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PARENTING CHILDREN WITH MILD DEVELOPMENTAL DISABILITIES

Coping and dealing with a child who has a developmental difficulty requires patience, understanding and firm inner resilience, which is why it is referred to as being relatively difficult. It takes us time to understand the nature of our child’s barriers to growth and then help them. But, what about a situation where we probably do not understand fully that our child is facing genuine barriers to growth?? What about when we attribute their problem behavior to their personalities and miss out on recognizing a mild form of a developmental disturbance?? This blog muses about these possibilities.

WHAT ARE MILD DEVELOPMENTAL DISABILITIES?

There are recognized developmental difficulties such as :

1. Learning Disability:

Here, educational achievement in the areas of reading, writing, verbal comprehension and mathematics is below age appropriate levels and the child’s ability. Read more about Learning Disability.

2. Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD):

Here, the child is troubled by symptoms of hyperactivity, excessive motor movements, restlessness, impulsivity, concentration difficulties and difficulty sustaining attention. Read more about ADHD.

3. Pervasive Developmental Disorders:

Here, there are deficits in social interaction, reciprocation, communication difficulties and motor difficulties. Read more about Pervasive Developmental Spectrum Disorders.

Mild difficulties, simply put, are milder manifestations of the same. I will cite a few examples of differences in symptoms here –

A child with a moderate learning difficulty would face obvious difficulties in reading and make several mistakes. One with mild difficulties may just be very slow to read and ponder over quite a few words even if he doesn’t make as many mistakes.

A child with ADHD may run around and climb up and down chairs excessively, he may be very loud and restless, or may run away from his chair if asked to sit. One with a milder form of ADHD may simply fidget and squirm continuously instead of getting up from the seat.

Children with pervasive spectrum disorders such as Autism or Asperger’s Disorder may be averse to eye contact, almost completely disinterested in social interaction, may engage in repetitive hand flapping or walking on tiptoe etc. Those with milder forms would probably make better eye-contact and even interact with others to some degree. However, they may not understand differences between behavioral expectations at home and school, or make jerky motor movements even if they are not as unusual.

The important question is –

How many of these milder symptoms are recognized and understood as part of the developmental disability that the child cannot help manifesting? Plenty of food for thought…

WHAT CAN HAPPEN IF THESE BEHAVIORS ARE NOT RECOGNIZED AS SYMPTOMS?

We could hold the child responsible for the behavior

It is almost natural for us to think that the child is intentionally engaging in those behaviors, that ‘he is lazy and so is reading slowly, that he wants to waste time or does not want to study. After all, he still manages to read most of the content accurately!’

‘She is naughty, wishes to irritate me and loves watching the expression on my face and so keeps squirming in her seat even if I ask her not to over and over’.

‘He just doesn’t listen and is as loud outside as he is at home. He knows he isn’t supposed to behave like that, but still does it.’

Our frustration and helplessness at such behaviors is because we want to help the child and we care for him/her. However, sadly, we can unknowingly falter at the very first step. Attributing these behaviors to the children themselves and their personalities could completely overshadow the possibility that they probably can’t help it too; that he is trying to read as hard as he can and is very frustrated at not being able to do so!

Failure to think about this possibility has several negative consequences, the most important of which are highlighted below:

1. Roadblock To Intervention

This is the most direct consequence of the above. I we do not recognize the difficulty; we do not look for any remedial or therapeutic help. The child continues to face problems in day to day life because of the developmental difficulties.

2. Emotional Turmoil due to the Disturbance

When the children themselves understand that they are in some way ‘different’ than most others around, it creates ground for emotional turmoil. They wonder, for example, why others can read easily and they can’t, why they get very restless while nobody around does. These questions could create psychological discomfort and eventually, a lowering of self-esteem. This is difficult to endure. However, there is one thing that could hurt them tremendously from within, something that they may or may not express directly. That one thing is described below.

3. Distress due to Parental Reactions and Messages

This is a very potent source for immense psychological distress. No child likes to be thought of as ‘bad’ or ‘naughty’ by the parents. Listening to reactions such as, ‘just WHY don’t you listen to me??’, ‘you are so embarrassing!!’, ‘why do you like troubling me’ or describing the child as ‘lazy’, ‘irresponsible’, ‘naughty’, ‘dull’ can hurt your child very very bad. Why? Because the child tries hard but cannot help these behaviors. A child with mild autism may for example be confused about why he always ends up being loud in outside places when mom has asked him not to. A child with mild ADHD is already troubled about why she feels restless. Over and above that, they feel “accused” or “blamed” by their parents and family. They are probably thinking, “everyone around thinks I am doing this on purpose. Only I know I am not. What do I do now?” This makes them feel unsupported and lonely, like they’ve been left alone to fight their battle. They are already troubled because of their symptoms. Over and above that, they may begin to hold themselves responsible for their parents’ unhappiness. This could be devastating for them, which they could express through sadness and withdrawal or anger and opposition.

WHAT THEN CAN BE DONE?

1. Widen your Knowledge Base

Read up about developmental disturbances in childhood. Knowing more about the disturbances and their symptoms is of enormous help, both for prompt identification and remediation of difficulties and for preventing successfully the psychological ill-effects described above.

2. Pay close attention to the Problem Behavior

Observe your child closely when he/she displays the problem behavior. Notice their facial expressions and body language. Also pay close attention to the situations in which the problem behavior occurs. For example, perhaps your child is probably spending several hours over one chapter even a day or two before the examination. Ask yourself why he would “choose” to do that. Or he is probably being ridiculed at by his friends for being loud at outside places. Why still, would he “choose” to do that?? Asking these questions is likely to redirect your thoughts and give you fresh perspective.

3. Finally, talk to your child

Pick out a time when both you and your child are relaxed. Gently ask him about the problem behavior. Children are anxious that they will be ‘judged’ to be ‘bad’. Allay this fear in them. Tell them that you are talking to them not to judge them but to understand them. Ask them how they feel about the problem behavior. With time, they will open up to you, helping you identify any symptoms that need attention. Hold their hands because it is your support that they need the most.

Post contributed by: Malini Krishnan (Psychologist, Inner Space, 2010-2015)

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