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
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