As an adoptive parent of a sexual abuse survivor (many adopted children have this long shadow to deal with), who has ‘acted out’ his trauma, I have not found a terminology that works for me yet to describe the behaviour I was dealing with as a parent. 

A particularly serious trauma related incident occurred when I was taking my son to be looked after by a male family friend. I was desperate for a break, which I needed as a single adoptive mother with no family support. But respite was not something that had been thought about by those with a duty of care for many years. I believe my son was freaked out and feared abandonment, and this acted as a trigger. The therapist we were working with had warned of the possibility of ‘repetition compulsion’: of my son acting out that which could not, because of its distressing nature, be spoken about. I don’t wish to digress too much from the purpose of this article, which is to discuss terminology, but I do feel very concerned that respite is not something the is funded by the Adoption Support Fund, unless it has a therapeutic component. Different families have different needs and the State should provide adequate respite to all adopters, especially single parents – as these families may be at higher risk and parents can be more isolated socially, with no one to share the child care responsibilities.

Child to Parent Violence is used a lot in adoption after the Selwyn report but it doesn’t work for me/us as a terminology. My son was not violent physically – he had been in the past, but this had stopped long before puberty.  He might be verbally abusive and controlling, and he was then, at 13 (but not now at 17), rageful towards objects (all our doors took a bashing and I am amazed the TV remote survived its almost daily hurling), but I did not experience the violence and aggression, or corrosive fear of it, which some parents must live with, on a daily basis. When I heard the term Violent Challenging Behaviour being used by birth parents of children with neurodevelopmental disorders, I thought this term was perhaps better suited to our situation. It was more inclusive – and not just about violence and aggression.

When my son behaves in ways that throw me off kilter, because they are, understandably, hard to deal with as a parent, I do not want to blame him for reactions that are beyond his control. I also don’t want to lose connection with feelings of empathy for him, which can enable me to contain the emotional distress that lies underneath the behaviour. Since behaviour is communication, as a mother, I want to hear the right message and respond in the right way, in order to de-escalate my child’s underlying distress.

I heard today on Twitter today about an enlightened headteacher using the term ‘understandable behaviour’ instead of ‘unacceptable behaviour’, and thought this was a brilliant way of fostering an appreciation that the behaviour in question has a purpose and meaning. In the discussion that followed people said they had problems with the word ‘challenging’ being used to describe a child’s behaviour. They didn’t like it because it had led to the child being blamed, when the original intention was to raise awareness for the person responding to the behaviour that they felt ‘challenged’ by it. The person on the receiving end of the behaviour would therefore be responding from a place of being challenged themselves, and needed to think about this. The term ‘distressed behaviour’ was put forwards as an alternative to ‘challenging’ behaviour in the further discussion that followed. I loved this term because it is not at all confrontational or blaming. It describes perfectly what is happening for the child or person expressing themselves through behaviours that are beyond their control. It allows empathy feelings to be uppermost in the mind of the person responding to the behaviour. If we put the two together we get Understandably Distressed Behaviour. This terminology works for me perfectly.

Adopters Together is a collective of parents who are campaigning for positive changes in the way that families are supported. The views in this article are solely those of the author.