Two Dads, one very opinionated son.

Our Foster story, the journey from strangers to family.


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Do you love me?

People often ask “How old is he?”.
Simple question? No, not it’s not a simple question at all.

In any of the given hours in the day we live with a 5yr old, 10yr old & a 17yr old. Who we’re dealing with varies according to any number of factors, medication, sugar, weather, emotional state, recent events, anxiety or quite simply attitude. It is, by no stretch of the imagination, exhausting. It manifests itself in any number of ways, from cute to annoying, clingy to cuddly, to obstinate and defiant, it’s the russian roulette of child behaviours. 

The 17yr old likes to question everything, answer back and challenge every command, he’s the master in semantics and is quickly learning some of our more dryer humour and cynicism, he’ll be a gem with his peers when he’s older, now, in this house, not so much.

The 10 yr old is probably by far the best and most complacent to live with, he’s the one content with his reading and writing, rattling off facts from school and asking a million questions about the world. We like the 10 yr old, he’s probably our favourite. 

The 5 yr old, well, he’s something else. He will babble, squeal & yell. He’s impulsive and loud, craving attention and wanting everything, your typical 5 yr old really.
The simple task of sitting and watching a movie is sometimes nothing short of a marathon. During a 5yr old day he will start on the couch, end up squatting on the floor, 5 minutes later he’s standing inches away from the television screen. I enter the room again 5 minutes later and his head is on the floor beside the couch, his bum sticking up in the air, knees tucked under himself and his head poking out through his armpit peering at the screen, all the while the noises echo through the house;
“Weehhee!”
“Boom, tck tck tick tick haha!!”
“Hehehehe”
“Wssshh! Zap! Bang! haha!”
*Insert hysterical indecipherable laughter here*

This becomes a challenging task, what do you do?
So many people have had their opinion,
“He’s just a kid, let him be”
But the reality is we’re tasked with helping him adjust to the normality of a social environment he’s never been able to function in before and with high school fast approaching it’s a necessity. Previous efforts from youth workers, departmental hacks and various others have always been to take the path of least resistance, allowing the behaviours and really focussing on not triggering behaviour meltdowns, without ever really introducing reasoning and consequences. Where the ball has been dropped, we have to pick it up and continue and the only strategy seems to be repetition, and so commences our daily reminders;

“Mate, are you acting like a 5yr old or a 10yr old?”
“What do you need to stop doing?”
“Why is that important?”
We have to have the discussions about age appropriate behaviour, because it’s vitally important for his social development. Reactive Attachment Disorder, a complicated condition he has developed as a young child, impedes social development skills and it’s our battle to help him overcome it and be capable of co-existing with his peers to avoid being ostracised and excluded, which can only serve to worsen his self esteem.

At school, quite simply, he has no friends.

This is a harsh reality that we’ve had to sit and discuss with him, through years of bad behaviour and his limited capacity to socialize with kids his own age appropriately the other children in his school have kept their distance. In almost 2 years we haven’t had invitations to birthday parties or social occasions from classmates, the other parents know his story and look on with sympathy but keep their distance and it’s tough, really tough. He knows it, we see it it in every bit of behaviour, because when he does something, there’s a reason to it and it all generally ties in with those common themes, rejection, failure and wanting people to like him.

For us when we get the call from school or meet with the principal in the afternoon it’s always a discussion and investigation in to why exactly he did something.
For example, on a day where he runs out of the classroom, yells and kicks a bin over.
What happened?
The teacher was firm with him for not completing a task.
This may seem rather straight forward, but with Flash, it never is. You see the teacher was firm, but there were other kids around and when he knew they could hear her and they turned to look at him he feared they would think he was dumb and would hate him.
So he gives up and runs away because he doesn’t feel like they can like him anyway, he kicks the bin in anger at himself, because he feels that he is worthless and can’t do anything right.
On the scale of bad days, thats a relatively simple one. 

