I have now finished my adoption prep training, and I must say there was a lot of useful stuff in there. I mean, don’t get me wrong, not all of the social workers were natural facilitators, and one of them in particular had a tendency to read aloud the text on every single powerpoint screen, and speak in a very patronising tone (I suspect she is so used to speaking in a cheery, slow voice to children that she’s forgotten how to address functional adults).
However, I got some real insight into the adopted child’s perspective of the world, and how I might need to adapt my parenting style to their needs.
For example, as the adoptive parent, it’s so easy to be excited about starting a family, and as someone who has so much love to give, it’s hard to imagine that you might not love the child immediately, but apparently it’s quite common – growing to love someone takes time, and you are essentially strangers, so it’s not automatic. There was an interesting session about post-adoption depression, and how it’s far more common than people realise, and should be more openly talked about, to remove the stigma, similar to how post-natal depression was only recognised relatively recently as a medical condition.
In the excitement of starting my family, and getting to know my new child, it’s easy to forget what the experience is like for them. We did an exercise where someone stood in the middle of the room, pretending to be a 6-year old child. Each of us were given a card and a character – with one line from that person, and a piece of string. The child in the middle held all of the strings, and each of us had to stand as close or far away as we believed that person was to the child, connected by a string. So for example, the child’s maternal grandmother, whose card said “You don’t look like the rest of us. You’re not one of us” was standing quite far away, the half-sibling whose card said “I miss playing with you” was standing quite close. And so on.
Once we were all surrounding the girl, with our strings, at varying distances, we were told that everyone except the adopted parent had to drop their string on the count of 3. It was a stunning realisation, that despite not being wanted, or being neglected or abused, that child still had a family, brothers, sisters, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and suddenly they lose all of them in one go – the child is moved somewhere far away and may not see any of those people again – which is scary and overwhelming and strange, and could mean that your new child is not as excited about getting a new mummy and daddy as you want them to be.
Another activity we did that really made us think was the suitcase exercise. A little girl shows up at her new family’s house with a little suitcase, a few grimy clothes and toys, and a social services folder full of personal information about her past.
Then they brought in the invisible suitcase, with all the baggage you won’t know about, and several items with information on them. Things like a green car, with the tag “Once we were on the bus, and I saw a green car. I got very upset, but I couldn’t explain that I don’t like green cars, because the social worker who took me away from my mummy had a green car.”
Or a white hat that said “One of mummy’s boyfriends had a white cap like this – whenever I see a white cap, I get very angry and scared, because mummy’s boyfriend was sometimes mean, and hit me, and sometimes he touched me when I didn’t want him to”
And so on.
A bunch of seemingly meaningless, everyday objects, that might evoke fear or anger or tantrums from your child, and they may not be able to tell you why it has upset them. You may not even know it was a green car or white hat that set them off – you might just be out on the bus, or at the zoo, and suddenly your child is having a meltdown and you have no idea what happened.
So it was very useful to have some insight, and realise the kind of patience and understanding you might need, and not to try and ignore or punish a tantrum the way you might for a normal child, without fully understanding what might be causing it.
Another exercise we did was quite eye-opening. We were each asked to write down on a piece of paper, something we were deeply ashamed of, or that we don’t want anyone else to find out. We had to fold it up, place it under our chair, and then move to another seat. Then they asked us how uncomfortable we were feeling, with the idea that something we were ashamed of might be found out.
It made me realise how much power you have, as an adoptive parent, being given so much deeply personal information about your child’s history. And given the fact that most children will feel ashamed and to blame for a lot of the abuse or neglect, it’s not something they will necessarily be comfortable sharing or having others know about.
Obviously you may need to share some key information with their school or nursery if it’s relevant, but I had previously assumed I would be able to tell my family about my child’s past. It never occurred to me that that might not be what the child wants, or that it’s not my place to share private information that they may feel ashamed of. So it’s a useful little lesson, and I will need to explain to my family that I may not be able to tell them the full extent of what has happened to my child, unless the child wants me to.