This interview with Melissa was first published in November 2019. She is a mum of two children affected by attachment disorder. In the interview, she shares what that means for her and her family, and how she uses some of the techniques detailed here by Dr Mason, on a daily basis. You can follow Melissa’s brilliant account on Instagram @us2rabbitandmoo where she shares, very honestly, the highs and lows of parenting children with attachment difficulties.
Did you know your girls were affected by attachment disorder before they came home?
Through the adoption process, you learn about the different ways children who’ve experienced trauma, even pre birth, can be affected so we were aware of what might lie ahead. What you don’t know is necessarily how your child will present. These things are different for each child. Some children present differently in their forever homes when they feel more settled than they did whilst in temporary foster care for example.
We were aware that our eldest daughter was struggling with everything that had happened to her and were told some of the ways in which she was communicating this through her behaviours. We were told very little about our youngest daughter. I feel this was because she presented differently and therefore it wasn’t as obvious, particularly due to her young age.
If you did, were you given any advice or training about it? Were you told what had caused them to be affected by it?
My daughters’ foster placement was at risk of breakdown so before we were matched, they were enrolled on a multi treatment foster care programme. This was designed to support carers in caring for children who were at risk of placement breakdowns. We adopted our daughters before the programme started so we enrolled on it as their adopters. It was quite heavily behavioural based and whilst it did help in the early days, it didn’t address the deeper attachment issues.
We were aware of some of the trauma our daughters had experienced in their birth family. This knowledge helped us to make links between some of the symptoms we were seeing due to their experiences. However, there are still many gaps in the information so we’ve had to find our way and make our own judgements.
If you didn’t, when did you become aware of problems with attachment?
My youngest presented very differently with us than she had her foster carers, so we spotted her attachment issues after she came home. Because she was only two it was quite difficult to get any real support for her.
My eldest was on the MTFC programme for six months but after about three months I expressed the need for therapeutic parenting support rather than behavioural support. She was becoming better at taking directions which was a result of the programme but her attachment issues were not being supported enough.
What kind of things do your girls do that are caused by attachment problems?
They both crave structure and routine and struggle with any free time, free play or free choice. They require firm boundaries to ensure they remain in a regulated state and don’t make mistakes which may cause them to go to a place of shame
My eldest can be very controlling and this can present as defiant behaviours or manipulation as well as having to be in charge of games or play.
My youngest regularly disassociates. This causes her to freeze and prevents her from functioning effectively at her chronological age. She may choose to not speak or her ability to process instructions will be suffer. She can become over emotional over small things.
We had to stop my eldest from being a care giver. We did this by doing as much for her as possible, even the stuff she could do for herself. We needed to show her that she could rely on us and we’ll keep her safe. We used terms like “that’s a mummy/daddy/adult job” a lot.
We had to balance this with giving her a sense of responsibility as she craved control. So where appropriate, we allowed her to do small things for herself like choose her underwear or put her own shoes on, but never for her younger sister or us. This helped her be little and be a child. As she’s got older, we’ve been able to give her more to do independently, but just for herself, not for others.
We have to parent them very differently and accommodate their needs carefully in our day to day life
Are they both affected in the same way?
No, not at all. They’re extremely close in age and have experienced the same trauma in many ways, but they’ve processed it very differently.
My eldest who presents as fight/flight and my youngest who presents as fight/freeze
How do you manage and support them to feel secure?
We use therapeutic parenting techniques at home as regularly as possible. This means we don’t use punishments or rewards. We spend lots of time together keeping them as close to us as possible which helps them to explore safely whilst limiting their chance of failure.
We stick to the same routines as much as possible and give them a lot of structure in their days. This helps them to feel calm and in control. It also shows them that we know how to keep them safe.
Through the adoption support fund we have accessed theraplay and music therapy which is really helping both of them. We have very different sessions with each of them which means we’re working on their needs as individuals which can be hard to do in day to day family life with siblings.
I’ve given up my job to become a full time stay at home mum. I feel the need for this is something that should’ve been identified in the matching process. Their needs mean that I have to be available to them at all times, even when they are at school. This helps them to feel safe, knowing I’m still around.
Have you had to change the way you parent as you’ve learned more about attachment?
Yes. I think the biggest adjustment had been around expectations. We may plan something perfectly. Have thought of every possible situation, prepared them and us properly in detail and it might still end up going wrong. This can be very disheartening for everyone!
We’ve learned to lower expectations and take pleasure in the simple things. We’ve had to accept that we are on a journey and it’s a long one. Things will not change overnight. We will take steps forward and then several back and we’ve had to learn to just go with it. We’re learning what our girls can and can’t cope with and have had to learn to accept that some things just aren’t possible for us…. yet!
The other element of parenting that we’ve had to change was learning to parent their emotional age and not their chronological age. It’s hard because they often don’t stay in one phase all of the time. So learning that just because they could do something one day doesn’t mean they’ll do it every day. Learning to go back and regress with them can actually bring them so much further forward rather than pushing them before they’re ready.
What kind of help and support do you receive to help with attachment? Was it easy to get?
No, it wasn’t easy to get. We’ve had to fight very hard and had some very difficult conversations with our local authority.
We do now have a good support package in place. I meet with an adoption support worker as often as I need. Just me and her. We have coffee and just generally chat things through. She can offer help if I’m in a situation that I am unsure of. Or she just listens. It’s been invaluable.
Through the ASF we have theraplay, music therapy and DDP. These are all therapeutic services that are aimed at helping and supporting attachment disorders and support us in parenting therapeutically.
Can you see improvements in the way the girls deal with things now compared to how they did when they first came home? If yes, in what way?
Oh yes! They have come so far… (we have to remind ourselves of this often).
Both of them are learning that it’s ok to make mistakes. This is a long process and one that doesn’t always make linear progress, but they’re getting it. We often use the term “oopsie daisy” when they’ve done something quite bad just to diffuse the intensity of it. Then we might do some wondering over what they were feeling that caused them to do it.
This is something that we all have to work on together as a family because it’s hard to always remain calm in situations. We’re human and it doesn’t always happen that way. But in those situations we put all the effort into repairing. Repairing is where we take time to explore what went wrong, what we were feeling and what we can do better next time. I say sorry to my children all of the time. It’s important for them to know that we make mistakes too.
They have learned a lot about emotions and feelings. They’re learning that it’s ok to be angry/sad/grumpy/frustrated. The next step is helping them to process the feeling and manage it appropriately. Again, they’ve made huge progress. They often say “I’m so mad” or “I’m feeling worried, and that’s ok to feel worried isn’t it?”
What books / forums / resources would you recommend to parents to help their children with attachment disorder?
During the process I read “Building the bonds of attachment” by Dan Hughes and it is always the first book I recommend. It’s not an easy read but it’s so insightful and genuinely taught me so much about attachment disorder and therapeutic parenting.
I also read “No matter what” by Sally Donovan which was another great read and written by and adoptive mum so a great insight into the realities.
There is the National Association of Therapeutic Parents. This was set up by Sarah Naish. She adopted a sibling group who are now grown up and she is amazing! She has also written lots of books too.
The #ukadoptioncommunity on Instagram has been an amazing source of support, comfort, advice as well as being a lovely place to share the ups and downs of adoption. Some are just starting, some have been adopters for years, some have just been matched. There’s also a really diverse set of adopters from single adopters, same sex adopters, foster to adopt, special guardianship, sibling adoption.
Finally, I would also say not to be afraid to lean on your local authority (or whoever you adopted through). They’re there to support you and your children. Ask for help. Reach out. You’re not alone.
If you’d like to read more adoption experiences, click here