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Nonviolent Resistance

OmerI never thought I would enjoy therapy, but Tony and I are finding our weekly art therapy sessions a useful space to think about where we are and how to deal with the children’s behaviour. Our adoption worker also recommended looking at Nonviolent Resistance. One of the books I ordered was Haim Omer’s book, Nonviolent Resistance: A New Approach to Violent and Self-destructive Children (CUP, 2004). I have only dipped in so far, but it makes a lot of sense. I turned first to the chapter on ‘Violence towards siblings’ as Billy’s attitude and behaviour towards Jo is the cause of most violence in the family. I was thankful to read (p.113-14) that the author stresses the need for parents to be supported rather than judged:

We have seen that the prevailing assumption that parental abuse is the real cause of violence towards siblings is little more than a widespread dogma. This blaming stance toward parents precludes any possibility of building a therapeutic alliance with them. Professionals thus jettison in advance their main potential collaborators in the fight against the child’s violence. In effect, we can hope to cope with the hidden endemic problem of violence toward siblings only by moving beyond the prevailing accusatory stance and evolving an attitude of trust toward parents who are willing to get help. We therapists should approach these parents with the assumption that they are motivated by true concern and an honest desire to help their children and themselves. Viewing the parents as defensive, as sabotaging the therapy, as trying to invade their children’s privacy, or as bent on preventing her independence are professional habits generated by the erroneous view of the parents as the main pathogenic factor. What the therapist views as a parent’s resistance to treatment is often nothing but a reflection of the parent’s feelings that the therapist’s suggestions are not helping.

The same could be said for social workers and educationalists. We are fortunate at the moment in having some professionals around us who do recognise our genuine care and concerns for our children and who are working with us in trying to find solutions. We were working towards many of the principles of non-violent resistance anyway, including setting clear boundaries, keeping ourselves safe and taking back control – so far by keeping the children apart, but now we have the Easter holidays, which we meet with some trepidation. I wrote a letter to Billy, a kind of contract, which included some of the non-violent resistance ideas, including making it clear that we would not hide his behaviour, and that we would be present when he is at home – he might consider intrusive – and make the decisions as to what is and is not acceptable without entering into negotiations. The bottom line is that we will call the police and have him removed from the house if we can’t cope with his behaviour towards us or towards Jo.

Tony picked Billy up from College and took him to MacDonalds, our neutral space for talking. He explained that there was a solicitor’s letter and a letter from us for him at home, and talked him through the situation he was in. From there he led onto how Billy can help himself and meet our expectations of him. Billy is keen to avoid a custodial sentence and unusually open to suggestions as to how he can do this. Last time I spoke to him he thought he was fine and didn’t need to change, so maybe something has shifted. The good influences in the form of Jane and friends, as well as family, probably help. It is impossible for us to really know what and who is a danger to him and should be avoided, and who can help. Naturally at 16, living away from home, most of his life is hidden to us, and even when at home so much of his life is online that it is still a mystery, as we found out recently to everyone’s cost. Billy has arranged to have friends staying for part of the holidays which suggests to us that he is aware friends can help act as a corrective to some extent on his behaviour. These things are a delicate balance between control and firmness on our part but without communicating rejection or anger.

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Second Letter to Billy

Dear Billy

Things we can and can’t do for you.

We can and will:

  • Continue to love you unconditionally.
  • Be proud of your achievements and celebrate your successes.
  • Welcome you and your friends – as long as you and they behave well, and treat the family and our home with respect.
  • Try to support you when things don’t go well.
  • Be upset and disappointed when you don’t take advantage of your opportunities, let people down, let yourself down, and make bad choices.
  • Decide if and when you can come home if your presence or actions have an overly disruptive effect on the family.
  • Call the police if we decide that your actions are more than we can cope with.
  • Continue to liaise with social services, adoption services, the police, solicitors and Department of Work and Pensions on your behalf.

We can’t:

  • Make choices for you.
  • Mitigate the consequences of your actions.
  • Undo your mistakes or minimise the seriousness of what you have done wrong.
  • Turn your life around.
  • Help you discover what you really want to do and be in life – that’s for you to do.
  • Find you an apprenticeship or job – but the College and other agencies can help if you take advantage of their services.

