Attachment or not attachment that is the question…
We are on diagnosis number six for Buster. So far in the roll call we have: ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder), ODD (Oppositional Defiance Disorder), FASD (Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder) Neurodevelopmental delay, mild autism and separation anxiety (more commonly known as attachment disorder). These various diagnoses have come out of paediatric and CAMHS assessments. We are utterly confused as to the best way to parent and what this all means.
CAMHS initial treatment was to put us on a parenting course called “The Parent Child Game” which was in equal parts patronising and unhelpful. “Extreme ignore” is a session I never want to repeat as it ended in a full scale meltdown which had me and Buster in tears in front of a two way mirrored audience.
So the picture that emerges for us is; it’s complicated. Buster has a myriad of issues that require a myriad of strategies. There isn’t a silver bullet/gold standard parenting style that will help. We have read heaps of books and attempted dozens of strategies but none work in isolation. Bits seem to help. But the problem is, a child who becomes so easily dysregulated has poor impulse control and school especially aren’t able to cope with his outbursts. All we know is: he’s scared.
We still believe that attachment disorder underpins a lot of his behaviours because they are, without fail, much worse when we are not around. He spends a lot of time in a state of high anxiety and we are the best ones to soothe him when he gets overwhelmed. Some of the triggers that set him off we are aware of (busy spaces, loud noises and either one or both of us being away) but a lot of the time it’s educated guesswork.
Traditional parenting really doesn’t work. Lots of carrots and a couple of sticks does, sometimes. Taking things away simply reinforces his already low self -esteem. He is occasionally motivated by sticker charts but soon disinterested in them. I think the biggest shift for us is in recognising that when he does have meltdowns, it’s because he is petrified and we can learn from him what it is that scares him. We recently attended a Great Behaviour Breakdown course and I have never heard so much sense spoken about our children. Fact: early trauma and loss has a profound effect on our children and the more we understand trauma, the more we can help our kids and our struggling families.
Last school year was without doubt the WORST experience of being an adoptive parent thus far and the reason behind no blog, in fact no ‘anything creative’ at all. Buster started mainstream school. He moved up from the nursery (where after five terms he had just started to settle) into reception class.
The initial weeks weren’t so bad as a very staggered start meant only partial days and nipping back at lunch time. By week four the teacher reckoned all was fine and we breathed a sigh of relief. However things took a steady turn for the worse in late October, after the mid-term break. First there were red slips (for bashing other kids) then came the meetings with the class teacher (for lack of compliance and generalised odd behaviour) and finally, in November, he got his first exclusion.
By January things had deteriorated so badly (three more exclusions) that we were hauled in for a multi-disciplinary meeting and told rather bluntly that his mainstream education career was just about over. The options handed to us were either a sideways move into the local Pupil Referral Unit or a further afield special school, or to stay as we were with guaranteed further exclusions leading to, in the schools eyes, an inevitable permanent exclusion. Dazed and confused I sobbed my way through the meeting. He was only five years old and had only just one term of mainstream education under his belt. Surely, I argued, they were jumping the gun? No, they replied his behaviours were the worst they’d encountered in years. He had spat at adults, over turned tables, hit other kids, thrown things at teachers and other kids and it was clear, the parents of the other kids were far from happy.
We were shown colourful graphs of incidents and detailed breakdowns of all his minor and major offences. We were told they had done everything they could think of to support him with pastoral care from in-school emotional support service, some 1:1 ad hoc in class help and interventions from SENCO. Surely, I argued, we should attempt getting an EHC plan funded before going to the extreme lengths of placing him in a PRU or special school?
The meeting closed on the Friday afternoon with a weekend to make a decision; PRU/Special school or the rocky road to permanent exclusion.
When Buster was first placed with us at two he had no speech whatsoever. We weren’t too concerned as we understood that it was normal for children who’d experienced trauma and separation to have language delay. However as the months went by we became increasingly worried. Buster was becoming frustrated with his own inability to ask for things and had started lashing out, pushing and grabbing. He also cried and screamed. A lot.
Added to the speech delay was his drooling habit. We initially put this down to teething but as he had a full set of gnashers by the time he was two and a half we realised this wasn’t the reason. Buster drooled prolifically, everywhere and over everything. We bought a dozen bandannas in every conceivable colour for him to wear as drool catchers to save him from getting a soaked chest.
Buster had been very attached to his dummy which he’d had at his foster carers. We figured it may be impeding his speech and had managed to wean him off it during the day but night-time was impossible. He needed that pacifier!
A trip to the G.P got us a referral to a Speech and Language clinic. Maybe it was a case of wrong S&L therapist at the wrong time and I don’t doubt that there are some fantastic professionals out there but ours had precious little advice. For the drooling we were told to try Buster on a selection of different textured foods (like we hadn’t already done this!) and give him something to chew on!? The therapist spent the session mopping up after Buster as he drooled all over her toys with tuts and comments like “I’ll need to wash this after” Regarding his lack of speech she told us he was very globally delayed and we needed to sing songs with him and practice pointing at objects as we were saying them and praise any sounds he made. Of course we’d tried all this before. We left feeling seriously underwhelmed.
