In this episode: Janet responds to an email from a parent whose 3-year-old has a physical disorder. “Among other issues, he is very clumsy and often stumbles, trips, and falls.” Since this is going to be an ongoing issue for her son, and he’s just becoming aware of it, this mom is looking for ways to be supportive now and in the future.
Transcript of “Supporting A Child Who Has Differences”
Hi, this is Janet Lansbury. Welcome to Unruffled.
Today, I’m responding to an email I received from a mom who has a three-year-old with a developmental coordination disorder. She says that as he matures, he’s becoming aware of his condition and, because this will be a long term issue for him, this mom wants to give her son the social tools and the emotional support that he’ll need now and in the future.
Before I begin, I don’t have a sponsor for this particular podcast. The sponsor is me. And I want to take this opportunity to say thank you to all of you for tuning in, for making this a top parenting podcast, and for your reviews, even the critical ones. I always learn something from them if they’re constructive criticism, and it helps me to adapt what I’m doing, because this is to help. That’s the only reason I’m doing this. And thank you to all of you who have left encouraging comments and reviews for me that tell me that I am helping you. That makes me want to carry on. That’s all I want to say. I appreciate and am touched by your support, so thank you very much.
Here’s the email I received:
“Hi Janet. We really like your podcast. I’m struggling with something I’d love your input on. My son is three and has been diagnosed with developmental coordination disorder. Without going into the details of this disorder, the thrust of it is that, among other issues, he is very clumsy and often stumbles, trips, and falls. These are usually benign. My question is: I want to try to frame this issue for him in an age appropriate way, and give him a supportive self mantra around this, because it is going to be a long term issue.
I have realized recently how many times these stumbles lead well intentioned onlookers to gasp, exclaim, ask if he’s okay, etc. This happens I think out of surprise more than the trip being anything significantly upsetting, but they don’t realize it’s not the only time he’s having this happen. It happens pretty regularly. He’s already becoming more aware that he has some deficits compared to his peers, even if he doesn’t have the language skills to articulate this all the time. I don’t want these reactions to make him feel overly scrutinized, anxious, or insecure.
I dread the day I’m going to get the questions, ‘Why am I so different, why am I so clumsy,’ and so forth. For my part, I try not to make those things a big deal, and just nonchalantly help him up, and sometimes ask if he’s okay. We say a lot of things like, ‘Just try again,’ or, ‘No worries,’ and, ‘Not a big deal.’ I really want to help his inner voice be kind. I realize I can’t control the reactions of others, and it would do no good to explain continually to well-meaning strangers about invisible disabilities, so what I can control is our reaction and what we do to support my son so he has tools to handle this. Do you have suggestions? Thank you so much.”
First of all, I want to say that this parent has a brilliant attitude. I love the way she’s thinking about this. It’s so helpful. And you can feel her care for her son in everything she says here.
I thought this would be a great one to respond to, because my advice for this mom to just help her fine tune her approach to getting what she wants actually covers a whole assortment of differences that children have. There are all kinds of things that we have as people that other people might notice and comment on or react to.
The interesting and inspiring thing about children is that, more often than not, they do have a lot of self acceptance around these differences, and they will naturally actually accept them in others as well if we can approach them honestly, if we can work on calming our own fears and anxieties about our child, if we can really trust that our child will be okay. Our acceptance is a big key to this.
How do we demonstrate our acceptance? First of all, we have to feel accepting. We have to trust and breathe and know that our child is on a journey, and he or she deserves our honesty about what’s going on, and that they are different in this way and that that’s okay. Just as we trust our child to face all age appropriate challenges, to have those experiences being rejected by people, let’s say, or struggling to engage with friends, or struggling with tasks that they want to master, it’s okay for our child to be in all those uncomfortable in-between places, experiencing life.
