When the child you love is struggling, it is the most natural thing in the world to respond.
When parents first begin to notice that their child is struggling, be it to inhibit impulsive behaviour, make sense of social situations, or decode words, they are at the beginning of a journey. All parents travel alongside their children, yet parents of neurodiverse children can feel like they have no existing knowledge to guide them. That they are in a washing machine of contradictory information, where colours bleed into each other and socks don’t match. When we get caught up in this confusion, there can be an overwhelming urge to protect, fix, and hover.
In the early days when it’s first identified that a child is struggling or has been newly diagnosed, parents are particularly vulnerable to a bunch of common traps:
Underestimating a child
I have noticed that neurodiverse kids are usually very skilled at finding their way. They may have developed healthy coping strategies, and are often extremely proficient before they even understand their diverse presentation. Some I have met are entrepreneurs, such as the young man who developed an interest and proficiency in trading shoes on the shoe stock exchange; the girl whose empathic attunement won her friends and allies wherever she went; and the boy with dyslexia who managed things so well sending drafts of work to teachers and incorporating their feedback that his parents were quite unaware of his learning differences. When parents feel overwhelmed, it can be hard to really honour the incredible skills that diverse kids develop, often on their own. It is really important that we honour and celebrate the incredible capacity of resilient and resourceful young people who are able, with support, to get on with learning in their own way.
Susceptibility to stigma
In my work with parents of neurodiverse children, I see the parents are fearful of labels and that some are perceived to be worse than others. Parents are often worried that their child will be labelled and are afraid that they will face bullying and rejection by peers and educators. Yet without a diagnosis, children can be left knowing that they are struggling, yet in the absence of an explanation conclude that they are ‘dumb’ or ‘stupid’.
Looking for answers in the wrong places
It can be difficult to know who to listen to when you’re dealing with a new area. As a psychologist, I want to stress that reputable sources are based on evidence. Research that is valid and reliable will have a rigorous approach to research, with no conflict of interests (such as secondary gains for the party who fund the study). A good example of looking for answers in the wrong places would be treating dyslexia with behavioural optometry whilst overlooking the language-based learning difficulty of phonological processing skills. Another example would be to try to treat ADHD with essential oils or vitamins, which although helpful, are not going to have anything to do with lagging skills specific to more complex processing tasks such as executive functioning.
Clinging to unrealistic ideals
If it has been identified that a child has a significant challenge in social, behavioural, or learning settings, some parents I have met can be a little slow sometimes to accept this. Sometimes they are hoping that a child’s differences can be remedied and difficulties ironed out entirely. I wonder though, whether this honours neurodiversity? We need to be careful that achieving normal is not an imposition and burden, and that we send a strong message that we love and accept them exactly as they are. It is an unfair expectation for a child to be ‘normal’ or average when there are very real difficulties they are contending with. When parents say to me, ’We just want her to be average’, I sometimes inwardly worry for the beautiful, diverse mind that has untapped alternative capabilities.
Responding to the needs of your neurodiverse child will at times be incredibly challenging, which is the unfortunate byproduct of engaging in systems and structures set up for neurotypicals. However, an accurate and thorough knowledge of the difficulties, as well as the recommended treatment, will allow you to deploy the most effective interventions whilst preserving and deepening your bond.
You’re both worth it.