He's Just A Troubled Kid

Working parents with Special education Special needs children including Autism ADHD Learning disabilities  Employee benefits Employee assistance Employee support Voluntary benefits. 504 Plan, IEP Program

I recently connected with a former friend from many years ago in one of those "So, how's life been treating you" conversations.  I'm not terribly fond of these catch-up calls, but he called me so I was able to ask questions and listen which I prefer to do.

In the course of family updates, my friend spoke of his nephew, saying he was struggling, was not terribly social, spent most of his time in his room, and said, "He’s a troubled kid.”  My first reaction was - what an antiquated phrase - yet kept asking questions, hoping to perhaps offer some insights into how he could help him.  Wrong assumption on my part.  Understanding his issues and wanting to step in to help was far less important than conveying - multiple times - that he’s troubled. 

After hanging up, I thought to myself ... why is this phrase still used to describe a struggling child?  I can't ever recall hearing anyone refer to an adult as a troubled adult.  It's not only a poor generalization, but it conveys nothing of substance.  To me, it's like looking away from something unpleasant.  You're aware of it or may have seen it but no...not getting involved.

We’re quick to toss around “labels” (both accurate and otherwise) when it comes to adults – he’s depressed, she’s bipolar.  And while labels can be obstacles based in fear and the unknown, once *it* has a name, we've got a starting point.  And this certainly holds true when we're talking about a child or young adult.

I understand well the reluctance of parents to label a child or teenager and many resist at every turn.  It's easier to say that he's going through a phase or she's just introverted.  But that's not good enough and certainly not for the child him/herself.  Not only do parents need to know why their child is struggling, but sharing this information - and relevant details - is important particularly when it comes to family and those close enough to the child to try to make a difference.  We already know the alternatives and few have positive outcomes.  Not to mention the need for the child to learn self-advocacy skills based on their understanding of themselves.

We’re quick to label one of *those* kids as being in special education yet even today, many lack real understanding about just what this means.  Just listen to the line in the film Admission where one of the college admissions officers exclaims, “The kid was in special education.”  So what?  The uninformed assume that this is an automatic roadblock preventing a struggling child from succeeding in school, college, or life.  I think not.

Much continues to be said - and needs to be said - about mental health issues and our children.  There’s a push to bring these issues to the fore to ensure that those who are struggling can access the support they need.  And while our words (or labels) can harm if used as a weapon, they can also embrace.  Failing to use the appropriate words to describe a struggling child is the same as looking away.  It's not an easy choice to make and there are risks involved, yet the same applies to any new ground.  The longer we remain in the past and keep looking away, the harder it's going to be to turn a troubled child into a supported child making strides forward. 

- Debra I. Schafer, CEO

Snap Out Of It...

I love this line from the film "Moonstruck," when Cher tells Nicholas Cage to snap out of it after he says he loves her (she is planning to marry his brother).  It's a favorite that I often use when a particular topic arises. The topic is labels and let me first say this...no one likes to be labeled anything.  Labels are restrictive and create barriers.  They convey things to others that are often incorrect and can be discriminatory.  But...they can also open doors and create avenues that may otherwise not be available to pursue.  And they also help to bring explanations and reason to things that may truly need clarity.

All this to say, it always confounds me when I hear a parent say that they know their child is struggling yet don't want to have them evaluated.  My initial reaction is to empathize, saying that I understand that finding out "why" can be scary and overwhelming.  It taps into fears of the unknown, of what we may *think* we know about something, and of what finding out will really mean.  But it takes less than 10 seconds to move from an empathetic reaction to a "snap out of it" response mode.

No parent wants to think or be told that their child has autism.  Or is bipolar.  Or has ADHD.  What parent would ever want their child to be "labeled" no less to face the reality that others will know about it too.  What parent would wish therapies or being pulled out of class for support on their child.  None.  But parents who resist or refuse to "face the music" need to realize a few facts:

  1. They need to separate their own preconceived notions and "what if's" from the realities facing their child.
  2. They need to recognize that every day, week, and month of delay is precious time wasted.
  3. They need to understand that the label is essential to securing the supports and services the child may need in school...and beyond.

