Triggers and Why we don’t listen to Fleetwood Mac.

We don’t listen to Fleetwood Mac in our house.

I quite like Fleetwood Mac, especially their early stuff.

Well, to be more specific, we don’t listen to their multi million selling album Rumours, and we have to make every effort to avoid ‘I don’t want to know’ from ever coming up on the radio, whether it be in the kitchen or in the car.

It’s not that we don’t like Fleetwood Mac, we do, especially the early stuff with Peter Green.

It’s the visceral, terrifying reaction this great British Blues Band provokes in our little man.

We discovered this purely by chance.

I don’t hold the Radio 2 DJ Ken Bruce responsible, but it was during his mid morning slot that ‘I don’t want to know’ came out of the car stereo.

‘No, no, no, no!’ screamed our seven year old.

He sat bolt upright in the car as soon as the first unmistakable beats were played.

As he screamed, he stared straight ahead, his whole body clenched in a rigid spasm.

I tuned off the radio, pulled over and parked up.

He was shaking.  I was shaking.

He made it very clear that he didn’t want to hear that song and he didn’t want to talk about why he didn’t want to hear that song.

He’s never discussed it since, and we’ve not considered it necessary to broach the subject.

We can only assume that the song was the soundtrack, possibly the ringtone, to an episode in his past that was so traumatic that it must be avoided at all costs.

Sometimes, it’s worth helping such a child investigate their past.

Sometimes, it’s not.

In fostering and adoption, helping a child come to terms with their past is known as ‘life story work’. You probably find that songs, theme tunes, photos, TV programmes and even smells evoke strong emotions in you.

These emotions can help you heal, and help you understand your past, even if they bring a tear to your eye.

No matter how hot the day, the gentlemen in our family wore a shirt and tie. I spent the 1970s wasting this red tracksuit. Family is a collection of shared memories, many of which conflict.

You can probably link the emotion to a time, a place or a person.

However, if you were taken into care in your early, formative years, it’s perfectly possible that emotional triggers come without context. It’s just frightening and it’s incomprehensible.

And there’s no one to ask.

Family history is a shared set of half truths, seen from a variety of perspectives, all of which are a little but wrong.  Parents, grandparents, siblings and extended family all contribute.

Many kids in care experience a massive dislocation with their past, and have no ‘family memory’.

This Little Man struggles in January.

It’s not a fun month for many of us.

The excitement of Christmas and the New Year are over.

The days are short, the weather is miserable and it’s a long time until Spring.

The misery of January is interrupted only by the dizzy excitement of the FA Cup and the use of the ‘orange’ football. Under pitch heating often denies us even this simple pleasure.

But for him, it was a time of intense distress, and I mean that in a ‘Foster Carer’s Scale’ not a ‘Regular Parent’s Scale’. I mean a long sequence of disrupted nights, apparently mindless violence and destruction. I mean ‘far away eyes’ where you just can’t reach him. We’d been trained to look for the reason behind the behaviour, which is quite difficult when you are drained and beginning to suffer from Secondary Trauma, which is a sort of PTSD-lite! In a rare, calm moment, we realised that he’d experienced a particularly difficult ‘transition’ in a January a few years previously.

He didn’t know why, but he was terrified.

The coming down of the Christmas tree, the short days and the bad weather all reminded him of a terrifying time and deep deep down, he thought his life was going to be tipped upside down again.

We had no solutions but at least we had a reason. We figured if we could just keep going, one day at a time, we’d get away from January and maybe it would get easier, and it did.

We went from the brink of breakdown to a much more manageable and even enjoyable household.

We are now on our 8th January. Each one gets a little bit easier, and at least we know what to expect.

If you’re a foster carer or an adopter I hope you learn to spot those triggers and learn to manage them.

A new foster kid and a new school

A six year old was dropped off at our house by a Social Worker on a Friday afternoon.

Our birth son leading a foster kid to school. I found this photo on an old broken phone. We discovered years later that our birth son and his mates had taken it in turns to check up on the foster kid at playtime. ‘If anyone had hastled him, we’d have sorted it!’.

It was the last day of the summer holidays and our two birth kids were preparing to go into Year 6 and Year 4 at the Local Primary, which was a 2 minute walk from our semi detached, pebble dashed home.

