Ducks in a row

Single adopters can’t get their ducks in a row.

I’m not even sure we have any ducks. We have no one to positively reinforce our choices, our actions. Or even that we are good people; or good parents. Our day to day parenting stands alone, with no comment or reflection from anyone but our children. Their trauma responses and feelings of being under attack are not balanced within our homes by another person reacting differently to us, lovingly, appreciatively, understandingly, supportively; nor showing anything different to their negative feelings. The view our kids develop of us is left unchallenged or mitigated through the eyes of another, and they spiral down into an unshakeable negative stereotype.

One single conversation with an adoption support consultant brought this deficit home to me. Lack of positive reinforcement has now been pointed out as our biggest logistical problem, and her view of me has become a substantial block to moving forward. This  bombshell clearly needs to be shared, because it seems there are lots of layers to consciously reframing the picture our children may hold in their minds.

Positively reinforce the existence of everyday acts of safety and family:

“Hasn’t mum cooked a great dinner for us tonight”.

“Awww, look, Dad made sure all the washing we needed for tomorrow was done.”

“Aren’t we lucky – mum did the shopping and brought home all the things we needed

Positively reinforce good, simple interactions and empathy:

“Hahahahaha – dad’s joke was funny”.

“I’m going to help mum clear up the kitchen because I can see she is tired and a bit grumpy today”.

“I think it’ll be fun if we play a game with Dad”.

Positively reinforce the constant offer of loving acts:

“Well done Mum for coming to collect us when she felt poorly”.

“Dad is so kind – he’s going to let you borrow his bike because yours is broken”.

“Wow! Mum’s been at work all day, and she still came back and tidied up the mess we left”.

Positively reinforce what is happening in a challenging situation:

“Dad is doing everything he can because he wants to help you work this out”.

“I can see how much mum loves you even though you are mad at her”.

“I hear you saying that Dad is making it worse; and yet i can see he is being very calm and listening to you to try to help.”

Positively reinforce the truth in the face of accusation or gaslighting:

“I know you don’t think anyone cares that your mobile doesn’t work, but I heard mum on the phone for over an hour trying to sort it out”.

“I saw the money was on the table too, and it’s definitely gone; dad hasn’t made a mistake.”

“I heard that conversation, and mum didn’t said it was okay to go to the skatepark today.”

Positively reinforce the process of therapeutic parenting:

“I think dad did a great job of keeping you safe when you felt angry at him last night”

“I see that feeling frustrated is making you cross; I’m going to go outside with mum. There is a hug waiting for you from both of us when you are ready.

“Dad is not going to argue or fight back; this is not okay, so we are going to walk away for a moment. We are here when you need us”.

How much do you do this; randomly reinforce your partner as a positive, loving person and parent? Not simply when a challenging situation arises, but knitted into the ordinary everyday comings and goings of life. However much you do, my consultant would no doubt say you should do it more!

Living without this reflective back up is hard, because the power of positive reinforcement is profound.

So, back to my fellow single adopters and ‘what can we do’? Not much really. People outside the home often inadvertently negatively reinforce our children’s belief through trying to be kind. Inside, trying to do it yourself – or through the dog – mostly seems to feel sarcastic, or obviously pointing something out. Briefing even one close friend or relative on how to do this for you would make a big difference.

In advance of more input on this from the consultant, ideas welcome!

Sensory reset

A week can get under your skin. Time for a sensory reset.

Walk along the river that fills my ears with the steady, rushing babble of the water. Choose the muddiest paths and let my feet sink right in, dark peaty soil sucking and slurping at each step until it seeps into my boots. Duck as the budding branches pull and scrape along my jacket and lock into my hair. Wait a while sat on the woodland floor and graze my palm over the soft comfort of the moss and the tiny ferns. Watch as the nuthatch scales the trunk, then sits ‘doinking’ at the crown.

Feel the muscle ache scaling the rocks and exploring the forgotten mines. The whisper of my dog’s warm happy breath on my cheek as we stop and crouch at the whirring flight of two goosander. Stoop low to take in the tiny sharp spears of the crocus as they push through the surface.

Sometimes I forget; mistake the impulse to ‘let all the difficulty out’ with the real need to ‘let all the wonder back in’.

I entered the woods with ants crawling beneath my skin from a week of self control.           I leave them with all my senses freed; blown open and filled up, to remember who I am.

And then home.

Single adopter truths

Sometimes days pass without anyone smiling at us.

