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)

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!