Several years ago at a professional training I conducted on parental stress, an 80-year-old mother raised her hand to share an insight. A psychologist and mother, she explained that she had a 50-year-old son with special needs. “Everyone told us to institutionalize him,” she said, “that he would be functioning at the lowest levels, and that we should just go ahead, leave him, and live our lives.” But one doctor had told her that when he looked into the boy’s eyes, he saw something special. “He gave us hope, and because of him, we didn’t place our son in an institution. We took him home and he has blessed our lives ever since.” The audience was silent as she spoke, some dabbing tears.
Five decades later, she still remembered the name of the doctor who had given her hope.
Consider the difference between the following two parents’ stories; recalling their experiences of being told their children had developmental delays:
I remember looking at the faux art on the wall of the office as the evaluator started telling us that our son had a disorder that would likely limit certain abilities for the rest of his life. I remember seeing the colors on the wall blend into each other and felt light-headed. I couldn’t visualize what that meant because my child was only 3. After the session, my husband and I walked to the parking lot, held each other, and cried.
I remember the psychologist starting by saying what a sweet boy our son was, and how close and trusting he was with us. She then told us about the developmental differences she observed including how he communicated, and how his body reacted to certain types of sound, and movement, among other things. She quickly emphasized that there was no way to know exactly what this meant at his young age, that she was glad we sought an evaluation. She also told us that it was important to not view these differences as necessarily limiting his potential in life—long term. She told us that differences need not be automatically viewed as deficiencies. We left the office shaken, but feeling hopeful.
Both parents received information about their child’s significant developmental differences, yet what they took away from the meetings was very different. The first session involved a qualified professional trained in a medical model that prioritizes providing factual and practical information. The second therapist’s training was in a developmental relationship-based approach that pays heed to the parent’s emotional life as well as the parent-child relationship. It incorporates the understanding that everything an interventionist says has an impact on the parents’ mental health and their relationship with their child. The second professional knew how important it was to offer parents hope and emphasize that the child’s differences did not automatically portend deficiencies.
After two decades of supporting children and families I have witnessed first-hand how harshly children are judged when they “score” low on standardized tests or when professionals believe that a certain diagnosis leads to a known prognosis. It doesn’t– and it’s not that simple. As I have written about before, labels are on their way out, and understanding each child’s uniqueness is the wave of the future in child development.
In the meantime, if you are a parent and you feel that your child’s differences aren’t properly appreciated or understood, continue to seek professionals who value your child’s (and your) emotional life and relationships. This is the treasure we must nurture and protect above all else.
“An understanding heart is everything in a teacher, and cannot be esteemed highly enough. The curriculum is so much necessary raw material, but warmth is the vital element for the growing plant and for the soul of the child”~ Carl Jung
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Excerpted from: Social and Emotional Developmentin Early Intervention, Delahooke, 2017.