“This is not what I signed up for” I silently repeatedly.
Maybe when looking at the self inflicted cuts on my daughters arms. Possibly when another twenty quid disappeared from my purse or listening to more lies. Definitely scrabbling on all fours filling five bin liners with furry food, soiled underwear, dead vodka bottles and unidentifiable sticky bedroom trash.
I did not understand that ‘adoption’ meant trauma would walk through my front door on six little legs.
I expected ‘normal’ kids with some attachment problems, whom my love and parenting skills would transform. 25 years later I know better.
How did I survive? I changed my expectations. Eventually. Frequently. Massively.
I learned about child development, what’s normal, what’s not. How maltreatment distorts their inner world, how their brains are damaged by a boozy womb and that beliefs drive behaviour. This cocktail of knowledge explained ‘nonsensical’ actions.
A useful enquiry: ‘does this child have the capacity, right now, to meet my expectations’?
What’s easier? Changing the child’s capacities or your expectations ? Spoiler alert … it’s you.
Until you change; the child can’t (can’t not won’t). Their behaviour is fear driven and your first job is to help them feel safe in their own bodies. All that self regulation stuff they should have absorbed from attuned caregivers as babes.
In a lightbulb moment in 1999, I realised traumatised children had, in infancy, used metaphorical bubble wrap as a protection against maltreatment. Historically useful, but now it distorted their view of the world and the worlds perspective of them. Our role is to gently peel back the bubble wrap and fill the developmental gaps.
When my kids first arrived, (aged 5,4,2) they liked ‘playing babies, as I pretended to wipe bottoms and bottle feed. It was exhausting. Once I thought it must be lunchtime but the clock shockingly glowed 09.40. The youngest (genuinely in nappies) frequently became distressed seeing her siblings receiving this ‘nurturing’. Regrettably I used this as my excuse to stop. They were showing me how below the bubble wrap they needed ‘babying’ to fill their voids. Because I was expecting my kids to adhere roughly to their chronological age, I missed a huge healing opportunity.
You can chose the height of your expectation bar and hence your emotional state.
Expectations are images we created in the past about how things should be in the future. The more detailed the construction (how it looks, sounds, feels) the greater your commitment.Really useful when it’s 100% in your control, however great potential for disappointment when it’s in another’s hands, especially tiny ones.
That’s why ‘to succeed’ we must adjust our expectations throughout the adoption journey and be life long learners.
That’s why constantly updating our knowledge by reading, attending courses, peer support, mentoring and becoming trauma informed therapeutic parents with a realist view of a child’s potential is vital.
That’s why continual personal evolution, enhanced regulation skills, self reflection, transforming limiting beliefs, increasing self esteem and being a congruent, creative, compassionate, courageous, adaptive person with realistic expectations is vital.
What are you expecting? Joy, satisfaction or sadness? Your choice.
This blog was first published on PAC-UK website, September 2018 during national adoption week
Ever wonder why adopted and foster children behave in apparently nonsensical ways?
Why do they self sabotage?
Why do kind or constructive words fail to impact their behaviour?
It’s because beliefs drive behaviour.
That concept rocked my world back in February 2002 on the morning of my first NLP course. It explained so much about my kids. It changed my life trajectory.
Robert Dilts, the creator of the Logical Levels model has generously agreed to do a Facebook Live with me, sometime next weekend during the NLP conference in London. It will be posted on the FAB Parents Facebook Page. I promise you will find it both fascinating and useful.
Will post details on Facebook and Twitter when we finalise the timings. Robert is speaking at the NLP conference and has kindly agreed to fit in “a FB interview”. Not too late to attend the conference.
Last Sunday I cooked my own meals, bought myself some flowers and uncharacteristically drank an entire bottle of wine and had a good cry.
Because yet again, on Mothers Day, I received nothing from the three children I adopted 25 years ago.
We’ve had minimal contact for the last seven or eight years. By minimal, I mean a handful of cyber messages.
But the possibility they might send a card is the emotionally charged dark cloud that hung over me a couple of weeks before Mother’s Day.
I didn’t expect; but I did hope. Hoping for something totally out of your control is ridiculous, however it is a very human quality.
Twenty Five years ago I had both hopes and expectations. I had visions of family meals sitting talking about everything and anything. That dream was one of my motivations for creating a family.
