One of the things I have found difficult to learn about, read up on, get ahead on during our adoption journey has been blending birth and adopted children. There are a few books, such as ‘Oh brother!’ and ‘Adopting a brother or sister‘ . But nothing that really floated my boat, or that I thought would work for our girls.
I’ve mentioned before that we prepared our girls by reworking BAAF’s ‘We are fostering’ workbook. I contacted BAAF at the time and they were happy for us to use their workbook as a template for our own personal use. The girls and I worked through our ‘We are adopting’ version of the workbook and we all found it to be invaluable in helping us to think through and prepare for some of the hurdles we (and their new sibling) would face in the days and weeks ahead.
Our birth children were 10, 7 and 6 when Little Legs came home last summer. We had chatted with some other adopters who had blended, but they tended to have older teenagers or adult children who had already left home when they adopted.
We had talked at length with our Social Worker about the potential benefits and pitfalls of bringing a fully formed little person into our fairly stable, young family of five. We had prayed and talked together about the age range of child we felt would work for our family, whilst being guided by our agency’s best practise two year minimum age gap to our youngest daughter.
So we were approved at Panel for one child, aged between 0-3 (our youngest daughter had not turned 6 at that point).
Those of you who have read ‘The Scenic Route to Placement‘ will know that we were given Little Legs’ profile immediately after our Panel slot. She was about to turn three a few weeks later and her Family Finder was looking for a family with other children in the home, as that was Little Legs’ experience in her foster family.
The girls and I continued to work on their ‘We are family’ workbooks and to talk about what we and Little Legs might find easy or difficult during the next few months.
Planning introductions seemed to become an ever increasingly complicated web of needs that required meeting: Little Legs, our big three girls, Mr Six and I, the Foster Family (which included four teens who had cared for and loved Little Legs as their own for a number of years), as well as the distance involved between our home and theirs.
It was a balancing act between Mr Six and I spending time alone with Little Legs, knowing our big three girls were happy and very well looked after by my sister at her house a couple of hours away. Making sure our big girls felt included in the process of meeting Little Legs. Little Legs knowing and understanding that she was gaining three big sisters.
The day we took our big girls over to meet Little Legs was an amazing and bizarre day all rolled into one. We had had five days with Little Legs by ourselves, followed by three days of introductions in which to have time as a fledgling family of Six, check for red flags that might indicate issues between the girls that we might not be able to overcome and begin to work on growing bonds between us all.
On the fourth day after introducing the girls to one another, Little Legs arrived at our house with her Foster Mum and Social Worker and we began the next phase of our adoption journey.
It is now fourteen months since Little Legs came home and we began our journey as a family of Six. There have been highs and there have been lows. There has been behaviour from Little Legs that we have never experienced from our big three girls, and we have had to figure out what is going on for her and how we manage that behaviour. There has been regression in our big three girls, especially Little Bud who was our youngest, which we have had to name and to help her work through.
There has been aggression towards our big three girls from their little sister. There have been moments of sheer joy and love between them, which at the moment definitely outweigh any aggression.
We have taken five steps forward and six back. Then two steps forward and one back.
Little Legs definitely identifies herself as a Six. She tells people that she has three big sisters. And that she loves them. She now has her own bedroom, but she loves that it is attached to two of her sisters’ room.
And yet the uppy downy nature of progress and family life is such that we can never really let our guard down yet.
When she first came home, Little Legs spent most of her time in physical or visual contact with me. She would ask me to ‘touch him’ when Mr Six was near, as if she wanted to confirm that he was safe. When she is ‘fizzing’ or unsettled, she still reverts back to needing to be close to me and makes noise incessantly at me.
Of our three older birth girls, two like to be in charge. One is such an easy going little girl. Two are happy in their own company, but one likes to be around people. One is a very physical child, who likes back rubs and head rubs and holding hands and being cuddled. All of the time. One is not so tactile, has an extremely sensitive head (hates hair brushing, tickling, head rubs, etc) and dislikes anyone being in her personal space. The other likes physical contact, but on her terms.
Within weeks of being home, Little Legs had mostly got the measure of which buttons she could press to gain a reaction from her sisters.
Big Girl was so excited to be gaining a little sister. One she could play with and spend time having fun with. She did not expect one who would bite her. Or kick her. Or break her things. Or spit at her. One who would constantly tell her what to do if they were playing together and then quick as a flash, walk away from the game they were playing. Big Girl struggled to fathom why Little Legs was happy to play with her one minute, then would be pulling her hair the next.