I’m going to talk about now a couple things that stood out for me here that I would like to help this parent shift their view on a little bit. One is “a supportive self mantra” around this. That makes a lot of sense. But the idea that our child needs a self mantra is already a little bit veering into that they’re not going to be okay with this about themselves, and that they need to try to talk themselves into being okay, to talk themselves down from what they’re feeling. I think, already, that that view of this is not quite the healthiest one.
She said, “Because it’s going to be a long term issue.” Right, so acceptance is the key. Children surprise us with their ability to accept. It’s often, if not always, easier for them than it is for us. I don’t think this child or any child in this situation needs a self mantra. Again, what they need is honesty and acceptance. In this case, acceptance of all their feelings around this issue that they have.
Another thing that sticks out for me is that she says, “He’s already becoming more aware that he has some deficits compared to his peers, even if he doesn’t have the language skills to articulate this all the time.” I can understand this parent perceiving this as a deficit, but to a child, they don’t have to be deficits. Sometimes it might feel like that, if this little boy, let’s say, is trying to race his friends and it’s harder for him, but it’s actually more of a difference. We all have differences. We have differences that put us ahead of other people in some ways (not that this is a race). We have differences that stand out as very positive, and we have differences that tend to hold us back a little. It’s all going to be okay.
She says, “I don’t want these reactions that other people have to make him feel overly scrutinized, anxious, or insecure.” That’s an area that really we have no control over as parents and, really, we shouldn’t try to, because trying to fix that in any way is going to give our child a less accepting message and lessen their self acceptance. We are so powerful with our children — what we think, how we perceive things, everything we worry about. All of that, for better and worse, is felt by our children. That’s why I wouldn’t see this as a deficit so much as a difference.
I would let go of what he feels about this. That’s his journey and, ideally, it will all be welcomed by us, all the things he feels about it. That’s what self acceptance is. It’s not just feeling okay about things because other people want us to, or that we’re not supposed to feel anything else. It’s: Okay, I don’t like this, but this is who I am, this is me, and I’m perfect as is. That’s what we want to get across, and that’s the way children will naturally feel.
This parent says she dreads the day she’s going to get the questions, “Why am I so different? Why am I so clumsy?” Those are all actually healthy, positive questions — wanting to understand himself. I understand how scary that can feel for a parent, to feel like your child is uncomfortable and not liking certain things about himself. That’s what we have to work on ourselves, trusting it’s okay to like things and dislike things about ourselves, self acceptance, and it begins with our acceptance.
Then she says, “For my part, I try not to make those things a big deal, and just nonchalantly help him up, and sometimes ask if he’s okay.” Asking if he’s okay, wonderful. Helping him up if he needs help, great. He may be able to get up himself. And we’re there noticing, “Oh wow, you fell.”
I wouldn’t be nonchalant as to discount it. What I believe we all have to do as parents with any struggle that they’re having or any challenge that they’re facing is to be right beside them in this journey, or even a step behind them, not ahead, not deciding, Oh, they might feel this way and I don’t want them to feel that way, so I’m going to try to get on top of this. We don’t mean to, but it’s kind of like, Push it down, push it away. I don’t want him to go there, so I’m not going to let him go there.
That’s stepping ahead. That’s actually not accepting. We want to stay beside. So wherever he is, whatever he feels about that fall, that’s what we want to encourage. We check it out, “Oh wow, yeah. You went down.” We don’t make a bigger deal out of it, but we don’t lessen it for him. How does he feel? What support does he need right now? We’re not trying to rush him to get up.
With the RIE approach, we do this with infants, toddlers, or any child. When they fall, we don’t want to pick them up too quickly, because we want them to notice that they fell and what happened there and what they tripped on. We don’t want to just magically make it disappear. I mean, we do 🙂 but we try to counter that impulse to swoop them up and, “Oh, you’re fine,” or … I don’t know that this parent is doing that at all, but to really let him have the time to get up.
But we’re there. We’re not leaving him to do this and not helping him. We’re helping him in a more sensitive, attuned way, noticing where he’s at and observing and allowing him to let us know when he needs help.