We took matters into our own hands and every day for a month we practiced just one word with him; JUICE which we pronounced ‘joooooooose’. He loved juice and pointed animatedly every time he saw a carton. By the end of the second week he’d got an “oo” sound, pursing his little mouth. We wept. It felt incredible. By the end of week three we had a word that actually sounded a lot like jooooos. He’d finally made the connection between a word and an object and he could ask for something. Yes he drank a lot of sugary drinks but boy was it worth it. His journey into language had begun.
Within a matter of weeks Biff went from being a calm and happy child who rarely lost his temper to an incredibly angry little boy. It was a shock. We thought we had prepared Biff well for his new little brother. We’d involved him in the process from the very beginning, talking about how he felt, what he was looking forward to and what he was not. We asked his opinion on what he thought his brother would like in his room, he helped us choose some clothes, teddies and cup and plate set. Of course he got presents too!
It’s hard enough on birth families when a new baby arrives, I’ve heard the youngest child often regresses and feels jealous.. However at least a new baby sleeps a lot of the time and doesn’t move around. Having a 2 year old toddler suddenly thrust into your life is a completely different experience, and incredibly hard on the other child. Toddlers are demanding. Buster was into all of Biff’s toys, he ran around, wanted our full attention all the time, he was non-verbal so communicated through crying, screaming and grabbing.
In retrospect it was no shock that Biff lost his cool. We all struggled to adapt. It was a very tricky time as there was so much to balance. How do you manage the overwhelming emotional and physical needs of a newly placed child alongside an already placed, feeling usurped child? Biff started saying he hated us. He hated his new brother, he told us he wanted to go to live with his birth Mum. Every time he saw either of us cuddle or re assure Buster he said we didn’t love his as much as his new brother.
Biff started having tantrums, throwing things around his room, at us, screaming, refusing to go to school, refusing to join in with activities. He became bad tempered and surly. No amount of re assurance worked. He was simply furious.
Our prep course hadn’t dealt with how to prepare our first child for a new sibling AT ALL. We asked at the time and were given some ‘reading’ but that proved ineffective. It was a travesty that we hadn’t been given training and advice on how to support our first child. We had been bunged on the same prep course as first time adopters but our needs were vastly different.
The first glimmer of getting the old Biff back came about 8 months into the placement. My brother had moved to Paris and invited me over. We decided I should take Biff on my own. The second we got onto Eurostar the furrowed brow disappeared and I had my happy little boy back. We seriously re bonded that weekend. He was lavished with attention by me and his uncle, given lots of treats and exciting new experiences. That weekend changed a lot for us. It made Vic and I realise how rotten Biff had been feeling and that we needed to both take Biff out on his own with either one of us. He needed space from his brother and time to just be the centre of our world again.
The second child placed with us, Buster, was 20 months at the time of matching and we were to take him home aged 22 months.
Biff was initially very excited at the prospect of a little brother. We tried to get him involved in the process as much as possible. He chose his new brother’s plate and cup set , chose a bear, helped find things to decorate his room and even relinquished baby books from his shelves that he thought his new brother would like. He helped in the making of video and photo book for Buster and proudly showed him around the house on camera. We did a lot of talking and re assuring and explained how special Biff was and that he’d be a fantastic older brother.
Buster’s history was very different to Biff’s. He’d had a rockier start, his prenatal exposure to drugs and alcohol and his subsequent hospitalisation at birth worried us. Buster still had twice weekly contact with his birth family and that was set to change to letterbox only. We wondered whether that would be an enormous wrench for him too.
Buster was in foster care from roughly two weeks and so had a firm attachment to his foster mother. She absolutely adored him (he’s an immense cutie) and they were very connected to one another.
Introductions with Buster didn’t go anywhere near as well as Biff’s had. Firstly Buster was ill. He only had a mild chest infection but as with all children, he’d regressed and needed the cuddles and reassurance from his foster mother. After a couple of great first days, things went downhill. Buster wasn’t interested in us and just wanted to be with his carer. He’d hide behind her when we arrived and screamed whenever she left the room. Looking back we often wonder whether this slightly botched introduction has affected Buster as he still has profound separation anxiety now. Perhaps we should have pushed back and taken longer over the introductions. It was discussed at the time but the SW felt elongating the process would do more harm than good.
So Buster arrived home in late May. Shell shocked and bewildered by the change, his first few weeks with us were fairly smooth running. He slept and ate well and we spent adoption leave time together as a family picnicking in the local park or playing in the garden.
All was well for those first few weeks but suddenly, out of the blue, Biff our eldest child, began to display disruptive and oppositional behaviour. The tantrums had begun…
The first two weeks, when Vic was off on adoption leave, were wonderful. We were a family at last! Playing at home, cuddles, baking, strolls in the freezing park (it was January) and a day out at the V & A…all proved lovely with our gurgling, smiling, little boy. We were beginning the slow and steady process of bonding with each other and Biff seemed to be settling relatively well. The social worker visits were positive and encouraging and the first visit from Biff’s foster family went smoothly and everyone seemed pleased.
When Vic finally finished her adoption leave I felt confident I could continue on my own. I fantasized about being the perfect homemaker and an understanding, adoptive mother with time for my creative pursuits (writing) when Biff slept…