But the one question that hounds us throughout the day and night, from 5yr old to 17yr old, is quite simple 
“Do you love me?”
Back in the early days before he moved in, as we commenced our transition process and began more and more time together, we were having visits which eventually led to overnight stays. We progressed from one night to two as the weeks wore on until it was time for the big jump. But as the days wore on between visits he was as anxious to see us again as we were to see him, soon we were “allowed” phone calls. I’ll never forget the first time that little voice was on the other end of the phone when I answered, taking no time to breathlessly relay every moment of time that had passed since we last saw each other. 
But more so I’ll never forget as we were nearing the end of one of those first phone calls that he plucked up the courage to tell me something;
“Ummm I just wanted to say that I ah, really miss you guys”
“And we miss you too mate”
“Ummm and there’s one more thing….
“Yes mate?”
“Umm I think I love you, both of you… umm is that ok?”
I giggled inside as I smiled from ear to ear
“Yes mate that is definitely ok, we love you too”
Whether or not he’s emotionally developed the capacity to actually love yet we can’t quite know, it is still something that plays in his mind day in and day out. He tells us every day, morning and night, we are hounded for hugs and affection so that he can convey the message again, seeking our response and affirmation to help him feel safe.

This idea that he can be loved, the idea that he deserves to be loved and the idea that no matter what, we do and always will love him. Its still not locked down in his head tight, there’s a battle that goes on in there that lets itself out quite often.
In any given day, mainly on the 5 yr old days, we will be asked 20? 30 times? 
“Dad, Daddy!”
“Yes mate?”
“Do you love me?”
Mostly it’s just this inquisitive little chirp, in the same manner you’d ask someone to pass you the salt, as though it was some after thought that just drifted through his mind as he played with his toys. Other times it’s a desperate affirmation, after a consequence of being sent to his room or if he’s been in trouble, the question changes to “Do you still love me?”.
The least entertaining is the opposite “You hate me!”, generally reserved for those 17yr old days where the world hates him and there is no justice and we of course are the devil incarnate.
But it’s the constant war that rages in his head. How can I be loved? Why should I be loved? Why do I deserve to be loved? If my own parents couldn’t love me enough to keep me why would anyone else?  
Our response is always the same, whether he’s been suspended from school or playing with his trucks in the yard. 

“Yes, no matter what you do, we will always love you.”

 

 


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Please Like Me

Sometimes I feel like a prison warden.

It’s not that we keep him locked up, as much as it’s a tempting thought on the more trying days, but quite often the simple act of “child management” can be very draining, we have to be consistent, regimented, firm and disciplined. It’s a matter of showing love through consistency, rules and expectations whilst at the same time managing subversive, unknown and downright challenging and inexplicable behaviours, while still sprinkling this with love and affection.

We discovered quite early on that this adorable boy had a desperate need and want to be liked, I mean really, do you blame him? Unfortunately as is often the case with children in care one of the most common tools they use is lying. It is a behaviour that is so deeply ingrained you wouldn’t even call it compulsive lying, it’s impulsive, no matter the situation the natural impulse he has is to lie. 

We first noticed this in the more simple of situations;
“Would you like to watch Casper? Have you seen that before?”
“Oh yeah! I saw it when it first came out at the movies with my mum.”
After pulling some quick stats in your head, compiling that with what you’re aware of the little one’s biological timeline it’s pretty easy to know he certainly didn’t, owing primarily to the film being released the better part of a decade before his birth. 

Each time you hear these little lies, and the bigger ones, you have to process quietly in your head, “Why? What has triggered this one?”
Quite often it boils down to, at it’s core, the desire to be liked or the fear that he won’t be liked or loved. The complexities only get deeper and the behaviour only manifests itself further. The lies roll themselves into truths in his head, they become so real he often cannot separate his lies from his truths, which was why we had to make an early decision to call him out on them.

It’s like a vicious circle that continues to drive itself round and around, when we started calling him out on the lies, as gently as we could, it started to trigger the fear of rejection and failure, which could set off the behaviour, the tears, the tantrums. While it’s certainly no walk in the park it’s been a great learning and developing step for him, because it was something no-one had ever done before. His youth workers and everyone around him had always been on egg shells with the behaviour, careful to manage his environment so that his melt downs wouldn’t be triggered, but ultimately the behaviour had to be challenged in order for it to change. 

When we first called him out on it he got the shock of his life, literally he seemed like he’d been electrocuted.
“Mate, I’m not 100% sure that would have really happened, are you sure?”
“WHAT? Yeah, no it did! It did! I promise!”
“Mate, look it’s ok, but I know that couldn’t have happened”
“No! I’m not lying!! I’m NOT!”
*Cue the tears*

After a few months it became all too familiar, the lies, the fear, they were all rolled in so deeply together, the performance that came with them was so genuine you almost had to stop and question yourself, “Is he telling the truth this time?”.  But the persistence is slowly and surely paying off now, coupled with amazing teachers and principals at the school who also call him out he’s found himself with less and less avenues to lie and more of an understanding about telling the truth.

