The Honeymoon Period (and beyond!!)

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It is usual for there to be a honeymoon period when a child first moves in with you for adoption.  For a period of time, it is likely that the child is going to try as hard as possible to make sure that you like them and that you will want them to stay.  This was certainly true of Mac.  He was so keen to have a new family of his own that his behaviour was exemplary

For the first couple of weeks everything went really well.  But we knew this wasn’t the real Mac.  We knew he wasn’t really telling us everything.  He didn’t really want to ask for anything, so would say,

“I thought you might like a biscuit”,

which was his way of saying that he would really like a biscuit himself.  But we managed to read through some of the code and he seemed very happy at home.  We quickly found the things that he really needed to feel safe (helpfully prompted in many cases by Sue and Mark’s tips to us).

For much of Mac’s childhood he had been short of food, or not sure where the next meal would be coming from.  So to be really happy to go to bed, he always wanted to know that there was a glass of water and a packet of biscuits in his bedroom.

Mac was always worried when we dropped him off at school that we would not pick him up, so we always made sure that one of us was at the school in plenty of time and in the same place so that he could see us as soon as he was let out of the classroom.

Some things would set Mac into a meltdown for no apparent reason.  He hated loud noises and shouting and particularly hated it if someone knocked on the door too loudly.  We eventually found out that he had a memory of someone knocking down his birth parents’ door with an axe coming after his father.  The memory always haunted him and sometimes appeared in his dreams.

We also found out that Mac was terrified of what would happen if he broke something.  If he dropped a cup or a plate, he would get really scared that he was going to be told off.  We always made sure that we were very calm and explained to him that it didn’t matter and was an accident and that he was much more important than anything material.  Adopted children come with all of this baggage and it takes some time to unpack everything and start to help them overcome these memories – sometimes all you can do is help them live with it.  We always encouraged Mac to talk to us about these things so that we could try to help him.  Over time it is inevitable that memories will come out that you won’t have been told – part of the role of an adoptive parent is to help deal with all of that. 

So we enjoyed the honeymoon period with Mac.  Things were going so well.  But we knew enough to know this was going to change.  Sure enough after just two weeks the honeymoon period ended.  Mac had decided to see where the boundaries really were.

Of course, most adopted children have very low self-esteem.  They will have suffered so much neglect and rejection that they really find it hard to trust or to really believe that anything is going to be permanent – after all their experience so far is that nothing lasts for ever.  They have always had to move on.  And whatever they have been told, they will think all of that is their fault.  So the behaviour starts to change as they look for the boundaries to see what they can really get away with.

I’m a great believer that all children need boundaries.  They find a safety in knowing how far they can push you and that you care enough to react and to out rules in place.  And as they grow those boundaries will continue to be tested and you will make decisions about how they might change.

Mac, in common with many looked after-children, will really push boundaries as far as they can.  I think for Mac, he wanted to push as hard as he could because he didn’t really believe that we wouldn’t change our minds and decide that we didn’t want him – after all that had happened to him in the last adoptive placement he had been in.  Why should we be any different?

So Swee and I were very clear with him about what was and wasn’t acceptable.  But we also made it clear to him that whatever he did, we would always love him and always want to be his parents.  That consistency was really important to keep to.  But I can promise you that it was not always easy.

Bedtime

Mac was normally very good at going to bed.  He enjoyed being in his bedroom.  We had made sure it was a comfortable place where Mac could always feel safe.  We established a bedtime routine of a bubble bath (he always loved lovely smells and bubbles), going downstairs to say goodnight to Swee, followed by my reading him a bedtime story and saying his bedtime prayer.  He would then snuggle down and go to sleep.  I would normally come back up half an hour or so later to check that he was asleep.  There’s nothing better than seeing your child snuggled up in bed sleeping soundly.