The Social Worker gave us as much background information as she had.  We knew the little boy had been in and out of care since he was 3, but it was difficult to say what the long term plan was.  We knew he was ‘lively’ with ‘some managed health issues’.  Apparently he was fully toilet trained, slept well and liked watching TV, especially Peppa Pig.  He was going into Year 2, but we had no information about his academic progress.

With the help of the Social Worker, and because of our connection with the place, we enrolled him at the same Primary School as our birth kids.  Kids in the Care System effectively go to the top of the pile.

On Monday morning I walked all three kids to school.

The Big Two were excited about the first day back.

For them it was a chance to reconnect with friends, chat about the summer and compare new school bags.

The little fella was, understandably, far more reticent.

As I was pretty familiar with the school, I knew where to queue for Year 2.  Of course all the children and parents knew each other and were engaging in the usual first day pleasantries.

We got a few curious looks. New kids always do.

I caught the eye of the teacher and nodded to the Teaching Assistant next to her.

They were expecting us, but had had practically no time to prepare.

I introduced my foster child, who was staring resolutely at the floor.

‘This lady will look after you. She will keep you safe. When school finishes I will meet you here, and we will go home and have tea. We will have spaghetti’.

Some of the other six year olds happily left ‘their adult’ and piled into the school building.

Many hugged their parents just a little bit more tightly, sought the security of a familiar face, and walked in to the first day of their last year of Infant Education.

Our boy held the hand of the Teaching Assistant and toddled in.

It’s another photo from an old broken phone. This foster kid was very happy to wear my coat so he didn’t get soaked in the rain!

At 3 O’ clock I was waiting in the same queue of adults.

The bell went and a crowd of kids appeared at the door.

With the help of the children, the class teacher identified the relevant adults, and sent the pupils out into their care one by one.

As the crowd of kids dispersed our little man arrived at the door.

I could not hear the conversation properly, but I saw him gesticulate in my direction and say ‘him, that man, I know that man’.

The TA handed him over, with a nod and a very reassuring smile.

He’d only known me two days, and I was more or less a stranger to him.

However, I was the only stranger he knew.

That little kid stayed at their school for four more years and made many fantastic friends.

The staff, kids and whole community welcomed him wholeheartedly.

If you think you could take a kid to school and then pick them up afterwards, you could consider fostering.

Fostering in Lockdown: Has your world shrunk?

I wonder what you’ve missed most in ‘Lockdown’?

Whatever your situation, I’m sure your life has been limited over the last 18 months. Perhaps you’ve missed loved ones, friends, being outside, being at work, or are just frustrated at being denied the chance to do what you want, when you want.

However difficult your situation, I trust you have some hope that life will improve.

We have two birth kids. The kid whose face you can’t see lived with us for 15 months. He loved the park and rarely grew tired of pointing out trees. He also liked sticks, leaves and the cafe.

My family became Foster Carers for Liverpool City Council in 2010.

One of the first children we cared for was four years old.

On his second day with us he dutifully held my hand as we headed off to the local park.

He had very limited language.

As we walked across the grass, he stopped, pointed, and muttered something barely audible.

I looked to see what had caught his attention.

It soon became clear he was pointing at a tree.

That little boy spent the next 20 minutes stroking the bark, marvelling at the leaves, and staring up at its enormous height.

It was fairly evident that he’d never seen a tree before, and certainly never touched one.

We spent many wonderful hours exploring that park.

We worked out, purely by observation, that he’d never experienced the wonder of television, knew nothing of swimming pools, cinemas, shops, ball pools, or bath time. 

Over the 15 months he lived with us, we introduced him to all that normal stuff, the stuff we may all have missed over the last 18 months.

We also showed him a world where there was always enough to eat, you’d always be warm, and where people would not hurt you.

I guess that child had lived in a permanent “lockdown”, which ended when he came to live with us.

I know my family made a difference to his life.

My wife and I, and our teenage birth children have fostered seven children in total.  One lad came for just four hours, and one lad came for a day and is still with us seven years later. He has become one of the family.

Is it difficult? Yes. But the rewards outweigh the problems, and its value is unquantifiable. I’ve never run a marathon, climbed Kilimanjaro or run a FTSE company, However, I have convinced a kid that 3am is a bad time to play tennis, and that not all grown ups are dangerous.