Unfortunately the lying doesn’t stop and the behaviours can continue to manifest in other ways. Two years on now he still lies, but we can call him out on them more honestly, he can accept it, digest it and fess up more quickly. The lies have died down to general wrong doings and misdemeanours and these days it can take a simple “Mate, you’re lying, tell the truth” and within minutes we have the truth or a slightly more truthful version of it nonetheless. 

Alas the behaviour manifests and brings us to the prison state, we have moved onwards from impulsive lying and upwards to impulsive theft. It’s inexplicable and one of the most challenging tasks at present, a behaviour we expected to see years before that is rearing it’s head now. 
From other children’s lunches to toys, erasers, money, phones and trinkets. Lately anything that’s not nailed down within the school has been open slather for captain Klepto. We can’t figure out what’s triggering it or why and it’s something he can’t seem to articulate either, but at present, it’s constant.

I must give him credit, the moves are bold and the lies are top notch. From the toys that other children apparently just gave him “because they didn’t want them”, to the phone which he stole and successfully hid inside his classroom for 3 days and the money he stole from the principals desk and craftily hid in his shoes, the boy is smart. But we keep catching him and we keep having to call him out, we have to dish out the consequences over and over again doing everything we can to stop the stealing and the lying, hopefully soon it will stop. 

Picking him up from school isn’t a simple task lately, he has to wait in the classroom or be escorted to the office to wait for us, he’s not allowed to walk from class to the office unattended as he only needs about 30 seconds to locate something and take it. Once we arrive we have to check pockets, shoes & socks, we have to check every pocket in his bag and his lunch box, then go back in to the classroom and check his desk, his pencil case and the surrounding areas. Once the checks are done we have to gather the days takings and hand them over to the principal for collection and distribution back from whence they came. 
It’s exhausting. 
But at the end of the day it’s progress, for him we’re passing his test.
We’re proving that no matter what he does, we will still love him, no matter how much he lies, we will still love him and that he will never be made to leave us. We can only continue with the dedication, love and consistency that he needs to feel safe and loved. 

There’s another post to come on school work and his academic progress, but yesterday we hit the highest of highs in our progress with him at school. Since he started school he has never passed a report card. Every single report card has come back with flat D’s across the board, the focus had been on attendance and participation and not yet on achievement.

Nearly two years on and his report card was back, this time with 3 B’s!! Many C’s!! and only 2 D’s!! He’s achieved something that he’s never been able to do in his life and we couldn’t be prouder. 
These past 2 years have been the hardest thing we’ve ever done and to see a result like this is incredible, it just makes it all worthwhile and makes us realize that this little man has so much ahead of him. We just cant wait to see what his future holds. 


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Rejection and The Fear of Failure

Two of the all to familiar triggers for behavioural issues experienced by children in care are rejection and the fear of failure, for some it can be all consuming, overshadowing their lives in the same manner which someone with OCD may experience. They yearn for a level of acceptance and love that they have yet to experience in their lives and with each step forward for them comes with it a very real fear that they may fail, fail to impress, fail to achieve, fail to succeed. From getting dressed in the morning to reading a book or writing a simple sentence, each of these things present themselves as a challenge to a child that they may fear they are incapable of fulfilling, creating a cross section in their decision making, do I attempt this? or do I give up and cry because failure comes about so often, how can I possibly succeed?

Rejection comes hand in hand here, all too often their lives are established on the foundations of rejection, they feel that people will not like, cannot like them or love them. When they take steps forward and attempt to make these things happen and they feel a sense of rejection or failure the consequences for them can vary from the quietest and most gentle of reactions, to behavioural explosions that leave you reeling and wondering what just happened?

In the first few weeks as we got to know him we would visit his place for short visits and he would visits ours in turn, working our way towards sleepovers and eventually moving in with us. During his first visit I remember all to clearly experiencing his fear of failure and rejection, which took us completely by surprise.

He arrived for his first visit at our house, wide eyed and eager, wanting to know every detail about everything;
“How long have you lived here?”
“How many rooms are there?”
“Like, um, do you have lots of visitors?”
“Will you live here forever?”
“Which room will be my room?”

Once he was satisfied he knew everything he wanted to know and we had eaten (Spag Bol, his favourite), we decided to play Mario Kart, an easy enough game which he was incredibly excited about. He was so excited, he didn’t seem like he could lose the smile on his face but we didn’t have the heart to really compete against him, we just wanted to enjoy our time together. Admittedly however, his skill level wasn’t quite up to speed with ours and after a few races he eventually lost. Before we could figure out what had happened the controller was on the ground, he was on his feet and out the door as fast as his little feet could take him.