This routine to begin with always worked, but one night, as the honeymoon period came to an end, he decided he wasn’t going to go to bed.  He sat cross-legged on the kitchen table and decided he wasn’t going to budge!  I wasn’t really sure what I was going to do next.  I didn’t want to get straight into punishments so I made it clear that he had to go to bed and that I would sit at the kitchen table with him until he decided to do as he had been told.  Of course, I hadn’t any further plan, and Mac was in a determined mood.

We sat for what seemed like an eternity, and must have been an hour.  I was insisting that he should go to bed or he would feel tired and grumpy in the morning and he had decided he wasn’t going anywhere.  Not only was he not moving, he was being moody and rude. 

“I bet you were never like this for Sue and Mark”, I said.

“Yes, I was!”, he retorted.

So I decided to phone Sue and Mark to see if that might change the mood.  He really didn’t think I would, so I rang their number, hoping and praying that they were there.  Mark answered the phone.

“Hi Mark,” I said, “It’s Richard here.  I’m afraid Mac is being very naughty tonight.  He tells me he was like that at you house.”

Mark played ball.

“No”, he said, “he was never rude to us.”

“Would you like to talk to him?” I said.  (Mac poked his tongue out at me!)

And with that Mac picked up the phone, put his best voice on and talked politely to Mark.  It was enough to change the mood, and when he had finished on the phone, he stomped up the stairs and went to bed, and was soon asleep.

To be fair to Mac, he always woke up happy, whatever had happened the night before.  It was often the evenings when he played up, usually because he was tired.  It is not unusual for adopted and looked-after children to need more sleep – day to day life just tends to be more emotionally draining for them.

The other times when Mac would play up was if we had people round after he went to bed.  He hated the feeling that he was missing out on something.  One evening I was out and Swee had my sister round.  Mac had seen Sandra, and then went off to bed.  But he couldn’t resist coming down and despite being told repeatedly would not go back to bed.  Eventually, after having tried several times, Swee said that she would shut the sitting room door and he would just have to go off to bed.  So as Swee marched out of the sitting room, he caught hold of her top by the sleeve.  As cool as you like, Swee managed to get herself out of her top and Mac was left stranded with just her top in his hand.  She shut the door and told him to go to bed one more time.

Mac realised he had been outwitted and stomped upstairs leaving  my sister open-mouthed and my wife standing in just her bra.  But she had won the battle and the boundary had been set.

It wasn’t just us that Mac played up at bedtimes.  To be honest we didn’t really leave Mac very much.  We felt it was important that he had consistency, knowing that one of us was always around for him.  But we knew it was important to be able to go out and to have other people be able to babysit.

The first time we went out, we asked my sister to babysit.  We only went out to the local pub, just in case there were any problems.  So we went out and had a lovely evening.  When we got back all was quiet – Mac was asleep in bed and Sandra was watching the TV.  It seemed everything had gone swimmingly….

However, not all was as it seems.  Mac decided he was going to play a trick on his Aunty Sandra.  He had a bath, they read a story and he went to bed happily.  But he knew that she would come up to check on him – so he decided to hide in the wardrobe.

My sister came upstairs and was beside herself.  In the moment, she didn’t think to look anywhere and was convinced she had lost him – what would she do and what would we say!?  Of course, she did then start looking around and there he was quietly sitting in the wardrobe waiting for her to find him.  He thought it was very funny – I’m not sure my sister was as amused!

One of the more surprising and endearing things that Mac did happened very quickly.  Once Mac had gone to bed, the rule was that he was not allowed downstairs again.  Sometimes we would hear him pottering around upstairs.

The first time we heard him do this he was going into our bedroom.  When we went to bed ourselves we found a little note on our pillow – Mac’s writing and spelling was not great at this point, but we were starting to get good at deciphering it – he had written a note saying how happy he was and that he loved us.   This was the first of many notes from Mac – sometimes it was to say sorry, or to say he had a good day, or just to tell us how he felt.  It became a really important way for him to communicate with us.  Eventually it stopped, but did go on for a few years.  We still have them all.

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