The boys had been with us for a couple of weeks when it happened. It had seemed to be going fairly smoothly (apart from thinking I had lost the eldest – top tip: never play hide and seek in a strange playground), and, permanent state of exhaustion aside, we were all adjusting to our new lives. Or in a state of shock… take your pick.
We were in the kitchen, messing about while my husband was making lunch. Out of the blue, the eldest, five at the time, shouted something in my ear. Taken aback, my first reaction was to bark at him and tell him off for shouting in my ear.
Although we’d been fairly firm – following the mantra drummed into us on our prep course to stick to your boundaries – it was the first time I had actually been cross with him. But it was his reaction that was more unusual.
Straightaway, he left the room and went into the hall, where he stood in a corner, stock still, like a statue.
His foster carer had described similar behaviour during the year-and-a-bit he spent with her. She said he sometimes seemed to go into an almost catatonic state, apparently unaware of anything going on around him. On occasion, he would hide under the kitchen table.
Our best guess is that this was a learned behaviour from his birth home, when pretending to be invisible was a way of both ignoring what was going on around him and of keeping safe.
Full of remorse, I went straight to him. I crouched down and softly said his name a couple of times, but he carried on staring straight ahead.
Then I said I was sorry I had shouted at him.
The change was immediate. It was like a curtain had lifted. The tautness left his body and he flung his arms around my neck and squeezed me tight. I could almost feel the anxiety draining away as I hugged him.
Thinking about it now, more than four years later, still brings a tear to my eye.
I told him again that I was sorry, that I knew he hadn’t meant it, that I wasn’t cross with him and that everything was fine.
That seemed an end to it, and the rest of the day passed with no sign that anything untoward had happened, but discussing it with my husband that evening – as we dissected every incident in those early days before we passed out with exhaustion – we realised that it was a pivotal moment.
Chances are, we realised, no adult had ever apologised to him before. Probably not his foster carer, and certainly not his birth parents.
Thinking back to my own childhood, I can’t remember my parents ever saying sorry to me, at least not in a meaningful way for anything they had done.
It also affirmed some of the best advice our social worker ever gave us: it almost doesn’t matter what you do, it’s how you restore the relationship afterwards that really matters.
Often, we tend to focus on ‘sorry’ only when we want our children to apologise, and not on when they are the ones who need an apology from us. We worry that admitting we were wrong might open the floodgates and leave everything open to challenge, or throw back the curtain to reveal how much we’re really winging it.
But parents aren’t perfect and we do get things wrong and it’s not a sign of weakness to admit to it. And apologising to your children also sends a very clear signal that it’s not just lip service when you say their feelings are important too.
Far from exploiting it to undermine my authority, our children are learning that everyone makes mistakes, that it’s ok to admit to it, and that everyone has the right to be treated with respect, no matter how old they are.
I have apologised many times since then. In the early days, I often added that I was still learning how to be a parent, and sometimes I got things wrong (although four years in, I can’t really use that now). But when I make a mistake, I say sorry, they say something along the lines of, ‘That’s ok dad, everyone makes mistakes,’ and we move on.