We were slightly bewildered as to what had just transpired and looked to the youth worker who was sitting in on the visit, he reassured us it was ok and went out to see if he could calm him down. It didn’t take too long before he was back inside and ready to play again, meanwhile we were still scratching our heads, had we done something wrong? As they left we both got huge hugs whilst being strongly reminded of our next visits and requests for food and entertainment and even a promise to call him in the mean time, we also got a moment to debrief with the youth worker as to what had transpired.

He felt like a failure, in that moment when he was so desperately trying to impress us and show us how fantastic he could be he had felt his inability to beat us in the game had shown some weakness, he thought we wouldn’t like him, we wouldn’t want him, he had completely blown his chance as living with us. In that moment he’d decided to give up and leave, feeling rejected and like a failure, over such a minor thing.

We were to find out over the course of the next 2 years that this behaviour would become all too familiar, particularly socially around other children as he struggled to make friends and adjust. Situations where other children didn’t show interest in playing with him could trigger complete meltdowns involving swearing, kicking, screaming and breaking of poor defenceless inanimate objects. It was something you could never predict and something we could only try to work with in building his confidence through love and support.

Ultimately what we couldn’t predict was the leaps and bounds that he could progress with this behaviour, in the early days sitting and discussing these things with youth workers, teachers, case workers and the like we were reminded that things like after school care, parties, sleepovers and such would be out of the question for a considerable amount of time, they reminded us that it would be a very long time before anyone expected him to be able to break down these barriers and work past his fear of rejection and failure.

Proving people wrong is always a great thing and today it really feels like we have, the fear is still there, but it is worked through, he is confident and brave, he tackles it head on and when it hits him he works as hard as his little mind can to process it and deal with it in the best way he can.

We did something with him last weekend that they never thought we would be able to do, we went to a party.

It was a great night, a grown ups party that was planned to accommodate the 15 odd children that were in attendance as well, including a jumping castle. Yes, that’s right, a jumping castle all to themselves.

It was fantastic to watch him ditch as soon as humanly possible and take off to the jumping castle and photo booth with the other kids, returning only to be fed and watered at appropriate intervals, until an hour in when I spotted him power walking through the event, that steely look in his eyes that I knew something had happened. He reached me and I managed to stop him;
“What happened?”
“The older boys just stopped playing with me! They went outside and they said I can’t go with them!”
“That’s right mate, you can’t, but it’s ok there are still heaps of other kids to play with, they’ll be back”
Two years ago he might have exploded, blown up, thrown things, cried, kicked or screamed, instead that night he gave me that indignant look that I thought was generally reserved for teenagers who’s parents don’t know anything particularly useful in times of great importance, turned on his heel and headed back to the jumping castle. I followed closely behind and watched him march over behind it, take some deep breaths, mutter something underneath his breath and low and behold he went back to the other kids, who by this stage were now mostly young ladies. I kept my eyes on him for a few more minutes, he was still calm and he had even started smiling again, the other boys seemed to be furthest from his mind now.

Several minutes later he strode up to me with a proud pronouncement;
“Dad, I’m going to get a date!”
Then turned on his heel and marched off.
To my utter amazement he asked 3 young ladies who all politely turned him down, each time without missing a beat he continued on until lucky girl number 4 conceded or was won over by his dashing outfit purchased by his  stylish fathers and carefully chosen by himself for this evenings event. Regardless he had single handedly taken 3 consecutive rejections and persevered without incident, we couldn’t have been more proud. As he marched over to us hand in hand with the young lady he proudly announced upon his arrival;
“Dad! I found one! This is….”
He turned to her, “What’s your name again?”
“Jessica, this is Jessica, she’s my date!”
Off they strode together to the dance floor, where they proceeded to dance hand in hand, complete arms length apart awkwardly swaying side by side for about 2 complete songs before two of the mothers intervened to help them shake it up and enjoy the dancing.

He has had some pretty adorable moments from time to time, but this was certainly near the top of the list.

Although the date was adorable, the simple fact that he was able to socialize, take risks, feel rejected, handle his emotions and continue to enjoy himself was a beautiful testament to the incredible steps forward he has taken in his journey. He is complex, beautiful, daunting, challenging, emotional, moving, draining, loving, caring, thoughtful, dramatic and everything in between and most specially, he is our son.