Then and Now……
by Gem at Life with Katie
Long before we adopted Katie and Pip I trained to be a counsellor and I soon found myself specialising in working with teenagers. I worked for a newly developed government initiative called Connexions both in secondary education and in the community. If a young person was struggling in school, usually with behavioural or emotional problems, they would be referred to me for support. Over the 8 years in the role there were a great many challenging issues that I worked with and helped young people through.
In my profession there is often a lot of literature to research to enable professionals to understand and support young people with specific issues. At that point there was nothing on adoption. I had training in attachment as part of my counselling training but it really focused on the mainstream attachment types. As a result I often feel I let my adopted clients down. There was much I didn’t know. I didn’t understand for example that it makes no difference at what age you’re adopted as to whether you may have an attachment disorder or not.
Like many professionals I didn’t understand those things. Don’t get me wrong I think I was very good at my job. I really tried to understand my clients and do my best to help them. I researched the support available for them and explored with them their feelings to the best of my ability. Now I would be asking very different questions to understand both the emotional and physical responses. I would work closely with adoptive parents with far more understanding of their pain and frustration and not just see them as a potential part of the problem. I often think of the mother of an adopted teen I supported. She seemed to be one of the most ineffectual parents I have ever met. She didn’t engage well with me and mostly seemed emotionally disengaged to everything I was doing. I judged her harshly for that although I recognised she had been experiencing challenges with her son since he was 6. Now I see she was exhausted from years of trying to get help for her son who was diagnosed with ADHD which I now suspect was actually had Reactive Attachment Disorder and she was suffering from secondary trauma after years of the family home being smashed up when he was angry.
What’s brought about this change in me and how I view this particular situation? What makes me feel I let my adopted pupils down?
Well I am that parent now. I am the parent of adopted children. I am the parent of an adopted child who is nearly 8 and has the most horrendous temper tantrums like a toddler. She is often very emotionally regressed at home. She talks in baby talk. She spits. She swears. She hits me and my husband. She kicks us. She rages inwardly and out. She has OCD. We suspect she has Foetal Alcohol Syndrome. She experiences difficulties with learning anything to do with numbers. She is the most beautiful girl who is very loving and kind and compliant at school and away from the home but at home her behaviour is unpredictable and sometimes quite violent. Because she is so compliant outside of the home people often don’t believe that she can behave this way. My own sister didn’t believe me until a few months ago when she experienced Katie have a meltdown in her car after an attempted sleep over went wrong due to Katie’s anxiety. She then watched me struggle for over half an hour to help contain and calm her emotions down again. It took a long time before Katie’s school would accept that we had a problem. They provided some support but it was clear to me that they didn’t really comprehend the situation I was explaining to them initially. It took a very special supply teacher to listen to me and who took the time to piece together in the classroom what I had tried to explain to her the previous year. The intense relief I felt on the day when she told me she could evidence Katie’s hyper-stimulation in class was amazing. She was the first person who agreed that it wasn’t just that she needed to “improve her concentration”. She was able to evidence that Katie just doesn’t seem to understand numbers and to put one-to-one support in place for her (whilst also noticing how Katie was unable to perform well if she moved the classroom they were studying in unexpectedly). Thanks to her observations we were able to start building targeted support in school.
I currently consider myself (and Katie) very lucky. She recently moved to junior school. She was terrified about the move. We knew this because the 6 weeks holidays before the move were horrendous at home. To say it was tough would be an understatement. We had a plan in place to support her. She had a book of photographs of her new school to look through. She had had extra visits to the new school but she was still terrified. I’ve never seen her like that. Not only was she anxious about changing schools but the move triggered all her anger and fears from moving home to us when she was two years old. I was pushed to emotional limits I didn’t even know existed. For adopted children and their adoptive parents any change can trigger an extreme reaction. An unexpected change in teacher without a full explanation can trigger anxiety at a PTSD level for some children. This sort of anxiety is becoming more understood in children with autism but is less understood for adopted children. The subject matter in a book or classroom discussion can trigger an adopted child and our school curriculum is full anxieties for the parents of adopted children. Personal timelines and discussions about wartime evacuated children to name just two. Noises in a school can trigger memories of scary times for children who have experienced abuse or witnessed domestic violence.
