Skip to main content

The Great Behaviour Breakdown

We are on our way home from school in the car. I remind Angel that she still has a letter from her birth Mum to read, when she is ready. 

Me - There is also something else she has sent.

Angel - Really? 

Me - Yes, it's only something small.

I can see her thinking.I don’t want her to get too excited thinking it’s a massive present so add, ‘It's edible’.

I’m not sure it was the right time to mention it but I have been feeling bad it’s taken so long to give it to her. I think at least we have the rest of the afternoon together so if there is fallout, I can catch it. It’s hard to find the right time to share contact letters and this has now been in my possession for four months. First of all I needed time to process my feelings around it (see previous blog, ‘Contact Part 2’) . Then Angel wasn’t in a great place, then when she was, I was so relieved to have some respite that I didn’t want to upset the apple cart again and then I forgot! I had meant to do it on the weekend. 

Angel wants to guess various things and for me to say no to everything so I don’t ruin the surprise so we do this for a bit. 

Me - You don’t have to read the letter if you don’t want to, you know?

Angel - Yeah, I know.

We are sitting on Angel's bed. I hand her the envelope with the present, the letter and five selected pictures from the 30 her birth mum sent, one of each of her sisters, one of her birth mum and one of her birth mum and grandmother together.  The present is a bar of chocolate called, ‘Angel’s Chocolate.’ I explain her birth mum had seen it on holiday and said, in her letter, that she couldn’t resist buying it for her. 

She looks at the pictures quickly. Glances at the letter, counts the pages. ‘Wow, four pages’, 

Me - Yep, a whole lot of love there.

Angel - That’s a lot.

Me - Yep. Do you want me to read some of it to you?

Angel - No thanks.

Me - Do you want to read it yourself?

Angel - Not now.

Me - OK. I’m going to put it away in your drawer so you know where it is and if you want to look at it or for me to read it to you later, you can get it. 

I show her where I am putting it and close the drawer.   

We are cuddled up on the sofa watching Sing 2. When they sing, ‘I still haven't found what I’m looking for’,  I whisper to her, ‘I have, because I found you.’ 

Angle - I haven’t.

Me - Because of your birth mum?

Angel - Yes.

I knew even before she said it. I squeeze her a little tighter

Me - I know. We can work towards that whenever you are ready.

Angel - I know.

We continue watching the film. I know the time is coming. It's not quite here yet but I feel we need to be ready for when it is. I need to chase up the support promised from the adoption support fund. We need to start the life story work with a therapist. We can’t do this all on our own.

The first part of the funding paid for an online course for me and hubby called, ‘The Great Behavior Breakdown’. It was enlightening and devastating in equal measure but also incredibly reassuring as it advocated the type of parenting we have tried to practice with Angel from the get go. 

In fact, being on the course made me realise I could actually do more to ‘shine a light’ and name difficult issues. I think sometimes people around me have found my approach alarming with statements like… 

‘Don’t put ideas into her head’

‘Don’t highlight the difficult issues’

‘Are you sure it's not too much?’ 

I’ve sometimes doubted myself. However, I’ve seen over and over again that pointing out difficult feelings always helps. I felt vindicated but also wished I had done the course earlier and been armed with the information at the outset rather than having to figure it out as I went along. Infact, I feel every adopter should have the opportunity to do the course before they adopt (so if you are an adopter or prospective adopter, ask for it!).

I’ve also been reading, ‘The Body Keeps The Score’, which is a life changing book whether you have anything to do with adoption or not. It’s about how trauma is the biggest indicator in almost every area of sickness in our society from cancer and obesity to school exclusion, anti-social behaviour and drug and alcohol addiction.  Childhood trauma and attachment based issues are the most damaging so understanding how best to parent traumatised children would save millions to society in the long term. 

The book cites lots of US statistics so I looked into some from the UK and found that people in or previously in care make up less than 2 percent of the UK population but 27% of the overall prison population and 50% of all prisoners under the age of 25. This statistic makes me cry. 

When you start learning about brain neuroscience it makes sense. As I learnt on the GBB course, stress impairs the top down cognitive functions of the prefrontal cortex, while strengthening the emotional and habitual responses of the amygdala. This is the part of the brain that drives the so called, flight or flight response and children who have experienced poor attachments have an enlarged and overactive amygdala which in turn leads to increased anxiety, low self esteem and to a lower tolerance of and extra sensitivity to stress. It’s a lot to take in and that is a very simplified overview (I’ll list some books at the end) but I find it really helps to remind myself of these things to maintain empathy when Angel is being challenging. 

