Our thanks to foster carer Jane for her guest blog this month - 'Keeping it real' with the ending of an attachment.
I was sitting at the edge of the hall watching the toddlers playing when it happened. A small child ran up to my boy, grabbed the car he was playing with and gave him a hefty shove that left him sprawled on the floor. As he let out a long wail and his eyes searched for me among the ranks of adults at the edge of the room I had an overwhelming urge to retaliate and make the other child suffer and feel as badly as my wee one did at that point. However being a rational woman in my early forties with all my inhibitions intact I contented myself with giving the offending child a filthy look as I scooped up my wee one and sat him on my knee to comfort him and his wounded pride. Less than a minute passed before he wriggled off my knee and headed back into the fray while I was aware that my heart was still racing and I needed to calm the mother tiger that was raging inside. Anyone who has ever spent any amount of time with groups of toddlers will know they are a tough unforgiving bunch where survival of the fittest is the name of the game and the adults are merely there to act as referees and mop the tears but even so I was surprised by the strength of my reaction and the level of distress I had just experienced.
❝...by then the damage had been done and our family was completely smitten with him.❞
All of this is a very normal reaction for a securely attached mother and child but I was not Andrew’s mum and he was never going to be my son. Although I had first brought him home from the hospital as a tiny, scrawny week old baby, I had always known he was not my own and I was going to be sharing the parenting with his biological parents until they reached a point where they could have him home for good. However by the day of the toddler group incident he had lived with our family for nearly 18 months and despite having contact with his parents at least 3 times every week we weren’t anywhere closer to him going home. On the other hand, he had spent a busy 18 months making himself very much at home in our family, our lives and our hearts.
It would be a full year later before his future would be decided and he would move to live with his new adoptive family but by then the damage had been done and our family was, to the last gran, completely smitten with him.
I have four birth children and the youngest was just 4 years old and still at nursery when we were approved as foster carers and Andrew made his noisy appearance in our lives. My older children were used to having younger ones around and Robbie, my youngest was more than happy not to be the baby of the family any longer as he was now a big boy who would be going to school after the summer. The kids were happy that I was now working from home and could pick them and whatever friends were available to play after school. I loved looking after him and my own brood without the pressures of work and deadlines and the morning commute. It was a win win for all of us.
But two and a half years in I really wasn’t sure we were doing the right thing. By then Andrew had not seen his birth parents for nearly a year and it had been our family who had been there for the birthdays, the Christmases, and the holidays. We had been the ones who had cheered the first steps and it was us who had sat at his cot side through long, scary nights in hospital with a respiratory infection. He called me 'mum' and my husband 'dad', not because we used those terms with him, but because the others in the house did and he was one of the group. Given all this, you won't be surprised to know that we were all dreading the day when we would say goodbye and he would start his new life with his new family. The week of introduction went really well and everyone hit it off from the beginning. Andrew seemed to accept what was happening and all the preparatory talk about meeting mummy and daddy and the cat all seemed to be paying off and he coped really well with all the changes of that week. It is fair to say that he coped better than I did but I hid my tears until after the kids were in bed and tried to keep the tone positive. The adoptive couple were great and could see how much we loved him and how much we would miss him and there was plenty of talk about meeting up after the summer holidays and continuing to play a peripheral but significant part in his life. It was exactly what we needed to hear and we clung to those words in the days and weeks after he left.
❝we all experienced grief, but without any of the space or understanding that normally accompanies a significant loss.❞
Sadly, as often happens we did not meet up after the summer and when I met his new mum for a prearranged coffee she told me that he never talked about us and that she was sure that he had forgotten us. This was hard to hear and would have been more devastating if I had not spoken to a social worker who had visited Andrew in his new house the week before and been told that he had been using our names when playing with some of his new toys. That was a difficult summer for us as a family, we all experienced grief but without any of the space or understanding that normally accompanies a significant loss. For my children it was the first time they had experienced a loss on this scale and they all grieved in their own ways but suffice to say it took a huge toll on us. I've often wondered how both Andrew and his adoptive parents were feeling over this time, and how he was making sense of what had happened to him.
The most frustrating part of the business however was the lack of understanding from the new supervising social worker who had been assigned to us that summer. She couldn’t understand why we were still talking about Andrew weeks after he had left, she told us to move on it, was our role as foster carers to hand children on. This might be true but I have talked to many foster carers who have prepared children for adoption and all have struggled to say goodbye. I know one foster carer who has seen over 30 wee ones leave her care and she describes it as as painful now as it always has been. Foster carers are taught about the importance of attachment, they work hard to help children and young people form positive warmly attached relationships but sadly no one tells us how to turn off those feelings at the end of a placement.
