Thanks to Sean for writing this blog. Sean was adopted aged 22 months.
“When you’re a kid stuff affects you less”.
Some call it blissful ignorance or innocence but they’re wrong.
It affects you most when you’re young.
When you’re older you’re just able to understand the trauma.
When you’re young the trauma digs deep and roots itself like a weed and presents itself in the form of coping mechanisms.
It’s hard. Really hard.
People in their fifties still struggle with childhood trauma whether it is from their parents or a major tragedy such as the twin towers falling.
As adults we’re often pressured into being together and prepared and mentally stable but a lot of adults are still trying to cope with their childhood ‘stuff’; especially men who are told to “man up” and “don’t act like a girl”, which is sexist, acting like women are the weaker sex even though the strongest people I know are women.
This is a guest blog. It concerns child on adult violence.
‘I so intimidated’.
That came through as a text whilst I spoke with two burly police men in body armour.
This was from the child that had been dragging me around the house by my hair and had been so violent and aggressive that I had finally had to call the police. They wanted to talk with him and I had to go and get him from the corner of his room where he was cowering clutching a cuddly toy. He came out to speak with them still clutching his toy.
He was 10.
That was the beginning of the end of the violence as it did make a big impression on him. He saw real evidence that someone else, not just me and his father, believed that his violence to me was wrong and unacceptable.
I had a victim support helpline that I used a few times and I think I was lucky that the police took it so seriously. Although they did say I couldn’t really call them again for a child being violent. So I just continued to call my husband and he kept coming home from work on the days when it was all too much.
Another step in the end to the hitting came when I had to take our son with me to the physio. He had hit me and shoved me so often that my back had finally gone. My physio was Irish and our son had decided that he had a lot of time for anyone Irish.
So he watched the physio take care of me for the half hour and show real concern for me. It made a small change in our son’s perspective of me and that others thought I was worth bothering about.
The real end to the violence came when our lovely Labrador had just had enough of watching me get hurt.
He put himself between me and our son and warned him off. He would have to get through the dog to get to me. I bloody love that dog. He saved me.
He saved our son too.
If our son had remained this violent I have no doubt he would be in prison. Or have become an abusive partner. And he is not.
He is becoming emotionally intelligent. He and his girlfriend are working on how to be emotionally available to each other.
It’s been a long journey but there is now more than light at the end of the tunnel, I think we may be through the tunnel.
There aren’t many things worse than leaving the beach.
You’ve had a lovely time but now it’s over.
You need to schlepp everything back to the car, if you remembered where you parked it.
Your whole party will be loaded down with buckets, spades, shoes, wet towels, an empty thermos and possibly a deflated inflatable. As you stagger across the sand and pebbles, you’ll be shedding socks whilst simultaneously scratching the sand that’s made its home in your nether regions. If you’re really really unlucky you’ll be carrying an irritable child on your sunburnt shoulders.
After one such lovely day, ourselves and some friends made it back to our Vauxhall Astra, the preferred car for the larger than average family.
The change in location and activity was initially going well, but as if simultaneously alerted by an inaudible signal, each child was triggered and began to deregulate.
One child began to sprint back in the direction of the beach (Flight).
One child refused to get in the car, kicking, screaming, swearing, spitting (Fight).
One child stood, transfixed to the spot, starring into the middle distance (Freeze).
One child lay down, covered himself in his sodden towel and pretended he wasn’t present (Flop). This Flop response had the added complication of him lying in the middle of a zebra crossing. As the traffic backed up in both directions, I scooped him up, nodded apologetically in the direction of the cars, and nonchalantly popped him in the very back row of the car seats. I like to think I looked like I knew what I was doing.
No one likes leaving the beach, but leaving the beach with children who have suffered significant trauma, can bring a whole other level of excitement.
Kids who have suffered trauma generally cannot cope well with change.
In fostering and adoption, changing from one thing to another is called ‘transition’.
Change, or transition, is inevitable.
A transition can be an event of enormous significance. A child leaving one home and going to live in another home is an obvious example. Such transitions are managed as carefully and as thoughtfully as possible and may include strategy meetings involving a variety of social workers, school professionals, health professionals and other people whose roles are so complicated that just have initials (IRO).
Or, the transition can be as simple as leaving their bedroom and coming down for tea.
New schools, new teachers, new clothes, new updates to phones, new updates to computer games, new branding to our favourite sweets or toys and new packaging to our favourite noodles have all sent us into a tailspin.
