Saturday, 21 November 2015

Living with Attachment Disorder

The blog has been dormant for a very long time now, but for a while I’ve been trying to carve some time in to this busy crazy life, to make an update. I started this blog when we started our adoption journey – more than 5 years ago now I guess, and carried on religiously for the first year of the boys being part of our family, and I always found it really cathartic. The truth is, recently I’ve re discovered the positive impact of not keeping feelings bottled up, and so that cathartic release of the blog makes sense again now. So sit back, this could be a long one!

We are now nearly four years in to our ‘forever family’ – time has gone by so quickly, Joe is now in year five and Charlie in year three – as each day passes the boys become a little more independent and it’s shocking to reflect on how much has changed and how, in most senses, the time is flying past.

The boys are veritable bundles of energy. Blonde haired, blue eyed, olive skinned stunners, who are on the go from the second they wake up until we put them to bed at night (when fortunately for us, they normally fall to a slumber within minutes).

As I say, I started this blog as a diary of our adoption experience. It started on the day we first met with a social worker, continued on every bit of the pre placement journey, and then blogged every day, and then every week of our first few months as a family. I’ve never really know when to call it a day, but of course life becomes more routine, and as well as there not being enough time to keep this thing going with any kind of regularity, I also never intended to bore the readers with a diary of our daily lives. The side benefit of writing the blog, when I was doing so regularly, was that I found it incredibly cathartic; a great chance to reflect and work out my own feelings by hammering them out on the keyboard. Now that life is more routine, it’s not felt right to do that, but life is certainly anything but boring, and with a glass of wine and bit of time, I wanted to round up the last couple of years, so I’ll try and keep this as brief as I possibly can.

So, the essentials – the boys are doing really well. They are fit, healthy, robust and boisterous boys. Developmentally they have met all expected milestones and educationally, they are behind, but progressing all the time, and that’s the important bit for us.

They absolutely adore each other, and the sense of love between all four of us is very obvious – we were blessed with cuddle monsters – and I have never in my life felt so loved, or so in love.

Joe is a very typical 9 year old – he’s into climbing trees, taking risks, skateboarding, practising stunts on his BMX, and playing any sport that involves a ball or racket. He hasn’t yet found the sport that he wants to dedicate himself too (we’ve got several club kits gathering dust in the wardrobe!) but he’s one of those people that picks up a new sport quickly and can very naturally co-ordinate himself. He’s made amazing progress at school – this last school year in particular, moving from a couple of years behind where he should be, to pretty much at his chronological age for most areas. School isn’t always easy for him – he’s very impulsive and lacks a lot of self control when it comes to his emotions or excitement – not really understanding rules and when it’s not appropriate to be the joker, and he wants to be first in line at all he does, but fortunately he’s at a school that really understand him, his background and his own unique needs, and they work tirelessly hard to give him boundaries, coping mechanisms, praise and reward, and to help his peers understand him a little better, and this year in particular we’ve noticed that for the first times, he’s developed some good friendships where he’s a peer, rather than being tolerated within a group, and that’s had a great effect on him.

Amazingly, despite all the challenges he’s had to face with coping at school, he’s always loved going – he’s never got upset or bothered by school and in fact begs to go to ‘early club’ most mornings so he can play table tennis for an extra half an hour. In recent months in particular, G and I have really noticed how much Joe has become less noticeable in his peers, and I mean that in a positive sense, he’s not the odd one out any more, he’s funny, getting more confident, he’s caring and he’s got friends. Mostly he’s very happy, and a parent can’t really hope for much more than that.

He and his younger brother are incredibly close – thick as thieves, best of friends, and very much in love with one another (you’ll sometimes catch them as they are staring blankly at the TV screen, engrossed in whatever Spongebob is going on about, just casually saying to one another, ‘I love you’ -  ‘I love you too’). They are also antagonists and happy to land each other in trouble at any given opportunity as all good brothers should. Charlie is a very different character to his brother though – emotionally locked in a much younger world, far more in to activities and toys that would traditionally be classed as more girly, and much preferring the company of adults to other children. He’s less co-ordinated physically, and although he’s bright, can read and could probably do well at school if he could apply himself, he’s not yet ready to engage in the same way as his 7 year old peers, and thus life is a bit more of a struggle – more for those around him than for Charlie himself, who is blissfully unaware of the trail of destruction and frustration he leaves in his wake, as he merrily wonders around in his own little happy world, singing and dancing to himself.


In adoption circles, the term ‘Attachment’ is widely used. I remember a long session about Attachment in the adoption prep group that we did before being assessed as potential adopters, but to be honest, it was so abstract then, it didn’t really mean much to me. And then when the boys came in to our world, it was more often than not, associated with the bonding process, and I pretty much forgot everything I had learned about attachment, focusing on bonding and thinking they were one and the same thing. Because the four of us bonded so incredibly quickly, and because the boys settled in to our care and trusted us so soon, I kind of thought we had nailed it.

Last year, we were fortunate enough to be funded through a five day course on ‘Attachment Focussed Parenting’ known as ‘Safe Base’ run by a charity called ‘After Adoption.’ The course was funding by the Timpson Family (from the well known shoe repair chain) and our local authority and was all about parenting adopted children – children who have all experienced trauma in their early years.

