Sitting on my office couch, Shawna let out a sigh. “We need help,” she said, barely getting the words out before she began to cry. Her face was gaunt and she had dark circles under her eyes.
Over the next hour, she explained what had led her to seek my help. Shawna and her husband had recently relocated from across the state with their two-year-old daughter, Danell. Their new pediatrician had expressed concern about Danell’s ability to communicate and eventually referred her for testing at a state-sponsored evaluation center.
That proved challenging for the girl, who clung to her mother, unwilling to interact with the evaluator. Watching her daughter struggle with the simple, fun activities the evaluator presented proved painful to the young mother, still reeling from the idea that something was amiss in Danell’s development.
She was even more upset when the examiner offered an opinion: Danell had a delay in language and communication — “at the very least.” The examiner recommended an early-intervention program and semiweekly speech therapy.
Shawna got to work, immediately securing these services. But she still struggled emotionally. Unable to sleep, she lost her appetite and felt paralyzed at the prospect that a mysterious developmental disorder threatened her child’s future. When I met her, six months into Danell’s treatment, Shawna reported that the carefree, joyful times she had once shared with her family were now distant memories. Worrying about her child’s wellbeing was causing her intense and constant stress.
Seeing how Shawna was suffering reminded me of the importance of howprofessionals choose to deliver a diagnosis to a parent. Of course, it’s important to evaluate children and identify needs as early as possible. But early intervention shouldn’t happen without regard for the parents’ mental health. It’s important to remember that the well-being of parents needs to be part of all interventions.
Relationships are like a tapestry, formed from the threads of interactions throughout one’s life. When a young child is identified as having challenges, the tapestry is just beginning to form. All professionals who evaluate, treat, teach, or otherwise support children and families become a part of it. That’s why developmental and relationship-based approaches encourage promote an intentional and thoughtful approach to sharing a diagnosis with a parent.
Learning that her child had developmental delays was so stressful for Shawna that it affected her own health and her ability to relax joyfully with her daughter. As Brene Brown, Ph.D. (2012), the social worker and researcher, writes, “We are hardwired to connect with others: it’s what gives purpose and meaning to our lives, and without it, there is suffering.” To help children, first we need to connect with and support their parents.
I encourage us all to consider our impact on the emotional lives of children and caregivers, as we improve the ways we help promote resilience through robust relationships. We can replace deficit- and disorder-based language with strength-based language and information for parents. This is a best-practice principle in infant mental health and should be a part of all pediatric disciplines.
The most powerful tool in healing emotional stress and trauma in children is relational safety and relational joy. It’s also the most powerful tool to address developmental delays and enhance brain development. If we use information from neuroscience to shift the lens, we can make the journey healthier and less stressful for families—starting from the very beginning.
My book for childhood professionals focuses on the basics of emotional development and relationships, and our important role.