I knew the 5, 4, and 2 year old who walked through my front door in the early 90s had a tough time before I met them. Even though, I expected some challenges I expected that my love, caring and parenting would fix them.
All those expectations. Those movies I created in my head of how family life would be. Those fantasies, those stories I told myself. That happy ever after stuff. I expected it to be tricky but okay.
The reality was very, very different.
After a few years I realised my kids were significantly different to others, I started exploring the impact of infancy maltreatment and neglect. I struggled on, being a pretty good parent but not a therapeutic parent because that model had not yet been created. We knew a bit about attachment, but not about trauma, brain wiring or neuroception.
However I hoped that my full-time excellent parenting would be enough
I hoped for the best, but did not have fall back plan for the worst case scenario.
I hoped conventional therapy would help – it didn’t.
I wrote a series of large cheques for high quality attachment therapy, which had some impact on two of the three.
I expected I could make a difference. I hoped it would be alright in the end, that I could change their life trajectory. .
I think I altered it by a few degrees, but not as much as I’d have hoped.
Why I’m sharing this tale of woe? Because I want others to learn from my mistakes.
Are you an adopter or foster carer currently deluding yourself? Hoping that normal parenting will heal your little darling: believing things will magically get better.
They wont. You must view your children through the lens of trauma. Immediately.
Our kids need therapeutic re-parenting to fill in the gaps and heal the damage. Start now.
Are your expectations realistic?
Are you looking at your children through rose tinted glasses?
If nothing changes, how will their current behaviours escalate over the next decade? Will you be visiting prisons, secure units or be on first name terms with the local police after countless runaways or child on parent violence incidents?
Get real. Hope for the best. Plan for the worst.
When I was approved as an adopter I did not expect to spend Mother’s Day alone (or my birthday or Christmas for that matter). Equally I didn’t expect to travel the globe, learning from pioneers and world-class trainers about parenting , trauma and healing and for these learning’s I am truly grateful.
Sometimes our path takes us to unexpected and enlightening places often via dark scary tunnels.
I have no regrets about my journey even though it’s not the outcome I would have chosen.
Tonight I’m celebrating Mother’s Day with three friends I made when running the local adoption support group. We will laugh, reminisce, share stories about our current lives, children grandchildren, police interviews, court appearances, drug overdoses, sexual abuse, self harming and inter-generational trauma. We will also share our professional triumphs and our varied travel exploits. Our friendship formed during years of adversity is precious and real. We prefer a private table so our conversation and laughter does not disturb other diners.
We have taken the Road less Travelled. You may be on it too. So get equipped, skilled and find some mentors. Those who can guide you through the dark tunnels and black holes.
What are you expecting from this parenting journey and your children? Are you being naive and hoping for a fairy tale ending? Are you being real?
Plan for the worst. Hope for the best. Expect the unexpected.
I hate being right. The documents the massive steps a mother took to get help for her son. It was constantly refused (below the threshold). She pleaded. He killed.
Two families and a network of friends shattered. Society incarcerates, while judging the behaviour disregarding the root cause.
This is what happens to a hurt child without intervention. They grow into hurt, scared, rage filled traumatised adolescents then adults.
Children grow into adults! Who knew?
This is why I continue to write and train in the child trauma world and bang on about need for early interventions. It’s how we future-proof children. We have the audacity to call ourselves a civilised society. Because of blind short term thinking everyone suffers long term. Consider the financial and emotional cost of this single case then justify lack of trauma informed work with hurt children. (Seen my Cost of Trauma April 08 article, almost a decade later and its still true. Gggrr).
I spoke to the New South Wales Child Protection conference recently (one hour live streamed) illustrating that what lurks below there behaviour of a hurt child needs forensic thinking and early intervention. I wish TIM (Traumatised Infant Maltreated ) and TAMIE (Terrified Anxious Maligned Insecure Emotionally) didn’t exist, but they do and we have to facilitate the melting of their trauma. Here is link to my keynote address .
You could proffer this video to budget holders and decision makers, maybe with popcorn and soda or a cuppa and plate of cookies. Keep them sweet and informed. If they get the “why”, they will work out the “how to”.
Yesterday I read a blog from yet another adoptive parent who’s adopted son is reconnecting with his birth parents. (Befuddled mum) It’s a scenario I have witnessed many times in the last eight years; watching hundreds of adoptive families grieve as their teenage rejected them and returned emotionally and/or physically to their birth family. Sometimes they stayed connected to their adoptive parents, sometimes they didn’t.
