The Unofficial Guide to Adoptive Parenting

My second book ‘The Unofficial Guide to Adoptive Parenting‘ was published by Jessica Kingsley Publishers this week.  It took twelve years to produce; one year of writing and eleven years of research.


Adoptive parenting of children who have experienced loss and often neglect and abuse as well, is not like normal, average, everyday parenting. It took me a very long time to realise this and then to work out what that meant in real, practical terms.  I’ve been on loads of courses and workshops, I’ve read books and scoured YouTube for advice and much of this has been very good, but tends to be heavy on the ‘why’ and the ‘what not to do’ but a little less forthcoming when it comes to what to try in real life situations.  Most of us are the experts on what not to do and have the self-flagellation sticks of blame to prove it.

What I’ve always been desperate for is positive advice; strategies, ideas, techniques and clues which recognise that the front line of therapeutic parenting is messy, imperfect and mammothly difficult, but ultimately hopeful.

In The Unofficial Guide I’ve gathered together everything which has made sense and been effective, not just in our adoptive family but in those around me as well.  It covers everyday challenges like mealtimes and education and the more difficult stuff like stealing and anger.  It recognises that we don’t all feel super-therapeutic all of the time so there is forgiveness, repair and self care in there too.

Despite how hard adoptive parenting can be and has been for us at times, I remain relentlessly optimistic about the benefits of creating a therapeutic environment around a child who is hurting. It takes a lot of energy and it takes support.  The support around adoptive families is often woeful and confused with blame.  Blame is the opposite of support.

My greatest hope for The Unofficial Guide is that adoptive families find it supportive and authentic.  It’s been conceived of from our domestic frontline in all it’s brilliant and sometimes terrifying beauty; written and drawn and blogged and lived by all four of us.  It’s a bit sweary and raw in places, it’s rude and it’s jagged but it’s our paperback child and we’re very proud of it.


Dr Bruce Perry speaks at the Adoption UK Conference 2014

Frankly I get pissed off with being told that developmental trauma isn’t a real thing.  Yesterday 250 people who live with the everyday realities of trauma in children gathered for the Adoption UK 2014 conference to listen to Dr Bruce Perry speak.  Not once were we told to put more structure in place, or to set up a system of rewards and sanctions, or to lecture more or to just pull ourselves together and grow some back bone.

It became clear to me quite early on that I was sharing my life with two children who see threat everywhere.  They see it in eye contact, tone of voice, they smell it in certain smells, they expect to result from the most benign of circumstances.  There is not a single week, or day, or hour or sometimes minute when I am not reminded that their inner working models are based around threat and the expectation that others are not well-intentioned.  I’m told that there is little scientific evidence for all this.  To that my response is, come and live in my house for a couple of weeks.

Now that’s off my chest, here are a a few of the most relevant things I learnt or was reminded of yesterday:

1.  The brain develops templates based on experience.  If it’s template for ‘person who I live with’ is lack of care/hurt/fear then this is what it will expect of future ‘person who I live with’ (or who teaches me or otherwise tries to care for me or who tells me to do stuff).  This is why I get accused of shouting, being threatening and hating everyone if I ask someone to take the rubbish out or brush their teeth.

2.  Shifting these templates takes consistency, permanency and persistence.  This is why I always feel I am fighting the templates (‘you are SHOUTING at me’/’I’m talking in a normal voice, see how quiet it is’/’STOP SHOUTING’/’I’m not shouting’/’yes you are, I hate you you child abuser’).

3.  The brain at first sees novelty as a threat (‘would you like to watch this programme with me about space?’/’no get lost, I hate you’/’shall I take that as a no then?’/’fuck off’).

4.  Our children are sensitised to threat.  (This is so obvious I can’t understand why it’s not accepted.)

5.  Children respond to stresses by fight, flight or dissociation.  I live with one of each, but both can use either, depending … They dysregulate easily (again, so obvious).

6.  A dysregulated child needs the support of a regulated adult. We have to act as their external regulatory system. A dysregulated adult cannot hope to help regulate a child. Ever.

7.  Self care is the most important part of therapeutic parenting/teaching etc #takingcare

8.  Rhythm calms dysregulated children; music (listening and playing), walking, cycling, bouncing, talking, car journeys.

9. Take a step back from a dysregulated child and lower your voice (reduce the perception of threat).

10.   Reward schemes are constructed with the assumption that children are choosing to be aggressive/figgety/chatty/gobby.  They are not.  They are dysregulated and therefore not operating in the thinking part of their brains.

