One of the best metaphors used in our adoption training was the image of a brick wall. Each brick represented a need, such as warmth, stimulation, and comfort. As children grow, more needs develop, adding more rows of bricks. As children’s needs were met the wall became stronger and taller.
For adoptees, there are usually missing bricks. They may not have been regularly fed, their home may have been cold and damp, and they may not have been taught how to play.
Subsequently, their walls lack solid foundations. As the wall grows higher, this becomes more problematic. Irregular food and drink may lead to unhealthy eating habits such as binging; living in poor conditions may mean their body doesn’t recognise true sensations of hot and cold or wet and dry; not learning how to play may lead to doing so in an unhealthy way.
I’ve seen this image dozens of times since. I’ve shared it with others. I’ve taken it on board.
But I don’t think I fully ‘got’ it until Little Chick started school. Now his bricks – or, rather, his missing bricks – are becoming more obvious. Even the very act of playing with building blocks is trickier for him than his peers. His literal and figurative bricks are wobbling precariously. I’m worried that they could topple at any moment.
Little Chick was relatively young when he was taken into care and placed with his foster carer. Some people assume he will be OK because he was ‘given a chance’ at such a young age. Unfortunately, this is not the case. (And this isn’t even taking into consideration that adoption itself is trauma.) The bricks (the needs) in his first six months were unstable (unmet). In some cases, we have tried to repair the damage by stripping things back and starting again. We have tried to meet those unmet needs, such as cuddling Little Chick at bedtime, feeding him with a baby’s bottle, and singing him soothing lullabies while we maintain eye contact. Missing out on this as a baby means that Little Chick finds it harder to accept comfort and reassurance. He struggles making eye contact, especially with new people. Currently, he is torn between being a big boy and a baby. In some ways this is developmentally appropriate. However, Little Chick’s wall is not stable enough to underpin this exploration. As he switches between wanting to be a grown up and a baby, his need for nurture is primal. He needs to be treated like a baby, or certainly a child younger than his chronological age, to fill in the gaps in his wall, to meet the unmet needs of infancy.
Subsequently, it is no surprise that his sense of self is so confused. In the first six months of their life a healthy child would have received comfort, stimulation, security, love, and cuddles. Little Chick experienced some of these, but inconsistently. Some he never experienced. As such, Little Chick finds friendships harder to form than most of his peers. He struggles to play appropriately and unsupervised. He doesn’t always trust that his needs will be met and we must convince him to trust us. All of this makes starting school ridiculously hard.
School are managing Little Chick but, by their own admission, this is not good enough. He deserves better. As much as it has saddened me to see Little Chick struggle, it has heartened me to see how school have responded. The other pupils have shown kindness and empathy; the staff have shown patience and a willingness to learn. The headteacher has been incredible, a genuine silver lining in an otherwise gigantic, gloomy cloud. Yes, it is early days, but she is an excellent ally. She gets it, she gets Little Chick. She is impressively efficient without compromising her humanity. She is on our side. She has even chased adoption support regarding their lack of action.
For now, we take half term as an opportunity to rest and reset. We practise self-care so that we are all a bit better prepared for what faces us upon our return. Next term we need to remember that some of the building blocks we thought were secure are not. We need to strengthen them or rebuild them altogether. It won’t be easy and it will continue to be a strain on Little Chick. But with school onside and asking what they can do to help we will get there. We will build up Little Chick’s wall together. In doing so, hopefully we will also build up his sense of self. Everyone who has met him at school has commented first that he is a lovely boy. Now we need to help secure the bricks in his wall, so he believes that himself.