We re learnt what attachment was all about, and it was incredibly powerful. I’m no medical professional, but in the simple terms as I understand it, our brains are only about 50% formed when we’re born, and the rest of our brain function is established in the first year or so of our lives. In particular, the pre frontal cortex part of the brain, develops most significantly in the first 6 months of our lives. This is the bit of the brain that’s responsible, amongst other things, for our ability to self regulate our moods and emotions, to understand cause and effect (consequences), and provides us with the skills to calm ourselves (self soothe). So a new born baby for example, experiences discomfort, he doesn’t know for himself, what that discomfort is yet, but he cries. His parent comes, removes the discomfort (changes a dirty nappy, winds him or feeds him), cuddles him and he learns that the world is okay, he feels soothed. In the first few months of his life, he eventually learns to self soothe – so when he loses his dummy for example, he sticks a thumb in his mouth and can calm himself.

This ‘arousal-relaxation’ process not only teaches him in his physical actions, it also forms synapses in the brain – neural pathways, which develop that part of the brain for the rest of his life.

Our little boys had a very erratic start to their first few years on this planet – care was intermittent – if at all, nappies were sometimes not changed for 24 hours, no one responded when they cried, food was not always available and cuddles were sometimes given, and sometimes not. As a result that whole neural process did not happen in the same way that it did for most children.

Additionally in the toddler years, children go through fairly similar development steps, supported by attentive caring parents, that they look to for reassurance, and when they receive that reassurance, it enables them to build trust and to take further risks. Think about your toddler learning to walk for example, they fall over and they look at mum or dad to sense a reaction  - to see if they should cry or not. Mum or Dad reassure them that life is still good, and the toddler continues to explore the world around them. Each time that happens, its ticking metaphorical boxes, building trust and security, allowing risks to be taken, and teaching the child that the world is relatively safe, and adults are good and most importantly, consistently there for them.

Our boys, and Charlie in particular, didn’t get that at the same measure and frequency that most kids do. The result is neural gaps – like a brick wall that’s been built with gaps in each layer of bricks, causing the wall to not be quite as stable as it should.

This is what attachment disorder is all about. And it’s not something that they can just overcome. It’s there, it’s permanent and it’s going no where. What they have to learn now, is ways around those neurological pathways that were never formed – they learn coping mechanisms and alternative ways of dealing with the life. But it’s always more of an effort for them than for you and me. A bit like learning to speak French – in a relatively short amount of time, most of us could learn the language fluently, but we’ll always speak it with an accent.

And so it is for Joe and Charlie – and for most adopted children – there’s this extra dimension to them, which makes life just that little bit more challenging for them – and for us. And whilst I wouldn’t change our life for anything, we love and adore our little boys more than anything we could ever have imagined possible, life is certainly not easy – in fact it’s chuffin’ hard – and at times, we both really struggle with that.

It’s hard to describe the impact, every parent thinks their kids (boys especially) to be boisterous, but I think with our two, it’s like boisterous on steroids. And hardest of all, with Charlie in particular, is that he has absolutely no sense of consequence. There is no threat, or punishment or consequence that really bothers him, and underneath it all, we’ve still got a lot of work to do to prove to him, that we won’t let him down.

This manifests itself in a number of different ways. A lot of the behaviour Charlie exhibits are similar to ADHD. So a complete lack of concentration, inability to focus, lack of danger awareness, unwillingness to co-operate, speaking consistently at a very high volume, always being on the go and an inability to follow instructions. We also have soiling issues, a deep sense of self doubt and constantly putting himself down (he will always refer to his work as being ‘rubbish’ and he’ll refuse to do most work/reading because of a sense that it won’t be good enough) and frequent angry, quite controlling outbursts. Charlie likes to be in control, he prefers the company of adults, every interaction is a negotiation, and he hasn’t really established any consistent peer relationships.

I know lots of parents reading this, will identify elements of all of the above in their own kids, but I know we aren’t imagining how extreme Charlie’s actions are, because the school have employed a full time 121 support worker just to try and keep him in school. He rarely completes a full lesson in school with his peers, he has a team of adults around him to manage his behaviour, and they struggle. In a strange way, this is reassuring to G and I, because for a while we feared that this was all in our imagination!

Now don’t get me wrong, it really isn’t all bad! Charlie is amazingly empathetic, so very helpful and kind, and whilst we get frequent (daily) reports from school of issues in his behaviour, it’s never been about being unkind. The reality is, he’s doing amazingly well, most kids from his background would lack all sorts of social skills, interpersonal skills and empathy. Fortunately, what Charlie lacks in his ability to do what’s expected of him, he more than makes up for in the love and cuddles that he shows us every day. We love him unconditionally, and wouldn’t change our life for the world, but it’s exhausting and frustrating, and because of the way he his, we don’t get much let up – we can’t sign him up for after school clubs or cubs because they can’t cope with him, he was banned from kids club and the swimming pool on holiday, because the staff couldn’t understand why he didn’t follow the simple rules, his swimming instructors have all slowly and politely asked us to find alternative teachers, and because of the lack of peer friendships, there are no sleep overs or playdates. So it’ just us. 24X7.

