In the last newsletter, I wrote about framing your challenges in a way that orients you and/or your child towards success. Now that you’ve found your frame, you can practice zooming in and out on specific sections of the picture.
Whether you’re the parent of a child with significant special needs or you’re the parent of a “typical” child, as parents we can easily find ourselves in the position of developing laundry lists of what could be improved upon.
When Parenting A Child with Significant Needs
Once a child has a set of needs or deficits identified, many parents find themselves in the difficult and pressure-filled role of becoming versions of parent-therapists, having to practice and reinforce skills taught in a variety of therapies throughout the week. For example, before the identified speech delay, when a child fussed and gestured towards the sippy cup cabinet, a parent could simply (and without guilt) give their child a drink. Post-diagnosis, that parent has to sort through all of the recommendations given by their child’s team of therapists. Should I ignore the fussing? Should I try to make the kid say ‘milk’? And if that parent is trying to get out the door to get to work and just decides to give the child some milk without requiring the child to use a word, that parent often feels guilty about a missed opportunity to teach. These are the parents in my office who, when relaying a situation from the week to me, qualify their statements with “I know this was probably the wrong thing to do, but…”
The child with special needs often has a team of therapists from a variety of disciplines offering advice and recommendations to the parents. I find this often has the effect of putting parents in a situation where they start to believe that there is a right way and a wrong way to address x with their child and that their instincts for how to address it are “probably wrong.” They begin to second guess themselves and believe their child’s therapists know the right way to address the issue. When a therapist offers recommendations that may seem in contrast with another recommendation from another therapist, these parents find themselves a bit confused and worried that they’re going to make the wrong move. Or, when a therapist offers recommendations that are in contrast with the family’s reality (i.e., I really can’t figure out how to fit that into our already very busy week with a job, 3 other kids, no sleep, and a partner who travels out of town every week for work), the parent ends up feeling guilty for not being able to follow the recommendations.
These parents can benefit from understanding and practicing the process of stepping back from the big picture and deciding to zoom in or zoom out. If not impossible, it is usually quite overwhelming to look at the big picture and see the entire laundry list of recommendations, goals, and deficits to improve upon, particularly as you think about what to do now and how that will impact your child’s future. It is okay to prioritize goals and to decide not to address some lower priority goals at this time. It is okay to decide to change the rules or expectations based on your ability to enforce the rules or expectations at this time. For example, if you’ve decided to prioritize compliance and you have been working with a therapist to do so, my guess is that you’ve committed to following through with consequences. If you know that you are too tired or too rushed or too worn down to follow through on a consequence, it is okay to intentionally not give an instruction in the first place. That way, there’s no opportunity for your child to comply (or not). You can make a descriptive statement, you could make a request (instead of a command), you can walk out of the room. You can zoom in on compliance and make it a priority and you can zoom out of some other behaviors that you may decide to zoom in on later. It is okay.
When Parenting Typical Children
Everyone – children, parents, therapists, therapists’ children (believe me) – has a long list of areas to improve. The urgency and importance of each item on the list is relative. As parents, we may see a growing list of areas to improve in our kids and the items on the list can be as simple as “eating with silverware” to “managing emotions without melting down, running away, or threatening to hurt themselves.” Looking at the entire list and weighing each item with equal importance is not good for parents or their kids.
First of all, when you look at the entire list, it just seems like too much. It’s too easy to get stuck looking at what’s not going well instead of looking at what is going well. Second, it sends the message that not wiping your face is a social misstep equal to pushing someone off of a slide when they cut in front of you. Zooming out to pay attention to what your child does well along with what should be expected of your child developmentally (taking into consideration their unique temperament) will help you figure out how to prioritize what items to zoom in on to address at this time. For example, if your 4th grade son teacher has trouble working in groups because he doesn’t like it when other students don’t like his ideas, he stomps off the field at soccer practice when the other team scores, and his friends comment that they don’t call fouls on him in driveway basketball “because of how he gets,” you may decide to prioritize items like handling frustration, improving perspective taking, and improving flexibility over cleaning his room and making his bed. When you are intentional about focusing in on a few goals and deciding to address others at a different time, you turn the project of “making you better at everything because you’re not good enough as you are” into “you’re the kind of kid who sometimes has trouble working and playing with others and we’re going to help you get better at it.” By focusing on a few important issues, it helps take away the overwhelming feeling and also helps prevent resentment and power struggles. When you focus on all items at once, kids perceive that as nitpicking and over controlling. Resentment builds, power struggles often follow, and your child ends up feeling bad about themselves and often everyone feels bad about the relationship.
I recently saw someone wearing a tee-shirt, “The World’s Okayest Camp Counselor.” The sentiment is funny while it highlights that we’re often striving to be the best and have the best…being okayest parents having okayest kids may actually be a better goal. At least it may be a goal that leads to happier, more satisfied kids and parents.