My teenager, Lee, was suffering from anxiety and having trouble making it to her high school classes. Reaching out for support, I met for coffee with a friend Lynn, a teacher whom I thought would understand. Much to my surprise, she told me parents should go tougher, even when their kids had anxiety, and make them go to school.
When ADDitude magazine published my blog about our encounter, several people said they’d have walked out on this conversation. Believe me, it wasn’t that I didn’t want to. But if there’s any lesson I’ve learned over the years after raising a child with ADHD, anxiety, sensory processing disorder, and other disabilities, it always worked out better for me to keep my butt in my seat and try to educate.
It’s hard to change people’s minds, especially when your child looks “normal.” But mental disabilities have a way of making themselves seen, and we parents can often get the worst of people’s judgment. I contacted a therapist and asked how to deal with uneducated comments, like my friend’s at the coffee shop, and she encouraged me to try these five steps:
- Breathe. When you hear judgment barreling your way, take a moment before you respond. You might feel your heart racing, your palms sweating, your breathing coming fast. You want to give the person a piece of your mind and stalk away. Instead, make a conscious effort to take three deep breaths.
- Respond. This is the moment when you are most reactive. Someone has criticized your parenting or your child. But reacting will only make you angrier and take you into a negative mindset. Once you get your breath under control, respond in as calm of a manner as you can muster.
- Keep in Mind. In my experience, most people who make uneducated judgments parent typical kids and don’t have much knowledge of how to raise a child with special needs. There’s a much different skill set that goes with parenting both types of children. You have a chance here to educate and give that person a window into your world—fostering understanding and support—something our kids desperately need.
- Educate. This is your goal. If you can enlighten the other person with information about your child’s struggles, you have a chance of changing a mind. When I gave my friend in the coffee shop a new perspective on parenting a child with anxiety, she agreed to use a more compassionate approach the next time she encountered this situation.
- Don’t judge. After it’s over, especially if you can’t change someone else’s opinion, it’s so tempting to think of that person as ignorant, dumb, or a jerk. Instead, the only way we can come together as an inclusive society is to give people a chance to change. They might think over what you said, surprise you, and become your biggest support!