Christmas Lessons Learnt

You vow that you will never put yourself through a Christmas like that ever again. It was meant to be enjoyable, you put a shit load of effort into making it enjoyable and it was something of an endurance event and people cried. The problem is that as next Christmas looms, you’ll vaguely remember this Christmas was at times awful and there were things you were going to do differently, but you won’t remember what or why. You also won’t remember what went well. Sometimes we are destined to live in repeating patterns unless we run our family lives a bit like a business.

If you live in a ‘complicated’ family and you’re emerging out of a tangled and at times unbearable mess, I offer a tip. I’m not usually into tippy tips, but this one works for me.

I bring to you The Christmas Lessons Learnt:

  1. Find a pen and paper, or open the notes on your phone. Wherever you write this thing, it has to be easily findable next year.
  2. Mentally walk yourself through the Christmas season and write down what went right and what went wrong. For example: bought pot plant for neighbours and they really liked it, cooked Christmas dinner from scratch, no one ate it and I flipped my lid, certain person took centre stage, we responded and we still haven’t recovered from the fall out.
  3. Now write down how you intend to manage that hazy faraway place that is next Christmas. You may want to think extra hard about how you can take pressure off and the bits everyone enjoys which are easy to achieve. There will be more difficult parts too – the people and relationship stuff, the boundary-setting and protecting time and events that are precious to you. In my experience, this plan should be fairly specific – buy frozen roast potatoes, book a supermarket delivery at the start of December and order the non-perishables, don’t even consider the panto, let certain loved ones live out their own choices, don’t rescue.
  4. Put or save your list somewhere safe and write a prompt with an alert in your calendar, round about 1 December. Read Lessons Learnt from last year.

Writing a Lessons Learnt is not only an investment in next year, it is superbly cathartic. And filing it away means we can move on and face the new year, with fresh hopes and plans.

I’m over making grand new year resolutions but I like the sense of a fresh start. Wherever this new year finds you, I hope that 2022 brings you companionship and good times. If you’re not yet ready to look ahead then finish off the sherry and give yourself a pat on the back. No matter how well or not it all went, it’s done and over with for another year. The very happiest of new years to you.

The Unofficial Guide to Therapeutic Parenting, the Teen Years – OUT NOW

Finally. It’s out. The Unofficial Guide to Therapeutic Parenting, the Teen Years has been published. You can buy it here or here and other places too. Isn’t it a handsome thing? I love the cover (it’s a metaphor you know).

The book is an honest, real life look at therapeutic parenting during the adolescent years because just when we’ve got a handle on the special kind of parenting many our children require (well done us), adolescence swaggers in and sticks two fingers up. Adolescence on top of trauma and relational difficulties is an interesting combo. Our loved ones who found it challenging to regulate their emotions, assess risk and follow rules even before adolescence showed up, will certainly experience extra challenges. Yes, my friends, adolescence plus trauma is rather a double whammy.

Teenagers naturally drift away from their families and support networks and fall into the arms of supportive peer groups, right? ‘What’s that?’ I hear you cry, ‘they don’t have a supportive peer group’. Many of the protective factors that cushion averagely raised young people against risk are not available to our loved ones. We may find ourselves picking up the pieces amongst some interesting situations. Our influence as parents, carers and professionals wanes just when our young people are perhaps at their most vulnerable.

The Unofficial Guide to Therapeutic Parenting – the Nightmare Years (lol) is set amongst the modern day parenting obstacle course, littered as it is with sexting, self-harm, exploitation, aggressive behaviours and internet addiction, to name a just few of the challenges. The risks todays teens face are not what they were certainly when I was young and many of us middle-aged parents and carers have few reference points. For example, when I was a teenager I smoked a bit of tobacco and had some inappropriate boyfriends. I didn’t do anything that could have landed me in jail or the local ICU. I didn’t even send pictures of my tits to random strangers. What a square! It’s a baffling world some of our young people find themselves in, at the press of a button, in a moment.

Of course, not all teenagers who have had traumatic early lives experience a rocky adolescence and for that reason my book comes with a massive proviso. If you and yours are gliding quite nicely through these years then don’t read it. Do something lovely together instead; have a barbecue, crack open a Coke Zero, watch a film, or even better, leave your teenager alone in the house and reclaim your social life. The Unofficial Guide has been written for those of us parenting at the hard edge of adolescence, who are a little overwhelmed and frightened by it and who struggle to recall what a social life is. I’ve worked hard to produce something practical, relevant and entertaining, whilst walking the talk. (These books aren’t just dashed off, you know.) There is humour, swearing and practical suggestions and if that’s what you’re after then please buy a copy. If you like it, I’d be very grateful if you could leave a review on Amazon and pass on recommendations to your friends and colleagues. My work is very much a word of mouth thing.