We won’t:

  • Tolerate bad behaviour in the home. This includes (1) being rude, provocative or unkind; (2) smoking or taking anything legal or illegal, apart from tobacco, in the conservatory or outside; (3) damaging the house, furnishings or belongings; (4) any violence, verbal or physical, whatsoever; (5) stealing; (6) lying; (7) misuse of the Internet; (8) excessive drinking.
  • Seek to minimise or conceal your behaviour in the past, present or future.
  • Bargain with you over what is or is not permitted.

We expect you:

  • To be polite and considerate.
  • To keep your room and belongings tidy.
  • To actively plan for and work towards your future in a constructive and realistic manner.
  • Ask for and accept help when needed.
  • To keep yourself safe and behave in a responsible manner.

Mum and Dad

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Chicken Sandwich

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I love my chickens. Any hobby chicken-keeper will tell you that they are all so different, in character as well as appearance. There is friendship and altruism as well as rivalry. My two large fluffy orange Buff Orpingtons allow the little old black Pekin bantam to sleep between them, perched on the roof of the chicken coop like the filling in a sandwich. What I don’t enjoy is rat control. I hate having to kill animals. I tolerate the grey squirrels eating the chicken food as I can’t do much about it. The reappearance of rat runs, however, necessitates stuffing poison down the holes, then covering them carefully to prevent the chickens or wild birds eating the poison. I read that Lady Murial Dowding (wife of the WWII bomber command veteran, Sir Hugh Dowding), would talk to the rats, asking them to leave, which they did. Hugh Dowding observed them himself, streaming over the garden wall. I have tried something similar, but without success. And so both the nurturing and the poisoning continue.

OK, its not an exact analogy, but it did prompt musings on the balance between the enjoyment of just seeing the children live, and grow, and managing the negatives in our lives. What are the things that can and do jeopardise the generally positive relationships we try to nurture?

The trigger points include:
(1) Lying – they are brilliant at it. We can seldom tell who did what unless we find conclusive evidence. Who emptied the Pimms bottle? And the whisky? Well beer cans concealed in a room are a clue as to where the beer went. We don’t have a strong-room the kids can’t access to hide things in, and going tea-total isn’t an attractive option. When Billy was small I would perform a reality triangulation check (“we haven’t got any homework this week”, “Simon stole my blazer”, or whatever it might be) by asking “Would your teacher say the same thing if I asked her?” The usual response was, “No, please don’t say anything”. Jo has an imaginative take on the difference between fact and fantasy. We wouldn’t call it lying, more trying to make sense of the world by putting herself in a situation she has heard about. Since Billy dislocated his knee on the rugby field we have had years of her ‘bones popping out’, to which we nod sympathetically.

(2) Stealing – or helping yourself to what you need. Money disappearing from my purse or Tony’s wallet is pretty destructive of a relationship of trust. Finding your computer or phone charger has vanished is extremely annoying. They get through industrial quantities of earphones and headphones as their own never seem to work or are broken. All the jewellery I inherited disappeared, one or two broken bits turning up years later. We know it was Jo’s magpie tendencies but what happened to it remains a mystery. Even now she can’t or won’t say, other than that Billy suggested they could use the precious stones to decorate light sabres, Ben Ten rings, or whatever else their creative imaginations had dreamt up.

(3) Lack of empathy. It’s a funny one – they are not unaffectionate or completely uncaring, but have an inability, or reduced ability to put themselves in someone else’s shoes. This is common with children who have suffered early trauma. It’s a neurological rather than a moral failing, although the extent to which they are willing to learn and adjust may have an element of choice. Abraham Maslow talked about a hierarchy of needs. Towards the bottom of the triangle are survival needs such as food, shelter and security. One could add that receiving – as opposed to giving – love is the most basic need of all. Without it babies fail to thrive. I see that many versions of Maslow’s diagram on the Internet have inserted ‘Wifi’ at the base, signs of our times. Higher skills are only learnt when basic needs are met. Life in mid-teens for our two is still about learning to feel safe and not quite trusting that their needs will be met. Thinking of other people and how they might feel is hard. It just doesn’t come naturally. They can by loyal to friends. At Billy’s former school not telling on your mates seemed to be the number-one rule, although they shopped him quite happily, so he tended to take the rap for everyone else’s misdemeanours as well as his own. Being in with your mates is far more important to Billy’s survival than academic progress or adult approval.

