From abandonment issues to a rise in violence – how lockdown affected adopted children

2 months ago 15

Describing the impact the Covid crisis has had on her children, Rachel says, ‘they feel like they’ve been abandoned’. 

Like many kids, the pandemic has hit them hard – but it’s other circumstances that have made the last 12 months even more difficult to deal with.

Both of Rachel’s children, two boys aged six and five, are adopted and underlying issues of abandonment have had the most profound effect on them – even though their mother has tried to rationalise the rules of lockdown. 

‘It affects us a lot,’ she admits. ‘The fact that other people can’t come into our house and see us, it makes the kids think it’s because they don’t like us anymore. 

‘Both of their behaviours have changed; they have retreated into themselves more than anything else.’

There’s no doubt that coronavirus has affected us, both physically and mentally, actively as a nation. 

But for a number of adopted children who have had traumatic early childhoods, like Rachel’s sons, the pandemic has caused further distress, triggering feelings of instability and abandonment.

According to figures from the Department of Education, approximately three-quarters of adopted children have experienced abuse and/or neglect before entering the care system. This posits these individuals as some of the most vulnerable in our society and is a key reason as to why the changes brought by lockdown could result in them exhibiting highly challenging behaviours.

During last year’s lockdown, the charity Adoption UK conducted a survey among adoptive parents that discovered that, during the first month, half reported that their children were exhibiting increased anxiety and emotional distress. A third revealed an increase in violent behaviour.

Dr Amber Elliott, is a Consultant Clinical Psychologist and Director of The Child Psychology Service, and has worked with adopted children for over 15 years. 

She has noticed the difficulties that those who have experienced early trauma are facing because of lockdown.

‘There is no doubt children’s mental health is suffering because of the pandemic,’ she explains. ‘In general terms, 10% of kids will experience mental health difficulties, but for those that have experienced early trauma, this is about 50%.

‘When you add in lockdown, you’re creating change, taking away the reliability that children who have experienced trauma depend on to manage their emotional wellbeing.

‘What we are seeing is an exacerbation of what was already there,’ adds Dr Elliott. ‘Children are becoming very avoidant of emotion, needing to be controlling of their environment and other people around them.

‘We have also seen a high rate of child-parent violence and aggression.

‘Change is difficult for anybody that has suffered in any way but particularly for children that have been through early trauma.’

Dr Elliott explains that many children who are adopted often have to deal with attachment difficulties – or developmental trauma – that stem from the inability to rely on a relationship during childhood.

‘When we have neglectful or abusive relationships, that shapes our development,’ she says. ‘We rely on our early experiences with an attuned primary caregiver to help our brains develop. This includes our ability to connect with other people, regulate our emotions, cope with change.’

Rachel’s eldest child, whom she adopted five years ago when he was one, suffers with severe attachment issues, often feeling like he wasn’t good enough or that he was going to be abandoned. 

She says that these feelings have been exacerbated by the huge levels of uncertainty brought by the Covid crisis and that he’s found it difficult to adapt to the pandemic – particularly with the ever-changing school routine.

‘When schools were closed he asked why the teachers didn’t want him,’ she remembers. ‘He knew that some other children were in school, which made it even more difficult and just felt like he was being punished in some way.

‘The way things work with people with attachment issues is that you must keep with the rules. If you don’t stick to the rules, a child will think: now I can’t trust you.’

Aware that her son also found Rachel’s transition from parent to substitute teacher hard to cope with, she attempted a different approach to schooling. 

‘He just couldn’t get his head around me trying to help him with schoolwork so I tried to make it into exercises that wouldn’t make it feel like work, otherwise he got really upset. That was heart-breaking.’

Although Rachel battled through homeschooling in the first lockdown, when another was announced in January this year, she made the decision to prioritise both her children’s mental health and send them back to school.

As the Department for Education’s list of ‘vulnerable children and young people’ were being encouraged to attend school in person if it was in their best interest, and included adopted children, Rachel felt this was the right thing to do.

‘For the sake of my eldest’s mental health, he had to go in. The lack of structure, support and normality puts him into a very dark place that is not good for anyone’, says Rachel.

However, going to school didn’t relieved her child’s struggles as Rachel had imagined – even when the rest of the country began returning to school. ‘Now, on a Sunday when I tell him he is going to school the next day, he says “don’t you want me anymore”?,’ she explains.

