More children are being identified with developmental challenges and receiving early intervention than ever before. While a diagnosis is critical to securing services to help children develop to their true potential, it can also have unintended negative consequences, including stress and anxiety for parents. It’s essential to find the help, energy and time for services to benefit your child, but it’s just as important not to let a diagnosis define your child.
After all, a diagnosis is nothing more than a way to describe a child whose development is not typical. Identifying a diagnosis doesn’t mean you or anyone else can predict your child’s future. And while early intervention can help children close gaps on lagging skills or abilities, when we focus too much on quickly closing these gaps, we can neglect something even more important: relaxed, spontaneous and joyful interactions with the child.
One example: perhaps you once found certain traits or behaviors of your child to be cute or amusing. After diagnosis, you might see those same qualities only as symptoms of a disorder. Viewing your child in this way—exclusively through the lens of diagnosis—can cause you debilitating anxiety and stress.
It’s natural to worry about what a diagnosis could mean for your child’s future, and whether you’re choosing the most appropriate therapies. But if you direct too much energy and focus toward monitoring your child’s progress towards “typical” functions, you can lose a key nutrient: the fun and happy interactions that form the foundation of robust social/emotional development. For some children, including many on the autism spectrum, it’s best not to immediately focus on changing certain traits or behaviors—especially in the beginning of treatment, when the child is just beginning to develop relationships with providers.
Parents often grow fatigued from the strain and complexities of their children’s care just when enjoyable interactions become most important. It’s crucial not to let these joyful experiences fall victim to the diagnosis. They are essential for child and parent alike.
Supporting children begins with supporting relationships. Unfortunately, many approaches to early intervention fail to account for how a child’s atypical development affects parents’ mental health or their relationship with the child. This oversight doesn’t stem from a lack of compassion or good intentions, but from our culture of sub-specialization and an artificial separation between the fields of early intervention and mental health.
At the early intervention stage, a child is just beginning to create the rich relational tapestry he will weave over many years with the threads of interactions. Every professional who evaluates, treats, teaches or otherwise supports your child will become a part of this tapestry, so it’s important to insist that everyone on your child’s team understands this.
Jeree Pawl and Maria St. John, leaders in the infant-mental-health field, put it best in the title of their 1998 monograph, “How You Are Is as Important as What You Do. “ If you believe this, you should let the providers who are working with your toddler know.
Here are a few things you can do:
* Receiving a diagnosis can be stressful, but don’t let it detract from the fun and joy you share with your child. Joyful, loving relationships underlie all aspects of emotional and social growth.
* Try to avoid speaking about your child’s challenges in front of the child—even if it seems that the child is not listening or understanding. Children often absorb and hear things that we say unbeknownst to us. Over time, what your child hears—and absorbs from conversations around her—can affect her self-concept and self-confidence.
*Participate in your child’s treatment sessions and make sure that your team understands that trusting relationships form the cornerstone of treatment. Parents of toddlers belong in sessions with their children, not out in the waiting room. Make sure you approve of the treatment techniques and that you understand what professionals are targeting for change—and why.
*Understand that challenging behaviors within developmental differences are adaptations your child is making to his developing brain and body. Utilize your child’s therapists to understand and respect those differences and proceed with caution when targeting surface behaviors without understanding the purpose/cause of the behaviors for your child.
Supportive relationships are the foundation of emotional well-being for children and families. This is not simply a “feel good” idea; it’s based on developmental neuroscience. They should be the bedrock of support, whatever the diagnosis. When we see nurturing relationships as essential to all parenting and treatment decisions, we’re creating the best possible foundations for our children.