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

Back to school……and the difference a great teacher can make

So my foster son went back to school this morning. I was full of anxiety, trepidation, stress. He was beaming, cheerful and confident.

His last school year was disastrous in patches. Stubborn refusals to join in with lessons and activities, running away from staff, controlling behaviours and physical aggression which escalated to such a level that the head teacher threatened to exclude him.

There had always been problems with school, but last year was off the scale, and it deeply affected his friendships and our stress levels. Luckily, the parents of the children he had hurt were incredibly understanding, down playing events and giving him leeway.

We were at a loss to understand quite why things were so bad, but, and I feel awful saying this, my husband and I are convinced that some part of the problem was his teacher. She was lovely, enthusiastic, young and bubbly. We sat with her in a meeting before our foster son entered her class and explained that he needed boundaries…..very firm boundaries. It makes him feel safe if he knows who is in charge, and then some of the controlling behaviours recede, which usually takes away a lot of the conflict. She nodded and seemed receptive to what we were saying.

However, we discovered at a much later date that this teacher believed in fluid boundaries, and felt so sorry for our foster child that she allowed him to do pretty much what he felt like in the classroom. A recipe for disaster. He didn’t respect her authority, she didn’t understand or accept what he needed and so all the foundations of good behaviour which other teachers had nurtured in him collapsed. In three months. The really low point was when he stabbed another child in the back with a pencil.

I think this was when the teacher sat up and realised what was happening, but it was pretty much too late by then for her to claw back her authority. Our foster son spent the rest of the year in limbo, unsure of this new ‘strict’ version of his teacher, while also being aware of her vulnerabilities and sympthies towards him, he was miserable and unsettled. We were all glad to get the year over with.

This year, our son has a fantastic teacher. She is no nonsense, she is fun, she is firm and extremely kind. As we approached the classroom this morning, she whisked me into a side office and told me about the prep she has done, just for our child. She recognises that she has to be five steps ahead with him, anticipating his anger, looking out for triggers for his controlling behaviours, seeking out the best companions for him on tasks. She has allocated a safe area in the classroom for him to go to when he feels angry or sad or needs to talk. She will be making him feel needed by giving him specific, but varied jobs each week – the variety means he can’t become obsessed with doing one thing, to the exclusion of all the other children.

Speaking to this teacher makes me feel grounded, it gives me hope. She listens to me and accepts that I know what this child needs. So often as foster carers I feel we are perhaps judged as being harsh – I have to monitor everything my foster daughter eats as she has an eating disorder. I can’t allow either child to have a sleepover with friends as they are both prone to sexualised behaviour. I have to remove a lot of choice fom their lives because otherwise obsession and control loom too large and cause conflict.

To be listened to and not judged is a fantastic thing. We beat ourselves up enough in our own time – at least my husband and I do – about how we are parenting these challenging children.

Support from school can go a long way to removing the stress from fostering. I feel very blessed that our foster son has this teacher for the next school year. He has so much potential, and hopefully this year he will be able to fulfill it, rebuild friendships and blossom as an individual.

Watch this space……

Back to school……and the difference a great teacher can make

Sex in Class

Channel 4 screened a programme last night about the parlous state of sex ed in UK schools, and the mission of  Belgian sexologist Goedele Liekens to change the situation.

It really gave me pause for thought. I like to consider myself as very open when it comes to talking about sex with my child. Any questions – I’m happy to answer them. I don’t really get embarrassed about the subject. So, there’s me patting myself on the back and thinking I’m doing  a great job, but ‘Sex in Class’ made me feel a bit inadequate.

Goedele was so up front, calm and matter of fact about every subject and area of sex, that she made me feel like a dried up old prude. Yes, I answer questions, but I don’t ever elaborate on subjects such as masturbation, orgasms or pornography. I’m actually just doing the bare minimum when it comes to imparting information about sex.

Goedele demonstrated the appalling lack of knowledge that girls, in particular, in the UK, have about their bodies. I know I was the same at the age of 14/15, but the girls in the class Goedele was working with couldn’t draw a diagram of their sexual organs. She tried to hide her shock at this as she handed the girls their homework. They were each given a hand mirror, which they were asked to take home and use to look at their genitals. One of the girls was so upset by the homework that her parent had to phone Goedele and make his concerns felt. She looked pretty depressed after the phone call.

I found the boys very interesting too. They were genuinely keen, in a respectful way, to engage with learning about sex from a girl’s viewpoint. They each made works of art showing the clitoris, vagina and labia, and ended the programme with far more knowledge, confidence and empathy for the girls in their peer group.

This is surely what we need in all schools. To see how empowered the girls in the class were by the end of the programme was quite amazing. They were telling the boys what was OK and what wasn’t, without embarrassment or apology. To see how much more sensible and thoughtful the boys were was also pretty mind blowing.

By the end of the programme I felt empowered too. Watching and listening to Goedele had given me an answer to my thorny issue – how do you teach sex education to children who have been sexually abused?

The answer has always got to be openness. It’s going to be tough for me. The children I am fostering have been abused from a very young age and their sexualised behaviour is hard wired into them. My reaction has been to shut the lid firmly on everything sexual, suggestive or adult. I’ve wanted them to regain their innocence and to forget what has happened, but it’s never going to happen.

I need to get real. The next time I am asked where babies come from, I am going to have sit down and have that conversation, calmly and sensibly, without censorship. At some point I have to trust in the children’s ability to relearn about sex in a healthy way. I have to dig deep and find my inner Goedele Liekins. She’s in there, somewhere……

Sex in Class

Hidden disabilities

Attachment disorders can affect every part of your life – physical health, emotional stability, social skills, eating habits, education, economic well being. But they’re invisible.

Sometimes people are quick to react to the behaviour of our foster children. I had a woman shout at me and one child in a car park. ‘Don’t you know it’s rude to stare?!’ she bellowed furiously at us before stomping off. I didn’t even try to explain that this child was hypervigilant, always watching and monitoring everyone and everything for her own safety. That’s what living with abusive parents does to you. For your own survival, you have to map everybody’s movements and body language at all times. It comes across as staring. I had other people in shops and restaurants getting right up into this child’s face and waving their hands up and down at her in an attempt to stop her staring at them.

While shoe shopping with another foster child, he was asked to walk up and down by the shop assistant, to try his new shoes out for comfort. He immediately dissociated, seeing this request as some kind of pressure. His head sank down, his eyes glazed over and he was gone, completely, for around twenty minutes. It’s not easy buying shoes for a child who won’t or can’t respond to you, in any way.

Then there’s been the bizarre sulks over nothing, the hiding under tables in restaurants, the over friendliness to strangers, the rudeness to friends, the destruction of toys and belongings, the lack of empathy, the cruelty to pets, the dangerously high pain thresholds, the inabilty to self regulate, the thrill seeking behaviours, the sudden coldness.

I could go on. The behaviours confound and occasionally embarrass me, and the children are often confused by their own reactions.

Children with attachment disorders are juggling a huge number of balls all at once, often without any outward signs of doing so. While they are in our care, we can try to carry some of the load for them, to smooth the way to some extent, and to shield them from the judgement of others.

Once they are out in the world on their own, it’s no wonder that young people who have such disorders really struggle. It’s yet another reason why Looked After Children should be able to choose to stay in supported care (of come sort or other) until they are…..well, ready to leave, to step out on their own.

What we need is some long term thinking. Someone needs to weigh the costs of keeping young people in such placements against the costs of them struggling, failing and ending up in the prison system, with mental health issues, with children of their own who they can’t care for.

 

 

 

Hidden disabilities