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Early trauma can mar relationships between children and their adoptive parents. Here, a mother tells of two very different little boys, both with attachment disorder

It was June 2005 when I became the proud mother of James and Daniel, then two and three years old respectively. They had both had very difficult starts to their lives which had led to them being taken into care and subsequently adopted. I was absolutely thrilled that I was going to be the person to give them everything they would need to become the happy, carefree toddlers they deserved to be.

The boys had probably been with me for a few weeks when I noticed that James’s behaviour did not seem appropriate. He would approach just about anyone we met seeking food, kisses or his nappy changing. He didn’t seem to be able to distinguish between me and anybody else. He also became very obsessive, wanting to hold DVD’s constantly and spending hours opening and closing doors. Our health visitor also noticed that James was not very stable on his feet and so referred us to a paediatrician. James had just turned three when he was diagnosed with autism and dyspraxia.

Despite receiving these diagnoses, it was thought that James would benefit from a full evaluation at a child assessment unit. This took place when he was three and a half and the end result was that they felt James was not, in fact, autistic, but instead had behavioural problems. While all this was going on, James’s behaviour deteriorated and he rejected me constantly. James refused to speak to anyone, had violent rages and was extremely hyperactive and obsessive. He had also begun to wake up frequently during the night.

Despite the assessment verdict, James remained under the care of a clinical psychologist and, after many visits and many hours of observations and discussions, she came to the conclusion that James had attachment disorder. This is something that I had suspected for a long time but did not want to believe.  However, at least I now had a label which fitted and something with which to work.

Throughout this period, Daniel had been absolutely golden; he never asked for anything, never showed any sort of bad behaviour and always did exactly as he was told. However, when Daniel was almost five a few things started to worry me. Daniel was behind at school and at home he would become upset at the slightest thing, such as not being able to find a certain pair of socks or having apparently “forgotten” how to turn on a light switch or brush his teeth. I started to realise that Daniel's wonderful behaviour was actually not normal for a child of his age. Daniel had not had a single tantrum in his life. He had never so much as asked me for a toy or a sweetie. He could not display any sort of negative emotion and had difficulty with expressing positive emotions. He started to develop a stutter and became very scared of insignificant things. After a fight to get a referral to child and adolescent mental health services (CAMHS), Daniel was also diagnosed with attachment disorder.

Attachment disorder occurs when the child experiences early childhood trauma. It is often seen in children who have been fostered or adopted. When babies are born, the frontal lobe section of the brain is not fully developed and it is only through months of stimulation and interaction that the brain becomes correctly wired up. When a baby or young child does not receive sufficient care, his/her brain is literally starved of the input it needs to develop properly, which can result in impaired attachment styles or an attachment disorder. Not all fostered or adopted children have this condition, but those who do often go misdiagnosed and misunderstood for many years.

The condition is difficult to diagnose because it can present itself in many different forms and can be mild or severe. I am one of the lucky ones in that I managed to secure a diagnosis, and subsequently lots of input from professionals,,to give my boys the best chance of limiting the effects of their disorder. One of the key things I had to learn was a therapeutic parenting style, and I also undertook training in Theraplay.

James is now seven years old and has made great progress. He no longer rejects me and he is, in fact, quite clingy. He can also accept boundaries regarding his obsessions. James was placed on School Action Plus upon starting school and therefore receives some additional support at school. He has a very sunny personality, he is a very popular child and his teachers seem to adore him. He does have some wobbles and can get quite anxious and stressed in the busy school environment but, on the whole, he is coping tremendously well.  

Daniel is now eight years old and, while he has made progress too, it has been an uphill struggle. One of the biggest problems has been that he is so well behaved, and most people thought we were mad when we first asked for help. Daniel’s school completely rejected the idea that he had any issues and, despite asking for support many times, we were always made to feel like we were wasting their time. However, we were very lucky to have a fantastic psychologist through CAHMS who eventually forced Daniel's school to listen to us and arranged a common assessment framework (CAF) meeting. This was the point at which everything changed. His school suddenly sat up and listened and Daniel now has a key worker – a consistent member of staff to support him at transition times and who he can go to if he has a problem. He has been given visual timetables and we also have a home/school diary. The change in Daniel, after just a few weeks, was amazing. Six months ago we also had an amazing breakthrough when Daniel had his very first tantrum. Not many parents would celebrate that, but for us it showed that he is on the way to being able to express his emotions.  

When I first adopted my children, I felt that their past could be put behind them. I did not imagine having daily concerns about psychologists or individual education plans, and I certainly did not expect to have CAHMS on speed dial. However, I would not change things for the world and I am so proud of how far my precious children have come. Many people believe that once a child is adopted and living in a nice home, that will be the end of any problems. This is not the case. Early childhood trauma cannot be reversed by a bath and a hot meal; it takes years of love, patience and therapeutic work to help these children to heal.

Further information

In order to protect those involved, the article's author has asked that their name be withheld. The children shown in the pictures are not those described in the article.

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