Case study: Sean, Adoptive Parent
Sean lives with his wife, Jo and their two adopted children: Charlotte, aged 13, and Samuel, aged 10. Charlotte was 3 years old and Samuel was 2 and a half years old when they were adopted by Sean and Jo. They are not birth siblings, although both children have birth siblings and there is currently letterbox contact.
Charlotte was removed from her birth parents due to drug addiction and neglect. Charlotte was placed in foster care initially before being adopted.
Samuel was relinquished by his mother at birth and then experienced multiple placements in foster care, often short lived, including one placement that lasted just one week.
Charlotte presents with global development delay and has a developmental age of 7 or 8. She attends a special needs school, but beyond that her behaviour isn’t particularly troubling or challenging.
Samuel, on the other hand, became more tricky to parent from the age of 7, as he started to question his history. The behavioural boundaries that Samuel had always accepted when he was younger were constantly challenged. He seemed to reject any parenting and questioned everything. When Sean and Jo responded to this with standard behavioural approaches, everything got worse. ‘As parents, we felt like we were failing,’ says Sean.
‘When our social worker suggested we try a Nurturing Attachment Group with Families Empowered, I didn’t see the need,’ explains Sean, ‘until I came to the first group session and then realised there really was a need!’
Sean goes on, ‘Our DDP practitioners, Debbie and Hilary, demonstrated their expertise and understanding with real empathy, which was very warming and gave us the confidence to share and not feel judged. Whatever our reactions and responses, there was no judgement. Reflecting on our own experiences was encouraged and Debbie and Hilary were both really accommodating, their empathy minimising any fear when asking awkward questions or sharing things that maybe we weren’t so proud of.’
The group gave Sean and Jo a different understanding of Samuel’s difficulties and led to a change in how they parent him. Everything they tried previously, using a behavioural model, was either a short lived success or didn’t have any impact at all.
Sean admits that it hadn’t occurred to him before the group that adopted children require a different approach. One of the challenges for adoptive parents, he says, is to understand what their children have been through: ‘I sometimes try to imagine what it has been like for Samuel. As a parent this is difficult. Besides the written history it’s having to handle the behaviours resulting from the trauma.’
The modules really related well to the needs of Samuel and talking to other group members was really helpful in understanding other people are going through similar things. Learning and understanding developed over each of the three modules, with every session and every subject covered feeling relevant. Understanding how developmental trauma and the impact of Samuel’s early life experiences influence his attachment patterns of behaviour was key. Sean adds ‘The ‘choice and consequences session’ was a lightbulb moment when I thought, ‘why didn’t I think of that before?’’
‘We can see the signs clearly now when Samuel is starting to wobble, using the volcano analogy, and now we intervene differently,’ he continues, ‘the group changed our way of thinking, so engrained from our childhoods with the behavioural focus, and now we understand what his behaviour is communicating – what’s behind it. The group has guided us through this process and helped us with how to react to and deal with different situations. We can see the improvements in Samuel since we joined the group and Samuel would say that home life is better since his parents have accessed the group!’
School is really challenging for Samuel and, following the group, Sean works closely with the school to help them focus on ‘attunement’. Sean describes how Samuel gets ‘lost’ in the school system which sees one teacher and one teaching assistant across 30 children, compounded by the change in teachers from year to year. After participating in the Nurturing Attachment Group, Sean feels he is more ‘clued up’ to help the teachers understand where Samuel is coming from and to smooth some of these transitions for Samuel. Sean has shared the PACE approach with the school, which has been welcomed, but his teacher continues to find it difficult to implement with the current class size.
‘The general support from the group has been priceless – hearing other people’s experiences of the difficulties their children were having, particularly in school, was reassuring,’ Sean says. He mentions that his group created a WhatsApp channel to stay in touch and intends to meet up in the near future: ‘we’re all keen to continue our ongoing support for each other’.
Would Sean recommend a Nurturing Attachment Group to other adoptive parents? ‘Yes, without hesitation. It was a great experience and I wish it had been available earlier. It’s a game changer in parenting!’
In conversation with Liz Stirrat, February 2020
Meet some more of our families
Lucy took on two of her great-grandsons when their parents' struggles with drug addiction exposed their serious neglect. As the boys grew older, their behaviour became increasingly difficult and Lucy's relationship with them and their school was very troubled indeed. Find out how she shifted approach and turned a corner.
Susan is the Special Guardian for her granddaughter as well as her niece's daughter - both sets of parents struggle with drug addiction.
It's been a rocky road but learning about attachment difficulties and exploring her own parenting style therapeutically have transformed their family life.
Sean's adopted son was often really challenging to parent but Sean didn't think he really needed help. Then he met Families Empowered and realised this kind of support was exactly what he needed. Sean discovered how to move beyond traditional parenting models and respond to his child's early life trauma to build a happier family all round.