One of the ironies of early intervention is that sometimes trying too hard to help a child can backfire. When professionals identify a developmental delay, they are often eager to tell parents the good news: that most children diagnosed with early delays respond well to treatment. This can soften the blow, but it can also have an unintended consequence. Many parents respond by assuming a frantic pace, emphasizing doing rather than being with their children. This can interfere with what children need most: an engaged and relaxed parent.
When parent and child are calm in both body and mind, it sets the stage for learning within trusting relationships. But too often, amidst the frantic pace of early intervention, these relaxed moments of engagement get lost in the shuffle.
That was true in the case of “Ricky”, whose pediatrician recognized speech and language delays at his two-year check up. The physician referred him to a pediatric speech and language therapist, who recommended semiweekly therapy. Caught off-guard and eager to remedy the situation, Ricky’s mom got right to work. She took part in all of his sessions; closely observing everything the therapist did with Ricky.
Desperately wanting to have an impact, his mom practiced the activities she observed in his speech sessions with Ricky daily at home. She also enrolled in several “mommy and me” activities at the local recreation center. And she purchased flashcards to help him learn his colors, letters and numbers.
Rather than help Ricky, the frenetic pace began to take a toll. When the speech therapist pointed out how tired the mother seemed during a session, she admitted that she felt she was in a race to help Ricky catch up. Luckily, the speech therapist recognized that her well-intentioned efforts had all but eliminated the positive and natural interactions she had initially observed between mother and son. She helped his mom understand that relaxing and having fun with Ricky were among the most therapeutic activities she could provide at his young age.
This is where early intervention efforts can benefit from mindful awareness, the ability to be non-judgmental in the present moment. It affords parents and professionals alike the opportunity to nurture relationships by becoming aware that development progresses at its own rate for each child. While therapies can support the trajectory of progress, it’s important to remember that there isn’t really a race against developmental delays, but rather a thoughtful path to nurture each child’s own potential to develop at his or her own pace.
No one recognizes this more than the parents of grown-up individuals with special needs. Looking back, these mothers and fathers often tell me, they wish they had slowed down more and worried less. They realize it would have been better to be less carried away by worries about future challenges, many of which never materialized. One mom of an autistic adolescent put it beautifully:
“My biggest regret of all is that I worried so much about my ‘future’ son that I missed the beautiful, ‘present’ son that stood before me. I often wonder if he felt me drifting off to the future, begging me to stay with him ‘now’ knowing at the time all he needed was for me to be here, not there.”
Her words can teach all of us to avoid letting fears about developmental delays or differences detract from being aware of the beautiful realities of the present moment. A few ideas to keep in mind:
- Don’t fear your child’s individual differences. The evaluation and early intervention process can be stressful and confusing. See it as a way of helping you to understand your child’s unique strengths and ways of seeing the world, rather than viewing it through the lens of a disorder.
- Move from reacting to responding. When we react we are on high alert and everything feels like an emergency. When we respond, we take a breath and thoughtfully consider our next steps with the help of those we trust.
- Find joy in everyday moments. The present moment is all we really have. Every moment of your child’s life is precious. Don’t let early challenges steal irreplaceable memories of parenting your own unique child that come from finding joy in everyday moments.
My new book describes how providers can integrate mindful acceptance into intervention principles across disciplines.
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