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Many adopters, special guardians, kinship carers and birth parents will be parenting and caring for children suffering with trauma, or living with ‘invisible’ disabilities, perhaps due to conditions such as ADHD, Autism or FASD. This can make the children we parent and care for suseptible to being easily ‘overwhelmed’. Sometimes our children make it through the day at school and it is at home that they finally let go – so we get to see the stress they have been coping with. One adoptive mother posted on the POTATO (Parents of Traumatised Adopted Teenagers Organisation) support group recently and wrote so eloquently we thought it was worth sharing. Groups like POTATO can be a tremendous resource for parents providing an opportunity to offload to others who can understand the pressures and strains of family life.
Whether you are an adopter, birth parent. special guardian or kinship carer we recommend joining a peer support group to help you in what is one of the hardest jobs of all – raising a child with difficulties to emotionally regulate.

I used to think that my daughter’s behaviours were totally unpredictable and I struggled with trying to understand them. Now I know that they all fit a pattern, but that the pattern is so incredibly complicated that it can look like there isn’t one. Miss out one tiny element and none of it makes sense. This mostly means that nobody else can understand the pattern and that they are inclined to see me as some kind of deranged crackpot with way out ideas. This frequently includes well-meaning professionals. The reality is that in order to be on anything like an even keel my daughter’s life has to be micro managed in excruciating detail.

My adopted daughter’s early life experiences have left her with developmental trauma, attachment issues and sensory modulation issues, and on top of that she has learning difficulties. All of these things impact on each other and can create a cycle of increasingly challenging responses which look on the face of it like a young person in need of stronger boundaries. The reality is though that none of these behaviours will be altered by standard parenting techniques. They do not come from the same place as similar behaviours in young people without her background. Her sensory state is influenced by her emotional state and vice versa. This is the reason why listening to the people who understand the pattern is vital, because otherwise everyone is only responding to the symptoms rather than the causes and the symptoms will never resolve themselves, which will lead to increasingly spiralling challenging behaviour, and frustration for both my daughter and those who seek to support her. The almost inevitable conclusion will be that she is written off.

My daughter carries a virtual cup through her day. Every time there is a challenging experience another drip lands in the cup. This is why she can seem unpredictable-her response to identical situations at any given time depends on how many drips are already in her cup. Unchecked, eventually the cup will overflow, and that is the point at which the real challenges start. An overflowing cup inevitably triggers a survival response (because of her early experiences of not being safe and not having her needs met) and off she goes into fight, flight or freeze. In my daughter’s case it is mostly “fight” at home and mostly flight or freeze elsewhere. She has no control over that-it is the body’s defence system, unconsciously triggered in response to perceived threats. However the things which cause drips to land in the cup may be things which seem ridiculously trivial. The taxi driver may have sung too loud on the way to school, someone may have brushed against her inadvertently (both of which cause sensory responses), someone talked about their new baby brother (triggering a trauma memory), and before you know it, apparently from nowhere, she is an angry ball of rage, non compliant, shouting and swearing, hitting out at people. This is what the fight element of the survival response looks like. Engaging with her in this state only increases the response as she cannot effectively process language at this point. For her the freeze element often looks like daydreaming or not paying attention and flight can involve physically leaving the room or just withdrawing from others.

In order to help my daughter get through her day it is necessary to manage the drips landing in the cup to try to minimise them, so that it won’t overflow. It is never possible to eliminate all of them, but getting rid of as many as possible will help her to get through. You can help her to make more space in her cup by providing regulating experiences. Some of them may seem odd but trust me, they come from experience. She likes the rhythmic action of sweeping the floor, she enjoys colouring in and doing jigsaws, walking round the block at a steady pace and sucking a drink through a straw.

An overflowing cup can take more than one night to recover from so if my daughter’s cup has overflowed one day then it starts the next day partly full, meaning that it will overflow all the quicker. So if her next day is only slightly less challenging than the previous one then the cup will overflow again. This will go on day after day with the cup progressively overflowing at an earlier point until eventually it is permanently overflowing, unless the people around her can help her to manage the things which can cause her difficulties. So before you dismiss the parent of a traumatised child or young person as having odd ideas, ask yourself if the child or young person may have an overflowing cup.