Monthly Archives: March 2013

A PHSE lesson taps into trauma

A seemingly happy family play cricket on the beach but very quickly things become sinister. The father shouts loudly and menacingly at his son and on the return home takes his son upstairs and beats him with a cricket bat.  The physical abuse takes place off-camera but the screaming is heard as the mother cries ineffectually downstairs.  There is a further abuse scene and a glimpse of the boys bruised and shattered back.

‘It’s what my father taught me’ says the father, ‘the stump for disobedience, the bat for insolence’.

The same boy is attacked in the street by a bully, with bruises on his arms.

‘Did your dad do that?’ the bully is asked.

‘It’s passed on,’ says another child.

‘I’m never having kids then,’ says the boy.

Whenever the boy is in difficulty an imaginary friend appears to support him.  At the end it is revealed that she the ghost of a child who was killed by her parent, one of fifty children murdered by a parent every year in the UK.

By way of some resolution, the mother finally gets the courage to report the abuse to a teacher and social services and the police get involved.  The voice-over tells us that the police will ‘think about prosecuting him’ but he will be offered counselling and this may help him to escape prosecution.

This short film is called ‘Beyond the Boundary’ and was made by the BBC and shown to my son as part of a Year 8 PHSE lesson, which was given by a cover teacher.  He is twelve and before being taken into care was physically abused; abuse which has left him with deep and long-lasting trauma.

When he came home on the day of the lesson I immediately knew that something was wrong.  His eyes flicked around the kitchen, he paced like a caged animal and kept picking up objects and putting them down.  Then he said with dramatic force ‘the bat for insolence’ before picking up a serrated knife ‘no this would be better, because this would cut as well as bruise.’  I managed to calm him enough to cook with me, an activity which usually gives him some peace.  He told me about the film, as it turns out, almost word for word. As he talked, every cooking utensil we used was assessed for the pain it could cause.

The remainder of the evening was very difficult.  His distress turned to anger and we narrowly avoided a complete loss of control.  He talked about never being able to have children because if he did he would hurt them.  The following evening was much the same and even yesterday, three days after seeing it he said ‘I still don’t feel like myself’.  He seems listless and sad.

His reactions will be recognisable to many who work with or parent traumatised children. The film projected him straight back into a place of deep, crippling fear, helplessness and physical pain.  The feelings are real and overwhelming and as they were not experienced in a place that feels safe (school) they were bottled and discharged somewhere he does feel safe (home).

Jamie’s school have mostly been supportive and understanding of his needs and have gone the extra mile.  However this one lesson was a small disaster, for Jamie at least, and who knows for how many other children effected by abuse who may or may not have parents who can speak out for them.  The school have been quick to apologise and have leant me the DVD.  I watched it wondering how much of it Jamie had imagined. As it happened he was pretty much spot on, apart from the subtle message which was delivered at the end.  Apparently the abused don’t necessarily have to go on to abuse, if they decide not to.  Well before the time that simplistic message was cackhandedly delivered Jamie was perceiving the drama, not in the cognitive parts of his brain, but deep down where trauma is stored.

I don’t know what the intention of the film was.  I don’t understand why it had to depict the abuse, why it was so woolly about the criminality of what was clear physical assault, why it didn’t inform children what to do if they are suffering abuse when aside from the abuser all the adults seemed flaky and ineffectual.  It was crass, confused and badly scripted.  In showing it to a class of thirty 12 and 13 year olds, two popular but damaging misconceptions were demonstrated; the first is that children ‘bounce back’ from abuse and can therefore take such material and the second is that abuse happens to those outside of our realm of experience.  Neither are true.

My Stationery Drawer of Sanity

Trying not to Sweat the Small Stuff is an ongoing personal battle of mine.  I am reformed to the extent that I can button it when a packet of Penguins disappear from the cupboard, or the remains of a minor amateur haircut lie on the bathroom floor and even when a game of noughts and crosses has been played out in felt tip on the knee of a pair of jeans, but there is one group of items which I cannot bear to see abused: stationery.

Now I love stationery.  I love pens and pencils, rubbers and pencil sharpeners, paper and rulers.  The sight of a new bic biro (has to be black) or a V7 Hi-Tecpoint (red or green) warms my heart and for me the excitement of a French hypermarket lies not in the wine aisle but in the vast choice of Oxford notebooks, with their elaborate lining and grid patterns and covers and superior bindings.  The French know a thing or two about good quality notebooks.


A little part of the joy of getting to the end of the summer holidays is the opportunity to procure stationery for the new school year.  I take care in choosing geometry sets, calculators, the softest coloured pencils, a packet of bic biros, pencils with rubbers on the end and just the right pencil-case.  And then I label everything and feel joyous.

After a week, no less, three days, most of the perfect contents of the carefully chosen pencil-case will have been almost entirely lost or disfigured and there will be a note in the school planner saying ‘J did not have anything to write with today’ or ‘R does not appear to have a pencil-case’ and I will literally shout until I am hoarse.  I will shout because someone has sharpened an entire pencil into their pencil case, I will shout because a rubber has been bitten into tiny pieces and I will shout because the bic biro has been sharpened, the top lost and the end crushed into pointy shards.  On Sunday evening I will fume whilst trying to gather some semblance of a replacement pencil case together and contemplate writing to school to explain that I am not a some dope-smoking sofa mother who would send her child to school without something to write with, much as the evidence might say otherwise.  I know, it’s not all about me and both children bite and and snap and chew because they are anxious at school. I know all the reasons and I know that shouting will not improve matters.  But pencil case destruction REALLY PISSES ME OFF.