The system spends a lot of time and effort keeping children in touch with family who have let them down. My question is why do we put so little energy into keeping them in touch with those who have picked them up and helped them back onto their feet? Children who been brought up in a loving and caring families are then told that they are no longer allowed contact with everyone they know as it is will upset them or destabilise the new placement. We no longer keep children in hospital with very limited visits from their parents and I cannot imagine that the government would arrange to evacuate children to the country to live with strangers in these more enlightened times as was done during World War II. Wouldn't it be more helpful if we acknowledged the grief and loss experienced by everyone when it comes to moving children to their new families?
As parents of teenagers with attachment difficulties, we may need an extraordinary sensitivity and resilience to stay connected and engaged with our children. It is something we can’t do on our own, and yet finding help for adopted teenagers and for those who are in foster care can be difficult. We see our children struggling, but we can’t get others to recognize they need help. Sometimes help comes in an unusual form, even from a couple of rabbits.
Have you ever had an experience like this? “Mr. Woodier, what you are describing about your daughter* sounds like any other fifteen-year old.”
I feel a wave of despair wash over me. Perhaps this teacher is just trying to reassure me, but it has the opposite effect. My daughter is struggling. Why can’t the teachers hear what I am trying to say? I have been trying to get them to understand for years.
In my experience, parenting an adopted teenager is different. I have four children, and my youngest is adopted. All four of them experienced the teen years differently. Although they all faced challenges growing up, my adopted daughter’s struggles are more intense. She gets knocked back harder by failure and rejection.
One of the most important things I learned as a youth worker, teacher, and parent is the importance of staying connected, of not letting my children become alienated during those turbulent years.
But that’s not so easy because good parenting is a two-way thing. Dan Hughes and Jonathan Baylin, authors of Brain Based Parenting, describe this as a kind of reciprocal relationship, “When a mother and her infant feel mutual joy in each other’s presence, the infant experiences herself as capable of eliciting Mom’s joy, and the mother experiences herself as capable of eliciting her infant’s joy1.” Feeling I have helped my son with a problem or shared a joke with my daughter helps me stay positive, open, and engaged with my children especially when they are struggling. But too often, with my daughter, I am drawn into a conflict, and I am made to feel that I have nothing to offer.
In addition, when I was going through a difficult time with my sons, I could go back and remember what they were like before they became teenagers, the cute and cuddly years. But that is not so easy with my adopted daughter. It has never been easy for her to show love. There isn’t so much of a good ‘before teenager’ time to refer back to.
I try to imagine what life is like from my daughter’s perspective. She wants her friends to accept her, but she doesn’t want to stand out at school. She wants her parents to respect her as an adult, but she still hugs a teddy bear. She worries what the future will look like and whether she will pass her exams. She can’t stop thinking about a boy at school, but she lives in dread that he will find out she likes him. No wonder she seems stressed when she gets home from school.
So as a parent I have to work even harder to stay connected to my daughter. I don’t want her to feel alienated or alone. In order to do this, my daughter and I recently became bunny rabbit foster parents. (Yes, there is a charity in Scotland for homeless rabbits). The rabbits also come with strange names. I remember one particularly difficult day, and we were both upset. I said, “Come on. You hold Hey Diddle and I will hold Nuts in May.” We sat there in silence for a few minutes. As our stress levels dropped, we began to talk about the rabbits. The angry words were quickly forgotten and life looked more hopeful again.
Parenting my daughter takes every ounce of creativity, patience, and hopefulness I have and then some more. I hold on to every good moment because I know that somewhere in there is a young person who may just need a bit longer to sort out her life. When I get little back that helps me feel like I am a doing a good job as a parent, I need affirmation from friends and family.
So, on behalf of all those parents of troubled teenagers, we know you can’t fix everything, but don’t minimize what we are going through. We need as much help as we can get during this really important time in our children’s lives. Finally, I love my garden but if it helps me stay connected to a very special daughter, I am willing to share it with a couple of rabbits.
*My daughter has given me permission to publish these details. “Dad, none of my friends read your blog anyway.”
I am taking a break over the summer, but look for future blogs on why inclusion matters, how understanding attachment helps build resilience in young people, and an interview with Helen Minnis, Professor of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at Glasgow University.
1. J. Baylin, and D. A. Hughes, Brain Based Parenting: The Neuroscience of Caregiving for Healthy Attachment (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2010).
The latest posts from David Woodier our chief blogger, and the SAIA Team.