I saw this description of bringing up teenagers the other day.
When you get into a rollercoaster, and the bar is brought down over your head and fixed over your lap, the natural instinct is to push it and try to dislodge it and test it. Of course, deep down we know that the rollercoaster is safe, and we know that the safety bar will not come loose. We know that we can push it and test it and it will not let us down – experience has taught us that.
It is similar with a teenager – when they push us and test us and find every button that they can to rile us, they are testing the boundaries. We know that our children need and like boundaries – it makes them feel safe; it helps them know where they stand and to know what is acceptable. It helps them to find their own way in the world, and from understanding our standards and our expectations, they form their own version of that for themselves to take out into the world and to use with their own families and friends as they strike out for themselves.
But the important thing is that when they test the boundaries, when they push us and test us – like the rollercoaster, deep down they know that we will not budge and that our boundaries will stick and we will keep them safe. So even when we are in the midst of the worst of the teenage years, we must hang onto the fact that we are not bad parents, and our kids are doing what they need to do to come through as well-adjusted members of our family and wider society. We are doing it right and we are helping them to feel safe, when it feels like everything else is around them is changing.
With adopted children things are slightly different. They will test your boundaries – Mac did that from just a couple of weeks of moving in. And sometimes it is really hard to keep strong – especially as you don’t really know this new person in your life. In many cases, although you will have been given some information from social workers and previous carers, it is inevitable that as they feel safer with you they will start to reveal things that they have never revealed to anyone else. And you need to stay as calm as possible and not seem shocked and try to take all of this in your stride. The answer is not to go easy – but to make those boundaries clear from the outset and stick with them.
The big difference is that, whereas children who have not had the difficult start that most adopted children have had will instinctively trust you – with our rollercoaster analogy, they know the bar will hold – adopted children expect the safety bar to fail. Their experience is that when pushed it does fail as that has been their experience up to now. So, consequently their instinct is not to trust adults as they will have been let down a number of times before. Their lives will have been turned upside down without fully understanding why and without their prior knowledge or consent. It’s not surprising that they have learned not to trust. With adopted children you need to gain their trust first – to prove to them that however much they push, the safety bar will not fail; that you will not let them down.
Boundaries, and sticking with them, are even more important with adopted kids. Those boundaries will make them feel safe.
Of course we had that with Mac – he pushed and pushed and we stayed firm. He would hit out – emotionally and sometimes physically – and we tried our best to roll with it and keep to our promises – our promise never to hurt him. If we promised we would be somewhere to pick him up at a certain time, we made doubly sure that we would be there on time. If we promised that we would do something the next day – we would make sure that we did it. And slowly he learned that we kept our word. Slowly he learned that we would not let him down. Slowly he learned that we loved him – and he loved us in return.
Along with the instinct not to trust came other interesting qualities with Mac:
- He could eye up a room in a second and see if anything was different – if something was missing or had been moved. I guess as he moved a number of times he needed to be particularly aware of what was around him.
- He had a great sense of direction. He only needed to do a journey once and he would know how to get somewhere. Whenever we were near places he had lived before he would always be able to recognise them, even though he might not have been there since he was very young.
- His emotional intelligence was high – particularly with adults. He had learned how to get on with and charm adults with ease – a very necessary step to fit in with new carers. The same skill was not there with his peers – but I think that was because he was so desperate to make friends that he missed some of the necessary signs. But as I have said before, as he got older, and less desperate to fit in at all costs, he began to move between different groups of friends, and was often the peacemaker or the person to listen to problems.
I have tried not to have regrets – and I promised myself the day Mac died that regretting things was just a waste of time. But I do regret not seeing how Mac would have grown even more into the fine young man that he had already become, and I regret not being able to see how he might have put his skills to use. I was always sure that he would have gone into some sort of caring profession – his ability to care for those more vulnerable than him was always evident.
But putting those regrets aside, I am intensely proud of the man that he had become and the way that he had embraced the problems from his past and used them to help him grow.
So wherever you are and until we meet again, I want you to know that I will always be proud of you Mac, love Dad xxxx