We make our own cup of coffee, hands shaking, when the meltdown finally settles. We tell ourselves that we’ve done okay. We find the ways to hug ourselves better. We seek our own answers to the questions and doubts. We remind ourselves that we are enough. We whisper our own kind words.

We fix the broken things. We pick up the pieces. We pass the baton from one hand to the other when the yelling gets too much. We are the cavalry that comes when we fail. We switch from a punchbag to a comforter in the blink of a smarting eye. We bear the only witness for the depths of their pain. We speak the loving words while in the eye of their storm. We play the good cop, and the bad cop too. We check ourselves when we need to cool down. We have to guess where we’ve got it right, and when we’re wrong. We pack all the tools for the skillset needed to guide them.

We wipe the noses, we kiss the knees while we make the phone calls, and miss work for the meetings. We chase the forms and the promises. We write the letters and do the research. We are their fierce and only defender, advocate and envoy. We chase our worries round and round inside our heads with nowhere to share them. We sit alone to process in silence once the day is through.

If a single adopter falls in a forest and no one is there to hear, do they make a sound?

If we don’t tell twitter, then no body knows #singleadoptertruths 

Collateral damage

I remember it like it was yesterday.

Clear and distinct in my mind. My social worker during prep phase sat on my brand new sofa and said “And what happens – what will you do – when ‘Plus 1′ takes a knife to this lovely new sofa, and cuts a little slit in it”. She acted it out, coolly and calmly, with her fingernail.

And that was that. In the ten months between my first call to the agency, and approval panel, this was the one and only mention of the havoc about to rain down, and the closest anyone ever came to preparing me for CPV.

One hypothetical reference to collateral damage, that over the last 11 years has become a reality of:

- an eight foot stretch of 150 year old T&G wood paneling now split, splintered and bowed out; her all time favourite self harm kicking place.

- six doors that no longer hang right, or close properly, and one with kick holes all across the bottom at different levels that represent the passing years like a height chart.

- the ‘road map’ of our walls, criss crossed with skid marks from things hurled and whipped against them,

- the beautiful handmade bread crock, broken and cracked with a chunk of the lid missing from being slammed one to many times in attempt to pull me into her rages.

- my christening bracelet, a part of me for 40 years, gone forever, without a trace.

- the oak kitchen table that survived our family for three generations, scarred with dozens of deep, double pointed dents from a claw hammer attack.

- the bruises on my body that come, turn to rainbows, and then go.

- the toilet seat that like its predecessors, is cracked through repeated, angry slamming.

- the long series of phones, laptops, controllers, a hairdryer and a tv, all smashed to smithereens. With implements, and sometimes with her bare hands or feet; stamping or smacking them repeatedly until cuts bleed from the sharp edges.

- the bite scars on my arms, and the deep raised one on my thigh.

- the canine tooth missing from my beautiful dog’s mouth, broken by the rock hurled at her during an angry summer’s day walk.

- boxfuls of household necessities and equipment that go missing, thrown out in secret when she gets obsessed with me having ‘too much stuff’; tools, climbing gear, coats, tape cassettes, camping kit, cameras, kitchen utensils.

- the regular scratch marks to my face, arms, back, legs, belly from the times I misjudge how close I can get to calm her while she tries to smash her head against the wall.

- the dashboard of my land rover cracked and hanging off on the passenger side from full power kicks over the flavor of a packet of crisps.

- the burns from where she threw dinners or hot drinks over me.

- the two lonely bowls left intact from a full dinner set, and the cracks in the tiles where the missing ones landed.

- the stains on the oak floors that I’ve tried to sand off (because, you know, pee).

- the five sash window panes either cracked or studded with bullet style impact holes.

- the banisters that creak and wobble a third of the way down where I crashed into them when she pushed me down the stairs.

- the blinds from her room currently ‘hidden’ in a bin bag; stashed in the airing cupboard where she thinks I won’t notice, cut into pieces…

I’m not sure where to stop. These – and many more like them – are ‘peak events’. The visible and tangible expressions of trauma. They come as part of the wider package of less story worthy hours of this screaming, rejecting, unsoothable, unstoppable, fear based, self preservational trauma that rampages through our home on a daily, sometimes hourly basis.

