How do you explain the concept of “learning disabilities” and “special needs” to a child without wounding them or leaving them feeling somehow defective? Many families with special needs’ kids avoid having any open dialogue about a special needs’ diagnosis because the parents fear the conversation will do more harm than good.
I’m often surprised at the children I work with who have a diagnosis of Autism, Dyslexia, or ADHD, and they, the children themselves, have no real sense of what the diagnosis means. Discussing these hard issues can be really empowering for children already struggling in certain areas.
When my daughter opened an invitation to a sleepover birthday party at the age of eight, she collapsed in a lump of tears. As a child diagnosed on the Autism Spectrum Disorder, her strict nightly routine didn’t include sleepovers.
For my eight-year-old to feel safe, she needed, at that point, to maintain a regular routine which started about two hours before bed. First, she had her bath. Then, she enjoyed a snack and brushed her teeth. After about 20 minutes of arranging her pile of blankets and stuffed animals, she crawled into bed for exactly three books. When the books were finished, I turned on her meditation music for sleep.
I struggled with how to handle the sleepover situation. My daughter felt defective. Why was a sleepover easy for other kids, but not for her?
This situation opened the door into a conversation which made all our lives much easier, including my daughter’s.
Be Alright has some suggestions when it comes to starting a dialogue with your children about any specific challenges. Even young children benefit from knowing and owning all the pieces that make them unique.
Validate feelings first
Regardless of why or when or you decide to open this dialogue, make sure to start by validating your child’s feelings.
Dyslexia: “You know how you get angry when you have to read something in class? I bet that’s really frustrating. Let’s talk about how it’s not your fault and how we can work to make it easier for you. Dyslexia is this thing where…”
ADHD/ADD: “When the teacher gets upset with you for being so bouncy/daydreamy, I bet you feel yucky. Let’s talk about why you feel so bouncy/daydreamy. Turns out it’s nothing you did wrong. You are one amazing kid! Some kids have bouncy/daydreamy wires in their brains called ADHD/ADD.”
Dyslexia: “You know how you get scared whenever there’s a spelling test? I think we know why now. And, it’s nothing you’re doing wrong. In fact, you’re really brave.”
Autism Spectrum Disorder: “Everybody is good at some stuff and not-so-good at other stuff. And, everybody, including you, has this amazing brain, which is really tricky and sorta magical. I know you feel angry at yourself when you lose your temper/get nervous around other kids/have trouble making friends. For some brains, like yours, the temper part/nervous part/friend-making part is wired a little different. It’s different, not wrong, and it’s also what makes your brain really cool. There are a ton other kids who feel the same way. You aren’t alone. In fact, even though your brain makes it harder in some ways, you have some superpowers other kids don’t. Let’s talk about the things you are really good at and the stuff that’s harder for your brain.“
Don’t overdo it
Don’t overdo it. Answer their questions, but don’t go into overkill with information about their specific challenge. Keep it simple.
Chances are, once the dust settles, your child will begin to feel better about themselves. Stress daily how these challenges aren’t things your child can “fix.” In fact, there’s nothing at all “wrong,” everyone has strengths and challenges.
What you say to your child in terms of their specific challenge is up to you. I found, in our case, my daughter relaxed when we discussed the social anxiety that accompanied her autism spectrum disorder.
We made her brain, her social anxiety, her slow processing abilities all their own entities. They took on personalities. In the end, they became sorta family pets. “Oh man, there goes that ADHD again! So bouncy today!”
Bring yourself into the conversation
“You know how I’m afraid of snakes?” I’d ask my daughter. “Well, your brain sometimes thinks there’s danger when a lot of people are together. I wish we could go in your brain and push a button to make it go away. But, we can’t. And, your brain really likes to go to bed in the same bed and do the same stuff before bed every night, and that’s just fine.”
Focusing on how this is the “brain’s” issue separates the challenge from your child. Instead of the child thinking, “I’m a freak because I’m scared of a birthday party,” your child thinks, “My brain, separate from me as a person, is acting nervous because it thinks there’s something dangerous. It’s not my fault.”
Everyone has some “brain struggle,” so make sure to include yourself. When you feel anxious, acknowledge it. This creates a model for your child to follow.
“That darn anxiety! I wish it would just go take a nap or go on a vacation! I’m really feeling it today.”
Then, ask your child, “Do you love me any different because I’m feeling anxious/scared/hyper/sleepy?” This shows them their value doesn’t change, just the feeling and behavior.
Stress your child’s superpowers
Make sure to stress positive points about your child during each and every one of these conversations. No exceptions.
When my daughter couldn’t go to a party, it was natural for her to feel disappointed. Negative self-talk often followed.
What comes naturally for your child? For my daughter, her creativity and love of history was huge. So, this is what we stressed during conversations about her challenges. No matter the situation, she was told, “You are a rock star at making up stories!”
“I’m so proud of how you are facing this (fill in the blank).”
“You are amazing at organizing your toys, making funny faces, jumping the highest, reading cool books, helping me in the kitchen, etc.”
“Name me three things you are good at doing.”
Imperfect is okay
However you decide to handle this difficult conversation, don’t pressure yourself to handle it perfectly. The most important piece is honesty.
Every life has struggles. When we face them together, they become less scary. Give your child the gift of awareness. What we know, we can face, with help.