Some adopters feel they have lost their child forever. Uncontactable. Lost but not dead. They grieve, but with a tiny glimmer of hope still flickering. Maybe this year a birthday or mothers card? Adopters unable to digest the loss of their “forever family”.
For the teens who reconnected, generally their hopes have been dashed on the rocks of credibility, reliability, bitter experience and broken promises. Often overwhelmed by confusing emotions, their young lives are irreversibly impacted by this derailment. (Exams missed or failed, college places lost, self harming, dropping out of university, mental health deterioration, arrests and convictions).
Few birth families provided the answers, intimacy or security the teens craved. Many birth parents are still entwined in the same problems which originally caused their children to be removed. Drugs, alcohol, criminality, transient and hedonistic life styles still evidenced. The dark parts of ‘Benefit Street’ and Trainspotting. Worst of all, the continued denial of any wrong doing and failing to take responsibility for any harm suffered by the infant. Unable to comprehend that “I always loved you” is, and never was, a substitute for consistent nurturing parenting.
SOLUTION – “LIFE CHRONICLE”
We must share a child’s history with them. 100% truth telling in a sensitive, age appropriate way. This needs to be a “Chronicle” (a factual, written chronological account of important events) not a “Story” (an account of events or people told for entertainment).
We must evidence their history with accurate information; a coherent narrative. Court reports which show all perspectives. Photographs of the squalor they lived in, not just smiling birthday snaps. Medical reports documenting bruising, malnourishment and health concerns in black and white. Police videos. We must stop the saccharin half truths frequently shared with adopted and foster kids in “life story books”.
Obviously kids will need help processing this information. They need creative, therapeutic methods to make sense of their childhood experiences, not just words. It is the meaning the child makes of their experiences which will either enhance, or damage, his self concept. Was it really Tim’s fault (as he believes) that as a two year old his mummy beat him? It’s what she screamed at the time (I hit you because your crying made me angry). Reworked in drama therapy eight year old Tim can see it wasn’t his fault and re-frame that event into: “sometimes mummy got angry and lost control; that was wrong, she could not look after any child”.
We must provide adopters (and foster carers) with ongoing support which:
honours the permanent parents role in the child’s healing
gives the child an age appropriate full and balanced picture of their birth family (she prioritised finding drugs above caring for you … and was really good at PE and science in school … and left you with strangers for 5 days … and has a good sense of humour … and … and … and). Every dimension: the good, bad, ugly and beautiful.
allows safe contact between child and birth family wherever possible so curiosity is sated, gaps are filled, fantasises punctured. This benefits every corner of the adoption triangle.
In 2012,I wrote Bubble Wrapped Children: How Social Networking is transforming the face of 21st century adoption, because of my own and other peoples experience of contact via Facebook. Since then, many vintage adopters saw their children reconnect to birth family via Facebook. This exacerbated the existing problems and challenging behaviour of these teens. Sadly some of these families cracked or disintegrated. Some adoptees, racked with pervasive shame have disconnected from both their birth and adoptive family, cast adrift with no family support.
Put simply; we must pre-frame the issues throughout childhood, rather than repair during adolescence.
So, if you are an adopter, foster carer, social worker of therapist; how do you prevent contact via Facebook becoming a massive emotional crisis for a child?
Answer: you drip feed material. You share information throughout childhood. If its safe, establish some level of contact while you can control it. You can manage a 6/9/12 year old relatively easily. By 15 its a thousand times harder; they vote with their feet.
We must recognise and accept that an adopted child has two families and needs to know the ongoing truth about both of them throughout childhood; not the historical “wait till your 18”. Facebook destroyed that option. We must honour the inner turmoil of an adoptee who is pulled in two, often contradictory, directions and strengthen them from the inside.
Yes, this may mean complex contact arrangements with birth family, which may impact daily life in the adoptive home. Think of it like a pressure cooker. Without the slow exhalation from the pressure release valve, a massive explosion will inevitably occur.
Today’s adoptive families know about the Facebook threat. Are they prepared? Are you taking avoiding action now? Are things so tough you can’t even contemplate this?
Future proofing = Hope for the best and plan for the worst.