It’s been tricky going back to school. Angel’s designated person, Mary (someone she also had a one on one with every week), left at the end of term. We arranged for Angel to do a weekly art therapy session with another teacher she loves to replace her session with Mary and they did a four week crossover with both present, which was brilliant. Angel seemed to be taking it all remarkably well but was beyond excited about our first abroad in two and half years so don’t think she fully absorbed that Mary was leaving until her return to school.
On Monday, she tells me, ‘I’m worried about Mary’, so we text and Mary sends a lovely voice message reply. We hope to meet up soon (she still lives locally) but it is still another loss in Angel’s life.
On Tuesday I have to go to a work event. I can sense Angel’s stress as soon as she comes in from school. She wants this, then that, then something different. ‘Are you feeling worried?’ I ask.
Angel - Yes I’m worried about Mary and you.
Me - Are you worried about me going out?
Angel - Yes, do you have to go? This is the worst day you could go, I had a really bad day at school and I need you here!’
Talk about clear and direct communication. Someone knows what they want! I should go to the event…. I’ve said I’ll go…. it's not far…. I’ll only be gone three hours and yet I could stay? I’m torn. It's tiring weighing it up, it's tiring going out when she isn’t in a good place.
I look up where I need to go on Google maps and have an urge to show Angel but then don’t (more on that later as apparently this is exactly what you should do with anxious kids). She trails me upstairs and I think, this is crazy, she will be fine and asleep for most of it and hubby is here.
Me - Listen, I know you really don't want me to go out tonight and sometimes when I go out it can trigger off bigger feelings because of the times you were left when you were little but I will come back, I have always come back when I have gone out before, and you will always be here with mummy and daddy and we will always love you. I will finish work early tomorrow and pick you up from school so we can have some special time together.
Angel - Yes!
She actually almost punches the air before adding, ‘Unless you go out and get shot?’
Wow I think, this is what goes on in her mind! It really is that visceral, that life and death!
Me - Wow! It must be horrible to think that could happen.
I pull her in close and can feel the subtle shift. I can tell that ten year old Angel brain is back in charge and she can see that this is unlikely now she’s said it out loud. I smile at her and playfully say, ‘I am definitely not going to get shot tonight. I will be back in a few hours and you will be fine.’ We are almost nose to nose now. She hugs me again and I know she is OK. She just needed to name the biggest deepest fear and it loosened its grip.
I think Angel’s anxiety was ramping up anyway because we had a visit planned to her foster family that weekend for their daughter's 21st birthday. This is the family where the mum (Matilda) died (after Angel was placed with us) so there are multi-dimensional complications and losses. Although as soon as the invitation arrived Angel said she wanted to go and it felt important and right for her to be there.
On Wednesday after school I can feel her anxiety again.
Me - Are you feeling worried again?
Angel - Yes.
Me - Any idea why?
Angel - Don’t know.
Me - Could it be about the visit this weekend?
Angel - Maybe.
Me - It’s hard isn't it as it's always so lovely to see your foster family but it’s also a big reminder about what you left behind and Matilda not being there anymore and that’s sad and might bring up some big feelings. You are coming back here after though, you will always be here with us as we are your forever home. Let me show you on the map where we are going, where we are staying and the route back.
We went off to do this and it never ceases to amaze me how just saying this stuff out loud releases Angel’s anxiety. Of course at ten, she knows logically that she is coming back here and nothing will change but when you’ve had many changes of primary carers, especially if it’s pre-verbal, your subconscious carries the unease that it could happen again.
I was unwell at the weekend so Angel actually ended up going just with hubby and seemed to manage it all brilliantly. I think it took it out of her as she wasn’t 100% physically on her return the next day but we had a quiet day and she recovered quickly. Her foster sister, whose 21st birthday it was, had introduced her to all Angel’s ‘cousins’ many of whom were around the same age so she had a great time with them. I feel very indebted to this amazing family and thought it was so good that she was introduced as a sister would have been.
Can feel a shift again after school on Tuesday. She is angry. I can feel it almost as soon as I walk through the door. It is so evident to me I find it amazing that others can’t see it as clearly.
I suggest we go and have a roll around on the settee, which she jumps at but then hubby follows us in and she jumps on him instead. She is a solid ten year old, so when they play fight now, it often ends in tears especially if she is feeling angry and of course she always wants to play fight when she is feeling angry.
Me - Are you feeling angry?
Angel - Yes.
Me - Shall we do some kicking and punching using your gymnastic mats and daddy’s punch mitts?
Angel - Yes!
We spend the next hour with her punching and kicking the gymnastic mat, which makes an extremely satisfying thwack when you kick it. We are encouraging and light-hearted saying things like ‘good one’ when she lands an especially hard kick or punch. Then I say, “It’s not surprising you’re angry, it can bring up a lot of big feelings seeing all the people you had to leave behind when you came to live with us. It’s very complicated stuff and you have every right to be angry.”
She listens as she continues to kick and punch and eventually, she says she needs water. After she drinks I say, ‘Got any more?’, ‘No, I’m ok now, that’s better’, she says. I give her a hug and off we go to bath and bed.
The following weekend hubby is away for a night. I feel her anxiety again as I’m putting her to bed
Me - Are you worried about daddy going away?
Angel - No, it’s only you I worry about going away. He can go.
I am not convinced.
The next morning she is demanding in that way she only is when she is unsettled. I feel it as she thrusts the Uno cards into my hand and demands breakfast at the same time. Like she is setting herself up for her needs not to be met as how can I possibly do both these things at the same time (and I have tried, lol!)
It’s not an easy morning and I am also not feeling well. I ask her again, ‘Are you worried about daddy going away?’ ‘Yes, I am terrified he is not coming back,’ she says without looking at me.
Wow, terrified, I think.
Me - Oh, that must feel horrible. I think maybe you feel that way because when you were little some people didn’t come back and so your brain automatically thinks the same thing will happen again. It’s so hard to stop that response happening even when we tell ourselves that it isn’t true, but I promise you, daddy is coming back tomorrow. I think perhaps you just need to stay very close to me today.
Angel - Can we still go roller skating in the park with Eddy? Then I can forget about it.
Me - Yes, of course we can but I still think it’s important that you stay close to me. Maybe just don’t go off too much and come back and check in with me a bit more?
Angel - Yeah sure.
When daddy calls, I tell him (so Angel can hear) that Angel is feeling terrified that he won’t come home and that’s probably because of all the people who didn’t come back before she can even remember. So even though ten year old Angel knows you are coming back, there is a part of her that is scared you won’t.
I’ve found this strategy of saying things again out loud to someone else when Angel can hear, soothes her. I guess it’s about her being seen not just by me but by others and it also normalises her feelings, as she can hear that I and others think they are perfectly understandable.
What was incredible is that after this, I could see she completely shifted and she did keep coming and checking in with me when we went out. It's so clear that every time I help her identify and name her anxieties she leans into me rather than away. This is what they call ‘shining a light’ in ‘The Great Behaviour Breakdown’, an incredible course hubby and I did a few weeks ago, but more on that next time (-: