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I attended this workshop by Janina Fisher as an adoptive mother, complementary therapy practitioner (acupuncture and craniosacral therapy), and as the chair of special guardians and adopters together. I have a background in psychology, studying this subject in the 1970s, but for my career and work I chose a different path to psychology. I was drawn instead by Chinese medicine – by classical acupuncture, and by the fact that emotions are not separated from the body but an integral part of it. I went on to undertake a PhD researching acupuncture as a treatment for depression, funded by the National Institute for Health Research. Now, forty years later, after my journey with the emotions and how they impact on the body/mind began, I am thrilled to see that mainstream science has finally caught up with what the Chinese knew milennia ago. How amazing that Bessel Van der Kolk’s book – ‘The Body Keeps the Score’, is, I am reliably informed, the best selling medical book of all time! But I find, as a complementary therapist and a woman, that whilst neuroscience has unified there are disciplinary schisms that remain and an infrastructure in academia that can disempower. There is also never any reference to adoption and to working with adoptive parents to support traumatised children in the workshops on trauma I attend as a professional and I did not expect this event to be any different. I doubt that any of the psychologists or psychiatrists who deliver these trauma workshops and write books on trauma would know what a ‘Special Guardian’ is. There is no reason they should, but it is a great shame, because we adopters and special guardians raise children who are deeply affected by trauma, and we very badly need understanding from professionals that support us. I absolutely know how much shame holds traumatised children and young people back, and whilst there are many examples of excellent practice, professionals do not always help us. Adopters and special guardians are incredibly vulnerable to themselves being ‘blamed and shamed’ as inadequate parents/carers, because of a legislation infrastructure in the UK developed in the 1980s (long before knowledge existed about adverse childhood experiences and the devastating impact of childhood trauma), that desperately needs review and reconsideration when it causes harm to those it is intended to serve. Unless one has personal experience of ‘what can go wrong’ it seems it is unlikely much attention will be paid by those who are not affected who are often blissfully unaware of problems due to a concerning lack of transparency about them and unwillingness to give them much thought by the powers that be. Anyway, enough of this slightly ranting pre-amble, I went to Janina Fisher’s workshop to learn about shame so that I could be a better therapist and parent myself, and to think about how shame is impacting on adoptive and special guardianship children and families.

Janina did not disappoint! Her compassion, humanity, care, shining intelligence and years of clinical experience gave one the feeling of being in the hands of a master practitioner. Listening to her speak, her warm and modulated voice captivated one’s interest throughout.

Shame is a barrier to the healing of trauma Janina explained. She described how shame can so easily be triggered by a therapist, and even a therapist who offers great relational empathy, may be frustrated by the client who is ‘stuck in shame’, unable to move forwards. Empathy alone is not enough. Shame has become a deeply formed habit, a familiar and safe way of being in the world, a survival response that becomes ingrained because of ‘procedural learning’ from childhood experiences. To help the client move through shame and beyond it, the client has to first to be helped to to see the protective value of their shame. This first step may serve to ‘de-shame’ the shame. It provides what Janina described as a ‘Huh’ moment. A crack through which a client can see different possibilities. This has to be done with great care because shame offers such powerful protective benefits, with two types of clients described: those whose shame led to more shame, and those whose shame led to anger. Both involve vicious cycles of shame triggering more shame or triggering anger which triggers more shame.

Putting words to shame ‘you are so stupid’, ‘you are disgusting’, ‘you are a failure’, intensifies the shame response, and unfortunately our children believe the words as the truth. As Janina put it “the self loathing does its job at the cost of their self esteem”. The key to helping clients move through shame was through working directly with the body, with Janina’s preferred approach of Sensorimotor Psychotherapy, which has been developed since the late 1980s working with those in the field of trauma.  A client might potentially be helped to see that from the ‘position of dignity’, with a lengthened spine and relaxed shoulders – head not slumped forwards or arched backwards, they could feel very different, and relate to others in an entirely different way. We were encouraged to try this for ourselves – standing in different positions and exploring how these stances made us feel inside and in relation to others. We explored the impact of a negative self belief on the body – we felt for ourselves how simply saying ‘I am an empty shell’ over and over again would make us feel hollow inside. Yet simple techniques such as putting a hand on our heart/chest could sooth and calm. The body responds instantaneously.

Janina described how a client needs to feel safe and resourced in therapy and to appreciate that their shame and self loathing came from a wounded child part of themselves. Their adult parts could take the wounded child parts ‘under their wing’, and through doing so there could be integration and a move towards wholeness and healing. The psychotherapist should work hard to utilise their own ‘Social Engagement System’ (Porges 2005), with a ‘shining eyes’, warm voice and attitude of wonder and curiousity; be playful, humorous, empathetic even if the client did not reciprocate and was trapped with only a narrow ‘window of tolerance’ to stress triggers. Eventually there could be connection – and mindfullness plated a crucial role in helping the connection develop for clients both within themselves and with others. Therapies without this mindfulness component were not viewed as likely to be successful for helping trauma survivors. The evidence base was considered briefly in this context and the poor generalisibility of study patients with some of the interventions that have received research attention and do not involve a mindfulness component, was thought to be problematic by Janina. As Buddhists have known for millennia, Mindfulness is the key. 

