13th Mar, 2008

Portia loses her cool

Portia was suspended from school for the day.

Not a “stay at home” suspension, but a “stay in the office and work alone” suspension. As the teacher explained to me on the phone, even though her behaviour was not acceptable and had to be followed up with consequences, her intentions had been honourable.

“So why did you punch that boy?” I asked her later that evening when we were discussing the issue. Well, apparently that boy had been teasing one of her friends all day, and Portia had warned him that if he continued, she’d punch him. He did, so she did! This daughter of mine has principles.

We had the usual discussion (all parents of impulsive kids know the one I mean) reiterating the “violence solves nothing” and “how do we resolve conflict in our family?” but Portia showed no noticeable remorse. “Like, he wasn’t even hurt”, she said.

At thirteen Portia weighs in under 40 kgs and isn’t quite 150 cms tall, and I’m not sure she’d know how to throw a punch so she’s probably right. I think she felt like a champion of the underdog and an in-school detention was well worth the glory.

The image left in my mind after our discussion – of Portia all fired up with flashing eyes and gritted teeth, aiming a punch at the side of this kid’s head – left me a little dismayed but all things considered I’m not sure I should be too worried.

In over eight years of schooling, Portia has never been suspended before. I must say, in all their school years, none of my three older children were either, but then life was pretty secure and easy for them. Portia, on the other hand had a rocky start to life.

She spent the first twelve months of babyhood with her intellectually disabled birth mum who dressed her baby girl in pretty pink dresses, kept her clean, warm and safe by leaving her in her cot all day, but had no idea of the essential interactions between mother and baby to create a warm and secure attachment.

When Portia came into our care a few days after her first birthday she was a placid, quiet little baby who would just sit on the floor in a pile of toys never saying boo, or lay quietly in her cot, not bothering to sit up till someone lifted her out.

The next two years were unpredictable and disruptive for Portia. She was in and out of care for many months as her birth mum was given numerous opportunities to learn to look after her baby. Portia went to and fro between her mum’s home and ours, never seeming to care who she was with or who was taking her.

She appeared to have no attachment to her own mum, and little chance to attach to me as she was tossed back and forth in the attempt to give her birth mum every chance at reunification. Access was four times a week when she was actually living with us. Other times she spent the week with her mum, but in childcare every week day and weekends in our home.

Her birth mum was invited to spend the days at the childcare centre, learning how to interact with Portia, but usually just visited for an hour or so, sitting on a chair to watch her little girl play. She loved her daughter dearly but seemed incapable of effective parenting.

It didn’t stop the courts trying, however.

The two of them also had a number of stays in assorted family units in an attempt to teach mum to parent. We always stayed available for Portia to come back to us – she’d had a number of respite or emergency placements in her first year of life. We wanted her to have as much stability as was possible, even with all the to-ing and fro-ing. At age two and a half, one final gigantic effort was made. Despite mine and the foster agency’s protests, Portia left our home for three months to live in a family unit where it was hoped her mum could finally learn to parent her adequately enough to have her back home.

It didn’t work. At the end of three months Portia returned to our home, and never left again ( although it was almost another three years before guardianship was bestowed on us). She returned to us angry, defiant, insecure, frustrated and with the ability to throw our family into chaos.

She screamed at the big kids, got into their stuff and lost or broke things, interfered with their games and annoyed their friends. Her frequent meltdowns spoiled family outings and made her older siblings cringe with embarrassment. She tyrannised one year old Seth, pushing and hitting him when she thought they were alone, then patting him in a sisterly fashion when I arrived, explaining sympathetically how he’d fallen over (eventually he learnt to talk and put an end to that clever little act).

Despite all this, when the time came to call a family meeting to discuss the possibility of four year old Portia remaining permanently with us, it was unanimously agreed that, even though she was a little demon, her place was in our home and in our family. Even eleven year old Emily, who seemed to be the one who was most intolerant of Portia’s antics, didn’t hesitate to answer “Of course we should” when we asked the question.

The following years were never easy. Building up an attachment with this prickly child was an all consuming effort. It didn’t come naturally, and we sought professional help on a few occasions in an effort to ease the burden just a little.

At one stage she was diagnosed with ODD and attachment difficulties, and then a little later with ADHD and possible Tourette’s. We educated ourselves, managed behaviours as they arose, advocated for her at school, tried to think of creative ways to discipline her: to stop her stealing money, to stop her lying, to stop her provoking her little brother, to get her to do her homework. We encouraged her sports, her music, her friendships; gave her opportunities to feel good about herself. Sometimes we despaired, we often felt weary… but we always felt joy in her amazing energy and enthusiasm for everything she did.

After years of liaising with the schools on how to manage Portia’s behaviour (appropriate consequences and achievable reward systems usually worked) and receiving numerous phone calls that often began “We had a bit of trouble with Portia today….” I was actually a little surprised to get that call from school this week. It has been many months since we’ve had any complaints and what I’ve been hearing from the teachers has been really positive. In fact I’ve really been pleased with Portia’s progress over the past six months, even during the long summer holidays. After years of struggle and occasional despair, I feel as if maybe we’ve reached still waters and I’m enjoying the present calm.

Portia’s suspension has come and gone. She told me she actually enjoyed the day, and got up to date with her homework and started on her science project. So many kids I know are continually suspended from school (mostly kids like mine who were or still are in foster care).

Should I be worried that this might just be the first of many for Portia as she enters stormy adolescence? I don’t feel anxious. In fact, if anything, it’s made me reflect on the great improvements we’ve seen this past year that friends and family have commented on too.

Portia seems more thoughtful and considered in her actions, less impulsive than she used to be, and more appropriate too. She’s more helpful and reliable and even a bit more organised (she’ll always have a messy room, I guess) and occasionally I feel like we’re having a real conversation – that she’s not just talking over the top of me.

And what’s nice is that she’s recognising these changes in herself, and appears to enjoy the calmer, more mature girl that she’s becoming. Of course she’s still the active, sporty, tomboyish kid she’s always been, still refusing to wear a dress (even to her sister’s engagement party), always sticking her nose in everyone else’s business, and always knows best (she is a teenager after all) but who of us is perfect?

If she just keeps her fists to herself, I reckon I’d be pretty happy.

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