What The Wild Things Are

Understandings of Self, Awareness, and Mental Health in an Ever-Changing World

Capacity to Love

Parenting a child with learning and/or attention differences is unique

Recently, the Pathways Institute facilitated some parent discussion groups at the Parent Education Network (PEN) September parent meeting. Instead of focusing on their children, the parents were asked to share their experiences and talk about what it has been like for them to raise a child with learning and/or attention differences.

The sharing was heartfelt, moving, and emotional. The Pathways Institute had contemplated offering a support group for parents of kids with learning and/or attention differences – where they could support each other as well as exchange information and experiences – and the meeting at PEN confirmed that such a group would be helpful and is much needed. It was a challenge for most parents to talk about themselves versus their children, but as they did many teared-up and a few cried. It was clear by the end that most parents need support to deal with the guilt, helplessness, acceptance, overwhelm, sadness and grief. They were also able to share some inside jokes that eased their stress. It was also clear how deeply these parents love and cherish their children.

As the parents spoke to each other, some themes emerged:

Frustration

  • Many parents felt as if their children were trapped in an educational system that does not meet the need of so many children – that the methods of educating children were too rigid and too narrow.
  • Parents spoke about the painful reality that they had to give up certain things like family vacations because the child can’t be out of their structure and comfort zone without big meltdowns. For some families, that included not even being able to have family dinners together.
  • Many parents felt judged by family and friends about their “parenting” and how others don’t understand that some issues are not parenting issues, but are instead issues related to learning and/or attention (and therefore can’t be “fixed”).
  • Some parents turned anger and/or frustration on themselves.
  • Many people - teachers, therapists and other professionals - don’t understand what “slow processing speed” is, and thus it is very challenging to get the necessary accommodations for a child.
  • Parents expressed frustration about knowing something was wrong with their child and being dismissed/not listened to by others.
  • Many parents expressed frustration and disbelief that teachers and educators don't even read the ISP or IEP, and that many are unwilling to accommodate the educational needs of their child.

Overwhelm

  • Many parents expressed deep feelings of guilt that the demands of parenting an LD/ADHD kid is can be overwhelming. They thought they somehow should be able to do it without complaint or with ease.
  • For some parents, the stress of parenting kids with learning and/or attention differences had led to divorce.
  • Children with learning differences can have a much longer dependence on the parents, which can be very draining over the long term.
  • Several parents asked how do we “build a community of understanding friends or friends with the same parenting challenges”? They reported feeling isolated and alone in their struggles and challenges.
  • Sometimes a child’s learning and/or attention differences can mirror that of a parent’s, which can make it doubly challenging.
  • Knowing the difference between respecting a child’s difficulty versus allowing the child to slack-off when they could be doing more is confusing.
  • Parenting a child with learning and/or attention differences can be exhausting. Many parents reported feeling some envy for other parents who they perceive as having it easier than themselves.
  • Parents reported that it is difficult to take care of themselves in the face of taking care of a child with a learning and/or attention difference.

Acceptance

  • Many parents struggled with denial about their child’s learning and/or attention differences. In some families, one parent continued to be in denial while the other struggled alone to help the child. At times parents differed about what interventions should be taken. Sometimes the kids moved in and out of denial.
  • Sometimes a child’s challenge mirrors that of a parent’s, so they need to move into acceptance together.
  • Some parents felt it was important to accept “simple” interventions, such as the importance of exercise in order to help kids integrate especially before homework.
  • In the process of wanting to do everything they can for their child, parents at times feel they are doing too much. There is work in figuring out the balance between protecting/caretaking and leaving the child to his or her own devices in a healthy way.
  • Some parents discussed going to a group on codependency to help them learn about it and work on it with their children.
  • Many parents felt they very close and connected to their kids even though getting there hasn’t always been easy.
  • Many parents felt they have leaned on and developed their sense of humor to get through the rough patches.

Some parents felt tremendous relief over receiving a diagnosis for their child. They felt deeply validated about their own experience and that they were given a language for their experience (and their child’s experience) and struggles. Some parents felt tremendous loss when their child was diagnosed. They felt a loss of the fantasy of who their child might be and what they hoped their parenting experience would be. That said, many parents felt that there were immense gifts they received through parenting a child with learning and/or attention differences. They spoke of the ways their children were creative, bright, and even gifted. They spoke of how they had gained the ability to accept others for who they are, and grown in their capacity to love.

The Pathways Institute provides psychoeducational testing, consultation, and reports with understandable explanations for parents and teachers, and second opinions on school-based testing. We help parents navigate the next steps of diagnosis, intervention, and remediation, and offer therapy to support parents through the complex experience of raising a child with learning and/or attention differences. We also offer groups for kids and teens, helping them to build resiliency, understand how they learn, and how to advocate for themselves. For more information contact the Pathways Institute at help@pathwaysinstitute.net or 415.267.6916.

This article was written with Elizabeth Corsale, MA, MFT.

Samantha Smithstein, Psy.D., is a clinical and forensic psychologist and co-founder of the Pathways Institute for Impulse Control in San Francisco.

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