"We don't do this, we do this"
We've spent an educational and inspiring evening in the company of Lorraine Lee, a Parenting Practitioner who has set up her own consultancy ReCap.
The subject of the seminar was managing anger and strong emotions in your children and family. In a very down to earth and practical way we learnt new strategies as to how you might diffuse confrontational situations within our family.
Often this kind of training, in common with the conversations we have had with child psychologists, is affirmatory rather than revelatory, in the sense that it confirms the strategies we have developed to manage the challenges we have faced have not been far off the advice professionals have subsequently given.
Tonight, one of the things Lorraine Lee advised was how important it is to find the strategy that bed calms your child at moments of stress or anger.
That reminded us both of different situations in the early days of adopting our son.
When we adopted him he had come from a background where he had witnessed a considerable amount of violence, between his birth parents and in the wider context of the community within which they lived. He was three years old and, on top of the normal challenges a toddler has in regulating their own behaviour, he additionally often parroted the angry and conflict ridden situations he had witnessed.
He had then moved in to foster care where his first foster placement had broken down, so by the time we came to meet him he was in his second foster home, where for the first time he was in a happy, safe and nurturing environment.
During our transition week we spent the first few days collecting him from the foster home, taking him out for the day. On the first day we found ourselves in a play park where our son fell over. In his distress he was rejecting of both of us and crying for his foster mother. Our initial reaction was to try and comfort him, it became clear that this wasn’t going to work, so we packed ourselves into the car and headed back towards his foster home.
At that point, in an attempt to stop him crying, I began to sing to him. He had previously told us he knew the words to "Twinkle Little Star', so I sang my own version for him:
Twinkle twinkle little star
How I wonder what you are
Are you Bum Bum, Poo Poo or Willy?
Are you Daddy, 'cos he's silly?
He stopped crying. I sang it again. He began to smile. I sang it again, he began to giggle and joined in. He changed his mind about returning to the foster home and we continued our day together. To this day singing that song, or indeed anything, has the ability to stop our son in his tracks, calm him, and create the space to let his adrenaline subside.
In the early days of our son living with us it became clear that he found it difficult to deal with anger. He would become very angry, very quickly, even more so that the temper tantrums you would normally expect from a toddler. Yet he would turn this anger on his head, screwing up his face, balling his hands into fists and pressing them against his forehead. On the rare occasions he would hit out at either of us he would be overcome immediately with enormous remorse. Becoming far more upset with his own behaviour rather than the cause of his anger in the first place. Borne, we suspected, of the fear he felt at the violent retaliation from his birth parents that would have followed previously.
J is an exceptionally kind, calm and decent man. I wish I could be more like him. He would become very distressed himself at these situations and very quickly developed a strategy to deal with them.
When our son was pummelling his forehead J would kneel in front of him. "We don't do this," J would say, copying the forehead punching action, "we do this," and he would open his arms to hug our son, holding him until he calmed down.
That's a strategy we didn't need to use after our son had been with us for 6 months, but it is one that we still enact on days when he is getting very worked up. He stops, smiles (eventually) and joins in the hug.
So thank you, Lorraine, for an evening that taught us much and that also taught us that much that we have done is not far away from the excellent advice you would have given us at the time.