If you want to find out more about fostering or adoption, please contact me or your Local Council

Fostering and adoption at Christmas

When we started fostering 11 years ago, we got Christmas all wrong!

Many of our most popular stories involves ‘the absence of parents’. Sometimes this is a plot device, but it also suggests an appeal to our primal love for the ‘abandoned child’.

We got caught up in all the excitement of presents, decorations and parties.

Our birth kids, both in Junior School, had learned to anticipate that ‘change’ was often positive, and with regards to Christmas, it was exciting too.

Avoid lighting candles near highly flammable materials. This is a good lesson for life.

For the four year old foster child, who’d only arrived earlier that November, the Season of Goodwill was terrifying.

Just as we’d got him into a routine of get up dressed, get washed, get fed, go to school, repeat, he felt everything was changing

And ‘change’, of any type, threw him into a turmoil.

In his brain, dressing up for a party or ‘plain clothes day’ was not just confusing, but triggered wide eyed fear, and what foster carers call ‘deregulation’.

He wanted to wear his familiar Disney jumper with its familiar smells, that we rarely washed, and only then at a very low temperature, every single day. He hated his novelty Snowman jumper.

His favourite food was spaghetti hoops with a side of broccoli (don’t ask! It’s fairly healthy and that was enough), so why was he being offered chocolate and mince pies?

In the few weeks he’d been with us, our home had become a safe place for him, so why were we talking about visiting relatives and friends. What even were ‘relatives’?  All he heard was ‘strangers’ and that, in his experience, meant trouble.

Lots of kids have meltdowns triggered by a heady seasonal mix of tiredness and excitement, but we were unwittingly sending this vulnerable young boy into a spiral of confusing and terrifying emotions.

The idea that some sort of rotund, bearded gentleman and his reindeer was going to break into the house was something we quickly began to downplay.

‘A strange man will break into your house whilst you’re asleep and then sneak into your room’ said no right minded Foster Carer ever!

We realised we needed to dial down the anticipation and excitement.

We needed to stay predictable, to the point of being boring.

We needed to keep to the routine as much as possible.

Christmas’s with a Foster Child, or any child who has experienced significant trauma, can still be fun, but they are different.

Nowadays, we spread the presents over weeks rather than all on the one day.

We carefully consider each and every party invitation and if a child wants a familiar pizza for Christmas Dinner, is there actually any harm done?

It’s become a tradition to consider the ‘true meaning of Christmas’.

Was it ever meant to be a celebration of buying stuff that you don’t want, don’t need and can’t afford?

This will be our 11th Christmas with ‘an extra kid’ at the table.

I’m not sure what these kids have made of the Baby Jesus, the Wise Men the shepherds and the Angel Gabriel.

I do know that Joseph is the character who catches my attention.

I prefer Home Alone to Elf. Both stray into the areas of abandonment, attachment, trauma, and feeling that ‘you don’t belong’. Both Elf and Kevin find a family that loves them, soz for the Spoilers.

A bit about what I do

This kid is allowed on Social Media! In fact, he has more Instagram, Tik Tok and Snapchat accounts than anyone I know. He just likes setting them up. His Followers include me, my wife, and a Labradoodle called Maisie!

Liverpool has over 1500 Looked After Children. Could you foster one?

Phil Watson and his family have been fostering for Liverpool City Council since 2010.

Phil says ‘It can be challenging, exhausting, hilarious, but above all rewarding.  I can see the difference we are making to the children we have looked after. 

We chose to foster for the Council, because they don’t make a profit. This is very different from the Independent Fostering Agencies that operate in the city. We have fostered seven kids since we started. We had one little lad for four hours and one kid for over five years!  We can’t solve all their problems, but we know when those kids are with us, they are safe’

Foster carers need to be over 21, have a clean criminal record, be healthy and have a spare room.  You can be of any class, culture, heritage or sexual orientation. You can be single, in a relationship, own your home or rent. You don’t need to give up work to foster, as long as your work is flexible enough to cope with the demands of looking after a child.

As well as being paid, foster carers are exempt from Council Tax and get free Lifestyles Gym Membership.  Full training and support is given. Liverpool City Council are actively looking to find new carers. 

If you are interested in finding out more about fostering for Liverpool, contact Phil Watson at Phil.Watson@liverpool.gov.uk or visit www.fostering.liverpool.gov.uk.

Our journey to fostering

When men turn 40, it’s traditional to have a midlife crisis. I decided to become a foster carer. More accurately, my wife suggested we explore the possibility of becoming a foster family.

Humans flourish, but only in the right circumstances.

Our birth children were 5 and 7, and although I am biased, they are really rather fantastic kids, being academic, sporty and fairly sociable.

 My job as a secondary school teacher was demanding but going well.  My wife was a solicitor.  We lived in a semi detached house with pebble dash and a compost heap.  Perhaps we were in danger of becoming a little ordinary.

At first glance the risks seemed to outweigh any benefits.

Would we have room in our house and hearts for an extra child?

How would our kids be affected?  More importantly, would my wife still have time for me?

My wife took us along to an Information Event run by The Council. I’d been on worst dates!

We heard stories from a foster carer, and a young adult who had grown up in foster homes.  Their stories had us in  both tears and laughter.

Many adults who have grown up in care struggle in later life.

Many of our homeless , our prison population, and those suffering from mental health issues were once in care. This information offended my sense of justice. It was not enough to feel pity, I had to show compassion, and take action. As Christians, we were also strongly motivated by our faith and God’s obvious heart for the ‘orphan’.

Our own situation also influenced me.  My own children had begun to go on sleep overs.

I’m sure your kids have done the same or will do so in the future.  I remember my son, then aged five, showing a little bit of anxiety about spending a night at his best friend’s house.

I sought to reassure him. 

My son knew what he would be having for tea, he knew where the toilet was, he was taking his own duvet and pillow, his own bag of power rangers and a bag of sweets.  He knew what he’d be watching on TV, and he knew his Dad would be picking him up in the morning.

And yet, still he was nervous.

I began to wonder.  What would it be like for a five year old, or younger, to be taken to a stranger’s house and left there, perhaps forever?

 I knew we could keep a child safe.  We could provide food, a warm bed and some sort of reassurance.  This is the essence of fostering.

My wife rang the Council and registered our interest to become foster carers.

Six months later, we were approved as Foster Carers for Liverpool City Council.

A foster kid wrote this message on my iPad. Outstanding literacy and a lovely, precious sentiment.

10 years on and we have fostered 8 separate children.

We have had children for four hours, a week, six months , and one we decided to adopt.

We just fell in love with him, and he fell in love with us. He’s not the most articulate child and can have trouble accessing and expressing his feelings in a socially acceptable way.  However, one day when he had been with us a while he was being ominously quiet.  I found him in our lounge surrounded by shattered glass wielding a permanent felt tip pen.  He had taken a framed family photo from the mantle piece, punched the glass out, and added a picture of himself.  I’m not a psychologist, but it was fairly obvious what he was trying to say.

We adopted that little man a few months later. Although Hollywood would have you believe otherwise, adoption is not the end of the story and does not solve the problem of trauma. As a 13 year old, he is still fearful of unknown adults and still struggles when a routine changes. But he has a family now, a whole network of grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins and friends who can help him navigate life. For him, statistically, the future is far brighter as an adopted child than as a ‘Foster Placement’.

Fostering is never even dull. This kid loved going to The Asda Cafe. He used the Free Refill Fizzy Drinks Machine to make potions! Then we’d go home. An afternoon of creative fun for £1.00.

Fostering is difficult, but the rewards outweigh the problems, and its value is unquantifiable.  Occasionally I encounter men of my age who talk about wanting a new challenge.  They run back to back marathons, climb Kilimanjaro, or become Vegans.  Meanwhile, I am trying to convince a kid that 3.00am is a bad time to play tennis, and  that not every adult is dangerous.  It’s probably not as glamorous as running a FTSE company, but my wife thinks it’s sexy and I get to spend a lot more time on the swings at the park.  Clearly, I am the real winner, and so are the kids who we look after.

We get significant support from the Council’s  Social Workers but have also become associated with a National Charity called Home for Good.

Home for Good’s mission is to find a safe home for every one of the 80,000 children in care, whether it be fostering or adoption. They also do a great job supporting those of us who foster and adopt, by running local support groups and providing resources.

Fostering isn’t for every one, but everyone should consider it before they decide it’s not for them.

If you’d like to find out more, contact Home for Good or your Local Council about fostering.