I will always remember sitting at the small table with my son’s teacher in his classroom, knees knocking, heart palpitating as she gently discussed the concerns she had about my son. She handled the moment so sensitively when she suggested I have him evaluated, but it is never easy to hear something could be wrong with your beloved child. It is a gripping tension wanting to believe everything is OK when you know in your heart that the issues being discussed are real and worrying what that will mean.
Whether it’s a worry about your child’s development or a physical or medical issue, the fear that something could be wrong with your child is a knot in the stomach that won’t go away till you resolve it to your satisfaction. As someone who has been through different challenges with my sons here are tips based on my experiences. (Please note: this is not medical advice, just sharing from my Mom experience. Please consult with appropriate medical professionals.)
Assess and articulate as objectively as possible the issues you are worried about and the questions you have. Write them out and bring them with you to any appointments with medical professionals or other practitioners.
Ask your child’s care givers or teachers what they observe, asking in as objective a way as possible. Get specific examples of behaviors or observations and facts, such as how often they see something happening, rather than just opinion.
Think through which type of professional is best to ask for advice and assessment. Identify who you think is the best person or practice to go to. This often starts with your pediatrician, but depending on the issues you might want to in addition or alternatively seek out a medical specialist or other practitioner such as a speech therapist or audiologist. For advice about speech development, check out this article from speech therapist Jennifer Katz - I’m Worried about My Child’s Speech, Should I Be?
Trust your gut and resist the warring temptations to over-worry or to be in denial. I would always seek out professional advice if I have a concern about my child, but what do you do if the first person you go to either gives you an answer you don’t agree with or says everything is OK when your gut says there is something wrong? This can be tough because you want to make sure you are confident there isn’t an issue after all or consider whether you need to seek another opinion. If you are told something is wrong, unless it’s pretty minor, you will probably want a second opinion. As San Francisco pediatrician Dr. Jane Anderson as parting words when retiring told my sister, “you are your child’s parent. You know your child best. When you think something is wrong, trust your instinct and don’t let anyone tell you that nothing is wrong.” (Note: I’ll be sharing an article next week on When You Find Out Something Is Wrong with Your Child based on my experiences.)
Be open if a teacher, preschool director, or other professional brings concerns to your attention. Sometimes you feel in your heart everything is fine with your child but an educator or medical professional pulls you aside to share their observations and recommend you take your child to have them assessed. It is very tempting as a parent to say I don’t see the issue and ignore it. It’s not easy to hear some feedback about your child who you love more than anything. But listen as openly you can and be honest with yourself, ask for specific examples. As a parent who has gone through different situations and seen so many friends’ experiences, I would say what have you got to lose to see someone and make sure everything is OK?
Resist an innate temptation your loved ones might have to deny something is wrong if your gut says differently.No one wants to think something is wrong with someone we love. It is easy to brush off concerns with “there’s such a wide range of what is typical” or “my child/grandchild/niece/nephew” is perfectly FINE, he/she is obviously brilliant, how could something be wrong.” But if you worry in your heart of hearts or a trusted teacher or other professional is suggesting you check out a potential concern, it is wise to do so, if only to be on the safe side. I’ve seen spouses or family members deny obvious issues for a long time, delaying important intervention and support that can really make a difference to a child and to the primary parent seeking help. I believe it’s important to be sensitive to family member’s feelings but that should not delay getting a child assessed and helped. So many physical or developmental issues are best helped with as early intervention as possible and at the end of the day the child’s health and best interest is what matters most. (I will discuss this more in my next article on When You Find Out Something Is Wrong with Your Child based on my experiences.)
Keep your spirits up and stay optimistic. Hopefully you will find out that your fears are unfounded or it is a minor issue that is straightforward to address, but you will know either way that you did what was necessary to take care of your child’s needs. And if it is challenging news, it is better to know and get the help your child needs as thoughtfully and promptly as possible. We find strengths inside ourselves we never knew we had when we become parents in small and big situations. Take care of yourself and try to do some fun things that make you happy along the way.
Advice for Caregivers or Teachers who might be in the position of sharing concerns with a parent: I appreciate how difficult this must be and thought I’d share the approach that was most effective with us. My child’s teacher built a warm relationship with me and made me feel that they cared about my child so we had shared trust before any difficult conversations. Our first discussions were about my son’s strengths, then gradually, and mutually discussed some weaknesses and issues, so that they demonstrated seeing my child as a whole person, vs. jumping to conclusions. When we had the difficult conversation, the teacher talked about his strengths and gave very clear, factual observations and examples including frequency. She answered my questions as thoroughly as possible and without using any “judgment” words about my child.
Some Examples from My Experiences:
One of my sons had a very hard time swallowing anything beyond the smoothest baby food, was very thin, and got sick often. We had wonderful pediatricians who were concerned and checked him often but said it all could be attributed to being a picky eater and getting a lot of ear and sinus infections. Until shortly after turning 2 years old when I brought him in with a horrible upper respiratory infection. The astute senior pediatrician in the group in listening to his lungs picked up on a subtle but very unusual rustling sound in his chest. After diplomatically rushing us in for chest X-rays and tests, he told us that our son had a very rare 1 in 3 million birth defect in which his diaphragm was not fused shut, so the hole had allowed his intestines to move up into his chest. He needed surgery as fast as possible to put everything back in place. If the doctor hadn’t been as careful and not dismissive of our worries, it would have been disastrous. (Happy ending: top birth defect specialist fixed it and now my son is a wonderful college sophomore.)
By the age of two my sons were not speaking words and sentences the way the other children in their preschool groups were. They each showed precocious signs of their intellectual development such as my older son (I am NOT making this up) drawing and diagramming out The Very Hungry Caterpillar book including writing out the words like “egg”, “cocoon”, “caterpillar”. (In fact, the first time he did it at preschool I thought the teacher was joking until she showed me and my son did it in front of me.) However only speaking a handful of words was not OK for his age so we had him assessed and indeed he needed and benefited from speech therapy. Ironically by the age of 4 each was speaking so well my husband and I joked that it seemed hard to believe we were so worried about their speech which evolved to their not stopping talking each day till they fell asleep…as if they were each in turn making up for lost time!