“When we make Play the foundation of learning, we teach the Whole child.” ~ Vince Gowmon
Who wishes that we had more time to play with our family? More time to connect and more time to just enjoy each other? I know I always have. Whilst we try and fit this in when we can, very easily the stresses and strains of daily life can get in the way. Now, more than ever, we want our children to feel loved, centred, supported and protected and we have found that play allows for this heightened connection.
With adopted children such as our boys, many have not had the chance to have a true childhood, not had the opportunity to play and learn through play and in fact many have been purely on alert survival mode. Forcing them to grow up prematurely and missing key developmental stages that are achieved through play and nurture. Trauma being experienced at any stage can cause significant development challenges.
One social worker once described it to me a bit like a brick wall. Each brick represents a certain part of child development. Depending on their earlier life experiences either in utero or after being born, each adopted child will have certain bricks missing. This may not become apparent until they are older or it may be visible from an early age. No one child will have the same bricks missing, with similar challenges and it is our task as parents and carers to help revisit and rebuild parts of that wall. This really helped me to grasp the differing needs of our two sons but at the same time it is not just black and white.
Adoption UK have covered this topic well and this slide illustrates the subject:
(Permission granted to use this slide from Adoption UK http://www.adoption.org )
It’s not simply a question of mapping out their individual walls, if only it were that simple! We have found that as the years have progressed since adoption, (we are 3 years in), we have observed more and more evidence of bricks being missing or damaged.
With our eldest in particular, who experienced more trauma and had to look after his younger brother from a very young age, it is clearly evident that his wall is lacking. He never really had a chance to be a child, never really had the opportunity too explore through play nor to receive nurture and love in return. We have made this one of our many focus points since adopting.
Earlier in the process we went to a SafeBase® training course, which was excellent and really opened our eyes further into this concept. Out of this came the focus on play – allowing your child to go back and have that time playing and learning that they might have been robbed of due to their circumstances. Various games and topics came out of this training and we really saw evidence of this working with our boys. The games are focused around key areas to assist with behaviour and feelings.
Having seen the benefit play provided to our family we then applied for some funding assistance from the Adoption Support Fund, as we knew that additional focus here would really help our family and help us deal with some behavioural challenges we were facing. Our trainer during Safebase was excellent, and we were immensely lucky to be able to request her working with us on a Theraplay ® programme for the family.
Heidi Pannell from Walking Together, http://www.walking-together.org.uk has to be one of the best professionals we have met during our adoption so far. She totally gets children who have experienced trauma in their life. She absolutely understands their trigger points, the impact it has on their new family and the areas to focus on. Her empathy is so strong and her desire to help children and parents alike second to none.
We had various sessions with Heidi, family assessments, one on one and then paired off with our boys. I purposefully asked to work with our eldest, as our relationship was not as strong or centered. When you first embark on Theraplay it can feel unnatural, in each short 45 minute session your child is taken through a programme of defined activities and games that help repair relationships, build connection and slowly help them realise they can relinquish control and allow you to truly parent them. One key area for us was control. Our eldest needing to control every situation as in his early life he had to control everything in order to feel safe.
The games are cleverly focused on reducing this need to control, without them actually realising it. The first few sessions did feel strange as the games are aimed at very young children. Each session ends with you holding your child, wrapped in a blanket, feeding them with a bottle and snacks, as you would a baby, whilst Heidi reads a story. I must say, the first few times we did this I found it peculiar as our eldest is quite tall and having him regress to being a toddler felt strange. However, after this I soon became used to it, as did he, and we both relished the experience and looked forward to the blanket cuddle at the end.
In fact, allowing him to truly regress to being a toddler was amazing to work with. The moment we entered the room he was 3 again, the moment we left he was back to being 9 talking about things a 9 year old would.
The sessions sadly came to an end eventually and I can honestly say it has helped our family immensely. We still play some of the games, we still reference the experience and our relationships has strengthened as a result. The closeness I now have with my eldest has improved. The care and affection as a family unit is stronger than ever and his need to control has reduced. Whilst it will never leave him, it has given him the confidence to allow us in to parent and to trust us more.
I could go on for ages about the benefits of Theraplay but don’t want to bore you further. If we take one thing from this it is quite simple. Allow our kids the space and chance to play, allow them to regress and feel safe. Now more than ever this is key.