Tuesday, 8 May 2012

Sacking the sad face!

After many comments, emails and conversations discussing the merits of our happy/sad faces, the NC and I decided to look more closely at the sad face. Many people seem for it, many people are against it. All have their own reasons and can defend their opinions. For some it helps manage behaviour, for others it worsens behaviour.

Mini hasn’t been on the sad face for….well I can’t even remember the last time now. His behaviour has been changing for months now, but over the last few weeks we seem to have reached a point where I’m not sure it could get any worse! Most of Mini’s recent actions have been aggressive and violent, and we have never used the sad face for that, instead we’ve administered a time in hug, in a time out place. (That doesn't make the violence stop, but it sends a message that we love him regardless of the punches he's throwing!)
Mini is now less bothered about what happens when he moves onto the sad face. The first step is toy removal, but now Mini couldn’t really care less about toys being removed, which says to me that he doesn’t really care about himself either.
As we’re learning more, we’re beginning to understand about Mini’s feelings of shame. Clearly imposing more shame on him is not healthy or good.

A few months ago when we started using the faces we wanted to stop all the things we saw as unacceptable – hitting, screaming, pinching, biting, non-compliance in all sorts of things, drawing on walls/furniture/toys, climbing on furniture, jumping on the sofa in an effort to break it.
Now, as things appear to have reached a peak, we want and need to concentrate on the most serious stuff – hurting others. This doesn’t mean that we don’t need to think about the other things, but we’re looking at different ways of dealing with them. We have not only toddler-proofed the house for Dollop, but are in the process of Mini-proofing too! We’re trying to use more consequences too (natural consequences where at all possible). And we're looking more at how to help Mini manage his feelings and how we can re-wire his brain so these issues don't manifest in these undesirable ways so much.

Mini no longer has free access to his pens/pencils, he has to ask, and is supervised when using them. The supervision means it’s now a nice close activity too.
Out of fear (following the threats of stabbing with cutlery, and other similar threats) we have moved our kitchen knives out of their block (which Mini could have reached if he really, really wanted to and was in a climbing frame of mind), and onto a magnetic strip on the wall where Mini has no chance of getting to.

So, given that we’re learning more about shame, and given that we’ve not used the sad face in ages anyway, it’s coming down. Right now. *Rushes off to remove sad face*. 
Right, it’s down now, and ripped up and in the recycling bin so we’re not tempted to put it back up. I wonder if Mini will notice it’s disappeared?

I’m keeping the happy face and the super-happy face for now. Why? Because I think they are useful tools to reward and praise Mini. In the same way that some people put pennies or marbles in a jar, or dish out chocolate buttons, we move Mini up the super happy side. These moves are unexpected. Mini doesn’t work for them, because he never knows what we’re going to reward. The idea is that he does nice things when he can, and we have to spot those opportunities to reward him.

Of course we try to praise him all the time –  for every little thing we can think of i.e you put your shoes away, well done Mini; it’s great that you put your knife/fork together on your plate Mini; you've been playing so nicely with Dollop; your hair looks lovely today Mini, you brushed it really well.
But the rewards are for being especially nice, things we know are hard for him, things that are outside of his normal routine, or good choices i.e you were really cross then Mini, but you made a really good choice to cuddle Dollop instead of hitting her; you remembered to do x,y,z even though you were feeling sad; I’m really pleased you were able to make a choice today Mini; look daddy, Mini’s eaten all of his dinner even though he didn’t really want to come to the table. Sometimes these things feel contrived and artificial, often Mini won't accept the praise, but sometimes he smiles and a glimpse of pride peeks through and his eyes sparkle like they used to.

We’re just realising that Mini isn’t just adopted, he has experienced early trauma; developmental trauma. These issues are not because he’s adopted, but because of that trauma and the damage that it’s done to him. It’s taken us a while to get here, for these realisations to dawn. Partly because so many people told us that we were wrong, that he was normal, that his behaviour was normal and because we were paranoid parents. So we’ve done things wrong that might have put us back a bit, we’ve listened to professionals – who have also been wrong, and put us back a bit, but we’ve moving forward now.