When I hear a parent express their concerns, I ask whether they prefer speculation or knowing.  Whether the status quo is working.  Whether their child is on a trajectory of success or failure.  Of *course* every parent wants their child to be healthy and happy.  To get good grades, make friends, and be successful in the world.  These are foundational desires all parents share.

Yet many children have been struggling for years, taking a huge toll on the child in immeasurable ways.  Repeated "F's" on tests can be seen (and can be devastating to the child), but it's the things out of view - the sense of failure, of not feeling smart, of always having difficulties - these are the things that can take away a child's desire to even try anymore.  And it doesn't matter if the child is in 3rd Grade or is 15-years-old; feelings of despair accumulate and struggling saps the drive and hope for a better tomorrow out of the youngest of children.

Do parents who resist an evaluation and "label" think that the struggling is going to stop at will?  That the child is intentionally failing math, purposely not making friends, or planning to have behavioral issues in school?  Of course not.  And this is where the "snap out of it" message needs to be said...and heard.

It is incumbent upon parents of children for whom struggling defines their existence to put their own fears aside and mobilize.  With the end of the school year upon us, summer is the time to secure an evaluation and to plan for how to make things better in September and beyond. Yes, this may mean special education services, frequent meetings with school, and involvement of private clinicians and outside experts.  But which vision do you choose...pretending the issues don't exist, hoping they'll just go away with time, or telling your child that you're now "on the case" and that things are going to improve?

A label is words.  Dyslexia.  ADD.  Asperger's Syndrome.  They only have power if parents allow them to.  These words are also doorways to answers and strategies that will move the needle from failure to success, defined differently for every child.

If you happen to be one of the parents who have allowed your own fears to override getting the information - and diagnosis - your child needs, please...snap out of it.  Your child is depending upon you to do so.

Help Our Children

Many people will be writing and speaking about the horror that happened in Connecticut in the morning hours of last Friday.  No words could possibly express the depth of my sorrow for these families -- it's beyond description.  The loss of these children is life-altering for any of us who are parents. Our children need help.  The young man who committed this massacre (and no need to mention him nor any diagnoses being tossed around) had been suffering for years.  Many children are.  No excuses but rather a wake-up call.

For the past 14 years, I've been working with parents of children with a host of hidden disabilities.  Children who have been struggling at school and home.  Children who have found themselves in psychiatric wards...involved with law enforcement...taken from their homes by their own parents who are no longer able to care for them.  Despite doing everything humanly possible to help them and often for months and years, they encounter obstacles, lack of access, limited resources...the list is endless.  Parents wear out but keep trying.  Or stop trying because they just can't do it any longer.  They are doing everything possible but often, it's not enough.  And the children suffer.

As a society, we must raise the volume of discussion about mental health issues.  But that's not enough.  We have to do everything possible to help parents access whatever supports are needed for their children.   A 7-year-old who is struggling becomes a 14-year-old who is struggling unless this child receives support, services, and whatever else is needed to help them.  It is our responsibility to ensure that this is a priority.

Many parents don't tell their stories.  They're afraid of rejection or disapproval.  They're afraid of what might happen to their children if people *knew* what was happening in their homes and lives.  I've heard countless numbers of these stories from parents with desperation in their eyes and voices.  And today I'm worried for the thousands of children and their parents for whom Asperger's Syndrome is part of their daily existence.

As we all grieve for this unspeakable tragedy and discuss gun control and mental health issues, we must also look around at the families and parents we know...at the children we know or love, and support them with everything we have so that these children -- regardless of their age -- have the chance to heal and be well.   I'm not naive enough to believe that everyone with a diagnosis can be healed, but I do know that many, many children and teenagers who are suffering and struggling *can* move from the darkness into the light if they are able to receive the supports they need.  Don't we owe this to all our children?  Please...we must help our children.

They're "Hitting The Wall" -- Now What?