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Here are some positives, and they are many.
(1) Every negative has its flip-side. When they lie, and we have calmed down sufficiently to have a civilized conversation, we can use it as an excuse to talk about values and find out what’s going on in their lives. When Billy fixed up what looked like a drug-deal, under the guise of going to the cinema, we were able to have conversations that revealed how much he knew about drugs and how and where to obtain them. Frighteningly easy it seems, even without money. We could talk about the dangers of associating with ‘friends’ who give you things for free. We could make some new house-rules. All friends are welcome but with the caveat that we must be introduced to them, and that no drug-dealing is to go on from the house. It is their home but our house and we say who comes and goes. So far they have complied. There is a balance to be struck between freedom and boundaries. The latter are in place not because we hate them or don’t trust them (which we don’t), but because we love them and care about them. When we wouldn’t allow a school friend of Jo’s who came for the weekend meet a man she had met on Facebook her surprising response was “Your are the best parents ever!” Nice to have some endorsement.

(2) Stealing: I take this as an opportunity for spiritual advancement. Buddhism extols detachment from worldly goods, and Jesus seemed to think poverty was easier to handle than riches. When the things that are broken or disappear have sentimental rather than monetary value, I remind myself that we don’t take any of it to the grave and that the sentiments aren’t destroyed with the objects that embodied them. If money vanishes we do have conversations about trust. We have not yet called in the police, but in serious cases of theft or violence we would rely on the community police officers to put in a word of warning. We live in a consumer society and it is tempting to think that emotional needs can be filled by material objects. It’s a chance to remind the children as well as ourselves that just being together and enjoying each other’s company is what really makes us feel secure and happy. Jo was awake and ready to start her day at midnight, and invited me to watch a film with her, streamed from her iPad to the TV. It wasn’t really suitable for a 14 year-old, and raunchier than I would normally watch, but it was a comedy and we laughed and relaxed together. Precious moments.

(3) Empathy: I remember years ago watching a TV series about adoption. I was worried at the time by an adoptive mother, who was evidently quite needy, complaining that she didn’t think one of her adopted children loved her. It’s not about the children loving us but us loving them. We were lucky enough to be filled up with love as children and have some, hopefully plenty, to give to others. If their holes never get filled to the point that they can overflow in return, that’s their business, not ours. Parenting is not about being loved but about deep moments of connection, of making a positive difference to someone’s life. The sense of having love to give and not having children to give it to was emotionally far more painful and disturbing than the physical and emotional exhaustion of therapeutic adoptive parenting. Being a family of ‘strangers’, opens you up to others. The only members of our extended household who have a close genetic connection to another member are some of the chickens. And not many of them are actually close kin as I often geimagest the hatching eggs from EBay, or buy pullets from a garden centre, so as not to have cockerels mating their mothers and sisters. A family doesn’t have to be mum and dad and two biological children in order to work as a family. We may be pretty dysfunctional at times, but it kind of works for us. To get back to the chicken analogy with which I started, we feel a bit like the orange chickens buffering the more vulnerable members of the family from the elements. That’s our privilege.

Ten Things We’ve Learned About Being Adoptive Parents

1. Develop a sense of humour – it could save your life, or at least lower your blood pressure.

2. Lower your expectations – the child or children almost certainly won’t be like you were at their age – nor like your nieces and nephews born in secure loving homes.

3. Raise your expectations – look for the things you love about being a parent, and about your children and celebrate them.

4. Know when to back off – life is too short to try to get them to do homework, get out of bed weekends and holidays, eat in the kitchen, keep appointments, brush their teeth, tidy up, stop smoking or bingeing….. (some things change as they get older, other things don’t seem to change at all).

5. Try not to feel guilty when you make time for yourself or do something you want to do – learn to say ‘No!’.

6. Recognise that their constant need to control you comes from a deep need to feel loved and connected – but that doesn’t mean you have to go along with it.

7. A good day is when nothing disastrous happens and there are moments of connection – the chances are we (and you) are doing a good job, even if it doesn’t always feel like it.

8. There’s not much help out there, but keep looking and asking. Just holding things together while they grow up is an achievement.

9. Be honest with the children and with yourself – not always easy but it has something to do with learning to trust their instincts as to what they need, even if they mess up at times.

10. Start again each day and strive to BE HAPPY!

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