I think foster and adoptive parents learn to scan the horizon for these transitions.
We have learnt to spot the triggers and recognise the deregulation.
As far as we can, we predict and manage the transition, reducing the ‘change’ to its bare minimum.
More importantly, and with a view to the future, we are also trying to help our Little Man manage transition himself.
Our strategy is simple.
Be here, be present, be predictable, teeter on being boring, be where you said you’d be at the time you said you’d be there. Even when your child’s deregulation sends your own adrenaline sky high, be a safe person for them.
Our Little Man has been with us for 9 years.
He’s been at the same school for 5 years.
He has the same van driver and the same van escort as last year.
He knew a new school term was approaching.
He began to self manage his own anxiety. He took control of what he could control, in order to ignore what he couldn’t.
He organised his ‘phone collection’.
Transition is still hard, but it’s not as hard as it has been.
Our little man has had a fairly constant obsession with screens since he came to live with us some years back. Neither he, nor we, know why, although we have discussed the issue at some length.
He’s also an avid and discerning TV viewer, particularly if the show features any kind of family. The Simpsons, Modern Family, The Goldbergs and Shameless have all been consumed in their entirety.
‘I don’t know why I like phones so much. Maybe, before I can remember, it was all I had to play with. Or maybe, my Birth Mum was always on her phone and ignored me. We will never know. There’s no one to ask’. The Little Man’s theories were as good as anyone’s.
Derry Girls has also been a popular choice, and one I’d recommend. A group of girls, with a tag along Englishman, attempt to navigate life in the 90s. It is set in Derry, but you might have worked that out yourself. It’s a wonderful mix of hilarity and poignancy.
One of the girls also owns a Burger Phone (a cheeseburger phone if you want to be precise).
Research on Amazon, Ebay (other online shopping options are available) revealed that Burger Phones are still available and generally retail at £14.99 or thereabouts. The Little Man wanted one more than ‘anything in the world’.
This gave us two problems.
1. The desperate need for a Burger Phone began on a Sunday. Pocket Money day was not until Friday.
2. Pocket Money was £10. Maths told us that he would be £5 short.
It was a dilemma!
We came up with a solution and a strategy. It was crazy and it was wild and it had never ever worked before. We were going to experiment with Delayed Gratification.
If you’ve grown up with a degree of security, you can assume certain things.
Day will follow night. The weekend will come at the end of the week. Summer will follow winter. Your Mum or Dad, or at least someone you know, will be waiting to collect you from school. There will be milk in the fridge. There will be a fridge. There will be electricity which means the fridge will work.
For a kid whose formative years were spent with few if any certainties, waiting until Friday had always been beyond him. However, we thought we’d give it a go.
We drew up a contract promising the necessary additional funds (£5 if you’re struggling to work it out) to be paid on Friday (in 5 days time if you’re struggling to work it out).
1. Make your bed
2. Tidy your room
3. Get yourself ready for school
4. No, or at least minimal, use of the F-word, S-word and definitely no C-word.
We all signed and I have to admit, I didn’t think he’d manage it.
But he did.
His obligations and duties duly completed, the order was placed, and the phone arrived.
The excitement in setting it up was palatable.
We were excited too. The Little Man had shown he was able to delay his gratification. He was learning to trust that Amazon, and his family, would deliver.
My wife used to take it in turns to be the ‘welcoming committee’ when one of our Foster Kids got in from school. As well as being an equitable distribution of task, and an equitable approach to managing our own jobs, neither of us really enjoyed ‘the explosion’ as it was known.
This was a euphemism, but only just.
The first 45 minutes (it seemed a lot longer) of this kid arriving in the house were chaos.
Doors were banged, objects were hurled, Anglo Saxon expletives were tossed with extravagant abandon, and things were punched (rarely people! Hurrah for the smallest of mercies!).
What we were experiencing is not unusual in the world of fostering and adoption.
School reports were all fairly positive and we had never been told of similar behaviour in any other scenario.
The issue only happened at home and only happened with me and my wife present.
We chatted to his teachers.
“He’s good as gold…wouldn’t say boo to a goose….”
Whilst on the one hand reassuring, this was also troubling.
A little research and reflection gave us some clues to what was going on in his troubled mind and heart.
The good news was he felt safe at home. Only with us was he able to express the true level of the anger and fear that gripped his heart.