Looking at this list I feel almost nothing except love for her, and empathy for this raging battle she wages with herself every day. Extraordinary as it may seem, this list has become just another part of my life; normal. This list is an ongoing, central part of who we are as a family. Though i may get ‘lost’ in the heat of it all, or give in to my own feelings of hurt, I know this is the part of her that needs me most. That needs me to be so much stronger than i ever thought i could be.

Should I post this? Probably not; i’m fearful of making her pain so visible. But I will, because hearing the real stories of others helps me, so I know other people need to hear mine.

First, the other adopters: so they know they are not alone.

Second, the prospectives: so they know to access realistic training long before it is needed.

Third, the lobbyists and change makers: so they can push harder for adequate and practical adoption support.

And fourth, the professionals: so they know this is a day in, day out 24/7 reality in adoptive homes. So they know the stories we tell them are just snapshots in the barrage of a bigger picture that requires us to figure out, contain and guide the most vulnerable of lives in our care, all by our untrained, under supported and often compassion fatigued selves. 

So they know we need more help.


NB: click here for the new report on Impact of Child on Parent Violence from Thorley and Coates (2017)


Box of clues

There is a box in my room.

I keep it locked and hidden away, because if it was accessible its contents would get destroyed. It holds every scrap of paper and every little keepsake that reminds me of the love and the courage inside her that is so deeply hidden by her pain.

I open the box when I need reminding of why. I leaf through when the trauma is so dominating the cry of my own inner need stops me from recognising and responding to hers. The trinkets – buttons on string, painted lollipop sticks glued into wonky stars, dried up flowers – are the gifts she made that arrived safely into my hands. Or things we created together that made it to the finish line without being broken in frustration; smashed by the anger and fear she associates with love. Most don’t make it. The treasures in my secret box are more precious than anything.

Some of the handwritten notes are scrappy; a few words on a ripped up corner of a note pad. There’s one that simply says ‘sory mum’ with a tiny shell sellotaped onto it; another says ‘you are my rock’ next to a 10 year old’s drawing of ‘wundr womn’.

Some are longer, like letters. These get posted under my bedroom door in the middle of the night, or left on the kitchen table, or screwed up behind the sofa amongst a dozen other things so as not to be easily found. They list all the hurt she has inside; pain she dares not speak of out loud. Huge unchecked torrents of words, in which there sometimes shines out a single phrase, like ‘I wish I didn’t hurt my mum’, or ‘mum, don’t ever think your not good inuff’. I anchor myself to these short sentences; diamond studded clues to light my way out of the dark. They renew my insight and empathy, scaffolding the resolve I need to keep going in a world that can otherwise feel so endlessly hostile. A world that offers very little to let me know if anything I do is helping, or worth it.

The clues she gives are few and far between. I need her clues like the desert needs rain. Years can pass without one clue being dropped, or i miss a vital clue altogether; lost in the immensity of her anger like a needle in a haystack. My doubt, fear, and resentment builds without those clues. I strive to remind myself that the clues are in her all the time; hidden away like secrets, and almost impossible to see.

I am learning to trust the invisible clues as much as the ones in my box.



We start with all four of my legs firmly on the ground.

Stable, resilient and strong. My back is broad and there is room for a heavy load, because I know you have much you need me to carry.

I’m here for you, pile it on; i’ll find ways to brace and take the strain, to juggle pieces around to balance the weight of your fear, your blame and your shame. Your sharp points and ragged edges may pierce and tear at my thick skin, and yet I keep standing under the strain; as solid as that trusty, determined, dutiful burro.

As my legs begin to tremble, my sides start to bleed and my heart beats faster, I dig deeper and work harder, because I understand and accept my task.

But sometimes – just sometimes – the burden you give me to hold proves too much. Your load comes too thick, or too fast, or it clashes with my own, and the struggle to bear it all reaches a tipping point I can no longer contain. Like buckaroo, I crumple and twist, and gravity takes over to throw off everything in one explosive and sorry moment.

Because I am just me, and sometimes the load is bigger than I am.

Cup of tea and a post it note

In the two years since first hearing this strategy, I struggled.

Struggled to respond to the smashing of things – the screaming, the scratching, the swearing, the withdrawal, the stealing – with a gift. Struggled to find it in myself to respond to the manifestation of her trauma with a loving act, and struggled to see how such a gesture does anything but reward and give permission to her fury.

Sure, I’ve made the tea, written the little messages of love on the post it, and left them outside her door. Yet my heart wasn’t always really in it. Often the gesture stuck in my throat – reluctant and wooden – giving rise to huge waves of resentment. And sometimes I couldn’t bring myself to do it at all.

