It was nine months into the placement and the cracks were beginning to show.
J had started his new school and was half way through Year 2. That was the year his teacher said he was ‘fizzing with anxiety’ and I was so immersed in it, I’m not sure I entirely understood what she meant. But now, with distance, I know. I’d had four months’ adoption leave, and was back at work full-time. My focus was on providing J with the secure routines that I knew he needed to be able to settle, and on making my new job work. J’s very experienced foster carers had described him as the most challenging child they had ever fostered. It felt to me though, in fact I think it felt to everyone, as if J and I had bonded very well, and it was a secure and loving adoptive placement.
But…. Another part of the reality was that I was getting increasingly desperate. J was set on testing me, by challenging me at every opportunity, and although I had been taught to expect this, the reality was hard. At times I felt challenged, trapped and depressed; and as far as I was concerned what is known in adoption circles as the honeymoon period was well and truly over. I had been trained to parent therapeutically but I had run out of steam. Meanwhile, J was probably wondering when I was going to move him onto his next home, because that was his experience of families, and he was intent on testing my commitment to him to the limit. I loved him, and I was completely committed to him, but god it was hard work.
At the beginning of this year, I wrote about the input that Place2Be had when I really felt I needed it, not long after my cancer diagnosis nearly five years ago. I said then that I would write about other professional interventions and organisations which have had a role in our lives, and the Michael Rutter Centre is one of those.
In 2006, after (I admit it) I’d cried at successive meetings with our social workers, and repeatedly asked for a referral to the National Adoption and Fostering Service at the Maudsley’s Michael Rutter Centre in South London, we were eventually referred there. At the time I think it was part of CAMHS, the Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service, though I’m not sure that’s the case now. I felt it was important to be seen by them because J had been seen there a couple of years before with his foster carers when they were struggling in much the same way. As a result I’d spoken with Caroline Bengo there before I went to Matching Panel, and I had a sense that she really knew him and I could trust her to tell me what the issues were. They had also said that they would see us once he was placed with me if we needed help around his anxious attachment.
There was, not unusually, what felt like a long and frustrating delay in the referral while the Local Authority tried to work out who was going to pay for it. But that was eventually sorted out and I was interviewed and J was assessed and a report was produced. Dr Matt Woolgar, who spoke at the Mental Health in the Teenage Years conference organised by Adoption UK in May this year, was part of the team which assessed us (he may even have led the team in fact).
The team provided us with exactly the help we needed. We had several sessions of the Parent – Child game, where I wore an earpiece and played with J while they watched, commented and advised from behind one way glass. That was strange but very helpful. I had homework between sessions. I learned the attentive observing technique (eight years on, I don’t remember what they called it but I have seen something very similar described by other adopters). This involved me providing a sort of running commentary on what he was doing, including clear and constant positive reinforcement of behaviours I wanted to encourage. I still occasionally use that technique now, with good effect. I was taught to set aside time every day to play with him in a particular way where he directed all the play, and he always looked forward to that. I concentrated on helping him learn how to recognise and name his emotions and talk about how he was feeling.
This help, which came when I was at a very low ebb, was enormously effective and I will always be grateful for it.
The question which has to be asked though is why is this sort of help still so difficult to access?
I am linking this post up to the Weekly Adoption Shout Out, week 76. Click through to read some interesting posts about adoption experiences.