Several months ago I was tweeting about a book I was reading and finding particularly useful: Attachment-Focused Parenting by the American Child Psychologist Dan Hughes. Every community of people bound by an experience has its heroes and Dan Hughes is a hero to many of those living and working with the child survivors of neglect and abuse. His work provides an oasis amongst the scrap yard of chronic misunderstanding.
A tweeter replied,
‘He’s speaking at our conference. Would you like to come?’
It was the best offer I’d had in a while.
The hall was packed with psychologists. An optimism of psychologists might be an appropriate collective noun. They were welcoming and friendly. There was a sprinkling of adopters and foster carers. We looked like we had been let out on day release.
Dan Hughes showed some DVD clips to illustrate his approach. He is relentlessly curious with the children he works with, does not judge or blame, shows them that he gets why they are so angry with the hand life has dealt them, and then bravely steps into what has become for the child and often the adults around them, a no man’s land – the past. He helps children to make sense of their lives, gifts them with an alternative narrative which counters their own ‘I am bad’ toxic interpretation.
The day was great but one thing gnawed at me. My ongoing experience of adoption is one of sparse support. Here I was amongst a roomful of several hundred psychologists and therapists. Where do they work? Why have I never come across them before? There were two other eminent speakers; Colwyn Trevarthan and Graham Music. They talked of work going on within the NHS where no one said ‘children are very robust’ nor ‘all we can offer is a prescription for ADHD medication’ nor ‘here’s my invoice’. Have I just not fought hard enough I wondered.
I took the opportunity to ask Dan Hughes a question.
‘I have an adopted son who is 11. We have a good relationship and we have made progress over the years. But since he started secondary school he has become more and more challenging. He is now refusing to eat, to wash, to go to bed. He has aggressive and violent outbursts. I’m trying close supervision but he hates it. Where do I go from here?’
I wanted to be brief so I didn’t mention the stealing, the insatiable desire for sugar and the sexualised talk. I kicked myself that my voice had betrayed so much emotion. Dan’s response was useful and helped me to mentally pull myself out of the mire. But he mentioned the need for therapeutic support.
‘I have to say that the only therapeutic support we receive is what we pay for privately,’ I said, my voice bumping over another clot of emotion.
There were open mouths and a chasm of hopelessness engulfed the room. I felt bad for raining on the parade. But these things have to be said. As we packed up to go home other adopters approached me. It was no surprise that they were telling stories with the same themes; vulnerable and damaged children, traumatised carers, lack of support. I wish we had had more time to talk.
I understand there are signs the government’s adoption reforms might be slowing now that the measures and scorecards (aka the cheap and easy stuff) are being put into place. It is not so easy to measure human struggle in black and white terms, less easy still for the worn down to prove that they need help. For me it’s a no-brainer but I think I can guess where this is going.
Thanks to everyone I met yesterday. It was a joy to be amongst you all!