I had interesting discussions with several craniosacral colleagues at the event. There was a sense of frustration about the lack of recognition about our work, which is so similar to Janina’s body centred approach. It is as if we are on separate train tracks – and we could be on the same one – working together and valuing and learning from the different approaches. Reasons for this schism and lack of recognition need to be thought about and it was encouraging to hear that connections are being made between the event organisers and leading clinicians and educators in the craniosacral field.

This event was not about the wider context of shame, within the fields of education and children’s social care, which I very much hope will be given consideration at an event planned for February involving Dan Siegal and leading children’s charity Place 2 Be who provide counselling for children in schools. However, it does not appear, at least from from the information on charity’s website, that specific consideration is given to the particular needs and circumstances of adopted and special guardianship children and their families within their counselling provision services. Our group’s collective experience is that when professionals lack understanding about our families and are solely ‘child focused’, and thinking about ‘child protection’, our children may be ‘put at risk’ due to the impact of trauma, which leaves them with negative affect and poor memory. Their procedurally learned feelings of shame remain locked within them and may transfer onto the new parent(s) and caregivers, with trauma bonds impacting on sibling relationships. Family life can be challenging and very intense. A therapist spends an hour a week with a child – we live with them and unfortunately there is no way to access respite unless they go back into care under a voluntary section 20 Care Order, which can so easily de-stabilise and retratmatise. This legislation was never designed with adopted children in mind! There may also be a ‘fractured approach’ to our support that separates children from their families who are viewed as a ‘potential risk of harm’ instead of the solution they hoped and set out to be. Misunderstandings can occur all too easily with partial knowledge and assumptions made, and it is so demoralising when parents/caregivers struggling to achieve support are viewed in negative ways with loaded and shaming terminology used to describe us by those who are supposed to help our children. An article in the TES on ‘working with challenging parents’ has upset many parents, especially those parenting children with special educational needs. There have been numerous responses and calls for an apology from the newspaper. One parent responded by making a few changes to the terminology and this rewording illustrates beautifully how just a few word changes to ‘reframe’ words that cause shame can make so much difference.

As a group we are campaigning for the use of the term ‘disruption’ to desist post the Adoption Order in the UK, to describe the scenario where our children, through no fault of theirs or ours, cannot safely live with us. An Adoption Order is permanent in the UK. We are still families, but the ‘parenting from a distance role’ is not one that is supported by legislation or recognised here in the UK, when this difficult and emotionally re-tramatising situation occurs. There is also seemingly no appreciation of the shame that goes with being removed from one’s family by the State and it can simply be viewed as ‘rescuing the child’, when this may not be the case at all. Sadly, with austerity and silo mentalities and infrastructure, children may be removed because there is a reluctance to provide post adoption or special guardianship support, and sometimes a lack of knowledge about what would constitute support in complex families with multilayered difficulties. It is more convenient with austerity and overloaded professionals who may lack training and experience, for organisations to write us off as ‘failures’, and ‘breakdowns’, and then monies that cannot be reduced or cut back, as they are allocated to ‘looked after children’, can be utilised instead – protecting the interests of the organisation but not the children themselves. To add insult to injury our families are then victimised by horrible loaded terminology that adds to the strain when family members and adopted children are suffering with bereavement issues that are often given little consideration. When so many parents of autistic or adopted children with challenging behaviours say they feel blamed instead of helped there needs to be attention paid. Lets hope this happens soon. There is a litany of complaints from desperate parents and special guardians for our Local Government Ombudsman to deal with, with 70% of these upheld in the case of special guardianship.

There is little that is more shaming than social exclusion. The system as it is now, with exclusions from school,  potentially heaping shame on those who have often been subjected to shaming parenting in early life, and those who try to help by raising children, may cause much distress. This may even be a public health issue if, as we discovered with our surveys, children’s suicide attempts and parental/caregiver cancer are associated with school exclusion. We have to start thinking very seriously about unintentional harm being done instead of good.

With such limited service user involvement throughout the system in the development of legislation, policy and regulatory frameworks, we are ending up with a ‘one size fits all’ approach that sees those in the hardest of circumstances being frustrated rather than helped. Even the new GDPR regulations are problematic for our families. As one adoptive parent put it, with him left feeling utterly despondent on reading an aspect of the regulation about children where the age of consent is reduced from 16 to 13, and parents/caregivers are no longer able to consult with doctors on behalf of their children: “Yet another anomaly. A child might be judged by the authorities to be beyond ‘ parental control,’ while parents can be excluded from information that can help in caring for their child. This seems to put another obstacle to dealing with developmental trauma”

We would like to see a more holistic family centred approach that de-shames all those being helped. De-shaming vulnerable children and adults, especially on a wider societal level, may be the first step forwards to breaking the cycle of abuse and neglect.

Thank you for taking the time to read this article. We would be very grateful if you would consider signing and sharing our petition to parliament – we hope to be part of developing much needed improved legislation that protects our children and families and better serves us – because it is designed with us in mind. Please click here to go to the petition

Update – The petition has now closed. It did not achieve enough interest or support for reasons that deserve proper consideration.