Living with child survivors of sexual abuse

From around the second week that she was living in our house, Rose began to unsettle me. It wasn’t just the hypervigilance and the constant monitoring of my movements – although that felt invasive enough. There was more to it. A sense of unease began to creep over me about how tactile Rose was and how….I couldn’t put my finger on it at first…but effectively it was how seductively she behaved towards me.

After a short period of extreme wariness when Rose first arrived, during which she wouldn’t approach me or my husband or allow us to do anything for her – remarkable at the age of three – Rose switched into limpet mode. She had to be within touching distance of me at all times. She would wait outside the toilet and the shower and the bedroom for me. If I left her in Andy, my husband’s care, Rose would wait at the window or the front door, peering through the glass, desperately searching for a first sight of my return. If I tried to hug our daughter or Andy, or Alfie, Rose’s brother, Rose would physically squeeze in between us and force us apart. She gave me no space at all to breathe or have a private conversation or just to sit and be.

Of course, with brilliant hindsight and experience and after doing much reading and attending every training course available, I can now recognise in Rose a child with a severe attachment disorder. But there was more to it than that.

We’d be having  a cuddle on the sofa, me and Rose, and I would be aware that she was constantly touching me, but not just holding my hand. It might start with that, then move on to stroking the palm of my hand. Then she would start stroking up and down my arms. I couldn’t quite work out why this made me feel uneasy, but it did. Looking back now, again with hindsight, it wasn’t something you would expect a three year old child to do to you. Rose would ask me if I wanted a massage. I would politely decline and then she would usually respond by stroking my thighs, while giggling to herself. It became an unnerving daily ritual, which I would try and nip in the bud. However this had to be done very gently and sensitively – she saw any such refusal as a huge rejection and would descend into a black mood. Rose was quite capable of not speaking to me for a couple of hours, staring silently at me from across the room, her eyes full of venom.

Andy wasn’t at home as much as me, but as Rose came to know him, he also became a target for these behaviours. Rose would wait for Andy outside the shower, and when he came out, she would ask him ‘Has it got bigger yet?’ indicating his groin area. She would also offer him massages, and the behaviour escalated to the point where she would regularly try to grope him between his legs, attempt to undo the fly on his trousers, and offer to ‘pull his penis’. If Andy sat down, Rose would immediately settle on his lap and then begin simulating sex.

It was hard to watch, hard to experience and even harder to try and protect out own daughter from these behaviours. We had no idea when she arrived in our house, but Rose had obviously been groomed from birth to be a sexual object, valued only in the way she could gratify the desires of the adults around her. For a period of around three years, we had to learn to manage the after effects of the grooming, every day. As time went on, and Rose finally accepted that we were never going to respond to her in a sexual way, the behaviours died down. They never went away, resurfacing on many occasions over the years which followed.

How do you learn to live safely and lovingly with a child for whom a hug, a look, a word, a song, a smell, a place, a touch can be a trigger? Step by step and day by day, and very carefully, slowly and respectfully is the answer.

We learnt to read the warning signs in Rose’s body language, the tone of her voice, her heightened responses to situations and people, even the way she laughed. Watching a three year old child turn on her seduction techniques towards adult friends and their children, our daughter and extended family members was pretty mind blowing. At times it was hard not to feel horrified by her behaviours, and mortified for the friends who were affected by them. We were lucky to be surrounded by people who showed only compassion and understanding.

We had to become hyper protective of Rose. She was extremely vulnerable, and her attachment disorder, combined with her experience of sexual abuse, meant she would cuddle up to complete strangers, hop on their laps and begin kissing them. I grew adept at hoisting her off surprised people on trains, in shopping centres, at the beach and even in the swimming pool with what I hoped was a carefree laugh.

We had to constantly, gently try and drum it into Rose that adults and children alike were not going to welcome her approaches, that there were other ways she could respond to people.

I had repeated conversations with Rose, during which she would insist she loved what her parents had done to her, that there was nothing wrong with it and it was all good fun. I would put my side of the conversation across, and Rose would just stare at me, or laugh, or tut in exasperation.

Time passed, and as I said, the behaviours died away, only recurring occasionally. We managed the blips when they happened, and happily the space between the blips became longer and longer.

The sexualised behaviour was the hardest element of the placement for me, and I still beat myself up about that. I found it almost impossible to divorce Rose’s experiences and behaviours from sex in general. My marriage suffered. I couldn’t bear Andy to touch me for a long period of time. In my head, everything to do with sex was just wrong, disgusting and abusive.

Our daughter’s relationship with Rose was forever damaged by the inappropriate approaches she made to her. A child can’t fathom or contextualise sexual abuse, so our daughter described what she felt towards Rose as a ‘yucky’ feeling, plus a large dose of anger. When she matured, our daughter had therapy which helped her turn her anger away from Rose and redirect it towards Rose’s parents.

Somehow, through the passage of time, the support and love of friends and family and sheer dogged stubborn determination not to give up, we made it. Our family had to do a lot of healing in order to make the placement work. I also had to accept that there were some things I couldn’t fix – ever. And I had to recognise that there were limits to my patience, forgiveness and generosity of spirit. Yes, I discovered I was not super human – which was very disappointing.

To read more about our experiences, please visit http://www.amazon.co.uk/Betrayal-Rose-Alfies-story-Book-ebook/dp/B0161GC0A4/ref=sr_1_1/276-4936042-1476156?ie=UTF8&qid=1452792847&sr=8-1&keywords=betrayal+grace+hunter

 

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Living with child survivors of sexual abuse

Betrayal – Rose & Alfie’s story

A little excerpt from my book, the first in a trilogy. I hope you enjoy it, and if you do, the book is available on Amazon.

‘Well, hello,’ I said, bending down a little to them, ‘I’m Grace and you must be Rose and Alfie. I’ve been looking forward to meeting you two so much.’
Alfie was like a doll, tiny for two and a half, closer to the size of a one-year-old. He wore faded blue jogging bottoms and an oversized grey T-shirt, which hung at a crazy angle to just above his knees, the hem trailing a long zigzag of cotton thread. His shoes were cracked and worn, turning up at the toes. Everything about his clothing spoke of an indifference to how he looked. In contrast, his white-blonde hair had been carefully shaved into sharp tramlines at the sides. He didn’t look or smile at me, instead his fists went into his mouth and he stared down at the floor.
Rose did look at me, but was unsmiling, her eyes huge in her pale, heart-shaped face. A widow’s peak framed her elfin features and small pursed mouth, which seemed to suggest disapproval. She too was small for her age, with incredibly thick hair, the same white-blonde colour, which fell to the middle of her back and was arranged in a complicated French plait. Despite having a daughter, I was hopeless at dressing girls’ hair and I thought, sadly, that Rose’s hair would never look this good again while she stayed under our roof.

 

Here’s the link.

 

Betrayal – Rose & Alfie’s story

Hypervigilance

This week has been tough. One of our foster children has admitted to her therapist that she has inappropriate feelings towards a young boy who lives, not just in our village but on our street. I now have to consider his safety as well as the safety of our children. I can feel my protective abilities being stretched to capacity again. I have to watch our foster daughter’s every move, eavesdrop on her conversations, rifle through her diary when she’s out, monitor her friendships and maintain the firm family boundaries.

I have become as hypervigilant as the children we foster, and I hate it, it doesn’t sit well with me. I am a pretty laid back person by nature, but circumstance is forcing me into super control mode. I am jumpy, irritable, anxious and emotional. Not a good foundation for parenting, and not a state in which I can remain for long without total burnout.

Somehow I have to accept what has happened, reinforce the rules to our foster daughter in a nurturing way and learn how to relax again.

The root of success for me is remembering that I can only do my best, I can’t change what has happened to any of these children, I need to love them and continue to provide a safe and stable home for them.

A therapist once told me that what foster carers are doing is trying to teach children in placement a second language. Their first language was whatever their birth family taught them – this could be abuse, neglect, violence, abandonment.

Imagine being born into a household where you are treated as a sexual object while still in nappies, or used a punch bag for adults’ frustrations or you are simply ignored, left to your own devices. If this is their first language, it’s no wonder children in care struggle to comprehend what we want and expect from them.

So, this week I have been sitting down with our foster daughter and going over the same old safeguarding rules that we have been trying to teach her for the last six years. She pays lip service to everything, but I get the feeling she still thinks we’ve got it wrong. The worst thing about that is that she leaves the house every day and seems to immediately slip back into old behaviours and ways of managing people and life. Ways which place her and others at risk.