  1. It's permanent trial and error, isn't it. Trying to find the most appropriate and constructive way to deal with the challenges. Only you can ever know what's right for you and Mini. We usually have a 2-week leeway on any 'praise or chastisement' method. Then the novelty wears off and we have to get creative again. Good luck with your new approach. x

  2. Absolutely, and hard to implement new things without Mini realising that we have absolutely no idea what we're doing! So until therapy has started, and until I've finished my course, I'm not implenting anything new, and then I'll wait for the therapist's advice. Til then, I'm happy to remove bits of what we currently do. For now, I'm going to just try to follow PACE and be much more therapeutic and understanding. x

  3. Amazing positivity in the face of such adversity. I think you should get a super happy face for this blog post today!

    1. Thanks Mrs V-C your comment made me super-happy! x

  4. I think this articles speaks many truths! I love that you are willing to speak your mind & and let your mom instinct take over. Professionals can have many opinions for us...but we know our children the best. We started using a new technique this week with our 8 year-old (albeit a little older than Mini) called "Prescribing". Here is the blog link where I found out about it:


    I was skeptical when I read it, but after giving it a shot on a few of the worst behaviors - it actually works : )

    Good luck and great job!

    1. Thanks for your comment Tammy. The prescribing sounds a little like some reverse psychology we've used with Mini before. As I mention in my comment above, I'm not starting any new techniques now for a while, but it's certainly one to have 'up my sleeve' as and when we might need it - thanks, and thanks for introducing me to a new blog too :-)

  5. You are having a really tough time!
    It is so hard isn't it? And using trial and error on a real human being is scary. Our eldest's behaviour is bizarre sometimes and we have tried so many techniques - and had so much advice; even from passers by in the street. Some things we try work for a short while, some work only once, some are a disaster. We implemented a star chart a couple of weeks ago that has been a disaster.

    On the praise thing - I know praise is good, and I often feel I don't praise mine enough; however I have stopped always praising them for things that they do routinely - eg clearing the table after meals, I just say a quiet 'thank you', and maybe praise indirectly by telling Daddy in their hearing later that they 'did good'
    My reason? I think they can get hardened to praise as they can get hardened to being told off; it stops meaning anything. (I remember a friend who used to say to their kids each time they did anything good "That was fantastic!" so 'fantastic' became a word that didn't mean a lot, result was when they actually did do something genuinely fantastic he had nothing else to say!)
    Also the indirect praise works well with my boys - I think because they don't feel under the same pressure to respond; because it shows them that I remember their good behaviour and care about it enough to tell someone else; and because Daddy can reinforce the praise too. And my eldest does get quite uncomfortable when he's praised directly, but he does love to be talked about!

    I'm not telling you to do this with Mini - of course, if he needs the praise it must be great that you are giving it so generously. He's your son, so you are the absolute expert on what's best for him - however well meaning all advice givers are (I'm including myself here!)

  6. Thanks Megs. Tough? I don't think we've seen anything yet, but we're preparing for it when it comes!

    You're right it is scary using trial and error on a real person. Glenda at CAMHS reckons it's good to have lots of different tricks up your sleeve to pull out at different times. I'm not comfortable doing that yet...it does just feel too experimental and we still feel like we're walking on eggshells, he's so volatile that pulling a new trick out could set something else off.

    I get what you're saying becoming hardened to praise...we used to feel like that too, but for Mini this definitely feels better - at least for now! At the moment, when it's so hard for him to accept praise, giving him lots I hope will reinforce the idea that it's OK to accept some of it, even if he can't take it all. Like you, I don't praise *all* the routine stuff, but when I'm struggling to find other things to praise (on the bad days), I do fall back on the routine things! It doesn't feel like we're giving it generously, it feels contrived, wrong and is said with - at times - a false smile and through gritted teeth, but he does respond to it. The indirect praise is great though isn't it - we do that lots too, and you see Mini's ears prick up even if he doesn't get involved in the conversation.

    Hope you're doing OK at the moment? x

  7. Your spirit and positivity in the fact of such difficult behaviour is amazing. It is so tragic that Mini has suffered in this way and that he has been left with this trauma and these feelings. I think you're wise to gather up information and assimilate before trying anything new. It is so difficult to know what works. There needs to be specialist parenting support for this sort of issue really. I suspect that time and patience is going to be a big healer but a big part of it will also be Mini understanding that, whilst it's ok to feel all these feelings, we can't act on them in this way in our society. That is such a hard thing and the transition from being a younger child, where you can allow more leverage for the behaviour, to being an older child when the consequences for such behaviour become more severe. I wonder if outlets for the negative behaviour might be a way forward i.e. a certain time a day when he can hit something arbitary and then that time slowly diminishes. This might enable him to start to learn to hold onto his feelings until the time when he can let them out. Just a thought and another suggestion to add to the pile to discuss with the therapist. Sending you a huge hug and whispering "hang in there" in your ear.