‘No matter how much we love him and try to make him feel secure, he fears that he is not wanted.’

Katy, who adopted two children in 2017, has faced similar challenges due to the interruptions to her children’s normal routine, even though they continued to go to school throughout the pandemic.

‘Although they went in during lockdown, there were only two or three other students in their classes,’ she says. ‘While this was great for their academic support, they suffered from having very few social interactions.

‘My eldest, who is 11, finds making friends and retaining friendships difficult, so has felt very alone with lockdown. I have been allowing more screen time to connect with friends and family, but this comes with its own set of difficult behaviours.

My youngest, who is seven, finds it difficult not being able to physically play with friends. I really struggle to help him release that energy with only what we have at home.

It’s a real minefield to balance their emotional and physical well-being’.

As she works for Adoption UK as an Adopter Support Manager, Katy is all too familiar with the difficulties currently facing the social sector.

She explains that the Covid crisis has already had a significant impact on the number of children in care waiting to be adopted.

Although some agencies have seen an increase in the initial interest expressed by potential adoptive families, the adoption rate is down by a third since 2015 and is expected to decrease further next year.

‘The pandemic has caused significant delays in the adoption process and we’re seeing more prospective adopters become increasingly frustrated’, says Katy.

‘There are so many extenuating factors to becoming an approved adopter – like medical checks – and during lockdown it has been hard to get them.’

But it’s not just young children who are being affected, the pandemic has also hit adopted young adults hard.

Turning 18 is often considered a hugely significant moment as they are able to access their adoption files. These papers contain information about why they went into care, official documents from the proceedings and details about their time in foster care prior to being adopted.

However for Tiegan Boyens, who turned 18 last year, the pandemic has caused a delay to accessing these important documents. 

Placed into care at the age of two and adopted at four, she says she found lockdown particularly tough as she was about to finally read her adoption files.

Not only have social services offices being shut during the crisis, Tiegan’s social worker, who would normally help her go through the files, is in a high-risk group.

‘It feels like a waiting game with no end,’ says the college student. ‘I have waited a long time for them, and this is just another thing slowing down the process’.

Although Tiegan has had contact with her birth family via letters since she was first adopted however, she had only ever seen her mum twice and first met her maternal grandparents when she was 16.

Even so, she feels her adoption files are important and will answer the questions she has about her early childhood.  

‘I may get some clarification on information I have got already,’ Tiegan explains. ‘I just want answers and some closure.’ 

She had planned to meet with her birth family in early 2021, but coronavirus restrictions have prevented any further physical contact, and the teenager is concerned about being kept apart for too long.  

‘I am worried about missing moments with people who I may not have many more opportunities with,’ she explains. ‘Time is slipping away. 

‘It is nice to talk over text or phone however it does not beat being with someone in person, especially when you’re getting to know them.’

However, lockdown has brought many positives to some adopted families, says Dr Elliott, such as the fact that they’ve spent increased amounts of time together.

‘Some parents and children are talking about how this opportunity to hunker down and lock the world out is having a really restorative effect on their relationship,’ she explains.

‘One of the things we often try to help families with when they are faced with behavioural challenges is to go back to connection and spending time together.’

Both Katy and Rachel say that despite their issues, they have also seen their family bonds strengthen more than ever before.

‘We’ve learnt how to cope with each other’s personalities and about what triggers the other,’ says Katy. ‘I do feel we are more synchronised as a family.’.

Rachel adds, ‘My children are very close with us, even more so now, which is just great.’ 

These more encouraging experiences demonstrate that strengthening relationships has been key to surviving lockdown for some adoptive families. However, Dr Elliott insists that the government needs to do more to support these vulnerable children and those around them.

One example she gives is that following parents of new-born babies being allowed to bubble with others to support them in that first year of parenting in lockdown, there’s a strong argument that adopters in the first year of adoption should be allowed to do the same.

‘Adoptive families have the same rights in terms of parental leave, so why are we not seeing their needs being met by also being allowed to create a bubble with supportive family members?,’ asks Dr Elliott.

‘Among many other things, the Covid-19 lockdowns have exposed the mental health and emotional well-being needs of adopted children and young people.

The anxiety that many have about returning to school and the relational struggles they continue to experience.

Being a parent to a developmentally traumatised child is really tough. We need to be doing more to help them and their children.’

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