The less good news is that he was simply ‘masking’ in other situations. What looked like compliant, attentive behaviour was, in fact, freezing or flopping.
This kid had learnt that if you sit very still, and stare into the middle distance, people leave you alone. If you’re a teacher dealing with 30 kids, your focus is inevitably drawn to the disrupters and those wanting to go to the toilet.
This kid was exceptionally good at hiding in plain sight. We can only assume he’d learnt this survival technique somewhere along his journey. Perhaps trauma also played a part. You don’t have to have been a soldier in a combat zone to have a ‘1000 yard stare’.
We began to develop strategies.
You had to be ready at the door on his arrival. You had to cut a fine line between being welcoming and not giving eye contact. Under no circumstances should you engage in chit chat, unless you wanted a cocktail of saliva and swearing.
You had to have the full range of snacks and drinks laid out on the table. For us, this meant every flavour of Doritos.
The TV had to be on.
An iPad, in its full metal, protective jacket, had to be fully charged, along with headphones.
If it wasn’t pouring with rain, the back door could be left temptingly open. As we stayed indoors, our back garden would be left to weather the storm. Trees, fences and the spiny thing for drying clothes were punched, hit and smashed.
Like angry fizzy pop, we had to let the anger out.
This may sound terribly indulgent of a child’s tantrums but it worked for us. And I balk at the word ‘tantrum’.
And very gradually things got a little better.
The 45 minute explosion lasted only 30 minutes.
Spiny drying things in the garden had a survival expectation of months not weeks.
Outbursts still happened but they were short, sharp and generally less aggressive.
I know we have learnt to take a pragmatic approach. If it works, we do it. We don’t care if it fits in with any preferred parenting style.
I’ve no idea if our approach will work for yours.
I know things improved to a point where neither us dreaded ‘coming home time’. That absence of anxiety was a beautiful beautiful feeling.
This little kid felt safe enough in our house to show his true emotions.
I think by offering consistency, stability and routine his fears began to dissipate.
He felt safe and he didn’t need to feel angry.
Well, not as angry.
He still kicks off, but not in a way that bothers us much.
“Phil, I’m not bothering to search your bedroom for my birthday presents. I’ve been on your Amazon Account and found them all online. Someone needs to be in between 2-4pm so they don’t go next door”
This will be the 9th birthday we have shared with this Kid.
The first 2 or 3 were, more or less, unmitigated disasters.
We tried to do what we’d done with our birth kids, and what most people do with most kids.
The chronological order of stupid things we did is as follows:-
1. We told him that sometime in the future it was his birthday.
2. We used the word BIRTHday.
3. We asked him what he might like for his birthday.
4. We asked him if he wanted a party and if he wanted to invite some friends and family, as many as he wanted.
5. We asked him if he wanted some special food.
6. We were excited and we showed him that we were excited
What took us years to learn, now seems bindingly obvious to us.
This young man, like so many of his care experienced compadres, needed predictability, bordering on the ‘boring’ and ‘tedious’.
Trauma, beginning at conception, had given him an internal narrative that he was not worthy of love or attention, or presents. The subsequent years of chaos meant he’d developed a hyper vigilance that denied him any real deep rest or peace.
Anything different, even if meant with the best of intentions, caused his amygdala to inflame and his ‘lizard survival brain’ would kick in.
We realised our birthday preparations had to be dialled down, significantly.
His birthday became a two or three month event.
We would visit The local High Street or Car Boot Fair on a Saturday or Sunday and let him choose something, usually a phone case or something to do with Harry Potter, We gave him agency and a modicum of power. Our little trips proved to be an enjoyable outing.
My wife and I had discussed budgets and we were prepared to spend some cash.
However, this Kid had no interest in monetary value. The £1 wand had caught his eye and was what he wanted. A birthday tea would be sausages or a Meal Deal. Yes, we felt tight, and to use the local parlance a bit ‘sly’, but this what He wanted and this what He could manage.
As we head into the teenage years, birthdays don’t yet resemble the Disney ideal, but they are perhaps more recognisable to the general population.
Friends and family will visit. He will open some presents on the day. There will be a cake.
He’s even set up a countdown on his phone.
He’s learning that our home is safe enough, and predictable enough, for just a little bit of anticipation and excitement.