11.  Children with poor templates around relationships need lots of space around them.  Try standing or sitting parallel to them.  This is why one of my children talks and talks and shares loads every evening that I drive him to his club.  Then he falls asleep (that’s the rhythmic thing about engines).  This could also be why children flip out at school when adults flood in around them at times of stress (again, obvious?).

12.  Children need regular time to dissociate i.e. veg out.  For us this is particularly noticeable after school.  Don’t hit them with ‘how was your day?’, or ‘do you have any homework?’  Give space and time and then go in gently (regulate then connect).

But what does this all this mean practically?  In our family it means playing music at mealtimes, making more time to massage each others shoulders and generally being a bit more mindful of trying to keep regulated, whilst all the while remembering that it’s not possible to get it right all the time.

National Adoption Week – Adopting Siblings

Eleven years ago Mr D and I left our home, just the two of us, and two hours later returned with two children, Jamie and Rose.  Jamie and Rose are birth siblings. National Adoption Week 2014 has the theme of siblings.  It can be a week which polarises adopters, prospective adopters, agencies and local authorities.  Unsupported families living in great difficulty don’t always appreciate the marketing of National Adoption Week (a gloss job?).  Those seeking families for children don’t always appreciate those in difficulty talking openly about their difficulties (pissing on the parade?). IMG_1414 In the interests of balance and honesty here are my thoughts about National Adoption Week and about adopting a brother and sister in particular.

1.  Keeping siblings together is thought to be a universally good thing.  Each situation is different.  Some siblings thrive together and some don’t.  The impact upon children of early neglect complicates sibling relationships greatly.  This is under-appreciated by many.

2.  I am still in a state of flux about whether Jamie and Rose should have been placed together.  They needed to maintain contact, but sometimes living together and sharing a family has been very challenging for them.  They’ve only recently become able to be in a room together without the presence of either Mr D or me.

3.  Families with adopted siblings should have support around them which takes account of the complex sibling dynamics of attachment and trauma.

4.  Being an adoptive parent has on occasion brought me to my knees and close to breakdown, but it has also taught me to appreciate small and precious moments.

5.  I would do it all again.

6.  The difficulties we’ve experienced would have been greatly alleviated if the services around us had been better quality and more understanding of our needs.

7.   Our family life is very different to other families around us, but this isn’t always necessarily a negative thing.  (Sometimes it is though.)

8.  Children who have experienced neglect and/or abuse require a different style of parenting from healthily raised children.  Not a bit different.  Very different.  Families need much more help with this than they are given but knowledge and training around therapeutic parenting is improving.

9.  With hindsight I’d be much more savvy.  I would talk to many more agencies and Local Authorities and opt for the one that offers the best long term post adoption support.  This is my number one tip for prospective adopters.

10.  Issues around lack of support aside, I remain convinced that done well (meaning with honesty, humanity and professionalism), adoption can be transformative for children (and their families).  It offers something with other options don’t find easy to achieve, and that’s permanence.

Adopting brothers and/or sisters is not for the faint-hearted.  It will change your life in ways you never imagined possible.  It may bring you to the very edge of what you thought you were capable of and then push you further.  It will cause you to see the world differently from other people, which can be great (‘I’m a much better person for having adopted our children’) but also not so great (‘where have my old friends gone?’).  It may also open up your life to a wealth of new experiences and boundless love and unexpected glorious moments. This is my experience*.

*other experiences are also available

The Open Nest Conference – Taking Care

There were all sorts of reasons to be nervous leading up to very first Open Nest Conference.  It was called Taking Care.  I hoped that everyone who was coming would feel we’d taken care.  How awful if it had been a bit rubbish and not deserved it’s title at all.

We are on the face of it, a motley crew – a bunch of speakers and trustees and delegates, adopters, adoptees and professionals, who had ‘got to know’ each other mainly on social media.  We are primarily parents, and worse than that many of us are mothers.  The mother’s union.  As Jazz said, we are the adoption WI.  It’s not always easy to carve out a space for yourself when you’re a not quite parent, without a job and with a head full of trauma which few other people understand.

How bloody marvellous it was then to spend the day amongst friends, getting to really know those we twitter know, not having to explain anything, finding so much common ground, not having to tip-toe around and laughing a lot (in that ‘I’M AWAY FOR A WHOLE WEEKEND’ way).  How marvellous it was to see Taking Care unfolding.

I came away with so much.

I learnt a lot from watching Severance again, particularly alongside Fran’s experience and views about contact and coping with past trauma.  It reminded me that despite similarities in experiences, everyone has a different story, if we just take care to listen.

I learnt that despite it’s misuse in some circles, social media can be a real force for good.

I learnt that yes, I’m not the only one who has discovered (not altogether great) things about myself through parenting a traumatised child in the wee small hours.

