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!

 

Why my mental health is a strength

When we decided it was the right time to pursue adoption, our main concern was that I have a history of mental health illness. A few years back I suffered from Generalised Anxiety Disorder and Depression. We worried that they would think I was unstable, unreliable, weak. We knew that these children would need extra care above and beyond ‘normal’ parenting, and that I would be the stay-at-home parent so a lot of pressure would fall on me. We didn’t want to take something on if it would be damaging for us or for the children. But we felt we were ready, and we knew the social workers would make the right decisions.

As we have gone through the process and learnt more about the things our children will be experiencing, I have become convinced that my mental health isn’t just not a weakness, but that it is a strength.

Hyper-vigilant, trouble sleeping, restless, reliant on structure, distant, short tempered, compulsive behaviours, irrational fears, overeating/unable to eat, emotionally erratic, expecting the worst, unable to trust.

These are all behaviours I’ve been told that children who have been neglected, abused or who have had a significant loss might have. It’s also a good description of me when I was at my lowest point.

I can never understand what these children go through on their way to their forever families. But I do know what it’s like to be on constant high alert. I know how it feels to believe everyone who comes to the front door wants to hurt you. I know the fear of going to sleep in case my loved ones die in the night. I know the utter panic of last minute changes to plan. I know what it’s like to lie awake all night because your mind is so busy that it feels like it might explode. I know the temptation to curl up and shut out the world because it hurts too much to be in it. I know what it’s like to want to reach out for help, but not be able to make the words come out. I know the confusion when your heart starts racing and your ears start burning for no apparent reason. I know how it feels to struggle to breathe as your body goes into panic and seems to implode. I know how much it hurts to really believe the person you love most is lying to you, or trying to harm you.

DSCF1339.JPGAfter two bouts of Cognitive Behaviour Therapy and prescriptions of anti-depressants and anti-anxiety medication, I’m OK. I know my mind much better. I know the signs of an attack and I know how to cope. I know the words to communicate what’s happening to those around me. I know there’s no shame in mental health problems. I know techniques to ‘talk to myself’, to control my mind and my physical reactions to it. I know how important it is to look after your mind. I know that we are stronger than we think. I know that all of this can be overcome, but that it’s not easy.

The things my children struggle with, the reasons why and the ways we deal with it will all be different to my story. But I am convinced that my experiences will help me to be a better mother, to understand just a little bit more what my children are going through.

And so I believe my mental health is a strength. And if going through all of this means I can help my children in just a tiny way to heal, then it will all have been worth it.