The strategy was revisited by the Adoption UK ‘Parenting Teens’ course. Like many of the parents there I questioned it; argued and kicked back hard against the principle. We gave example after example of situations where a cup of tea and a post it was surely an inappropriate reward when all hell was breaking loose. The group’s response was unanimous; does this act of selfless kindness make them feel like what they’ve done is okay? The trainer focused on me, and with every example I gave she asked “Did she do it in overwhelm?” My answer was always – “yes”.

“Then it’s not a reward.”

A penny dropped; layers of confusion fall away in an instant:

If fear based responses are not wrongdoings, then reconciliation gestures are not reward.

Take that in.

When none of the words we say, the consequences we lay down, or attempts at ‘fixing’ each given immediate situation have any effect other than to feed the escalation of trauma. When feeding that escalation simply separates us further from our kids. When dealing with the ‘immediate situation’ means we are tackling with the ‘wrong situation’, all that is left is to help them cope with the real situation; the trauma itself.

That cup of tea and a post it note helps distance us from their trauma; it allows us to step off the rollercoaster of their overwhelm, and lay down a safe solid base for them to move into, right here alongside us. The more we do it, the more they can depend on that safe place being there; ready and waiting for them to choose it. To want it.

More than that, if getting involved just places us firmly at their centre of overwhelm, then getting involved is itself a negative reward that reinforces their trauma, deepens their relationship with it, and labels us as a clear and present danger and yet another source of external threat. Stepping into the trauma involves us in it, and leaves us open to blame and hostility.

Then another penny drops: reconciliation does hold a kind of reward. A real and helpful reward; one with a much deeper, positive and important impact than our fear of reinforcing trauma behaviours. With every cup of tea and a post it, she begins to look back on each incident more clearly, with less confusion about what happened. She starts to beat her own neural pathway through the previously impassable space that stretches between overwhelm and calm. She starts to seek the safety of the calm place as a way out of the turmoil of the trauma.

And my reward is in watching her take tentative steps on slow journey toward seeing me as the closest thing to safe she experiences.

Meeting my Mumdrah

Tidying up CHT’s room this weekend I found a bombshell, written neatly on a piece of paper. She is happy for Mumdrah to share it with you:


I was 5 years old when Mumdrah wanted to adopt me. When she went into the foster carer kids home me and my friend were thinking how are you going to be. When i walked in i was sort of envestergating Mumdrah from the other room nearly going in and out. At last i stood in the room with Mumdrah in it.

I stared at her for long as i cld and then ran out with my friend we look back through the crak in the door and look some more in sekret and my friend said ‘I think that is your mum’ and i said ‘i know’ and our eyes were wiyde. An hour later we stayed in the room with Mumdrah in it for a long time and dayred to look riyt at her. She went bye bye and i new i shold hold her hand but i shakd at wat was hapening.

The next day we played trafic and cars with Mumdrah me and my friend who mite be my brothr thort that was great fun and then we made braslets and drew picturs.

And then later This was the moment of truth I was go to living with Mumdrah. We went so far in the car I never been so far I did not know that scary place. I waved gobye to my foster carers and my lovely brothr friend with tears down my eyes with a bag of my only stuff. They all drove away from me and left me sat on the floor cryng. Me and mum were thinking this is a new beging but it was as well a big horid end.

That is the beging or our story. The End.

She has never showed me this piece of paper. It describes perfectly the first day/s we met.

I still treasure the button bracelets we made. The picture she drew is now framed, and fills me with love every day. But my experience of those precious firsts did not make for straightforward, happy memories. There were strikingly beautiful and touching moments, full of profound humanity and hope. But I mostly recall her intense confusion, her fear, and her bravery in the face of an unknown stranger she’d been told was called ‘mum’. I remember the shock that gripped her as the ties with everything and everyone she had ever known were – one by one – cut away, without consent.

So you can see why – for me – there is no congratulation on the days we are matched, meet, or welcome our children home.  I recognize the joy we find in those landmark days, but my heart is bittersweet with recognition of the raw grief and loss they carry.

Hot tears fall reflecting on those days through her words. And once again I am in awe of this amazing, brave and tiny girl who can still find a smile for a world that never really gave her a chance.


In the 2,587 days since I first heard CHT’s name, stuff has vanished.

Precious, irreplaceable things. Money. Stupid, irrelevant stuff, food.