I learnt that importance of clear-sightedness and pragmatism in seeing what’s needed to support a community and just getting on and doing it, whether that’s online or in real life.

I also learnt that a special cable is required to connect a macbook to a projector.

My message to Open Nest Towers, as life hunkers down for a bit after a busy time, is this – you achieved something marvellous, through taking some care. Your conference well-deserved it’s name.

The Horse’s Mouth

I have of late been spending less time in my sad little office at home and more time going to conferences and training days.  It’s nice.  I get to put on proper clothes and speak to actual people.

Earlier in the week I went to the North West Adoption conference ‘The Post Adoption Support Challenge’ in Crewe to talk about the support that adoptive families need compared to what they often (or don’t often) receive.  It was based on a presentation I gave to the Department for Education which you can look at here.  I won’t bore you with the detail because it’s pretty obvious stuff about not buying into the ‘they’ll get over it’ myths and giving families fancy things like named social workers and access to regular and free small group training.


What I’m learning from taking part in these sorts of events is the power of the ‘voice of the user’ (or as I was referred to on Monday ‘the horse’s mouth’).  As an independent person (i.e. a bit self-employed) I get to say what I think, not rudely or offensively, but kind of simply and straightforwardly and with respect for those doing a difficult job and taking difficult decisions. I don’t have to worry about my income streams, or my customers, or my employers, which is kind of psychologically (if not economically) liberating.

Many of the other presentations, including Edward Timpson’s keynote speech demonstrated that the ‘user’ voice is at last dribbling down into and influencing policy and practice.  Professor Julie Selywn presented on her research ‘Beyond the Order’, which gives the leading role to those families who were interviewed: their quotes sing out of the research.  Rob James, Head of Behaviour at Brynllywarch School talked about understanding children through their behaviour, not imposing our own values upon them and why we should protect and not punish children in crisis.


How long it will be before this interest in the user voice translates to real change for all of us is hard to tell.  In some areas of the country the improvements are already noticeable and impressive.  In others, like where I live, things feel worse in terms of support for adopters than they ever have.  The common thread in areas where support is improving seems to be proper engagement with users.  There’s no engagement at all here.   So this optimistic horse’s mouth is remaining cautiously optimistic for now..

The final conference speech was made by Hugh Thornbery, the Chief Executive of Adoption UK.  He said,

‘if you get beneficiaries of a service involved in its design, it is more likely to be successful, to meet needs and to be used’.

Well said, and I’d add something to that; it could well be better value for money too.

Twelve Things I Wish I Liked

This weekend we headed off to the fells and tried a version of geo-caching, called surprise child-caching.  It goes something like this; plan walk, look forward to walk and therapeutic nature of ‘the outdoors’, make lunch, park car, head off into remoteness, see not another single other person, at most remote point avoid conflict with child, do well but fail anyway, watch child stomp off into further remoteness, walk a bit, eat lunch, stroke horse, spend much time searching for child, find child, stupidly expect child to be sorry, give child lunch, watch child throw rocks at other child’s head, march to the car in a boil of silent rage, drive to supermarket, procure beer and aero, self-medicate.

Whilst Mr D and I were marching everyone back to the car we fended off temporary insanity by thinking of all the things we wished we liked, those things which give other people so much pleasure and which might brighten up our lives if only we, well, got any pleasure out of them.  This is not an entirely positive way to spend one’s time, but you have to understand we find our laughs where we can at the moment. Here are mine:

1  Autumn

Oh the autumn colours, the fruits, the walks amongst the crunching leaves, the bonfires.  Nope. It last about five minutes and it leads to something horrible – winter. Give me spring or summer any day.

2  Olives

The level of enjoyment olive-lovers get from consuming a small bowl of olives is only comparable to my consuming a sizeable aero or a share size bag of Walkers Sensations but is not followed by the self-loathing and false promises.

3  Strictly Come Dancing

I just don’t get it; the spangles, the cheesy grinning, the orange skin, the cover music, the dancing.  I wish I did. It would make Saturday evenings something to really look forward to.

4  Facebook

Before I went on to Facebook, all I ever heard about was everything exciting I was missing due to not being on Facebook.  I must have joined the wrong part of Facebook.

5  Scrabble

It makes me alternate between slipping into a coma and wanting to punch people.

6  M&S Food Hall

The reality is such a long way from the television adverts.

7 Baths

Great for about five minutes, then coolish and boring, or dizzyingly hot.

8  Dan Brown

I say Dan Brown, but what I really mean is many ‘International Bestsellers’ that lots of people rave about.  It makes reading for pure escapism difficult and accusations of literary snobbery fair.