It also allowed me to completely let go of the idea that I need to make Angel see the error of her ways when she does something she shouldn’t. The premise being you work on making the child feel good and safe and eventually they are able to self regulate and the behaviour will stop. Of course if she has taken something from someone I still have to return it but this idea that I need to make her see taking it is bad or wrong, has gone. Actually, she knows it’s bad and wrong and has taken it because she is feeling bad and wrong, so me pointing it out only makes her feel more bad and wrong and will push her further away from me. My job is to help make her feel better and then try to bring some consciousness to the behaviour at a later date. As they said on the course, any negative interaction interrupts relationship and lowers self esteem. Very very hard though as bringing up anything Angel has done that was ‘bad’, can elicit huge feelings. 

I discovered this the other day when I mentioned an incident that happened three years ago. I had found Angel ‘bathing’ the new kitten in the sink. I had been very stern and told her she must never do it again, that cats don’t like water and it would be very stressful for her to be held in water. I mentioned it the other day in reference to the fact that all kids sometimes do silly things and that it doesn’t mean they will do it again (she never has and in fact, has never been mean to the cat). 

Angel literally burst into tears and said I grounded her! I don’t know where she got that term from?!) and clearly I’ve never grounded her as she doesnt go out without us but she obviously remembered me being very angry and couldn’t bear for it to be mentioned, even three years later. 

Bryan Post talks about the child who has experienced early trauma as often feeling like they have a gun held to the back of their head when confronted by what may seem small or trivial things to us. The ‘life or death’ stress response can get triggered very easily and the way we can help our children with that is using the Starr response

S - Step away - breath, calm yourself 

T - Think - reflect on what to do 

A - Attune -  connect with your child - i love you’, ‘we are good’, ‘everything is ok’.

R - Regulate - relax, repair - walk away, do something together, distract them with something else

R - Repair - shine a light later when things are back on an even keel. 

This is what we aspire too. It needs full commitment of mind, body and soul. It's painful and  hard but on a good day, it’s incredible to see what can and has been transmuted. 



The Body Keeps The Score - Bessel Van Der Kolk  

The Great Behaviour Breakdown - Bryan Post

Beyond Consequences, Logic and Control - Heather T Forbes 

Brain Based Parenting - Dan Hughes

Bryan Post -


  1. Another moving and insightful piece. I so hope this is reaching others as it's so helpful.


Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

In The Cut

So, been thinking for a while about sharing our story of adoption in the hope that it might help other families and because it is such an incredible journey, it feels somehow important to document. Maybe one day it will also be important for our daughter who shall remain anonymous as this is her story too and she may not want to share it. I’ll call her Angel as we called her our ‘angel child’ for the first six months of her time with us, knowing full well that as soon as she felt safe enough, a more fully rounded two-year old would emerge. She was also referred to as an ‘angel child’ by her birth mum and dad who had lost a previous pregnancy and so were very grateful when they fell pregnant with her.  Angel is 9 and will be 10 in July. Right now we are what I call ‘in the cut’. We have just come out of our longest spell of equilibrium (about 3 months) and I felt a new baseline of her self-worth had been reached. It probably has but when the wound opens up, it’s incredible how deep it g

Contact Part 2

I thought I got away with it this year. I thought contact would be easier. It was, to write my letters. Then wham! Six page letter back from Birth Mum to me, four page letter to Angel, 30 photos of what looks like a lovely, large family unit: birth mum, fiancĂ©, two baby sisters, one older sister, grandma, 4 cats, 2 dogs. Even grandma has a dog. Talk of happy holidays with them all in Cornwall. Angel here with us, desperate for siblings. I picture that home, can see how happy Angel could have been in it, the siblings she is missing, the extra pets she wants. Next time she says she feels she’s ‘in the wrong family’, it will be harder to contradict. I sob. I never considered I would look at a picture of another family and feel the only thing missing from it was my daughter. I didn’t know it would be this hard to bear. Hubby looks at the photos briefly and throws them down on the table. ‘I’m not reading the letters’, he declares, ‘that's enough.’ I know he will in time but I get it. I

Hidden Anger

  We are playing with dolls in her room. We are both mums and Angel is changing baby Annabel. She tells me she adopted baby Annabel because she was ‘too much for her birth parents’. ‘Really?’, I say, ‘I’m sure it wasn’t that she was ‘ too much’ . She was just a baby and babies really only sleep, eat and poo.’ She giggles at the poo word (still!). ‘I’m sure it was more about where they were at in their lives rather than anything baby Annabel did.’ ‘Ummm’ she says. We carry on playing.    Hubby goes with Angel on a school trip to a farm. He is alarmed to see her breakdown sobbing when a much smaller kid shouts at her for jumping on a wood pile where he is trying to dig a hole. It’s a very big woodpile, no malicious intent was meant and the kid is basically being a bit out of order but still Angel feels she has done something wrong. They talk about something called ‘toxic shame’ in the therapeutic parenting book I have been reading and how kids who have been looked after experience this b