And if you’d like to hear me being interviewed by superwoman Helen Bonnick, author of Child to Parent Violence and Abuse, then click here for a podcast hosted by Jessica Kingsley Publishers.

Review: Isma Almas, About a Buoy – Adventures in Adoption

Isma Almas’ 2019 Edinburgh show is biographical comedy at its best. Her story of what led her and her female partner to adopt a little boy of a different heritage to their own is captivating, generous and at times so shocking I couldn’t prevent myself from gasping and laughing at the same time, in a state of liberal, white-girl confusion. 

Isma disarmingly shares the racism aimed at her as a child growing up in the 1970s. Although the racism is enragingly predictable, one incident in particular is not and neither is the comic storytelling approach that Isma takes. She lures and relaxes you then jabs you in the ribs. There are proper narrative punch lines, unexpected and unnerving. Even less predicable is the Islamaphobia she describes at a significant point during the adoption process. Researchers investigating the lack of diversity amongst those coming forward to adopt would do well to see her show, buckle up and not ask themselves too many questions about when its right to laugh. I won’t share the story, but I will say that Isma is a social worker and might have reasonably expected an easier ride because of that. It turns out not to have been the case. More subtle but equally damaging racism has since collided with her family. She skilfully exposes and dissects the excuses and the flawed reasoning, then wallops in with a firm reminder this is not a TED talk. The show never veers towards worthiness.

Isma and I are both adopters and initially connected in the virtual world. When I embarked on a novel set in the world of stand-up comedy, she reviewed a draft and gave invaluable feedback. It needs more misogyny and more messiness, she told me and her advice significantly improved my manuscript. Then she asked if I would give feedback on her Edinburgh-bound show, About A Buoy and I made my way to an office space near King’s Cross station, wondering just how awkward being the only member of an audience was going to be. It wasn’t at all. From the off I was with her, swept through a marriage and a divorce, a new relationship and a child. I knew some of the ending but still it touched me, right before it kicked my feet away, picked me up and bathed me in sunshine and Queen. Isma’s show is narrative comedy at its most vibrant and enriching and a perfect, mid-afternoon festival pick up.

Isma’s show About A Buoy – Adventures in Adoption, is showing at The Gilded Balloon from 31 July to 26 August.

Child to Parent Violence and Abuse by Helen Bonnick – review

Every now and then a book comes along that makes me want to grab a loud hailer and wear a sandwich board displaying it’s cover with “READ THIS NOW, PLEASE” printed across the front. I would stand outside our denuded public service ‘hubs’ and chant non-aggressively and if I had the cash, give out free copies. Helen Bonnick’s new book Child to Parent Violence and Abuse, A Practitioner’s Guide to Working with Families is one of those books. If you work with families who talk about or even allude to controlling, abusive, or aggressive behaviours directed towards them, by their child or a child they are caring for, then this is the book those parents need you to read.

I first met Helen some years ago in a cafe near a London train station. We had connected online and decided to meet in person to talk face-to-face about her professional desire to explore what was then a hardly reported on phenomenon and my experience of it. It was still a time when social media was a useful way of connecting with others and sharing complex and difficult information without fear of attracting further abuse. Helen’s work and her website draw heavily on much of that information sharing and reminded me how much I had learned and how much support I’d received from others during that time.

Helen’s book is well-written and clear and yet complicated, is practical and yet doesn’t give easy answers and is compassionate and doesn’t apportion blame. ‘We need all of us,’ she writes, ‘the whole family, parents and professionals to work together, if we are to stand any chance of bringing about change.’ It’s hardly a radical statement and yet real life experiences are littered with blame and taking sides and accusations and investigations. There are good reasons why. Violent and abusive behaviours can drive us all into opposing corners, if we’re not careful. What Helen does so well is explain how we can work together and the information that all professionals need when working with families.

Headings such as ‘Difficult parents or difficult situations?’,’Parents are retraumatised by the helping professions’ and sections on building trust and safeguarding get to the heart of the matter. The reality of violence within the home, perhaps still taboo is laid bare as are the all too frequent and ill-fitting and simplistic responses. But this book isn’t just about ‘awareness-raising’, it’s about professionalism and processes and practical solutions and continuous improvement whilst recognising the pressures that all of us are labouring under.

Living with constant and terrifying violence and abuse from a loved one who isn’t choosing to behave in such a way and trying to get anywhere close to explaining how that is, is like trying to report from the war zone of a foreign country, while gunfire drowns out your voice. Many of us are rendered mute. We are desperate for advocates who know the terrain and who can translate for us. Helen is a brilliant translator-advocate who can bridge the sometimes aching divide between families and services. BUY HER BOOK NOW. Please.

Today it isn’t raining

Today it isn’t raining and the wind doesn’t buffer the bird feeders on the crab apple tree. Today I have sown seeds in the wet soil and in pots of compost on the window ledge. And I have planted hardy hopes and autumn fruiting optimism in anticipation of bowls of greens and pots of jewelled reds and purples.

Last year was devastating. Seeds rotted and plants bolted. Nothing flourished. I despised having no choice but to dig deeper and deeper and feared it had all been for nothing.

There must have been growth all along though because this year strong green shoots emerge, persistent despite the nipping frosts.

There’s not much more for me to do now the compost is spread over the ground and the watering can is filled and left by the outside tap. I’ll put on my boots and head out across the fields where the buds push open in the hedges and the deer rest in pairs if you are still enough not to disturb them.

Superkids need Superparents

Many of my Superparent friends; foster carers, adopters, kinships carers, guardians chose not to watch Superkids on Channel 4 last week. They said being Superparents had left them too broken, exhausted and sad and all they could face was a bit of I’m a Celebrity and an early night. The programme could have carried an irony warning.

Although everyone says they bloody love those who care for the state’s children, words can come up empty when the shit hits the fan. I took a deep breath of sweet-smelling air, thought of the poetry and Lemn Sissay and switched over. I’m glad I did – the kids, the poetry, the human spirit….

The Superkids, who were completely super, had awful starts in life and been bundled around the care system. They were hurt, hurting and rootless. The state, their parent clearly does some great work, but still has a long way to go before it can truly say it universally provides what Superkids need and deserve; relentless, fearless, forever parenting.

The State’s Superparenting obligations are of course carried out by individuals. If the state is serious about reducing the number of moves that children in its care endure and improving their life-chances, then supporting and scaffolding those on the caring front line must be its bread and butter. Hurt children hurt, children who have been tested will test and children who have learned they are not worthy of a permanent home will chase chaos. To stick alongside kids when this is the daily reality is the difficult bit, the forever bit. It’s when Superparents of all hues need to hear ‘you’re doing something incredibly difficult, we’ve got your back, it’s not your fault’. It’s when they need to know that schools, health services, social services, members of parliament are right there, rolling with the punches, sharing the same objectives and the same knowledge about trauma and broken childhoods. It’s a dirty, human, emotional business. It’s also a real test of the state’s commitment to forever, no matter what parenting. When the shit hits the fan, will the state pitch in with a mop or a clipboard?

It perhaps sounds easy to be a Superparent when you’ve never done it yourself, when you’ve never come face-to-face with the soul-shattering rage our children rightly feel then helped them unpick it, when you’re not the one chasing, mending, grieving, problem-solving, relentlessly, day after night, after week after month after year after year. But it’s the hardest thing most of us will ever do.

I marvel at the lengths individuals go to for their Superkids and the life-changing Superparenting they provide. And I despair at the lack of value put on their efforts and skill, the lack of even general knowledge about how trauma looks and behaves in the real world, the way the state, without meaning to, squanders their talents and goodwill. If Superparents are to stand a chance of providing the relentless parenting our kids need and deserve, the state must in turn stand by them and the children they care for, relentlessly, day after day after week, after month after year. And at the very least, Superparents shouldn’t be left too broken and dispirited to face watching a programme about the children they put themselves on the line for.

Wifi-free Wednesdays

The Wifi-free Wednesday is a brand new thing in our house. It has come into being as a consequence of online teen shenanigans and after an enforced period of zero internet reminded all of us how beautiful life can be without social friggin’ media.

It’s a simple plan. We do something together every Wednesday evening; go to the cinema, walk  along the beach, eat a meal and none of us uses a device while we’re doing it. It’s not meant as a punishment but as a beacon of reconnection during the week when we attempt in a tiny way to hold back the psychological tug of the tech industry.

Our first Wifi-free Wednesday involved eating crisps and watching Ready Player One, a Spielberg film set in a future where the populace live with more gusto in a virtual world called OASIS than in the real one. The designer of OASIS has died and left a game within the virtual world, the winner of which gets to own and control OASIS forever. As a god-like gesture it’s rather laissez-faire. The baddies are a tech giant set on evil domination. The goodies are a disparate group of plucky kids with the dice loaded against them. The plucky kids win, share ownership and introduce some human-friendly changes one of which is to close OASIS on Tuesdays and Thursdays to encourage it’s real life citizens to rediscover real life relationships. Well, blow me over. It was an unplanned but fitting message for our first Wifi-free Wednesday and some weird synchronicity.