Our foster daughter lived with her birth parents for four years. Four years of chaos, hunger, abuse and fear. Her first language.

Our language, of acceptance, love, safety and empathy is battling to gain a foothold in this child. We will keep on pushing it and pushing it and hopefully one day this young lady will become fluent.

 

Hypervigilance

Hormones, hormones, hormones

I naively thought boys didn’t really suffer because of their hormones. Wow, how wrong can you be?

Our foster son is 14, just. I read somewhere recently that at, or around the age of 14, boys experience an 800% surge in testosterone. I think the whole 800% has happened this week.

We’ve had tears before school, tears on the way to school, tears after school, tears at dinner and bed time. And punctuating the tearful epsiodes are the arguments and the shouting. Arguments about absolutely nothing – ‘She’s always staring at me!’ ‘Nobody cares about me!’

‘I wanted to sit on that seat and she knew that!’ ‘He made a weird face at me.’ The list goes on.

There’s no point in trying to reason with him, or intervene, even when he starts hitting himself with toy guns and hairbrushes. He has to be left to rant and shout and work it out of himself. Then of course I get, ‘You didn’t stop me hitting myself…..you don’t care!’

I tell him that I do care but I didn’t want to get hurt and I felt he needed space.

‘Well next time, I don’t want you to give me space, I just want you to stop me hurting myself, OK?’

I suggest other ways he could take out his anger and frustration, we discuss hormones and the way they can take control of you and make you act – I feel so deeply for him, as a hostage to hormones myself once a month.

My husband and I have our own linguistic system to warn each other of the lie of the land, regarding our foster son and his mood. My husband comes in from work, raises his eyebrows at me in ‘Well, what’s happened today’ manner.

If I reply, ‘Low tide,’ he knows all is well. If I answer, ‘High tide and plenty of flotsam,’ he knows that the dinner table will be an unwinnable battleground of perceived slights, barbed comments and hard stares.

It’s not all bad, there are the quite times after the storms. Following one of his outbursts, or explosions, our foster son is left feeling perplexed by his own actions and the strength of his emotions. He comes to find me, once he is calm, and gives me huge hugs, telling me he has been an idiot, he is so sorry, he will never do it again.

I just hold him tight and tell him we love him, and silently hope for low tides tomorrow.

 

 

Hormones, hormones, hormones

Foster children and birth families

So, my foster daughter, who has been a walking thundercloud of anger and defiance for the last six years has suddenly changed into a calm(ish), happy(ish) sweetheart. Someone you would want to spend time with. Someone who wants to please people rather than fight them, manipulate them and hurt them.

Fantastic. And just as suddenly, she has announced to her social worker that she wants to see her mum and dad, once a month. These are the parents who abused her daily for the first four years of her life, who saw her as something to be used, who neglected her and degraded her, leaving her with no childhood and no sense of identity.

I expected the news to hurt, for me to feel rejected. I think that’s what my social worker expected too – she was very sympathetic to what she saw as my damaged feelings. I was in shock, for sure, for a few days. I started to see all the work, the progress we had made with this child in the last six years slipping away from us.

Once I got over the shock, and was reassured by the social worker that contact wouldn’t be restarting, at least not in the near future -I started to see something very positive about our foster child’s request. She is definitely in denial of anything abusive having happened while living with her parents – this is not a positive, and it’s a fact she will have to face up to one day. The positive thing for me is that this little girl appears to have decided she is with us for good. The change in her behaviour is due, I feel, to her lowering some of the barriers she has erected around herself.

She is calmer, she is happier, she is more affectionate and spontaneous than she has ever been, and I am surprised by the warmth of my own reactions to her. She shouted ‘I love you’ to me from the school playground on day this week when I dropped her off. That’s a first. She told me she feels safe in our house at bedtime a couple of weeks ago. Little tiny things, but huge for her……and for us.

So, rather than feeling hurt and rejected by her desire to see her parents, I feel like celebrating. Not that I would want contact to re-start, I think it would be disastrous. But it seems to me our foster daughter, for the first time in six years, feels she has the head space, the confidence and the maturity to handle contact with her birth family while staying firmly rooted in our lives.

Things are changing, in a good way.

 

Foster children and birth families