Big Girl (11) and Little Bud (7) have borne the brunt of Little Legs’ ire. Happy Dreamer (9) definitely operates on a take it or leave it basis. If Little Legs wants to play with her then that’s great. If she doesn’t, then Happy Dreamer is more than content to play by herself. The other two take it much more to heart when Little Legs rejects them out of hand. Or worse when she targets them with aggression.
Only once in fourteen months has Happy Dreamer had her hair pulled by Little Legs and the therapeutic parenting response was not forthcoming. At all. I was so upset that Little Legs had done something totally unprovoked and that she knew full well would really hurt Happy Dreamer that I properly shouted. Thankfully it has not happened again.
The other two are much more frequent targets of the hair pulling, or raking of nails on skin, or stamping on toes. We are talking very low level aggression and it seldom leaves lasting marks. But it must get tiring for our bigger girls.
We know when Little Legs starts fizzing that these behaviours targeting her sisters are going to be a consequence of the fizziness. The key much of the time seems to be finding out what the fizziness is about and voicing some of that to her. ‘Wondering whether’ this or that. But sometimes we just have to work with what is happening as we see it happening.
How do we attempt to manage the behaviours?
We put space between them: I keep Little Legs close to me. This is especially the case if we are out and about on foot, e.g. in shops or at church. Little Legs seems unable to help herself if we are standing around in a group. She will kick out at Big Girl or Little Bud, or stand on their toes, or scratch at them. So I move Little Legs and place myself in between her and her sisters. She has never (yet) gone for anyone else.
We have a Chair: Little Legs brought with her a squishy hot pink comfy child’s armchair. It sits in the kitchen by a radiator and is a lovely place that she likes to sit and be. When we are home, I spend an inordinate amount of time in the kitchen! I can see and hear the girls from there when they are downstairs and I am in between the spaces they all occupy when they are working.
When Little Legs starts winding up, I can bring her into the kitchen and she sits on her pink chair and plays with her bag of toys that I keep there. I have also brought a small coffee table in from time to time and she can watch CBeebies on the iPad with headphones.
It isn’t a naughty chair or any such nonsense. But it is somewhere I can keep her in eyesight and earshot. And the big three can give her a wide berth if required.
We hold hands: If we are out and about when Little Legs is fizzing, she has to hold either my hand or Mr Six’s hand. She is restricted in the amount of running off she can do and how close she can get to her sisters.
We give her options: Sometimes it works to give her alternatives. She then feels that she has removed herself from the situation, without being told to.
We use distraction: The mother of all parenting hacks! I have seen some brilliant ideas on Twitter from fellow adopters! Things I have tried include:
lying on the kitchen floor next to her and wailing along.
skipping down the road with her when she was refusing to walk holding my hand.
turning the radio up and singing to drown out her wailing/whinging/crying/shouting.
pointing out of the car window in any direction and shouting ‘Did you see that?!’ as if I’ve seen something amazing .
We have shouted (not therapeutic, but genuine).
We tag team: we do this lots and I totally take my hat off to those single adopters/parents of any kind who do this by themselves. There are times, especially bedtimes, where I just have to shout Mr Six and walk away for a cry.
We do breakfast dates: over the years we have always taken our girls out for one to one time. Since Little Legs came home this has been a bit more hit and miss than planned, but we have started taking them out for breakfast first thing on Monday mornings. Mr Six generally does this and they love it. Little Legs has been out a few times now and she really thrives on the one to one time away from her sisters. Each girl has one breakfast date each month and they all know which is their week!
We talk: to her big sisters about what is happening and why. Many of my coping strategies rest on understanding what is happening. So we talk to the big girls. We talk about why Little Legs might be struggling just now. About how they can help by finding ways to keep themselves out of her reach and give her a wide berth for a while.
We use quiet time: I know I bang on about this with regards to our home edding, but all of us need a little quiet time most days. The big three go to their bedrooms (Big Girl has her own room, Happy Dreamer and Little Bud share) and can do anything, as long as they are in their rooms, doing something quietly and not winding each other up. I tend to keep Little Legs downstairs near me and she has tv time, or playdoh or craft or a similar self contained activity. This gives everyone a breather and a short time away from each other.
We don’t have solutions. And we often don’t have reasons why it is happening. But we are muddling through and unravelling issues as we go. Learning from each other and the girls and from other people who have walked this road before us.