There was some initial resistance to Wifi-free Wednesday that fell away when it was actually fun. It propped up a heavy first week back to work and school after the holidays and put a spring in all our steps. We will continue our experiment and see if our little oasis improves as a result.

The exploitation of looked-after young people – are we complicit?


When I arrived at university as a hopeful and nervous fresher, attempts were made to groom me and an overseas student I shared a flat with. A fundamentalist religious group identified us as a potentially lonely pair, invited us to social gatherings, strummed guitars at us and only some way in unmasked themselves and brandished their direct debit forms. It was all very underhand. I wouldn’t have called it grooming back then but the tactics were uncannily similar to those now being used by criminal networks to exploit young people in the care of the state. The similarity ends there.

Criminal drug gangs are frighteningly trauma informed, practically and psychologically. They know where the state houses its most vulnerable young people, when and how much they receive in benefits and allowances, how robustly their residential accommodation is managed and whether anyone will ask ‘where are you going and who with?’ They know how disrupted, traumatic childhoods work. Our ‘tough on the outside’ young people, with their lack of trust in authority and their propensity to form relationships quickly and uncritically wear their vulnerability on their backs. They are easy, self-identified targets for exploitation – cash generating, drug carrying expendable pieces of meat. Where the state leaves a void of real care, the drug gangs sweep in and sweep up our children and put them to work. We (the state) make it far too easy for them.

The grooming process which starts with befriending and promises of riches builds into faked but shared sense of living in an exciting sub-culture and results in indebtedness and retribution, drug addiction and criminalisation. When they don’t come up with the goods our young people are disfigured with keys or cheese graters, stabbed in the legs, cut, burned, locked away. They may disappear for days then resurface miles from home in a run-down seaside town or in a police cell facing serious and life-changing charges. The resulting devastation of futures, of opportunity and mental and physical health is a tragedy we don’t take nearly enough interest in or responsibility for.

The state (all of us) is complicit in this criminal, exploitative and drugs trade. We have starved children’s services of money, we house our most vulnerable young people together in accommodation away from home and in the worst parts of town, on the doorstep of those looking for fresh meat, we pretend that parenting is providing young people with little more than the practical means to survive, we staff our homes with under-trained, under-paid workers, we hand out money without question and we tell ourselves that young people of 15 or 16 say are old enough to make their own life choices. If they chose to prioritise spending on drugs over spending on food, that’s surely up to them. If they stay out all night, we can’t make them do otherwise. And failures in the education of vulnerable, care-experienced young people leave them under-equipped, under-educated, excluded and with a lot of time on their hands. The combined result is that our young people who are or were parented by the state (us) are handed to criminal gangs on a plate.

There will be cries of ‘not all children’s homes are like that’ and ‘there are good reasons to exclude some children from school’ but try explaining that to a 17 year old lying in hospital bed with his gums cut to shreds because he owed money to a drug gang. We have to join the dots and disrupt the business of exploitative gangs by taking our role as corporate parents much more seriously and by raising our standards. If you wouldn’t want your family living in the same street as a nest of drug dealers, why is it acceptable for looked after children to live there?

What protected me from my tambourine-wielding groomers was a sense of myself as a good person, a solid network of friends and family and a well honed gut feeling that these wide-eyed people were ‘off’. Our most vulnerable young people do not have these protective factors. And criminal gangs operate in plain sight; in our town centres, our residential areas, outside our children’s homes and on social media and they exploit the void of parenting left when the state goes missing. They can’t believe they’re getting away with it. It’s time we got clever (trauma informed), joined hands around our care-experienced young people and played these bastards at their own game. Only the quickest and smartest will win and right now we’ve got a lot of ground to make up.

Billy Bramble – therapeutic story for children with angry, aggressive behaviours

Billy is an angry, aggressive 11 year-old who is disruptive at school and destructive, argumentative and difficult at home. His meltdowns are catastrophic and impact upon everyone around him including his parents and his younger sister Lucy. He is the title character in my book Billy Bramble and the Great Big Cook Off, which was published almost exactly two years ago. Happy birthday Billy!

He is the kind of child that documentaries like Violent Child, Desperate Parents are made about, that strategies like Non-Violent Resistance are developed for, that guidance like the Home Office Information Guide: adolescent to parent violence and abuse is written about. He is the child that until relatively recently, no one much wanted to talk about, let alone try to understand and help. He spends a lot of his time in the school ‘naughty room’. ‘I think I am bad right the way through from my outsides to my insides’ he says. He is the child who on the face of it, isn’t much of a hero.