Being proud people, we probably stopped talking about this too much, we wanted to cope the same as every other parent copes. But the truth is, by Summer this year, we both had a bit of a breakdown, and finally admitted to each other that we were finding this really hard. We had got ourselves into a bit of downward spiral, where we so focussed on the negative, and always expecting the worst, that in fact we had both just become angry parents, we were shouting at the kids a lot and always dealing out the next consequence. We had no capacity left, and of course the reality was, that’s only made the situation worse. For me, this came to a head on holiday, when one night, after I completely, and disproportionally lost control of my temper, I just broke down, with a sense of how futile our situation felt.

A bit like attending an AA meeting (so I’m told!) we realised that our little breakdown over the summer, was actually the turning point we needed. We needed to ask for help. And we’ve been lucky enough to get that in a few forms.

Firstly we have the boys at the most amazing school, that really get the issue, that really love Joe and Charlie and that do more than we could have ever hoped for to ensure they both get the very best opportunities. Joe is now pretty much in full mainstream education at school, but Charlie is getting lots of support, and we’re now part way through the process of having more in-depth developmental and psychological assessments.

He’s also receiving art therapy  - which has been really interesting and which I’ll blog about separately in more detail at some point.

Perhaps the best support we’ve had though, is that G and I have been referred to a DDP Family Therapist. This is someone that specialises in families with Attachment challenges. G and I see her most weeks, and whilst it’s not an overnight fix, what it has done, is given us both space to explore our feelings and to debrief on Charlie’s weekly activities, and really start to stand back and think about what’s going on in that little body of his.

It’s slowly enabling us to move on from our anger and frustration, to start reconnecting with why he acts like he does. It’s helped me to rediscover my empathy and to think about what his behaviour is telling us. It’s reminding us that the behaviour is an outward expression of an underlying cause, and instead of dealing with the behaviour (the symptom), we need to fix the underlying cause. And what’s become clear, is there’s still a lot of hurt and insecurity in that little guy.

So for example, on our first session I talked about my frustration in the fact that even the most basic rules, the ones we repeat daily, are still broken daily. G often describes it as a sense of ‘groundhog day’ with him, where you just feel like you’re making no progress. Sarah, our DDP therapist, talked to us about ‘connect before correct’ that is to say, that there’s no point correcting his behaviour until you’ve really connected with him in the moment. Because in his aroused state – his brain chemicals are in self preservation mode (like fight or flight) so there’s no capacity to listen to the parental lecture that’s about to happen.  So, later that same day the four of us were home. I was upstairs, Joe was in the dining room doing his homework, Charlie was playing in his room and G shouted up that he was just nipping out to the corner shop for some bread. I heard G leave, I then heard Charlie run downstairs and open the front door. Charlie has no sense of danger, so we have strict rules around not opening the front door. The previous day I would have marched downstairs and given him a dressing down for opening the front door when he knows the family rule about that. But armed with the DDP session we had just come from, instead I went down, knelt down next to Charlie and hugged him, and I whispered in his ear ‘Oh Charlie, my job is to keep you safe, and I want to do that more than anything in the world. That’s why we don’t want you to open the front door when daddy and papa aren’t here, just in case it’s a stranger on the other side of the door.’ Instead of the stand off that I would normally have expected in this situation, Charlie burst into tears and said, “I don’t know where Papa’s gone. Will he ever come home?”

So there it was right there, the underlying insecurity in Charlie. Despite everything, Charlie knows that adults aren’t actually all that reliable. Sometimes the people he’s loved the most (birth parents, foster carers) have let him down, they’ve not been there, and who’s to say that no matter how good life might be on the surface right now, G and I won’t prove ourselves to be just as unreliable as the last adults that he had learned to love. Charlie is still a little boy with a lot of hurt inside.

And of course, had I been cross, I would never have heard that.

So, whilst we’re still in this crazy life, we’ve now started to understand him so much more. And just admitting that Charlie has special needs, has helped us to start to unpick both his behaviours and our own. And that feels so much more positive than it all felt four months ago.

So why am I telling you this. It’s certainly not for sympathy, and it’s not a cry for help. But it’s good to talk about the fact that for all our families, we find some things tough and we sometimes need to ask for a bit of help.

And it’s important not to get caught up in competitive middle class parenting. It’s important not to judge. Don’t scowl at that parent that can’t control their kid in soft play, or the child having a tantrum in the supermarket, or the shouty parent that’s having an inappropriate meltdown. Because not all ‘special needs’ come with a visible marker. Lots of children, and parents too for that matter, are battling issues that can’t always be seen. 

And yes, it’s hard being the parent with the kid that gets kicked out of swimming lessons or after school clubs. I might smile and offer the teacher my caring reassurance that I understand why they can’t teach them anymore, because of course ‘it’s not fair on the other children’. But inside, my heart is breaking, that my gorgeous, lovely caring, spirited little boy, can’t quite cope like his peers. And it’s not his fault.

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