Many parents have to come to terms with the child they have, rather than the one they were expecting in their dreams. This is especially true for parents of children with learning disabilities, ADHD, or those on the autism spectrum. The feelings engendered by this family situation are so complex. There is denial and anger with your child for not doing his homework or “working harder” to have the academic success that perhaps you had. After all, he seems smart (and probably is). Then there is guilt about wishing that this young person were anyone but who he is. There is sadness that this child does not make friends easily and is not invited to birthday parties. There is anger at the unfairness. anger that other families do not have to go to IEP meetings, social skills groups, psychiatrist meetings, speech and language therapy, physical therapy. It seems that the other families have children who excel at basketball and baseball and have no worries. Of course, they might have worries, but not the ones that you have. As parents we feel the stigma when our children melt down in public places or cringe with fear before entering a party long after other children have outgrown those behaviors. It is very hard to have a child with disabilities, especially of the invisible sort.
And yet there is no one who can better advocate for our children than ourselves. Even when we feel the negative feelings about them, we still fight hard for them to get the services they need. To be truly effective at this we need to accept the children we have. We need to delight in their successes, even though these might be small events for “typical” children. We need to join them in their quirky interests, like the encyclopedic knowledge of baseball statistics or geography. We need to be supportive of their struggles.
Yet few of us are saints. How do we come to a place of acceptance and advocacy? I think that group support is essential. Sometimes you can find that in your own neighborhood. Perhaps there are a few other parents who are not ashamed to admit that their children have special needs. An occasional coffee or lunch can be very helpful to decrease the sense of isolation and stigma, and it can be an excellent source of information. You could learn which professionals have been most helpful to others. School departments have PAC’s, Parent Advisory Councils, mandated by IDEA, the federal law for special education services. In some school systems the PAC offers good information and a way to learn more about what is offered in your school system. In addition, at the meetings you meet other parents. There there are organizations like CHADD for parents of children with ADHD or AANE in the Boston area for parents of children on the autism spectrum. And there are a wealth of online supports and listservs.
Once you accept your child, you can reach out and find that you are not alone.
Many of you probably know the essay, “Welcome to Holland,” by Emily Perl Kingsley (c. 1987). She describes the process of coming to terms with raising a child with disabilities with great sensitivity. Here is a link to it. http://www.our-kids.org/archives/Holland.html Can you see the windmills yet?
It’s almost that time. The time that parents look forward to or maybe dread. If your child has ADHD or learning disabilities, you may have found the summer a blessed relief. Parents in this category dread going back to scenes in the morning, scenes about homework, lost papers, and so on. On the other hand, you might be ready for your child to be in school for six hours a day. Summer can also be a challenge with changing routines and much more together time.
Here are ten suggestions for preparing for school.
- Go to school a few days before it opens to find the new classroom and meet the teacher. This is not a time for a conference. The point of this visit is to reassure your child that she can find the room and that the teacher is a kind person. It’s a quick visit, respecting that the teacher is trying to set up her room.
- If your child is going to a new school, walk to school a few times so that she is confident she knows the way, even if you will walk with her. You are trying to remove as much novelty as possible.
- Go shopping for school supplies on your own at an off peak time. I got this idea from a friend of mine many years ago. She went to the local office supply store and stocked up on paper, pens, crayons, notebooks, whatever she thought her children might need. When they got their supply list from the teachers, they chose items from the “home store.” She later returned whatever they didn’t need. This saved her a stressful trip with three kids in tow. I was pretty impressed.
- Consider morning routines with your child. How did last year go? What worked and what didn’t? Talk with your child about how you think things should go. Find out what she thinks. When would you like her to get up, be dressed, have breakfast? What will the rule be for TV in the morning? None til you are dressed or none at all? Many children will be helped by a list posted where they can see it–in their room or in the kitchen–where they can check off the steps as they accomplish them.
- Consider homework and bedtime routines. Again, go over this with your child and be willing to negotiate (within reason). Is there a break after school before homework? Is there TV before homework is done? Is there a limit on how much screen time (TV and computer) is allowed each day? What is bedtime?
- Try to move bedtime earlier a few days before school actually starts. While I think this is a good idea, I have also seen it really backfire, especially with middle school and high school kids. For the older kids, you might just let them suffer through a few days. They’ll get it.
- Once school is started, call your child’s teacher (or teachers) and ask to meet soon so that you can explain your concerns about your child and go over the IEP. It is best to do this early. That way the teacher knows you and you can establish a good working relationship. Establish how you and the teacher will stay in touch. Parent-teacher night doesn’t allow time for this. And you certainly don’t want to wait until a problem comes up.
- Look at your child’s room and other places in the home where her things are kept and organize these spaces. Make sure that she knows where her things are. This means shoes, backpack, jacket, lunch bag. Of course, these arrangements will need maintenance, but it’s good to start off clean.
- Have you done the paperwork for any medications that will be taken at school?
- Set out the expectation that it will be a good year. Communicate some excitement and talk about the interesting things that will come up in school.
I applaud parents who hold their children to high standards of behavior. But how do you get there when your child’s behavior is far from where you want it? Of course, books have been written on this topic. I’ll just mention one part of the process that I find is very important. Mostly change happens in small increments. Of course there are stories of parents who read their child the riot act and then next day that child was making her bed, picking up her room, and doing her dishes all before school. I always wonder how long that behavior lasted, though.
Here is what I see that works. Set goals that are realistic. You can know in your head that you really want your child to make her bed and pick up her room before school, but start with something achievable. Maybe you tell her to make her bed before school. On the first day she pulls up the covers, but the pillow is on the floor. How do your respond? Praise the effort. If this is more effort than you saw before, let her know that you notice and appreciate it. At another time show her what you want done. It is so easy to undo a complement with immediate criticism, ie, this is better, but what I really want is …..” You child hears, “I did it wrong.” If you can say, “Wow, you pulled up the covers. Thank you,” she hears that she did well, and she is still motivated.
Did you let her off the hook? No, you didn’t because you will show her what you want and express the optimism that she’ll learn to do it. Also, you know what you want. The difference is that she will do learn a new behavior and feel along the way that she is successful. Sounds good to me.
Let me know what you think.
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Recently I have been thinking about “pushing” kids and how one knows whether or not to push a child in a given situation. We’ve probably all observed parents we thought were pushig their children too hard. I have met parents who are considering how their grade school or middle school child’s activities will look on a college application. Many of us have been at children’s sports events and heard the parent coaching from the sideline. I know all these parents are doing what they think is best for their children. Often they are offering their children opportunities that they did not have as children. They may also in a community where many parents are programming their children’s lives in a similar manner. From their point of view it looks like good care of the children
What is pushing and what is offering enriching experiences and teaching valuable skills?
- Are we having fun yet? A friend of mine used to say to her children when they were playing sports, “Sports should be fun. If you’re not having fun, we should find another activity.” Of course, your child won’t have fun every minute. Sometimes the goal tender lets in a goal and feels wretched about it. But overall, it should be fun.
- Your child should still have time for free play, hanging out time with friends. Being with team mates in a game is not the same as hanging out together.
- There should be time for school work. If your child has great difficulty with organization or works slowly due to ADHD or a learning disability, she will need more time for school work. You might wish she should just be more efficient, but it’s possible that she just needs more time Do you find yourself nagging about homework? Maybe you need to rethink the schedule, not in a punitive manner. This is just about being realistic about who your child is.
- Your child needs time to relax. Everyone needs down time. You child might be enjoying the activities, but if you perceive that as a family you are always rushing, you might want to make a change. This is a way to teach your child about balance in life.
- The motivation to excel at the activity–whether music, drama or sports–should come mostly from your child. Of course, there are times that you insist on practicing or on going to the game. This is part of teaching your child to be responsible. But overall, whose dream is being pursued? Are you hoping for a sports scholarship to college? Are you pursuing your dream through your child? Think about where the motivation comes from.
There are valuable lessons that parent should insist upon. Children need to be responsible about doing their homework, about helping out around the house, and about doing their best at whatever they do. They also need to be taught to be good friends. I like to think that as parents we offer children many opportunities to learn new skills and activities. Sometimes our ideas work out very well, and sometimes they don’t. This is how you and your child learn about who she is. Maybe she has no skill for basketball, but she loves soccer. Maybe she has no skill at sports, but she loves to play the piano or guitar. All children benefit from a sense of accomplishment. Hopefully they experience that in a number of arenas. These activities provide settings in which to teach good sportsmanship, pride in accomplishment, and self-discipline. It is my experience that these lessons come most easily when there is balance in life and a good fit between the child and the activity.