We Are Family


That Niggling Feeling

That Niggling Feeling - Niklas Hamann Pe4Gh8A8M By Unsplash

Sometimes, when I read or hear other people's experiences of adoption, I feel lucky and sad. Sad to hear what the child and parents are going through and lucky because my child doesn’t have that diagnosis and isn’t hitting me or stealing or whatever it is. My daughter is in primary school so I cannot say that these things won't happen but, for the moment, she seems settled and happy. And yet... 

Yet, for a long time there was something that niggled at me but that I could not express because, compared to the other stories, it made me feel like a drama queen. She is a great child, she doesn't have any developmental delay (that we know of yet) or physical issues, and she seems advanced in her learning. Moreover, she is great company, full of empathy, and has an amazing sense of humour. 

But for so long we grappled with this one little thing that was not so little to us because it was so exhausting and all-consuming. That little thing? She could not play by herself. See - sounds small, right? But when you think about it, from the moment she woke up to the moment we put her to bed, she needed entertaining. 

We were being wrenched out of deep sleep by demands to play or interact with her and this would continue for 11 or 12 hours straight. There was no let up. If I turned my back on her for a second, she would ask in a wounded tone: "Why won't you play with me?" As if I hadn't been playing with her for the last 5 hours non-stop. I've seen her engage in roleplay with her friends, so I know she has imagination. But she could not use this imagination by herself - or was unwilling to. 

To make the weekends tolerable, we spent most of them outside so she would have other external stimuli beyond us. Before adopting, I had naively thought that my child would have minimal screen time, but ever since my child was enraptured by TV, I now see it as a godsend. I don't let her sit in front of it for hours, drooling as her eyes slowly become square-shaped, but it affords me some time to get on with things and gives me a break from being the entertainer. Before the TV, however, it was hard, particularly in the mornings when I was rudely awakened by the demands for play and was half asleep. I engineered games where I could close my eyes even for a few seconds. For example, we would play hide-and-seek and I would count really slowly, or roleplay where I would ‘pretend’ to be asleep. We would also read books in bed so at least I could lie down. 

It's amazing that, as parents, a new way of being quickly becomes your new reality and so this was our life for a few years. I didn't ever moan about it to other adopters as I feared that they would laugh in my face at how preposterous I was for thinking my child had a problem. That is probably why we didn't seek therapy for it. We just found workarounds and didn't think about it, and yet. Yet, there would be quiet moments when worried thoughts would creep into my mind and settle in for the night. What if this was a manifestation of something else? What if this ‘thing’ underneath would get bigger and fiercer if we didn't address it now? So, we did address it; we approached one of the Great Behaviour Breakdown trainers with whom we had previously done GBB training, from which we were already implementing techniques. He gave us coaching sessions to help us unpick our daughter's behaviour. He likened our daughter to a colander - no matter how much you pour in, it is never enough. He was right. It was never enough for her, she was never sated. I know her constant need for attention and play or interaction with others was because she didn't yet have a strong sense of self, because of her start in life. She had (and still has) low self-worth, she didn’t (and still doesn't) believe that you know she's there, unless she's right under your feet or constantly talking to you. She didn't (and still doesn't) have that inner narrative that you see neurotypical children have when they're immersed in play.

We then had a few sessions of family therapy as our coach thought it would be good for us to have some direct work. Family therapy was, at first, really strange. Sitting in a room and playing games didn't feel like therapy; I was used to the traditional model of sitting and talking about things, even though I knew this wouldn't work with children. 

During the first visit, our daughter was understandably anxious and spent most of the time climbing, jumping, chewing and doing other physical movements to calm herself down. The therapist was great; she didn't scold or force her to do things. During the second session, our daughter was again refusing to answer or engage in talking and only engaged in the play to a limited extent. Our daughter has always been good at avoiding subjects she doesn't want to talk about, and we didn't push it when she did this during the session. 

My partner and I came away feeling like nothing was really happening and unsure as to where this therapy was going. We sent the therapist an email asking her what she thought of the situation and where she thought the therapy was going. She asked us to ring her which we did. The therapist gave us a summary of what she thought of our daughter and we felt reassured that she could see what we saw. She was obviously observing and taking in everything that our daughter did. She also reminded us that children take longer than adults to internalise that feeling of being securely attached, and she advised us to meet our daughter at her emotional age rather than her chronological age. We were worried that if we kept entertaining her, that she would never learn to be by herself. However, this was about building trust and attachment which would in turn, build resilience so our daughter would naturally feel more confident in herself.    

Before every family session, we primed our daughter about what to expect so she had some idea of what was going to happen. Before the third session, I told her that she needed to listen and answer the therapist. During the session, I had to remind her when she ignored the therapist, and she did begin to engage more. After that, we continued with the blowing around of feathers and drawing. The therapist also did some exploration around emotions and life story work, and probably some other things that I couldn't see. It still felt odd to me due to the peripheral nature of therapy through play. However, my daughter seemed less anxious and engaged more (after prompts from me). 

We only had a limited number of sessions and we have finished now. We have noticed subtle changes in our daughter's behaviour. She seems more settled than before and we feel more like a family unit. She is happy to be on her own for a few minutes at a time, which is already a huge improvement on before, when she could not tolerate a single second alone. She actually plays during this alone time, whereas before she would have followed us around or forlornly sat or lain on the floor, waiting for one of us to play with her. She still finds it difficult to play completely on her own and prefers not to, but it's not about that anymore; it's about making her feel safe and secure and that's what we need to remember and continue to do.

So, if you have a niggling feeling that won’t go away, listen to it, no matter how small you think it is because your instincts are usually right.


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  • Michele

    The things others find difficult is that my amazing intelligent, articulate 9 year old ;she came at 6) is that she can have a friend for a play date and then after the friend has left she is cross that I have ignored her and not played! Much like you - it makes me calmer to think of her as a leaky jug and no matter what I put in there will always be a need for more! Funny enough timed play makes her feel more secure. We always have 10 mins in the morning and 20 in the evening (her choice) and even if we have played for 5 hours in between she needs the timer to feel regulated! When I am religious with the 10/20 over a period of weeks I have found she may then take herself to her room to read, draw or write or do those things sitting next to me but not with me!

  • Esther

    OMG that’s not a small thing!!!

    My daughter has a lot of issues, emotionally, academically and physically. Her inability to play by herself has always been the one that I have struggled with the most. In some respects I find it even harder than the violence as I know that tends to go in phases and will eventually stop. The inability to play independently has lasted 5 years and counting!! It’s also the thing I think other parents understand the least -
    how utterly exhausting it is. And I totally relate to the thing about inventing games that involve lying down!!!

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