When first asked why we wanted to foster by our Assessing Social Worker I found my thoughts and feelings hard to explain. I just thought it was a good thing to do. I think I might have used the word ‘altruism’. Pam, the Social Worker, liked that word and made a note of it. Some Foster Carers are motivated by faith, some by a desire for justice and some of us probably enjoy the martyrdom.
What we rarely mention is how much we get from it.
My friend Alison started fostering in 2016.
A 9 year old foster child arrived at Alison’s home with a reticence that gave some insight into her confusion and fear. As can often be the case, this fear showed itself through angry outbursts, and seemingly irrational behaviour that showed no concern for consequence. This little girl had never been taught what was safe and what wasn’t, what was socially appropriate and what was dangerous to herself and those who were around her.
Convincing her to visit the local shop to choose an Easter Egg, and being convinced that she could manage the journey safely, was a Herculean task requiring all of Alison’s patience, training and resourcefulness. The subsequent trip to the local park for a mini egg hunt was managed with both metaphorical and literal hand holding, reassurance, and encouragement.
For the girl to engage with new adults and new children was a great achievement. Milestones are different when you foster.
5 years on, that same child spent the Easter holidays with Alison in London.
She’d won a place in National Youth Music Theatre and spent a week doing rehearsals with boys and girls from across the country.
She managed to have a vaccination without needing Entonox, a mix of gas and air, often used to treat pain during childbirth.
And, just like the young lad in Goodnight Mr Tom, she’s learnt to ride a bike.
Alison is rightly proud of her young charge. This young girl has overcome obstacle after obstacle and is showing a resilience and fortitude that belies her background. The safe home that Alison has provided, has given this girl the skills and confidence to navigate the world around her.
Although unassuming, Alison is also proud of the difference she herself has made. As she has said to me:
“These stories illustrate the difference that fostering can make, and how incredibly satisfying it can be for the foster carer”.
Fostering can be challenging, exhausting and even gruelling, but sometimes it’s absolutely brilliant.
I have always had a soft spot for Paddington Bear.
If you grew up in the 1970s, you’ll remember the five minute grainy cartoon which signalled the end of Children‘s TV. If I remember rightly, and I might not, Paddington was in colour but the backdrop was in black and white. The BBC budget didn’t actually allow the characters to move, except when drinking tea or eating marmalade sandwiches.
Younger readers may well have seen the more recent films. Paddington is hilarious, accident prone, polite, and endlessly endearing. He’s very hard not to love.
The 2014 film makes a reference to the Kindertransport programme. As the Nazis ramped up their persecution of the Jews, Britain agreed to accept 10,000 Jewish children. Desperate parents put their helpless children on trains bound for the UK. Some were so young they could not remember their own names. Labels, with name and age, were tied around their necks. This was a time before computerised passport control and mobile phones.
I’m reminded of this period of history when I see similar desperation in the faces of Ukrainians escaping Putin’s war.
If I were Ukrainian, I’d be deemed fit and able to fight. My sons are 17 and 15. Would I encourage them to flee with their Mother and sister?
How bad does it have to get, before ‘anywhere but here’ becomes the best option?
What must it be like to trust that a stranger, in another land, with another language, and another culture will care for my family?
I wonder what my last words to my fleeing family would be?
I think I would plea for them to stay together.
From what I understand, most of the refugees are family units. In the chaos, fear and confusion, I would want my wife and children to cling to one another. In fact, I think it would be entirely natural and understandable to fight tooth and nail to stick together.
However, amongst the millions, there will inevitably be children who are alone. In the world of fostering, these children are referred to as ‘unaccompanied minors’.
Lovely as it is for the Brown family to take Paddington home with them, in real life, this is just not possible, or safe.
If you’re interested in caring for a child, whether they are escaping a war, or escaping domestic violence and abuse, you have to be an approved foster carer.
Becoming an approved foster carer can take at least 4 months, and involves background checks, training and a detailed approval process. (You can find more about it in my other blogs).
I am sure many of us can see the need and want to help now. However to ensure the safety of these highly vulnerable children, and to ensure our own safety, we need such carers to be vetted, trained and supported.
If you’re interested in finding out more about becoming a foster carer, please contact your Local Authority or me.
If you’ve only know chaos, you don’t bother about next year, next week, tomorrow or even ‘later’.
You completely and utterly fully focus on surviving the very moment and the very place in which you find yourself.
We fostered a little boy who approached life fully engaged in the ‘present tense’. The future, no matter how near or how distant, held no interest to him, and in fact ‘later’ was a concept that he was yet to grasp.