9  Woolly Jumpers

So natural, so cosy, so on trend. SO ITCHY.

10  Religion

It’s just not for me, but sometimes I think it might be better than living in an universe of infinite meaningless and randomness.

11  Party Politics

To be able to pin ones colours to either blue, red, yellow or green would I imagine bring peace of mind and certainty. I like and dislike bits of them all.  It turns the simple act of buying newspaper into a complex decision-making process.  Deciding who to vote for gives me a migraine.

12 Running

There are many positives about running, but all are out-weighed by its overwhelming dullness.  The same routes over and over, the discomfort, the ‘miss a couple of runs and lose 50% of your fitness’?  No.  And do I want to hear all about your 5ks and your 10ks and your tapers and your carb-loading.  No I don’t. No one does.

To move towards positivity, which I’m sure you’ll agree is a more worthy and harmonious pursuit than all this dreadful negativity I shall be putting some thought into things which increase my general happiness and the general happiness of those around me.  I shall be preparing ‘The Venn Diagram of Happiness’ and we’ll see what if anything is in the middle.  We’ll also see if ‘tracking child through remote countryside’ appears anywhere at all.


Agent Provocateur

Every conversation a confrontation. Every request a battle. Rising emotions met with a smirk.

Rules are important, for others. Those others who break the rules are scum. Pure and simple. But there’s no rules allowed here.  You want rules?  You delusional old fool.  Put them in the bin, with dinner.

Rudeness (it’s more than rudeness, but we call it that to avoid calling a spade a spade) chips away at the soul. Soul destroying. Protect the soul and the peace by slicing away parts of yourself. Soon there will be nothing left.

Walk away. Stay calm. Stay regulated. Describe rising anger, but don’t let it see the light of day. An overwhelming anger. Technicolour anger. Not allowed to be angry. (Anger isn’t a real emotion.) How

No one in my life has ever spoken to me like that.

An urge to hurl a plate at a window. To run into the street and scream and lie in the road and be taken away and not to care anymore. Or to drive. Away from here. And cry like someone has died. (Someone has died.)

You don’t mean it? Repair and recovery? Right now? An emptiness of instant words and empty-headed reconciliation. Lost for words.

Day-in-day-out. Relentless. Soul destroying.

You want the silver lining? Right now I don’t have one to give.

The Open Nest Conference 2014

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As a new charity The Open Nest is developing in the open and involving those with experience of many aspects of adoption. It has fortuitously been born at a time when social media is enabling scattered groups of people to connect, share and support each other and is engaging with the adoption ‘community’ in ways which some of the larger charities are struggling to.

I’m a trustee of The Open Nest and proud to be so. I’ve had a lot of time to think about the support we’ve needed as a family and since the publication of No Matter What and my involvement with the DfE have listened to many other families’ experiences too.  It’s satisfying to be able to direct at least some of that into something positive and hopeful.

Our first conference takes place on 18 October at the Royal York Hotel, in York.  The 18 October is a Saturday, because we know that some of you have actual jobs and children who need to be collected from school from someone they know well.  The cost is £25 because we know that sometimes it’s difficult to return to work when you parent a child with attachment difficulties.  The hotel is next to the station because we know that life can be complicated enough without google maps.

The speakers include Fran Proctor, an adoptee who has taught me more about the healing process following trauma than anyone, and two inspirational women who have established We Are Family, a fresh approach to support groups and networking in North London.

Amanda will be screening, for only the second time, a ground-breaking documentary about her and her daughter Jazz’s experiences.  I was there at the first screening and can barely express the depth of impact it had upon the audience.  It is a stunning piece of film.

For those who want to find out more about how to find support both online and ‘in real life’ Sarah and Vicki from The Adoption Social will explaining how to do this and what’s on offer.  They will be facilitating some social time because we know that sometimes the most useful part of a conference is meeting others in a similar situation.

Al Coates is an adoptive father, social worker and blogger and will be talking about the complexities of adoption which are sometimes over-looked.  If you use social media you may have come across him and his engaging writing.

And me, well I’m going to be looking at ways we can advocate on behalf of our children, particularly at school.  I spent some years working in industry as a negotiator, so let’s just say I’ll be drawing on some of that experience, as well as some crushingly terrible mistakes I made in the early days, which I can (almost) laugh about now.

If you are an adopter, an adoptee, or someone supporting an adoptive family in either a professional or personal capacity then please come along.  You will be most welcome.  Come and join in with the freshest, most creative, new charity kid on the block.