I met with Katie’s new Head Teacher early in the new school term. We talked for nearly 2 hours. I opened myself up and was honest with her about Katie’s behaviour at home. I have trusted her with that information. I have trusted her not to judge me as a ineffectual parent because I struggle to control my daughter’s behaviour at home. I trusted her to hear about our challenges and methods for supporting our daughter and to understand the high levels of anxiety my daughter experiences when she comes to school. So far my trust in her has reaped rewards. She met with all Katie’s teachers and TA’s and they worked out how they would support Katie in class. She also set up one-to-one maths support and also ELSA sessions to help Katie with her friendships. The outcomes can be evidenced in her workbooks with a massive improvement overnight in the work she is producing. Katie’s teacher has noticed that when they start a new task Katie will ask to a) go to the loo; b) wash her hands; c) have a drink or d) sharpen her pencil. She has recognised that this means Katie is anxious about starting the new task for fear of getting it wrong. She handles Katie in exactly the right way and things are working well. Katie recently received a Learner of the Week certificate and school are happy with her progress. They know though that a good day at school can mean an awful evening at home. The evening after Katie received her Learner of the Week certificate was horrendous because Katie didn’t want to win the certificate. She was embarrassed at being singled out and didn’t want anyone to think she was good at anything because that doesn’t match her inner dialogue. She thinks she is horrible and fat and can’t do anything. She told me she would never win that prize again. I gave this information back to her teacher who was surprised to hear this but sought to be understanding and supportive of how Katie felt.
My experience isn’t that of a lot of adopters. I hear the stories of adopters being forced to remove their children from mainstream education because the children cannot cope within a school environment. I listen daily to stressed and angry parents who feel that they are being blamed or stigmatised in school because they are trying hard to enable the school to understand and support their child or children but feel they are viewed as overly anxious or neurotic parents, yet they are just parents who want the best for their children. They want their children to live as normal a life as they possibly can whilst understanding that, for their child, fitting in at school might take every ounce of energy their child has to appear to be well behaved. They understand that their child is terrified that someone will beat them up if they are noticed or if they do anything wrong so they appear incredibly compliant at school. They know, like I do, that people look at their child and cannot comprehend how a child who is so well behaved and willing to learn in school can physically turn a house upside down in anger because that is the only place they feel safe enough to express how they are really feeling.
I consider myself to be very lucky that my daughter now goes to a school that listens to us both. We have supportive teachers. Allowing ourselves to be vulnerable and let people into our world has helped my daughter at school yet they might be surprised to know that every morning Katie pretends to be ill so she doesn’t have to go to school. There can often be a war waged just to get her dressed and out of the house yet that war ceases the moment she steps out of the car at school where anyone else can see her.
If I were a professional now, I would listen as closely to me as our Head Teacher did to me. I would seek to understand. I would have a lot of empathy for a parent who lays herself or himself emotionally bare to me so that they can access necessary support for their child and I would understand how terrified that parent is of being judged as a bad parent. One thing I do know is that any parent who is prepared to do that for their child really isn’t a bad parent. They may be a parent who is anxious about their child’s daily experiences in school. They may be a parent who is terrified of what awaits them when their child comes out of school. Who is suffering from the secondary trauma that often goes hand in hand with parenting a highly traumatised child. That isn’t a bad parent. That is an incredible parent who is parenting at a parenting plus level. That is a parent who deserves all the support that is available towards a common goal. The best care of the child.
I am a trained Counsellor and Reiki Master Teacher. I have been married to TCM for over 20 years and live in the south of England. We adopted Katie aged 2 in 2010 and her brother Pip in 2013 aged 7 months. The blog “Life with Katie” was born when we were matched with Katie and documents our family life. (Gem)