In the first of two articles, a parent explains how keeping her adopted siblings off school helped them develop positive relationships with all concerned
Six months ago, my partner and I adopted three siblings under the age of six. We set off on our adoption journey with a clear view that we wanted two children of pre-school age but, as can happen, we fell for our children’s lovely little profiles in Children Who Wait. The more we learned about them, the more we became convinced that the match would be ideal.
By the time we started the matching process, we had read everything we could lay our hands on about adoption issues. It seemed inevitable to us that our children would have such issues, and we were especially interested in attachment theory and what parents can do to increase attachment. During the approval process, we had made plans for us both to be actively involved and spend as much time and energy as possible with our children. This included a whole career change for Andy, who took a redundancy package from his full-time job to become self-employed (with completely flexible hours and very little money).
We had built up a picture of the children from their files as being very resilient characters, and this was confirmed when we got to know them. They were prepared for getting a new mummy and daddy extremely well by their social worker, and support from all the agencies involved has been excellent throughout. We also received great post-adoption support, especially to help us through the difficult initial stages.
Our two eldest children were of school age, so helping them to integrate into a new school was something for us to consider. Our eldest child had previously displayed some challenging behaviour that required intervention from the educational psychologist, and we were keen to avoid any further incidents. It seemed natural to us that the children should not start school straight away, given all the other huge emotional and practical changes they would have to cope with. Our social workers were supportive, and the children’s social worker found a report called Family Futures that included a one line recommendation that children should be kept off for the first term to help them settle – but there seemed to be very little in the way of research or anecdotal reports to help us make a decision.
In the end, we relied on our instinct. All our reading about increasing attachment made it seem counterintuitive to send the children off immediately to spend the majority of the waking day with someone else. We were also very uncertain about how they would react to the seismic changes unfolding in their little lives, and we feared the negative impact of further incidents in a new school.
Building attachment early on
We kept all three children off school and nursery completely for the first half term, and introduced them very gradually after the half-term break. Whilst the professionals involved were supportive, we faced criticism from some friends and relatives, mainly that we would be unable to provide sufficient structure and stimulation for the children and that their education and social development would suffer. We understood these concerns, but we felt that getting the strongest possible attachment to us was the only way our children could truly achieve their potential in the longer-term. People may also have underestimated how long we had waited to be mummy and daddy, and just how prepared (or desperate) we were to get involved in some seriously active play and nurturing.
Criticisms were often accompanied by many people’s assessment of our children as “normal”. Every time we mentioned something our children had done we got the answer: “oh that’s normal, mine/all children do that”. In part, people were trying to reassure us, and we feel very lucky that so much of our children’s behaviour does indeed look normal. The risk of accepting this analysis is that it denies the very different fundamental experiences that our children (and probably all children in care) have had, that are so often what drives their behaviour. Here a just a few of examples:
- on arrival at a new house, our children like to look around everywhere as soon as possible, especially upstairs. This may appear to be normal nosy behaviour, but we know that they are checking out whether there are beds for them. They were moved (unavoidably) from their birth parents without warning, and fear they will be moved on again in the same way
- at the first sign of uncertainty or stress, our eldest will set-up house in the nearest rhododendron bush or cardboard box, move her possessions into it and start calling her little brother “dad”. Her experience of adults is that they are unreliable and she has had to fend for herself on many occasions. She is scared of relying too much on anyone and the only constant presences in her life so far have been her siblings. Moreover, siblings, not parents, were the care givers in the birth home and she is attempting to replicate this earlier modelled behaviour
- our children notice, and comment, when we run out of anything in the kitchen, such as eggs, milk or cereal. This is not just a mildly annoying habit, it is also normal for children who have lived in a house where hunger was common and meals were scavenged rather than served.
For us, the underlying anxieties of our children become clearer when their behaviour is seen in the context of their past experience. The books about attachment theory tell us that the basis of attachment lies in increasing feelings of safety. We feel we do this best when we try to understand the drivers behind the behaviour, which can be complex and require time (and sometimes professional help) to understand.