For him, when he arrived, days had no rhythm. Weekdays and weekends were non existent. There was not even a night or a day. If there was food, you ate all you could whenever you could. There were no mealtimes. You slept when you fell asleep, regardless of where you were and whether the sun was shining.
Life had been so unpredictable that he’d never learnt to look forward to anything. He knew nothing of reward or consequence. He just knew how to survive, and at this he’d had to become an expert.
We’re a pretty orthodox family, and he gradually began to adapt to our daily rhythms. It took time, and an enormous amount of patience on our behalf, but he gradually learnt that when it got dark, and when CBeebies finished, it was time for bath and bed.
He learnt that when plates and cutlery appeared on the table, it was time for tea, even if you had to wait a few minutes. He learnt that if you watched the plate in the microwave go round and round, eventually it would ping, and your sausage and bean mix (Smart Price was his favourite) would be warm and ready to eat. He learnt that there were some days when you didn’t go to school.
These days were different and he found them incredibly difficult. To be blunt, we found them difficult too.
Deviation form the routine was what he craved and what he needed. The more predictable the day, the better.
Consequently, we took up gardening.
For a season our Saturdays followed a simple routine.
We got dressed, we put on our wellington boots, we got our two trowels and we dug little holes in the garden. The holes varied in width and in depth. Some resembled sink holes that could have swallowed a bus.
Into each hole, a bulb, perhaps a snowdrop, a tulip or a daffodil was ceremoniously shoved. The soil was replaced and stamped down with all the force an underweight four year old could muster.
Some unlucky bulbs were then watered. Two minutes blasting with the hose forced some daffodils and tulips back to the surface where they bobbed about in a puddle, looking really rather forlorn.
As established above, ‘waiting and patience’ were not a part of our little boy’s skill set when he first arrived.
But he learnt.
He learnt that there would always be food in his new home.
He learnt that you went to bed, you got up, you went to school, you came home, you watched Peppa Pig and then you ate your sausage and beans. He learnt that the new adults in his life were predictable. He could rely on us doing what we said we were going to do, when we said we were going to do it. In fostering terms, this is called therapy. This predictability helped him regulate, and reduced the heightened sense of alert in which he’d lived. He began to relax.
‘These bulbs are rubbish and stupid Phil. They are just doing nothing’.
Our little boy had started a ‘bulb vigil’, but in spite of regular checking, nothing appeared to be happening. He was disappointed by their slow rate of progress.
I took on the role of a wise old man, even though I was only 47 and still had a full head of naturally brown hair.
“Under the surface, where we can’t see, the bulbs are growing, and then as it gets warmer, little green shoots will appear and then there will be flowers.”
“Will I still be living here when that happens Phil?”
“The mother of the four children has been charged with neglect. It is believed she left them unsupervised to go shopping. The children were all under five.”
We were on our way home from the cinema, and were listening to the radio. I was anticipating the football scores but had tuned in a fraction early, and instead of Sports Report, we got The News at 5 o’clock. There had been terrible house fire in which some children had died.
“What does ‘neglect’ mean?”
We’d learnt never to waste a car journey. I did my best to explain what ‘neglect’ meant.
I wasn’t sure where the conversation was going, but in these circumstances we’d learnt to always let the child lead. We have always tried to answer any questions as fully and frankly as possible. We’ve also learnt that we have to go at the child’s pace and go at the child’s timetable.
“Did my birth parents neglect me?”
“Yes. I think they did.”
“So my parents neglected me, and the Social Workers came and they took me away, and they brought me to you?”
There then followed what I can only call a ‘pregnant pause’.
“If the Social Workers hadn’t have come to get me, what would have happened?”
“I don’t know.”
“When I’m older can we ask the Social Workers what happened to me?”
“Yes, we can. When you’re older we can ask the Social Workers to find out more. If you want, we can try to find your birth parents.”
“That would be weird. What would I say? It’s been years.”
“When I was younger, before I lived with you, the front door was green.”
“I wonder what’s for tea?”
The conversation about the past and discussion about the future ended as abruptly as it had begun. I have no idea if there’s a ‘good way’ of processing your journey into Care. I’m not really sure if the way we handle it is the best way.
I do know that we have absolutely no warning as to when these conversations will crop up, and how long they’ll last.
I do know, that I’m glad we’re around for when they happen.