’t leave Charlotte out – we had a trip to the library and the café while Joanna was at after-school club. Reading is much more of a struggle for her so I wrote her a voucher for a treat to go with her hot chocolate. She chose a biscuit and happily read me three books and a set of vocabulary flash cards from school. I felt like supermum for that hour. Then we picked Joanna up and Charlotte had two sit-down protests on the walk home because she ‘couldn’t walk’ (her ability to run in the other direction was miraculously unaffected) and wanted to bring a stick home and didn’t have enough hands (my fault, of course). Eventually we got home and I managed to stay therapeutic throughout two long hours of tantrum, but I’m afraid I had had enough by hour three and finally shouted at her to GO TO BED in a decidedly untherapeutic manner. I am human after all. Phew.

Summary: I think maybe we need to give the praise thing a bit longer to have the desired effect. I love the idea but it’s going to take some remembering.

6: Freeing children from playing roles
This was an interesting one for me. I have been very conscious of not wanting to label the children, mainly as a feminist issue. I certainly don’t do it in a conscious way, but when I read this chapter I stopped to think. Actually, truth be told, there are a few. Not all are said to their faces, but they are words we often use to describe them, if only in our own heads.

Noisy. Bright. Destructive. Impulsive. Loud. Fussy. Argumentative. Beautiful. Boisterous. Violent.

So I tried to challenge these and to praise quietness, hard work, gentleness, thoughtfulness, acceptance, and teamwork. A couple of times I slid notes under their bedroom doors after they were asleep, praising the good stuff I’d seen that day.

Is it working? It’s too early to say. Again, this stuff almost certainly has a cumulative effect and requires us to remember and think of things to write and muster enthusiasm for doing it after a long day. Maybe a reminder on my phone would help.

7: Putting it all together
This summary chapter is hard to disagree with. ‘We want to find a way to live with one another so that we can feel good about ourselves and help the people we love feel good about themselves.’ ‘We want to find a way that makes it possible for our children to be caring and responsible.’ Yes. Of course. Don’t we all?

I like this book and I could list a handful of situations where we have helped the children to de-escalate using the technique of empathy and labelling (‘I expect you feel frustrated that there’s no time to watch TV because you were hoping to watch it before dinner.’) But sometimes it doesn’t work. Sometimes they’ve yelled ‘NO I AM NOT FRUSTRATED!’ and other times they’ve gone for ‘NO, YOU ARE FRUSTRATED!’ – either way, rejecting the idea that we could possibly understand and empathise with them. And yes, this was frustrating. There’s an irony there somewhere.

Summary
So in summary, this book has some useful tools which we’ll continue to explore. For our situation, we need to supplement them with some others, but I can see how the techniques here would work to help build the girls’ self-esteem and resilience if used consistently. Now if someone can just help me with the energy to put it all into practice every day, we’ll be laughing.

The therapeutic parents’ book club
If you liked the sound of this book, you can buy it on Amazon here. And if you’d like to join us, the therapeutic parents’ book club meets on Twitter on the first of the month between 8.00 and 9.00pm. We use the hashtag #tpbooks. Come and join the conversation tonight, or read the next book [details to be confirmed] and participate next time.

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The Best Exotic Post-Adoption Support

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Our post-adoption support team changed recently. Three years after the adoption order, we switched from the placing LA – a lovely team who even responded to messages on their days off and in the evenings because they really cared – to our own LA, who are… different.

We’re having a really difficult time at the moment (see my post about our children’s violence) and have asked for some extra support. But they have taken exception to a couple of our requests, particularly the one where we asked for training in how to safely hold our children when they are attacking us or each other. We think the risks of not holding the children at these times – including injuries to us and each other from bites, kicks, scratches and the throwing of anything that comes to hand – outweigh the risks of holding them as safely as we can, which is basically a firm cuddle or the holding of their hands. They’re saying (having never met our children, of course) that we are Definitely Not Allowed to hold them at all. School staff are allowed, having been given training, but we’re not, because that is the policy. Those are the rules and they Must Be Obeyed and because we question these rules we are bad parents who are being referred to safeguarding. Yes, really. It’s horrendous. It has made me literally sick with worry. Thankfully our headteacher supports us completely and has argued our case, having been on the receiving end of Joanna’s violence and used safe restraint herself. Many others we have told – those who actually know our family, including Joanna’s therapist – have expressed their willingness to speak up in our defence if required. But still it drags on, hanging over us and reducing me to a sobbing mess several times a day.

We asked for help because we are getting bitten, kicked, scratched and hit by the children we love. We want to keep the children safe while they attack us and we defend ourselves. I still don’t understand why this is wrong.

After pondering my interactions with several members of the new team, I realised that their attitude reminded me of something. There are a couple of scenes in The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel where Evelyn Greenslade (played by Judi Dench) deals with call centre staff who are only focused on their script, not on the human being they are speaking to. This short clip sums up the problem.

Evelyn: ‘A little while ago I talked to someone who was so constricted by the script… that she spoke without a trace of humanity, as if she hadn’t realised that I was going completely to pieces at the end of the phone.’

My calls with the new PAS people have made me cry, both during the conversation and afterwards, and I’m not generally a weepy person. But they didn’t stop to listen, or apologise for upsetting me, they just continued to recite jargon-filled management speak – repeatedly interrupting me while I was still trying to talk – as though they were reading from a script. (And not one written by Ol Parker.) There was no compassion for our situation when I patiently, if tearfully, tried to explain what would happen if we didn’t hold our children. No humanity. Just judgement.

So what do we do in the face of this? I’ve been considering this a lot lately (often when I’ve been awake in the small hours). Do we match their terse tone with an equally emotionless response, keeping everything merely businesslike? Or do we continue to show that we are human beings with feelings, which I seem to recall was considered an advantage when we were being assessed as prospective adopters?

We’ve chosen the latter. Or to be more accurate, it has chosen us, because no matter how articulate and professional a person can be at their best, if you cause them enough stress and that leads to enough sleep deprivation, they’re not going to be able to keep from displaying emotion if you keep on questioning their judgement and telling them they are terrible parents.

Our ability to empathise with our children’s feelings is a good thing, and our priority is always keeping them safe, so why are we not afforded the same courtesies of empathy and safety from those who are supposed to provide our support?

If you’ve had a similar response, especially if it’s been related to asking for help with CPV (child-to-parent violence), I’d really like to hear from you. Please leave a comment below or get in touch via  Twitter, Facebook, or email. If you’re one of the professionals of whom I am currently really quite frightened, please, please be kind. Thank you.

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A typical day in the Meadows household

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When the girls are asleep

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

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

And repeat.

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

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