She says, “We say a lot of things like, ‘Try again,’ or, ‘No worries,’ and, ‘Not a big deal.’ I really want to help his inner voice be kind.” That kind inner voice comes from self acceptance. Self acceptance means we’re okay with ourselves. We’re not feeling judged. We’re not feeling other agendas around us. We trust ourselves, and that makes us kind to others. These are the kindest people out there, the ones that have self acceptance and are comfortable in their skin.
So he will have a kind inner voice, but I wouldn’t say, “Just try again,” “No worries,” and, “Not a big deal.” I know this parent doesn’t mean it that way, but that is discounting. It’s invalidating anything that he might feel. Just fix it and cover it up and make it okay. “Oh, just try again, that was nothing. Not a big deal, no worries.” It’s similar to saying, “You’re okay,” to a child who doesn’t feel okay. “You’re okay, you’re okay,” and the child feels like they’re not okay. Maybe they’re disappointed that they fell. Maybe it was a big deal to him in that moment, because now all these people are coming over and checking on him. We don’t want to decide that for our children. I understand the impulse so well. I have it every single time still, but it’s not helpful.
Asking if he’s okay, that’s great. “Oh wow, are you okay? I saw you fell.” But then he gets to feel however he feels, and having that accepted is what makes our inner voice kind. When we feel people trying to rush us to feel better or that our real feelings aren’t okay, we don’t have that same sense of security and comfort in our skin that I know this mother and all of us want for our children.
She says, “I realize I can’t control the reactions of others, and it would do no good to explain continually to well-meaning strangers about invisible disabilities, so what I can control is our reaction …”
Yes, exactly. And that’s what I just hope to fine tune a little bit.
“… and what we do to support my son so he has the tools to handle this.”
Right, the good news here, the great news is he does have the tools to handle this. He really does, if we can believe in him.
When he asks those questions, “Why am I different, why am I clumsy?” or when you notice him seeming uncomfortable by the people’s reactions to him, that’s when I would start, again, standing next to your child figuratively or just a step behind. That’s the responsiveness that’ll help. Responding to what you see in him, responding to his look of puzzlement maybe when people come over. If you notice something like that, maybe you already are noticing this, say something, not in that moment but afterwards. In the moment, I would just acknowledge those people, “Yeah, he fell. Yeah … I don’t know, are you okay?” to him. “Yeah, he seems okay, but thank you for your concern.”
And then after they’re gone, “Yeah, those people were worried that you fell. They seemed to care that you fell, and they wanted to make sure that you weren’t hurt.” Just something in that moment, and then when he seems to notice that this is happening more to him than it is to his friends, let’s say, or to other people, or when he opens that door to want to know more about it, that’s when it’s the most important to quell our own fears, to trust him, to believe in this guy. Children are so capable, so much more capable than we give them credit for.
When he asks why: “You have something different about you. You were born with this,” or with some children, it will be, “This happened to you, and so it gives you a tendency to do this, or it makes you look this way to other people, and other people notice that because it’s different.”
That’s all you have to say. Just the simple truth, not trying to fix it for him, not trying to give him some tool from outside himself. He’s got the goods and, believing in that, his parents believing in that is the only tool that he needs. And instead of dreading the day she gets those questions, I would see that as a gift, a time when you will get (or times because it may come up a lot of times), to acknowledge whatever he feels, not decide what he feels, but really notice what he does feel, and acknowledge that, validate it.
“Yeah, it must feel hard when this is happening to you and you’re trying to keep up with your friends. Yeah, that is hard.” Just letting that be, braving the silence after we acknowledge those feelings, avoiding trying to tie a bow around it with: “But you’re fine, and it’s going to be okay, and you can do other things really well.” Trying not to jump there. Just letting those feelings have a life, letting him know that he’s safe feeling that.
Those are my little tweak thoughts for this parent, and for any parent dealing with this issue in any form. I really hope that’s helpful, and again, thank you all for listening. We can do this.