This has been going on for months and months now and to avoid the helpless shouting and nagging I have devised a system which I know will not work, but I am enjoying the execution of it nevertheless.  Here is is.


It is the stationery draw of sanity.  It is mainly supplied from the pound shop or Morrisons and the Crayola pencils are for homework only.  If anyone has lost or destroyed an item then they must kneel before me and buy a replacement with their hard-earned pocket money.  Then they must sit in shame whilst I label the item and deliver a sermon about the eternal wonderment of the brand new pen.  I know, you won’t read anything like this by experts in child trauma, but I bet they’ve never had to clean up after all the ink has been sucked out of a biro.

I am trying, hopelessly perhaps, to try and build a connection between earning money, buying something, breaking that something, and the natural consequence to that.  I expect to be blogging about how consequences don’t work soon enough, but for now, just indulge me a little and let me enjoy my stationery draw of sanity.

Three Cheers for Elizabeth Butler-Sloss

The retired judge, Baroness Elizabeth Butler-Sloss is in my opinion, a brick.  I have long admired her for her no nonsense, common sense approach to complex problems, her humanity and her sharp intelligence. She is never mealy-mouthed, but straight as a die, and posh, in a good way.

Despite retirement, she clearly keeps busy and has been chairing the Lords Committee on the government’s adoption legislation.  This morning, as I hounded children through our morning routine, her well-bred, sensible tones cut through the chaos and rode the airwaves.  Adoption is not right for all children she explained and many of the 60,000 in care have very complex needs.  I needed more from her so later I braved the tobacco queue in Morrisons and bought some newspapers in the hope that some column inches had been allocated to her. I found her article in The Guardian, subtitled ‘The government fails to realise that post-adoption support is as important as finding families quickly‘ and was not disappointed.  In it she points out the ‘nonsense’ that is the obligation on Local Authorities to assess adoptive families for support alongside the lack of obligation upon them to provide any.  The draft bill still does not give adopters any right to support and is a glaring omission.  To combat the ‘but there’s no money’ shrugging and helplessness, she sensibly points out how much the state saves by placing a child for adoption: around £25,000 per child, per year.  On adoption breakdown, she says,

‘We do not know how many adopted children this affects, but it’s unacceptable that there is no robust data collection to support it.’

She has understood, what many adopters have known and lived through for a long time; we are an absolute gift to a society buckling under social breakdown and debt, we offer free, long term stability, repair and love to the benefit not only of emotionally damaged children, but to the benefit of society as a whole and yet we are left begging for scraps of essential therapeutic and support services.  When we buckle under the strain, as some of us do, it can feel as though, the state, which was so keen to recruit us in the first place, now doesn’t give a shit.  If adoptive placements break down, no one seems bothered about trying to repair them, or to learn any lessons which could feed back into improvements.  I have observed adoption breakdown at close quarters and the impact on that child’s life of adoption breakdown, which may well have been prevented if any support at all had been provided, has been catastrophic.  It has also been very costly to the state in cold economic terms.

I have no idea whether the government will see sense and follow the recommendations of  Elizabeth Butler-Sloss and her committee but if they don’t they may be accused of trying to both have their cake and eat it, which is just plain greedy.


Did I mention I’ve written a book?

I have always written.  As a small child I wrote about everything which happened in my tiny life; the day my parents bought a freezer, how much I enjoyed fish fingers, the fire in the chip shop at the end of our road.  As a teenager I wrote at length about friends and boys and smoking and clothes and won a short story competition. In my twenties I droned on about how awesome the universe was and yet how dull my life.  Then I stopped.

What got me writing again was finding myself on the outside of things.  As I got older, everyone around me had babies.  Everywhere I turned there were babies, everywhere I went people talked about babies, I would turn on the television and yes, you’ve guessed it, babies.  Even ‘Friends’ were having babies, even ‘Sex and the City’ were spawning.  My husband Rob and I, on the other hand, try as we might, did not have any babies.

To cut a long story short, we found ourselves adopting two children from the care system and that’s when life really got interesting. We have grown to love our children very much, but because of the less than ideal early lives they have experienced, parenting them is not like parenting a healthy birth child. Writing became a way of dealing with heaps of challenges, many of which we have had to face alone.

My diaries started to take shape as a book when I came to realise that our lives, in a small way were epic.  We were living family life in full colour, at full volume, at full speed.  I made a few connections with other adopters and their family lives matched ours almost precisely.  I began to hear over and over ‘but no one understands our children’, and ‘we feel so isolated’ and even ‘it’s as though our children are blamed for the way they are’.  Our loud, colourful lives were not reflected in other people’s lives, nor on the television, nor in the newspapers and were often not being given credence by educators and health professionals.

Over two and a half years I wrote an account of our little epic lives; the high points, the struggles, the sadness, the bizarre and the breakthroughs.  Hard work and a bit of serendipity have resulted in the book being brought into reality by Jessica Kingsley Publishers and it will be available in July of this year.  It is called ‘No Matter What: an Adoptive Family’s Story of Hope, Love and Healing’.  This week I have been looking at the cover artwork and talking over the publicity.  It is something I never imagined would happen and every step is a total joy.

More than anything I hope that those struggling with infertility, or those parenting or working with traumatised children, or indeed any children who don’t fit the mould, will read my book and recognise something of their own experiences.   I have worked hard to be truthful and honest, to strip away the gloss, and the sugar coating that adoption can sometimes be smothered in, and also to celebrate the joys and the rewards of parenting differently.  And at the risk of coming over too worthy, I also hope that the book is a rollicking good read.