You may relate to the food allergy piece of this—or the part about a child with special needs. Maybe you understand the mental health bit. Perhaps you struggle yourself. This is just one tiny scenario in our family’s journey. It may seem trivial, and when looked through the lens of one small moment, perhaps it is, but the message drawn from it is hugely significant and important. We all struggle with assumptions and forcing our good intentions, as well being misunderstood. It’s universal.
Today, one tired, squeaky, sometimes defeated little voice comes through in my experience. I believe his voice rings out, joining many others along similar paths. Little Man and I want you to know:
You are not alone.
As she bent over to adjust the blood pressure sleeve, she asked him three times:
“Are you looking forward to school starting?”
She had to ask him three times because the first two times he looked down and wouldn’t answer. She had the best of intentions. She wanted to make my son comfortable.
I know the “goal” here is to have a 9 year old make eye contact, smile, act engaged in and enthralled by conversation with an adult, and respond appropriately with all polite words tacked on.
On his best days, he’s charismatic and very articulate.
I’m well out of range of the goal line right now, however. I really am.
Number One: He’s in a doctor’s office. Know any kid under 12 who likes those?
Number Two: It’s an allergist, with which he has a long history (since age 5 months, actually). Yeah, allergists do scratch tests, poke needles, take blood, and if you’re asthmatic as well, which he is, express micro-details of worry about any change in your lungs. I know it’s their job, and I’m very grateful for the amazing medical care in the Boston metro area where I live, but if you’re 9 and you’ve had paramedics surrounding you frequently enough in your early life, have seen your mother run in panic for Benadryl or the epi pen, and have ridden even once in an ambulance as the patient, um, yeah, you’re not the favorite face for my son to see. It’s not personal.
Let’s take away Numbers One and Two, for a second, just because those are common enough to many children in an allergist’s office.
Number Three: You asked him if he was excited about school. You have every right to do that. It’s that time of year. I catch myself asking other children if they’re looking forward to a new year. I am also guilty of this. But did you hear his response when he finally grabbed the words forming in his brain, carefully wrapped his lips around them, tentatively looked into your eyes, and nervously whispered them out?
Did you hear those exasperated, weighted words?
“No, not really.”
You see, for my son, learning is an anxiety producer. He’s incredibly astute, but he has some disorders getting in the way. School isn’t a place he wants to think about right now. You didn’t know that, and that’s perfectly okay, but please stop when you hear his answer. Please. Just. Stop.
Number Four: My child is just sad sometimes. He vacillates between anxiety and depressive episodes. If you could see him when he is unencumbered by the heavy cobwebs of a spinning mind and worried heart, you’d see jovial and fun. You’d hear fart jokes and lighthearted teasing. You’d see him suck life in with everything he has and give back such happiness in his thoughtful statements, quick wit, and tender heart.
Today, though, he wouldn’t look up. You tried several times, and that was so sweet of you. You didn’t know your comments about how tall he was for his grade caused angst because he still identifies himself with an extra year of school. You didn’t know you asked him, in just a few questions, about every worry trigger he carries around in his little heart:
- Do I weigh enough? I can see my ribs.
- Do I need more tests for my lungs?
- Will she poke me for allergies?
- Why is everyone talking about school like it’s a good thing? Something to be excited about?
It’s not that I expect you to know this. You couldn’t possibly know how I know each statement that you made today ripped at a piece of him and restarted a concern I bat down every day with all of my own Mama Strength—along with supplements, sensory tools, exercise, talking it through, and various therapies.
How could you possibly know? None of this is your fault or your responsibility. Each patient is different, and he’s not your son. After all, I brought him to a medical office, and these are the items typically discussed. I understand that.
I also appreciate how you tried, oh you certainly tried!, to engage him positively. Bless you for the effort!
I wish, though, that you had noticed the “anxiety disorder” piece on the sheet. I made a point to have that on there. It helps so much to know how to approach a child. It’s not easy for me to speak up and ask that to be added. Not easy at all—especially not in front of him, which is where it usually has to happen since he’s the patient, and I’m just the tagalong vocal advocate parent. I did it because I truly believe that the right hand needs to know what the left hand is doing, and that is so true between behavioral health and internal medicine. So far I haven’t found it not to be true in his case, which is years long, by the way.