Virtually every day, children struggling is what keeps me awake late at night.  I wish all kids were succeeding in school and no parents faced the angst that comes with knowing that their child is not doing well.  But enough for my holiday wishes... Not enough, however, for the rallying cry that I make when kids are "hitting the wall" in school.  What's disturbing is that each academic year, I'm making the cry earlier and more frequently.  Yes, it's true that while not every child does well in every class, every grade, and every year, many children are indeed struggling in every class, every grade, and every year.  It's not the occasional struggle that's the problem, but rather, it's a pattern of struggling -- whether with academics, socially, or behaviorally -- that is the "call to arms" for parents to act.

For some kids, they hit the wall shortly after the school year begins.  For others, it's after the novelty of a new school year has faded and the expectations for performance become the norm.  And still for others, it's late winter/early spring when they can no longer compensate for the gaps that exist.  But no matter when it happens, a child hitting the wall is tantamount to the worst scene in a movie any parent could imagine seeing.

At this time of year, after school has been underway for several months, many children and teens are indeed "hitting the wall"... and hard.  Whether diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder, ADD/ADHD, or not diagnosed yet at all, grades are plummeting if they were decent to begin with, homework is not being completed, teachers are expressing concerns, and the child is suffering.  So are the parents.

Trying to figure out what's happening and then what to do about it is truly overwhelming for most parents.  And once some of these initial questions are answered, the tough part begins -- working to figure out how to secure whatever services and supports the child needs and then monitoring whether improvements are occurring once services and supports are in place.  This is particularly hard for working parents when ongoing therapies, school meetings, and crisis calls fracture their work day.

So what should parents do when their child is either hitting the wall or has already hit it full force?   First (and I know this does not relate to all parents), step out of denial mode and into mobilize mode.  The longer you wait to figure out what's happening, the greater the likelihood that the interventions will be more extensive and longer in duration.  There is a reason advocates push for early intervention services -- the sooner the supports are implemented, the greater the possibility for progress.

Next, secure evaluations.  Whether through your school district or, ideally, privately, you must determine what is happening before any interventions can be put into place.  A comprehensive psychoeducational or neuropsychological evaluation would give you data and information targeting your child's educational programming and would indicate whether further specialized testing (e.g. speech or occupational therapy) is warranted.  The goal is to gather as much information as possible so you need to ignore the "I don't want my child labeled" trap and be ready and willing to take on whatever it is that the evaluation results show.

And a word about evaluations.  If the numbers read like football scores or a foreign language, the clinician who conducted the evaluation must explain them to you so ask.  Prepare yourself with questions; e.g. "What do the standard scores mean" or "Why is there a discrepancy between reading comprehension and word attack scores."  Before you discuss the evaluation report either with the school psychologist or your independent clinician, a copy of that report should look like a Christmas tree -- plenty of red and green markings that indicate everything that is confusing or unclear to you.

Then, if your child does not already have an IEP or 504, you need to convene your school team to discuss eligibility (another topic to be discussed later).  The key is after eligibility is confirmed, you want to develop an IEP that has measurable goals or a 504 that has accommodations that meet your child's specific needs.   And after these documents are created, the work of ensuring that implementation occurs begins so you must ensure that you receive ongoing communication to gauge progress.  None of this is easy but neither is watching your child in crisis.

No parent wants to know that their child is reading at a 4th Grade level when he/she is in 8th Grade.  No parent wants to know that their child is unable to have a reciprocal conversation with a peer.  No parent wants to know that their child spends more time in the nurse's office than in the classroom because he/she cannot sit still in class.  Yet all parents want their children to be successful in school.

I know all too well what it feels like when your child hits the wall.  It feels like a roller coaster ride that someone tossed you on when you weren't ready.  But as parents, we have the ability to pull it together, mobilize, and get things done.  When you were younger, didn't you think your parents could make anything happen?  Well now it's your turn to whip out the wand and start making magic happen.  It may not be a straight or simple path, but at least the twists and turns of that amusement ride will become a bit more familiar.