Early Years Diary: Explaining Sensitive Subjects to Parents
Anna McCallum, in her latest Early Years Diary, considers how she engages parents on sensitive subjects and reassures them about their children’s development.
It is never easy trying to confront someone about a difficult subject, especially when that ‘someone’ is a parent, and that ‘subject’ is their child. Good grief. Working with children can be challenging at times but working with their parents can be equally as taxing in certain circumstances. As the saying goes, ‘you can’t tell a parent how to parent’, so when there is a genuine issue that needs to be addressed with a caregiver, for the benefit of a child’s development, how on earth do we even begin to have these conversations with loving and devoted parents?
There is no one magic answer to this as each child is unique, each parent is unique and how someone responds to such instances is just as individualised. Many parents welcome any piece of advice we can offer up and see it as a way to better their parenting style and their child, but others can take it as a personal attack and will only ever hear criticism and that they are failing as a parent.
So, my first piece of advice is to get to know the parents as much as is appropriate. Get to know their personalities, figure out their sense of humour, understand what they live with on a daily basis and encourage them to talk when times are tough. By creating strong relationships with parents and really getting to know them, we can hopefully find it easier to raise difficult topics should they arise, and in return we should be met with respect and understanding.
One of the more awkward subjects to discuss is when a child is not meeting their expected age brackets and a referral is the next advisable step to take. No parent wants to hear news like this however some parents do expect it before it is mentioned and can be relieved that it has been addressed, but some see it is as the be all and end all. What needs to be explained carefully is that a referral only helps us to get more support for their child. It doesn’t mean their child is unable to achieve great things, it only means they need a little help, and what is best for the child is to get that extra support that is available to them-it is there for a reason.
What can actually be a more demanding conversation to have is when a parent is convinced their child needs additional support, when in fact, they do not. It can be awful trying to clarify this to a parent, and it is often met with frustration and disappointment, as they struggle to understand that their child does not have additional needs.
Now it might not make sense, surely this would be good news to a parent. In most scenarios yes it would be, but some opinions can be hard to change, or just misinformed. Many first-time parents may have an idea of how their child will be and if they end up differing from those expectations, they can assume there is something not quite right. For example, they may expect their child to be fully toilet trained by 2 years old, but in reality it may happen later.
It also often happens in families when an older child with SEND is already present and certain traits are then later recognised in younger children. In actuality the younger child can just be mimicking said behaviour, rather than having additional needs themselves. Some actions are also only ever displayed at home and not at nursery, leading to further frustrations for parents.
There are many ‘textbook’ traits linked with some educational needs that are so common, every child will demonstrate them at one time or another, and so if a parent sees this they can automatically assume their child has an additional need. The most reoccurring one that springs to mind is that if a child puts their toys in a neat line, they are autistic. Absolutely not. So many children playing with toy cars are going to line them up in a traffic jam but we don’t see this and instantly assume they are autistic, it is dangerous and ignorant to do so.
I often say that if we look hard enough, we could make a diagnosis for any child, simply because the spectrum of needs and disabilities is so vast, everyone could display a trait or two. I like a clean and tidy house, but it does not mean I have OCD and to say I do would be undermining the seriousness of the disorder and insulting to those that genuinely have it.
Showing unconvinced parents some assessments or paperwork can also be helpful, as it visually exposes why we have come to our decision. Heck, if it comes to it pull out Development Matters and go through it point by point, so that even if their minds remain unchanged, they should at least be able to respect how we have come to our decision and why, and we can then point them in the direction of a medical professional.
To be incorrectly diagnosed with a need or disability is irreversible for children and so if a parent comes forward claiming their child needs a referral, by all means we should take their concerns seriously and look into it, but at the end of the day if they are wrong, we should be able to tell them as such.
By getting to know our parents, acknowledging their experiences, and communicating clearly and effectively we should be able to have these uneasy discussions for the sake of their children. It will never be an enjoyable task, but it is vital that these uncomfortable conversations are had with our families and that we are not afraid to challenge people’s opinions when it is appropriate.