But Billy is the hero of this story; articulate, funny, interesting and lost. We all need stories that allow us to identify with the hero, to root for him or her. When does a boy like Billy ever get to read something uplifting and hopeful about someone just like him? The adults around our children also need the opportunity to share books and initiate difficult conversations. Billy is after all so much more than the huge feelings that overwhelm him. He has dreams and ambitions and is emotionally intelligent and determined. Brambles are interesting things he tells us, ‘The bramble is a survivor.’

The difficulty in writing about aggressive, challenging behaviours is shame. The shame children feel at carrying such huge, destructive feelings and the shame of the adults around them, left helpless and sometimes judged. That’s why Billy has an imaginery dog, a vicious, frightening hound called Gobber. Gobber represents Billy’s rage, fear and sadness, his dysregulation: something that with help Billy can learn to tame.

His parents are doing their best, learning how to parent him in new ways and occasionally shouting and throwing shoes. They are imperfect, like all of us. Much of the action takes place of the page and is left to our adult imagination, ‘I am sad and Mum is cross and now Mum is on the phone and I am scared she is arranging for me to be taken away’ he tells us, although we know Mum is calling for help. The jeopardy is real but short-lived.

Billy’s luck begins to change with the arrival of Mrs Buttress into his life, Teaching Assistant extraordinaire. She supports him at school and teaches him to cook. Through cookery, the patience and connection of Mrs Buttress, and the growing understanding and skill of his parents, Billy begins to experience himself more positively. As his confidence grows Gobber becomes calmer and easier for Billy to control. As success beckons, Billy must start to rewrite the story of himself, ‘He is not the boss of my universe any more and I have a feeling my universe will be a much better place to live in from now on’.

I would like to write more Billys and a Lucy (Billy’s younger sister, who competes with Billy for attention, struggles with homework and is always hungry). Therapeutic stories for older children are thin on the ground and many have connected with Billy and ask for more of him. I’m giving Billy a fresh airing for his birthday, in the hope that he has a chance at finding a greater readership and realising the potential I’d imagined for him.

If you know a Billy, or someone working with or parenting a Billy please tell them about my book and send them a link. It’s full of jokes, lists and recipes brought to life by the engaging and funny illustrations of super-talented illustrator Kara McHale and published by Jessica Kingsley Publishers. Despite the difficult subject matter we set out to offer children and the adults around them something hopeful, entertaining and funny and a starter for gentle conversations around big feelings. We’re proud of what we created and we’d very much like to create some more. We have loads of ideas. Billy says a massive ‘thank you’ for your support and so do we.

Mother’s Day for Complicated Families

Mother’s Day. A day that recognises your dedication and hard work throughout the year. A day that’s all about you, right?


For children with complicated, dislocated and perhaps distressing experiences of mothers, a whole day devoted to their marvellousness might just be one of the worst days that could have been invented.

If Mother’s Day is something to be endured rather than enjoyed in your family then I recommend getting your head around it now, a good few days before the gushy event and before those tricky visitors; emotion and expectation move in and make themselves at home.

These are some of the things I try to do and sometimes succeed at to increase the chances that Mother’s Day doesn’t leave my family in a state of dislocated hysteria.

  1. Buy yourself a present, something you really like, a little plant perhaps or some chocolates.  Tell yourself it’s because you’re doing an awesome job at this mothering business. Anything else will be a bonus.
  2. Buy a Mother’s Day card, put it somewhere reachable, but not on display and say, ‘There’s a spare card on the sideboard in case you wanted to give it to me. No problem if you don’t want to.’ Say it casually and mean it.
  3. Take some time to consider how hideously difficult Mother’s Day might be for your child, even if they don’t say it out loud. Sit with it and decide that you will help them navigate their way through the day, because what could be a more powerful statement about what mothering is really all about.
  4. Set all expectations to “LOW”.
  5. Do not allow any cell of your body to look forward to a lie-in.
  6. Make a plan. Perhaps do something low-stress that you and your child enjoy doing, for instance going out for fish and chips. Perhaps have some ‘because I love you’ surprises in your pocket.
  7. Express the difficulties and complications out loud, with acceptance and compassion, ‘I know it’s a difficult day for you and I’m OK with that’/’I’m going to do my best to notice if you’re struggling’/’I know you love me and I don’t need you to show me’.
  8. Avoid all sources of sickly Mother’s Day emoting from others. Yuck!
  9. When the day is done and you’ve weathered whatever came your way, take some time to reflect on what did and did not work so well. No blame though. And perhaps say to your child, ‘I enjoyed spending time with you today.’
  10. Reward yourself with a big slug of self care. And remember that however your family has been stitched together, you are doing something truly remarkable. GO YOU.