I find piles of dry pasta and walnuts hidden by her pillow. Egg boxes full of cocoa powder under her bed, packets of unopened green cheese in her covers.  Once, a vast haul of 24 empty bags of crisps wedged under the sofa cushions. Pots of jam – empty; sugar bowls – drained. Hoards of hair bands, my perfume. My christening bracelet; gone forever. And the money; it runs into hundreds of pounds, perhaps thousands.  I think it gets mostly given away, or spent on sweets and shared with friends.

The stealing cycles through peaks and troughs in intensity, but never goes away.

My intuition, my reading and research on the topic lend insight that fuels my empathy. I have not once punished her for it; never set up a consequence. I have calmly discussed it, come up with plans to navigate this stealing. Tried to side step it, handle it, reduce it, end it; none have ever worked. I have also – surprise surprise – snapped. Lost it, shouted, ranted, cried, said terrible, regretful things. In other words, totally screwed up.

Over the seven years, this is the thing that has consumed me with frustration, with fear, with concern. Living with it has taken it’s toll: on our relationship, and on my resilience. It pushes me way out of that essential TP Zone, and leaves me dipping into the Magic Porridge Pot of empathy, only to find it empty. It has eroded our trust in each other. Worse, it has hardwired me to a sensory hyper vigilance that – wherever I am in the house – I register that sudden quiet of deceit. The creeping; the slow creak of a cupboard door, the zip on my bag. These sounds buzz like a wasp; leaving me on edge, and questioning her every move. I react to her as if she has become like an intruder in her own house.

A call for help; answered. One tweet to @janeparenting suggested talking in a new way; to ask what she feels taking things – before, during, after.

Immediately, words were there where before there have been none.

“All the stealing makes the same feeling as being taken from my Mum”. And then “I want you to know this pain of being stolen from my Mum”.


Empathy pot now overflowing, I tell her how sorry I am; sorry that she was stolen like that. Sorry for the times when my pain from this stealing made me cross. Sorry for not always being understanding. She puts her hand on mine, tells me it’s ok. Tells me it wasn’t me who stole her. Tells me she wants so bad for me to trust her, and my heart crumples at the stark-faced truth of how much I have let the problem take my focus, and not the child. Tears rolling, I tell her I love her.  That I always knew there was a message in her stealing, and I am so proud and honoured that she could share it with me so clearly. I ask her what she wants to do, and she decides to try and tell me when it happens, and asks me to simply tell her if I feel suspicious. We decide to put our trust in each other, and look at the problem as separate from us. We embrace. The whole conversation lasted just a few minutes.

I walk away. Reach up, grab hold of those horrid, problem seeking sensory antennae, and rip them from my head.

They will try to grow back. But I’ll be waiting.

Follow the amazing @janeparenting

Read her linked blog on Stealing.

All about Love

CHT often says, “Love isn’t all about Love”.

And I’ve come to recognise she is absolutely right. Love is a doing word, a verb, over and above that most primal of feelings. Love is the unabashed truth that conquers fear and bathes us in understanding and acceptance.

Love is about opening up to our vulnerabilities, about loving the ‘warts’ because without them there would be no ‘all’.

The love of something can make us fearful: of “the sword hidden amongst his pinions”, and of the penetrating light it pours into our darkest parts, throwing them up for all to see. Love gives us the choice to turn and cover our eyes, or to stare back at ourselves with deeper acceptance of our intricacies and foibles.

Taking my place in an adoptive family has taught me much about Love. There is no question that Love can leave us fractured and vulnerable; our children show us that every day. What I am suggesting is that Love is an invitation to open ourselves up to that vulnerability, and to see it differently: as the vital essence that makes each of us uniquely and gloriously – us.

Growth – building resilience – does not mean fixing our cracks; or even healing them. It means learning how to carry them, to scaffold and protect them; to stride out and embrace the world all the better because of them. The more I take my focus away from ‘fixing’ and move into ‘accepting’, the stronger we both become. I ‘adopted’ an ‘adoptee’, with all the nooks and crannies that trauma and attachment brings – no ‘fixing’ required. In my acceptance of the whole of her, she sees the open door to accept herself.

We should embrace our vulnerabilities – all of them. Love ourselves all the more for them.  Look at them with open, unjudgemental eyes, and see the truth they hold in how much bigger and better a person they make us. And in accepting ourselves, give others the permission to so the same.

That is when Love becomes … Agape.