Case study: Susan, Special Guardian
Susan has three grown up children. She is also a Special Guardian for Poppy and Lilly. Poppy, aged 11, is Susan’s niece’s daughter. Lilly, aged 7, is Susan’s granddaughter, through her daughter, Helen. Susan lives with her partner, Sam.
Poppy went to live with Susan when she was one year old. She had been removed by social care after a police raid at her home revealed she was suffering severe neglect due to both her parents’ struggles with drug addiction. Poppy’s mother asked Susan if she would look after Poppy.
Lilly has been in Susan’s care since she was two years old. Helen, Susan’s daughter, struggles with heroin addiction. Lilly had been placed by Social Care with another family member and various foster families, but these placements had each broken down. Lilly had experienced multiple moves before she came to live with Susan.
‘It was organised chaos’, recalls Susan, ‘I got everything done, but it was always chaotic. I had two dogs, my partner and five grandchildren who I looked after on and off, alongside Lilly and Poppy!’ She continues, ‘Any demanding behaviour from the girls was usually met with a reaction that sent us all into orbit.’
Susan’s SGO Support Worker suggested she try a Families Empowered Nurturing Attachment Group (NAGs). ‘I didn’t really know what to expect’, Susan says. But after attending her first session of NAGs, Susan describes it as ‘a magnet that made me want to come back each week and learn more and more!’ Before attending this therapeutic group, Susan had focussed on obtaining a diagnosis of ADHD for her granddaughter, Lilly. ‘Looking back, it wasn’t until coming to the group I began to realise that the behaviours Lilly was displaying were actually linked to her early trauma’, she says.
Susan believes it was the way the Nurturing Attachment Group was delivered that has made all the difference: ‘The group was delivered in such an empathic way: both for the children and their carers. Liz and Debbie were clearly knowledgeable and the way the information was presented made me feel at ease. It also felt very personal – they took a genuine interest in us and our children’s lives. They cared about our fears and understood the struggles.’
She continues, ‘The shared experience of the group was really important as we all learnt to understand and trust one another. Once I could trust I could relax and then learn. I was able to relate this to my children’s experience and their need to build trust before anything else could change. This was a big lesson for me. Plus, having examples from other people in the group and hearing their stories and perspectives really helped to put it all in context.’
‘It’s the best thing I ever did,’ Susan says. ‘I learnt that each child will present their trauma very differently and I now understand how different attachment patterns of behaviour are linked to the shield of shame. I learnt how hidden trauma is trapped in the child’s subconscious and I became more aware of how scared the children are, they just don’t have the words to articulate it – and how it’s my job to find out, which I only learnt through Liz and Debbie.’
Susan explains how she has been able to understand both Poppy and Lilly and be more empathic since NAGs. She recounts how Poppy says she feels better and doesn’t feel like there is something wrong with her. When Susan looks back at photographs of Poppy taken before she came to the group, she sees now that she had deep sadness and trauma in her eyes. ‘It’s been wonderful to see how she has opened up like a flower over the last 18 months and is now showing her true potential’, Susan says.
‘It is very confusing for grandparents, aunts and uncles in my situation. Sometimes I feel angry with myself that I didn’t see it until I really began to understand attachment disorder. It’s like a miracle cure because it transforms the child who can then learn to trust. The hardest bit is getting other people to understand the depths of the children’s experience. But following NAGS, I feel strong enough to tackle situations head on when my children are being made to feel shame and help to educate other people. All Special Guardians should have the opportunity to attend these groups!’
And the organised chaos of the past? ‘Since the group, routines have become much more of a focus as maintaining calm routines makes such a difference,’ Susan reflects. ‘Remaining sedate, responsive and available keeps the calm and tranquility. These days, mornings are calm, clothes are laid out, breakfast is prepared in advance and knowing each aspect of their day is carefully managed has made a significant difference to the children’s lives.’
It’s not all done and dusted though, now the group is finished: ‘attending the group has made me want to continue to research and learn – I realise this is an ongoing journey for us all as the girls grow and things change. But I definitely feel better prepared for the challenges ahead,’ Susan adds.
In conversation with Liz Stirrat, December 2019
Meet some more of our families
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.
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.