How to Process and Accept Your Child’s Neurodiversity
When you’re fighting your child’s true identity, you can’t support him — or nurture yourself. Your first step toward acceptance? Pause and grapple with your own complicated emotions about your child’s neurodivergent diagnosis.
This is article 2 in a 5-part series on how shifts in daily perspectives can help a parent embrace and support a neurodivergent child. Click here to read the introductory article, “Stop Fighting Your Child’s Neurodiversity.”
Your Child Is Neurodivergent
When your child received an attention deficit disorder (ADHD or ADD) diagnosis, or was diagnosed with autism, anxiety, sensory processing disorder, or a learning disability, you jumped into action – researching therapies or medications that might help, and learning all you could about home and school supports. What you didn’t do: give yourself time to pause and think about your complicated emotions — relief, fear, overwhelm, and sheer confusion, to name a few.
Few parents stop and make time for this reflection, and that is a serious problem that’s always worth rectifying — even if the diagnosis happened years ago.
To move forward more positively with your child, first take the time to think about how the ADHD diagnosis, or diagnosis of another disorder, impacted you, and what you fear it means for your child or your family:
- Are you worried or fearful?
- Are you fighting reality and denying that anything is “wrong” with your child?
- Are you blaming yourself because your pregnancy was strained, you have a similar diagnosis, or you read something online that said it’s all your fault?
I struggled with my son’s ADHD diagnosis. I thought I had accepted it, but then something would happen that would remind me, “I still have a lot of work to do.” I had to stop and think, “Why does this diagnosis bother me? What does it mean to me? How is this triggering my own issues?”
Reflection Questions for Parents of Neurodivergent Kids
Use these reflection questions to start processing your deepest feelings about your child’s neurodivergent diagnosis:
- What aspects of my child’s true identity am I not fully accepting?
- What implicit biases might I have with regard to neurodiversity?
- In what ways, if any, am I secretly hoping an issue/trait/aspect of who my child is will eventually “go away” or that he or she will ultimately become “normal?”
It’s important to be really honest with yourself because the disconnect of saying you accept your child, but not truly feeling it, can cause problems.
The ultimate goal in all of this is to change your perspective in two key ways:
- Stop fighting who your child is
- See your child through a strengths-based lens
Stop Fighting Who Your Child Truly Is
This is how you start to accept and process your child’s diagnosis.
Give yourself time to mourn. In many ways, a diagnosis is often a blessing, but that doesn’t mean it won’t change the vision you had for your child’s future, too. It’s important to acknowledge that and to allow yourself time to process your complicated emotions. When you experience sadness, honestly acknowledge that the path you imagined for your child is now redrawn. Acknowledge those feelings in order to release their hold on you.
Recognize when you’re fighting reality. Byron Katie says, “When you argue with reality, you lose — but only 100% of the time.” Expecting your child to act a certain way, or hoping that his symptoms will disappear, is ignoring the facts of a diagnosis. To recognize when you are doing this, keep an ear out for these “fighting reality” cues: should and shouldn’t. For example, “He shouldn’t be reacting that way.” “He should be more organized.”
My husband used to say to me, “He shouldn’t get so angry when it’s time to stop playing that game,” or, “He should just listen to me.” I would say, consistently, “Yes, but he is getting angry,” or, “He’s not listening to you. That’s the truth.” Identify those areas of disconnect and make a conscious effort to stop fighting what’s happening because it’s not matching your ideal of how life “should” be.
See Your Child Through a Strengths-Based Lens
A diagnosis usually occurs because something is wrong – you or an educator noticed an area of weakness in your child that was not easily remedied. It’s easy to think of neurodifferences as deficits. But it’s absolutely crucial to instead focus on areas where your child can succeed.
Notice when you emphasize deficits is discussions about your child with others. I used to introduce my son by listing his difficult behaviors, “Asher can get really upset when he plays games.” I was emphasizing a deficit-based way of seeing him and how he responds to the world. That affects how other people perceive your child, and prevents them from recognizing and nurturing his strengths.
Develop a sound bite that reframes your child. Learn how to talk about your child in terms of his strengths, and lead with that. Say, “Asher is really enthusiastic. He brings his creativity to games, which is really interesting.” I recommend writing out a script and practicing it so you can confidently deliver it. It will change how your child is seen from the start.
Get clear on how much you want to share and your intention in sharing it. Talking about who your child is, and what’s happening to her can reduce stigma around conditions like ADHD. If your intention in sharing is to support the person caring for your child, that’s great. Frame your child’s condition in a positive light, and share strategies that have worked in the past to get her back on track. If you are just sharing to explain a behavior, and you don’t feel emotionally safe with the other person, it may not be worth explaining the diagnosis.
Pay attention to how much energy you spend trying to “fix” deficits rather than supporting and growing strengths. Become aware of the intentions and motives behind what you’re working on with your child. Are you working on things that will help him be more “normal?” Or are you getting him the therapy and tools he needs to be successful with differences? Children internalize those messages. When we focus on their lagging skills, they start to feel that something is wrong with them. Make sure you skew toward spending more time on strengths. A good benchmark to keep in mind is to give one positive reinforcement for every one negative comment.
This advice came from “Accepting Your Child’s Diagnosis: Transform Your Mindset, Thoughts, and Actions,” an ADDitude webinar lead by Deborah Reber in June 2018 that is now available for free replay.