A father tells the story of his family’s struggle to support their son with severe emotional, behavioural and psychological challenges as he turned adolescent. If you find this account sounds extreme, you should know that this situation may affect some 10 per cent of adoptions. Nonetheless, there are positives among the sad days.
We adopted our two boys at the ages of one year and nearly two. We knew both came with baggage, and a whole shedload of potential DNA challenges, but had been trying hard for a child for many years, and now thought this was our best chance of being parents at the same time as giving a warm and loving home to our children. Not to mention our altruistic desire to give something back to a society that’s been good to us and try to stop cycles of neglect and deprivation for two small people. We did endless Googling, solicited promises of support from friends and family, and were sure we’d be up to whatever came along.
Coming from large families, we thought we knew it all in terms of keeping babies and toddlers entertained, fed, clothed and happy. What we weren’t prepared for, especially my wife, was moving from a full-on job in a busy office into a 24/7 maelstrom with a young child who’d fended for himself first with his birth parents, and then in a non-stop action foster family that featured three generations and a regular supply of new foster siblings.
Now it was down to just us – specifically my wife, who set up a huge variety of tasks daily to entertain our son. Almost immediately his severe attachment issues were apparent, along with his inability to concentrate for longer than 10 minutes. His rages were frightening, leaving other parents and children baffled. My wife booked herself onto a parenting course within weeks, but the techniques offered didn’t seem to apply.
A year or so after our first lad’s adoption, our second son moved in: a different case entirely – full of smiles, contented and happy to burble along wherever we plopped him. The two boys quickly bonded and became best friends, our elder boy fiercely protective of his little brother.
A few years in, thinner, wiser and exhausted, we happened to collapse one evening in front of a documentary on TV, and looked meaningfully at each other. After booking a trip to CAMHS, we finally had a diagnosis for our elder lad – almost 100% ADHD, all three varieties, along with PTSD, later classed as early developmental trauma, and rampant attachment issues.
It all made sense. Something to explain to teachers during strained meetings as they struggled to cope with him in mainstream school, not to mention grandparents shaking their heads, or friends not liking to ask us all round any longer because of the impact on their own homes and mental wellbeing.
Roll forward many years of holidays, Christmasses, birthdays, some glorious days of treasured memories, tears of laughter at bonkers exploits (usually in recounting them later), tears of pain at scenes full of screaming and self-harm.
And then we hit adolescence with our big boy. You can imagine the rest. He needed to find himself, had never really settled with us, was restless and broken-hearted. His poor birth mother had passed away when he was nine, and he’d never be able to ask why she hadn’t been able to put him first in front of the drugs.
We moved into a new phase of trying to trace him in dark and menacing parts of our city, of calling ambulances when he was suffering side-effects from some chemical he’d taken. Our neighbours grew used to police lights flashing across their bedroom curtains when we had to list our boy as missing yet again.
We grew adept at trying to track his movements through Facebook and via his friends – many of whom were rebelling in their own way, but seemed puzzled and alarmed, even disapproving. They were often very helpful, wanting to protect their friend who was clearly on a mission to self-destruct. We toughened up and developed a darker strain of humour to deal with the added stress.
All this long while, our second son grew quieter, sadder and more withdrawn, living in a home that had become a warzone, where furniture and parts of the house were broken every day, seeing his mum in tears or both parents struggling to keep things normal. Everything revolved around Big Brother, and we all lived in fear of the front door slamming and things ratcheting up to full-on Kill Zone again. Each of us became hyper-vigilant and anxious.
I maybe coped the best, perhaps because I’m quite pragmatic and was out of the house for long hours every day with work. Nonetheless, I was on tenterhooks every day, waiting for a call from my wife, sobbing after yet another outburst – just before I’d be due into an important work meeting. And the daily DIY did my head in – mending banisters, setting splintered doors back on their hinges, getting new glass cut for picture frames, replacing the glass in our front door and various windows, plastering over holes in the wall, painting over cracks in the walls where he’d kicked them, dealing with damage from fires he’d set around the house, etc. etc.
Our social services supported us over many years, helping my wife with counselling when things were most difficult and she struggled to get our son into school. She also drew great solace and advice from becoming a member of the POTATO group (Parents of Traumatised Adopted Teens Organisation). We went through five months of MST (Multi-Systemic Therapy) to try to keep us together, but our elder son refused to engage.
Finally, we got him Statemented (the precursor to an EHCP), and he was quickly moved to a special residential school, which eased the pressure a little. The hideous summer holidays then rolled along, every parent’s nightmare – and things escalated. Not far into them, we realised we couldn’t keep our dear boy safe any longer, recognising also how badly the situation was damaging our younger son’s mental health.
Things came to a head one day that summer, when our elder boy attacked us both with a metal pole, with attendant police officers seemingly unable to intervene. After much soul-searching, we went to social services to beg them to take our elder son into their care under a Section 20 provision. This enabled us to share parental responsibility for our son’s care, and to involve us in any decision. It was the worst day of our lives.
