Sorry seems to be the hardest word…

Yesterday morning, as usual, I was at a ladies’ Bible study at our church. There is a group for the children in the room next door, Batboy usually stays in it, I’m still working on Spiderboy! That morning he chose to join in and stayed until the end. Then, as we were finishing, he came running in to me in tears. My friend, who was running the group, was with him. She explained that he’d accidentally hit her face during a game, and when he was asked to say sorry he’d gotten very upset. She then said, helpfully, how hard all children find it to say sorry, which is true. And for children who already struggle with shame and self esteem, it can be almost crippling to apologise. And in Spiderboy’s case, it can lead to more and more negative behaviours in an attempt to avoid apologising for the initial offence!

Most children approach life with the opinion that they are important, and the world revolves around them. It is normal for children to feel pretty good about themselves, most of the time. This is important as children explore the world because it gives them the confidence to try things. It’s also important because it allows them to develop relationships and trust. They can believe that people would love them – why wouldn’t they?!

5111553020_121a71a7ec_o.jpgFor children who have suffered trauma and loss at an early age, as most adopted children have, it is more normal that they approach life with the idea that they are bad and they are not worth loving. They often feel ashamed of themselves, and blame the neglect/abuse/rejection on themselves, rather than on the adults who should have been caring for them.

Spiderboy has a very low opinion of himself. His first (birth) family did not care for him properly – he hears “you’re not worth it.” His second (foster) family favoured his brother, and so Spiderboy was often left to his own devices in the background – he hears “you’re not good enough.”

He works very hard to try and hold our attention because if he loses it, he might not get it back. He constantly asks for reassurance that he is doing a good job to make sure we are still pleased with him. When he does ‘bad things’, he assumes we no longer love him – his first experiences of love were not the unconditional, selfless, caring love that most infants experience. In fact, often when he misbehaves his first reaction is to hide; then his second reaction is to hit, kick, shout or spit. I think it’s a survival technique. He thinks if we tell him off, then we don’t love him anymore and we are going to send him away. And so he does all he can to prove that he isn’t lovable.

As we get to know our wonderful little man more, we’re changing how we deal with his challenging behaviour. But we still always insist on saying sorry. It’s how we repair relationships, it’s how we show we still love each other. It’s very difficult for Spiderboy because it gives him more evidence that he is a bad person, and he isn’t worth loving. But every time he does something wrong and we love him anyway, every time we make him say sorry but don’t send him away, we’re proving him wrong. We show him he is worth loving, he is special, he is important, he is ours.

And maybe one day, he might start to believe us.

Image: Flickr user Tjook (2009)

Out with the old, in with the new?

It feels like all my blog posts at the moment start with ‘recently I attended a training course…’ and this one is no different! I am very grateful for our excellent adoption agency who provide so much training, and also for my part time job that means I have plenty of time to attend said training courses!

Although the most recent one was actually on a Saturday anyway. It was Support Network Training for our friends and family. This time we took two of our best friends who wrote references in our PAR, and we’re going again in September with our parents. The training day was a great idea, and really valuable. It summed up the main information we’d been given at our prep groups about what our children have experienced and how it might affect their behaviour. It referenced Helen Townsend’s book Before I Arrive – which we love – to help friends and family think about the adoption from the child’s point of view.

DSCF4881.JPGProbably the most helpful part for me, and I think for our friends, was an illustration with a ball of wool that we’d already seen at prep group. However, on the other side of the process now, it was very helpful to see again, and both my husband and I found it quite moving.

One person plays the child, and sits in the middle of the room. Everyone else is around them as different characters – birth mum and dad, social worker, foster carer, foster carer’s dog, swimming instructor, adoptive mum and dad etc. A course leader then read out the child’s story. Every time one of the other characters was mentioned, the wool was passed from the child, to the person and back again, representing the relationship, the bond of trust, developed. By the end of the story, the child was connected to all of the other characters by a piece of wool. It was a great visual of the web of relationships the child had formed in just a few years.

The end of the exercise was when the child moved in with his adoptive parents – happy ending, right?

As adoptive parents, and the friends and family of adoptive parents, it’s tempting to feel like this is the start of the story.

A fresh start for our children, a new life. We weren’t part of their old life, and it’s easy to forget that they were! But there will be people who we have never met that our children will love and trust deeply. More than they love and trust us when they first arrive.

After reflecting on the web of wool, the course leader then went round the room with a pair of scissors and cut every piece of wool except the two that connected the child to the adoptive parents. All of those relationships were severed. That child would never see their birth parents again, never stroke the foster carer’s dog again, never play with their best friend at school again. They were left with their new mum and dad, relative strangers to them, who it seemed had snatched them away from all they’d ever known and loved.

Now, as the adoptive parents, this is our happy ending. We’ve longed for our children for so long, and suddenly they’re home! And we know that this is the best thing for them – a safe, permanent home. But what we need to understand is that they need time and help to grieve for what they’ve lost, if they’re going to be able to celebrate what they’ve gained. As adoptive parents, I can imagine this is very hard. I can imagine feeling hurt and rejected when our children cry for their foster carers or ask to go back to birth parents. I can imagine feeling like a failure.

I love my children already, I think about them constantly. We have been preparing for them to come home for months and months. But this is not the case for them. When they arrive they will have suffered much more loss in their few years than I have in my 25. It reminds me of the bit in Annie when Mr Warbucks gives Annie a new locket to replace her old broken one. He wants her to think of him as her new Daddy. Annie loves him and loves her new life with him, but to accept him and his gift means giving up on her hope that one day her birth parents will come back to rescue her. Loving him feels like a betrayal to them.

Now please don’t panic, I’m not expecting our adoption story to be anything like Annie! But I do know that the story is going to look very different to our children than it does to us. Those early chapters will always be part of our children’s stories; and instead of trying to tear out those pages, somehow we need to help them make sense of them so that they can enjoy the rest of the book.

I’d love to know your experiences of this. How have you helped your children grieve? How did it make you feel and how did you deal with those feelings?