Maybe it wouldn’t have been so important to talk him into a happy smile if you had read that part.
I did not write this today to “straighten out” people who don’t understand my child or take an unhelpful approach.
I wrote this for other parents like me and for children like my son. You’re not alone, and I know your pain, weariness, and frustration. I know how you simultaneously are so grateful for kind folks who express care and want to talk with your child and yet hold your breath, feeling it crackle, while they determine to win that unachievable smile from your child.
I wrote this to inform, spread a little understanding, bless what is done well, and fine-tune what could use more grace.
Today, we received kindness, but we needed more grace. He needed to be let off the hook from all the inquiries and forced dialogue. He needed his body language to be read and his silence and hesitancy respected.
I write this for every well-meaning, kind-hearted doctor’s office nurse, stranger in the grocery store, or other parent on the playground, for that matter.
I’d like to clear up some common assumptions people make when they see my son downcast and approach us. To be fair, these are not always overtly stated. If you’ve read this far, thank you:
- My child is not sad and does not look down at his feet, avoiding your gaze, because he is abused at home.
- He does not fear adults.
- He is not able to be cheered up or out of this at the moment.
- Nobody died.
- He’s not lonely or neglected.
- He does not lack loving parents and siblings.
- We did not have an argument.
- He does not dislike you.
- I did not discipline him before we saw you.
- He’s not an ungrateful brat. He has moments of poor behavior, like any child, but he isn’t being belligerent when you speak to him.
- I did not fail as a parent to teach him manners. He simply can’t perform the way you want him to right now. He just can’t.
- Kind comments won’t take the pain on his face away; it might ease him, and he might feel encouraged by you, but right now, you cannot make his facial expression change, and that’s okay.
And this last one is really important:
- I’m not unaware that my child is sad. It’s minute-by-minute on my mind. Unless you are a close family member or friend, letting me know he looks sad doesn’t bring me revelation. It delivers fresh pain. Asking me why can’t be answered in one simple sentence. How much time do you have?
I don’t pretend to have a handle on this whole mental wellness walk we’re on. The path winds and shoots out in all directions some days, and on a higher-functioning day, this whole scene may not have happened. Or maybe it wouldn’t have bothered me.
All I know is that Little Man taught me so much today—and every day, really. Not everyone will understand us. That’s true of life in so many ways. I have days when I long to make him smile too. I have days when I don’t stop when I should at: “How was school?” or “Did you eat your whole lunch?”
We can’t walk on eggshells. Bumping into people who don’t always understand us can be very valuable. We have to learn loving ways to respond.
So I end with this:
Today, in that doctor’s office, I was proud of my son for being politely honest when the nurse kept prodding him about school and his life in general. He’s depressed. Saying he is otherwise just to ease someone else is dishonest, and I value honesty. It’s a rare gem out there in the world of interactions.
We can’t all be sensitive to knowing everybody’s pain or issues out there, but we can try to listen when we get a response. We can also try to gauge when we’re not being received well; sometimes we cause pressure when that’s not at all our intention.
Little Man, today I write for you and all those out there like you. You inspire me every day. The world is a better place with you in it, even on the sad days. We have so much to learn from you. I hope I forever listen, Buddy. All my love, Mom
*This blog has been shared at any link highlighted here: Mom 2 Mom Monday Link-Up, Make a Difference Mondays, Pick Your Pin Tuesday, Women With Intention Wednesdays, Grace & Truth, A Little R & R, RaRa Link-Up, Me, Coffee & Jesus, Dance With Jesus, Blessing Counters, Coffee & Conversation, Saturday Soiree, Tell His Story, Find Stability, So Much at Home, Faith-Filled Fridays, Reflect His Love and Glory Link-Up, Bonbon & Coffee Linkup, and Christian Mommy Blogger.
More of my personal story of uncovering my child’s special needs can be found in Not Just on Sundays: Seeking God’s Purpose in Each New Day (includes Book Club Discussion Questions).