My wife’s counsellor had led her, and thus me as well, towards the concept of “parenting from afar”. In case you ever have to do this, it’s not the worst option. We experienced a whole variety of children’s homes with our son – some better, some worse. In the best, staff genuinely cared for their charges and sought to help and teach them rather than just house, feed and reprimand them. We learned to read between the lines of the OFSTED reports on each place to support the weaknesses, and how to get staff on side so that they’d learn to understand our son as we knew him. We’d take in photos of him in costume for football matches, Hallowe’en and with Scouts, hugging the family dog, or in charge of the sausages on a family camping trip, so that they’d understand he’d led a full life before hitting his teens, and was a person worth sticking their neck out for.
We’d make a nuisance of ourselves with residential staff at his home and his school, phoning every day for a report, so that we knew how he was getting on and so he’d know we couldn’t be together but that we cared. We travelled all over the UK every weekend to visit him, wherever he was currently living, and phoned him every day. We’ve kept on top of social services and pushed along every meeting and review – often necessary when teams have been in flux. Our son has had ten different social workers within three years.
Needless to say, this was all good for him and showed our consistency of love, but was hard on our younger son, who simply couldn’t understand our devotion following so many years of dreadful conflict. As far as he sees it, his brother simply shouldn’t act in that way and there’s no excuse for it. And so, as he too approached adolescence, he didn’t follow his brother’s path into self-medication, light crime and idolising people on tag, but withdrew increasingly from us, in spite of our many attempts to spend special time with him.
We have at least retained the tradition of sitting together for the evening meal. He’s at the stage of eating vast quantities at every sitting, and unlike his elder brother, actually likes his mum’s cooking! His best friend, girlfriend and social circle all live nearby and he’s happy at school, just getting on with his GCSEs. We manage chats with him every now and then, especially driving to matches or to gigs, trying to explain that that his brother has psychological issues and that we hope he’ll one day learn to manage these and cope with life again.
On the whole, we hope we’ll somehow muddle through with our younger boy, who’s damaged by his experiences but refuses to ‘talk things through’ with anyone he regards as a stranger. He occasionally allows a hug from one of us, and his friends like us, which is half the battle.
My wife’s currently seeing a counsellor again, however, because our latest stage with our elder son is truly challenging. Over the last six months, he sabotaged one residential set-up after another, trying to move him towards semi-independence as he approaches 18. Eventually we were told there was no further ‘Plan B’ and we had to have him home for a spell while something else was sorted out.
He doesn’t sleep at night, only in the day, so it was impossible for us to work. Everything was in lockdown again, with knives for cooking locked away as we’ve had some nasty moments in the past… He was in freefall, desperately anxious as he couldn’t see the way forward. We had few crumbs of comfort to offer him that he could accept. He broke every house rule, including the one about not smoking weed in the house. If we refused to sub him for vodka / weed / fags, he reverted to his menacing old patterns, and twice my wife found herself driving him to an assignation with a dealer, where she’d thought she was taking him to see a friend. Once, she confronted the dealer, who laughed at her desperation.
Eventually, our son moved on to stay with a birth relative, until the Leaving Care team finally moved him into a supported flat with alternating keyworkers sharing his care, and access to a therapist to help him recognise the causes and patterns for his behaviour. He is on a police caution following his latest offence, and very, very angry with us.
We were persuaded by his social worker to practise true ”tough love” – to cease all support in order to force him to accept help from the Leaving Care team. Our son’s response is to block us from all social media, and not to allow any news of himself to come to us from the authorities (a little filters through, and we know roughly where he is).
If our son causes this latest living situation to implode, he will make himself homeless, because Leaving Care will wash their hands of him. Did you know that all 18-21-year-olds are required by law since March 2017 to live with their parents unless they can afford to live independently, unless in residential education, with the armed forces, in prison, or with Leaving Care?
If he manages to stay in his flat, somehow learns to fit within the guidelines for acceptable behaviour, and eventually starts a college course in the autumn, he’ll be starting to conform to the bare minimum that society expects from an adult, and will also make himself viable for social housing once he moves on from accommodation set up by Leaving Care.
It seems this is finally sinking home, and so far, he’s managed five weeks in situ. We text most days so that he knows he remains very much in our thoughts. We only hear back when he wants money – which we always have to refuse, much to his disgust. Occasionally we manage a semi-decent conversation, always by FaceTime so he can see our faces – we know he’s drunk or high at these times, which is why he can manage it. He misses us as terribly as we miss him. Sadly, he and his younger brother have no contact at all.
So where are the gleams of sunshine in all of this, you may ask? Well, we’ve found inner strengths that we never knew we possessed. We’re still together! We’ve gained even greater admiration for members of the police, National Health Service and social services, not to mention care home staff, most of whom perform extremely challenging duties with utmost professionalism every day and under the most difficult circumstances, even in these days of financial constraints. We’ve seen young people from every background do their utmost to help those in need. We’ve been flushed out of our cosy world to confront the realities of living in social housing on dwindling benefits.
And most of all, we have the utmost love and loyalty for our two young men, both striving in their own way, to move past all the mud that life could sling at them. We’re in it for the long game – we’re told things may improve considerably by the age of 25 or 30. Would we do it all again? You bet we would.
Identities have been kept anonymous.
All the images contained in this article are for illustrative purposes only and do not depict the people featured in the story.
For further information on the POTATO organisation, see their website: Parentingadoptedteens.org.uk or email: email@example.com
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