Rotherham: The Real Child

When a colossal national scandal is dragged into the light of day a void of interest is suddenly filled with the anger, opinion and comment of many.  It’s an issue of misogyny, race, culture, class, power, politics, resources, training, depending on one’s view and experience of the world and sometimes on the particular axe one is grinding (or paid to grind).

If the abuse of an estimated 1,400 children in Rotherham in recent times was down to any one or even two of these issues then how neat it would be.  We could pin the blame on a particular group whether they are Asian men, powerful white men, governments for under-resourcing children’s services, clothing retailers for selling sexualised clothing for children, or bad parents and give them hell.  But it’s never as simple as that.  There is no such thing as the single cause of a complex tragedy.

Many who have stood across the desk from Children’s Social Care, the Police, Education and the NHS on matters of child protection and wellbeing will know how bloody hard it is to get heard and believed (and not blamed) and to get access to necessary practical help and support.  It is important to point out that there are many examples of good practice, where children and families get the help they need, but it is equally important to say that there are big slices of crap practice in every service.  The great and the good will probably never have to experience this crap service, but if you do, you soon become aware of how thin the veneer is between being in and out of favour.  And to fall out and down between the cracks is terrifying, particularly if you’ve grown up believing that if you found yourself in a horrible situation, the state would be there to help you and not look upon you as some kind of unhinged liar.

For me the issues around this tragedy are nuanced and difficult.  It is about many of the headline issues and much more.  When the bottom line is that children and their families aren’t believed or are blamed for abuse inflicted upon them, by those whose job it is to protect them, that’s a sure sign there’s a lot of work to do.  That’s pretty much as bad as it gets.

If the reports are correct, the groups of predatory men who have abused 1,400 children in Rotherham are well-organised, well-led and focussed.  These are not words I would use to describe support for children in crisis across Social Care, the Police, Education and the NHS.  The criminals are not only exploiting vulnerable children, but a vulnerable and fragmented system too.

The response to this crisis has to be nationally led, cohesive, courageous, funded and long term.  (And at the risk of jumping to a simplistic conclusion myself, I’m not at all sure that local councils are best placed to lead the way.)

‘Elizabeth’ is the mother of ‘Lara’, one of the victims of the Oxfordshire grooming ring.  During a recent interview on Woman’s Hour they both gave a clear description of how the grooming took place and how many opportunities to stop it were missed by the services.  I’ll leave you with a quote from ‘Elizabeth’ (who would be an asset to any national enquiry),

‘There were extraordinary moments when in a particular situation Lara would rise to the occasion, help nurse my dying father, look after my frail mother, run around helping friends in need which also helped me to see the real child, the real girl and all this other stuff is the result of abuse, mistreatment and poor service response, but underneath it all there is a wonderful child there and that’s the child that’s got to be rescued from all this’.

A Bizarre and Brilliant Night at the PPA Awards 2014

As far as out-of-body experiences go, finding oneself in a therapy session with one’s son examining the forceful use of the words ‘c**t’ and ‘w****r’ is right up there with the trippiest. Almost exactly two incredibly testing years later I find myself in the ballroom of the Grosvenor Hotel in London air-kissing Claudia Winkleman and accepting a publishing award. IMG_1207

The Grosvenor was the venue for the annual Professional Publishing Association Awards and the great and the good of magazine publishing were represented; Grazia, Elle, Radio Times, Slimming World, Top Gear, Country Life and GQ amongst many others.

I’m told my writing is sometimes challenging and emotive, sometimes ‘searingly honest’ and sometimes quite funny.  To me it’s none of those things – it’s the best approximation I can come to of my life as a parent of two adopted and traumatised children (which is a long way from Country Life).

My pieces are published by Community Care, the online trade magazine of the social work and social care sector, who don’t baulk at my ‘searing honesty’ and who encourage those who work in, or who otherwise engage with social care to have a voice.  Community Care has been nothing but supportive of my writing and my involvement in the campaign to get better support for children who have suffered the worst start in life.   They gave me my first paid work as an occasional blogger, before the first and second book contracts came along. On Thursday night we gathered and filled half a table and had the best time together.

The award is sitting on the windowsill which overlooks my desk, as a reminder that the starry night at the PPA awards was not a bizarre daydream, anymore than the trippy therapy session was.  It is also evidence that online publishing and social media have made it possible for me and others to write about real, hard, shitty, glorious experiences (and injustices) without being filtered or pressured to ice the shit brownie.  (I could write at length about the democratisation of news, but that’s for another day.)

For now all that’s left to say is thank you.  Thank you Rob for being at home with two children who can’t bear their mother being away.  Thank you to my sister for looking after J on Thursday when he couldn’t handle going to school.  And thank you to Community Care particularly Camilla, Ruth, Andy and Claire for being super-supportive.