The benefits of not being at school
We found many benefits to having the children at home rather than at school. On a practical level, the children – like many children in care – all initially displayed abilities and emotional responses that were considerably younger than their age. Having quiet playgrounds with only younger children and few peers around was ideal for them to start building their confidence and abilities. This was essential for increasing self-esteem and equipping them to survive the rough and tumble of school playtimes later on. Our children were also absolutely petrified of water when they arrived. Trips to the toddler pool were initially traumatic, but were made easier by the fact that it was very quiet on schooldays.
It was also much easier for us as learner parents as we could build up our own confidence in being out and about as a family. Looking after three small children in a crowded playground on your own is hard, and even more so until you have developed the parental instinct for what your children can safely do and what is likely to trigger an emotional meltdown or all-out sibling war. These triggers can appear random, but we found that they usually related to an aspect of past experience. Whilst you are working all this out, quiet facilities are a godsend.
It is often said that adoptive parents are blamed by the watching world for their children’s challenging behaviour, even though the causes of difficult behaviour more often lie in the children’s past or in their struggle to come to terms with their new situation. If the onlookers also know that your children are adopted, the scrutiny can be intense, as people are generally fascinated by this concept. As new parents, we made mistakes with handling our children – all parents make mistakes. However, it is easy to feel harshly judged by others in the early stages of a placement when you are still finding your feet.
We were told that looked-after children regress emotionally and behaviourally when they move to their forever families and, without this regression, children can get “stuck” in their development or find it more difficult to move forwards. Our children regressed really well and for the initial period we did pretty much everything for all three of them, including dressing, washing, feeding and toileting. Moreover, we felt that taking time over these simple acts was absolutely priceless in terms of attachment building and bonding. This would have been very difficult indeed if we had needed to get all three out of the house for school and nursery by 8.30am.
Another side of their regression behaviour was that the children had some fairly spectacular public meltdowns. Dealing with your five-year-old having a two-year-old purple screaming fit in public is never going to be easy; quiet playgrounds make it easier to deal with these sometimes frightening events. What’s more, they were also able to have the meltdowns away from the school yard and the prying eyes of their peers and teachers.
Any care our children received in the birth home was from their siblings rather than from adults. This means that we have needed to put considerable effort into re-shaping the sibling relationships so that the children look to us for nurturing and care rather than to their siblings or other children. We feel that our son, in particular, would have immersed himself in relationships with his siblings and other children, at the expense of having to come to rely emotionally on adults, if he had been at school in the early days of the placement rather than at home with us.
Activities for attachment
In terms of maintaining a structure to the day, we initially stuck very closely to the routine and timings the children had been used to during their foster placement (minus the school, of course). In place of school, we added in a lot of new activities:
- we played lots of board games to help with the concepts of taking turns, sticking to rules, and winning and losing gracefully
- mealtimes are a big deal and we ate all our meals together as a family. We stuck to food that was familiar for the children, extended the menu slowly and tried to avoid food stress
- we tried to have some outdoors time and exercise every day. The kids loved this and it really calmed them down. We adopted in the early spring and the weather was good, which helped a great deal
- we read to the children every day, especially at bedtime, and sang to them (which they initially found difficult and hilarious by turns, but they now love)
- we did theraplay-type activities, such as playing with a balloon or just playing silly games that made us laugh. These were initially very revealing about the sibling rivalry issues, and so dysfunctional they would doubtless have been hilarious to observe
- we tried to turn every activity into an opportunity to improve the children’s attachments to us. We didn’t succeed in this every time by any stretch, though.
Whilst the children weren’t in school, we took a few cheaper holidays and long weekends away at the seaside, to make up for a lot of family holidays that we had missed. This quickly created a store of positive memories, fun and shared experiences in a very short period of time. These bucket and spade moments are often the things that get us all through the inevitable bad days and low points. It also meant we had lots of fantastic family photos that we put on the walls around the house and in the children’s bedrooms.
In the next article (due on this site in December), we look at how, when the time came, the children’s school helped them to integrate and manage their behaviour and emotions.
The author has asked to remain anonymous. Her story has been supplied by Adoption UK, the national self-help charity run by and for adoptive parents and foster carers: