The Butterfly and the Thistle…

Now that Spiderboy is starting to settle into our family and our home, he is starting to feel safe. This is great because he is beginning to trust us and to let his guard down. It also means that he is more afraid of change and loss because as he begins to care about us, he has more to lose. And it also means that he feels comfortable to show us his feelings. We are told that this is great progress. But that doesn’t make it any easier!

The way this presents itself is in violent outbursts and emotional meltdowns. Sometimes triggered by anxieties linked to his early trauma. Sometimes triggered by things that would upset a ‘normal’ four year old like no ice cream, or his brother snatching. But because his emotional development is around the same stage as a six month old, he is unable to regulate himself. Before babies learn to regulate, they cry and thrash their little arms around. As they are cared for and nurtured, they learn to regulate themselves. A baby who isn’t comforted, rocked and cared for won’t learn to regulate. The trouble is, when they are four it looks more like throwing things, biting, swearing, shouting, screaming etc.

When Spiderboy gets to this point, the logic part of his brain is switched off. He goes into survival mode and his whole being will fight. He does not have the ability to rationalise, self soothe or regulate. At this point his brain is flooded with stress hormones and he needs time to literally clear his head again before he is able to talk about what has happened. The only thing we can do is to keep him and ourselves safe, and to try and reassure him that he is safe and loved.

A few days ago during one of these episodes, as he was beginning to calm he noticed a picture on the wall, next to a Quentin Blake and under a portrait of the Queen. It’s a photo I took one holiday of a butterfly sitting on a thistle. “Why is that plant all spiky?” he asked. I explained that some plants have spikes or thorns to protect them. “Why do they need to protect themselves?” I told him that they worry about getting eaten or hurt by other plants or animals. “Is that butterfly getting spiked?” I explained that the butterfly had flown past the thistle’s spiky bits, and had found its beautiful flower. “But is the butterfly hurting it?” 

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Suddenly, in a stroke of rare genius, I remembered my training! I wondered aloud (!) if Spiderboy was a bit like that thistle. Did he worry that people might hurt him if they got too close? Did he think that if he was ‘spiky’ he could keep people away? I wondered if I was a bit like that butterfly. I had seen past his spiky bits, and fallen in love with a kind, clever, brilliant, brave little boy. I wondered if that made him feel worried. Did he think that if I knew him properly I would stop loving him? Did he think that by hurting me he could keep me from knowing him?

Spiderboy didn’t say much, but I could tell he was taking in what I’d said. I’m beginning to learn that there isn’t going to be a Moment, a Moment when everything clicks and he accepts that he is loved and safe. But there are going to be lots of moments, moments of reassurance and realisation. And the drip drip drip of little moments, will one day make the big difference.

In that moment, we cuddled. I told him I loved him forever – when he hurts me and when he hugs me. He told me he was sorry, and that he loves me too. I knew it would happen again, if not that day, then the next. But we keep going, because everything I said is true.

He is the beautiful, spiky thistle. I am the butterfly that got too close. And I love him still, spikes and all.

 

Always check the label?

Last week I attended an information morning with Adoption Matters on Foetal Alcohol Syndrome (FASD) and Neglect. The speaker was both a retired social worker, and an adoptive mum. I learnt that both FASD and Neglect can cause brain damage in a child, and can have very similar symptoms. As a prospective adopter, I picked up 3 main tips:

1. Don’t let your child’s difficulties become their failings.

Children affected by FASD and/or neglect will struggle with some things that other children won’t. There is such a wide variety of ways that children can be affected, this isn’t a one size fits all sort of thing. Children may struggle with poor co-ordination, hyperactivity, poor attention span, language development, understanding social situations, mixing reality and fiction, poor problem solving, attachment difficulties, poor academic performance etc. A child’s difficulties will be as unique as they are, and it’s a parent’s job to know them inside out.

A parent needs to know when their child is being disobedient, and when their child is unable to understand instructions. A parent needs to know when a child is being careless and clumsy, and when that child is struggling to control their own body. As you learn how FASD and neglect have affected your child, help them! If your child struggles to follow a list of instructions, don’t set them up to fail! Give them one instruction at a time, teach them ways to remember lists, help order their chaos with them. Our children may always have certain difficulties because in the past adults have failed to care for them. But those failings should never be our children’s failings.

2. Don’t be afraid to stand up for your child.

Many schools and teachers work really hard to help the children in their care learn and flourish. But it’s not always easy. Having a label like FASD can be really useful when it comes to getting school’s attention. A child with difficulties resulting from FASD or neglect may really struggle in a classroom environment. Hypersensitivity to smells and sounds can cause distress if a child becomes over stimulated, or can make it impossible for a child to focus on a task. Having to navigate complex peer relations and follow unspoken rules can be very daunting. Your child needs help, not just from you. They need other people on their side so their difficulties don’t become their failings.

And it’s a parent’s job to get people on side. You know your child best, so educate their teachers! If every child is unique in their strengths and struggles, your child’s teacher will need help to understand your individual child’s difficulties. Give them literature to read, point them in the direction of useful resources, be patient and explain exactly what your child struggles with and how they can help. It could just be things like always sitting at the front of the classroom, help getting changed for P.E., being allowed to leave the room for a quiet moment, a map of the school or a timetable of the day. Teachers won’t always think of these things, so don’t be afraid to help!

There may also be times when you need to really stand up for your child. You may have to go against your nature and be willing to make some noise. But isn’t it better to put yourself in an uncomfortable position, rather than your child? Make those appointments with the Head, ask exactly how your Pupil Premium is being spent, be your child’s advocate.

3. Don’t get distracted by the label.

DSCF4836Yes, labels can be really useful for getting the help and support your child may need. But labels are not the be-all and end-all. There is a lot more to a child than the labels we put on them. Especially a label like FASD, which can mean just about anything! All children, labels or not, will have struggles and difficulties. And all children have beautiful qualities and special gifts.

Enjoy your child’s special gifts, and celebrate their courage.

An adopted child will have experienced too much loss and pain in their little lives. They are brave, they are courageous, they are strong. Celebrate the little triumphs and love them for exactly and completely who they are, labels and all.

I’d love to hear your stories – how have labels helped/hindered your child? How do you enjoy your child’s special gifts and celebrate their courage? Comment below and join the chat!

 

 

The Healing Power of Destruction

I had a difficult weekend last week. After our final assessment interview before Approval Panel I felt incredibly helpless and nervous. My old, crippling Anxiety started to creep back, filling my mind and my body. Then on Sunday we had some news of a family leaving our church. This brought all the usual feelings of grief – sadness, loss, anger, betrayal. By Sunday lunchtime I was filled to bursting with Big Feelings. I felt like a can of Pepsi Max that had been shaken and shaken and was just waiting to be opened.

Before I was diagnosed with Anxiety, these Big Feelings would build up in me until there wasn’t room for anything else. Then they’d keep growing until they didn’t fit anymore and they’d burst out of me. My poor husband often bore the brunt of it. Sometimes we know these Big Feelings are inside us, but we don’t know what they are and so we can’t explain them. Either we try to reach out for help by expressing them, or they just burst out of us. Either way they can result in destructive behaviour – shouting, screaming, aggression, etc.

If we have destructive Big Feelings inside, we need to get them outside of our minds and bodies.

DSCF4822.JPGBut we need to learn to do this in a safe way. When I worked as a martial arts instructor I saw many children channelling Big Feelings through punching and kicking a punch bag. It was a great way to express destructive Big Feelings in a safe way and I am going to use this technique with our children when they arrive.

Sometimes just writing down our Big Feelings and then destroying the piece of paper can help. Anything that gets them outside of our bodies, without hurting anyone.

On Sunday I took a sledge hammer and crowbar and starting removing the paving slabs in our yard and smashing up the gravelly concrete underneath. It was therapeutic. Suddenly those Big Feelings that were eating away inside of me were instead eating away at the ugly concrete.

This was Constructive Destruction.

Constructive because it relieved me of those destructive Big Feelings, and because it was a job that needed doing! It was like opening the can of Pepsi Max.

The children we adopt will have their own Big Feelings. They may have experienced loss, neglect or abuse. They might feel hurt, or broken, or even destroyed. And they may bring with them lots of destructive behaviours – violence, anger, lying, stealing. Sometimes we will never understand why they do something. But sometimes they, and we, just need to know that something that was broken can be fixed.

Sometimes we need to see if something that was destroyed can be healed.

As I smashed up my ugly concrete garden, I knew that from this rubble would eventually come a beautiful, grassy garden.  And in the sadness and anger of grief, I knew that our little church family would heal. That though it hurts now, it won’t always. I knew I didn’t need to let those Big Feelings of Anxiety destroy me. I made room for other feelings. I filled two tubs with the rubble. One for my Anxiety. One for my grief. The destruction was healing.

And as a Christian I can look to The Ultimate Destruction for my Ultimate Healing. The destruction of the Son of God on the cross brought about the eternal healing of my sinful heart. Praise God!

Parents, how do you help your kids channel their Big Feelings? Have you found a way for Constructive Destruction? Do comment, I’d love to know your experiences!