What's the best way to educate your child about their neurodevelopmental diagnosis? Dr. Nanika Coor gives 7 tips for talking with neurodiverse kids about their diagnosis in a way that focuses on their strengths and abilities.
Finding out that your child has a neurodevelopmental diagnosis such as ADHD, autism, or dyslexia can feel like a total departure from what you thought life with your child would be like. Parents often have a difficult time accepting and understanding the reality that their child’s brain works differently than the "typical" brain. It can also be a struggle to know when and how to educate their child about it.
To help lessen the anxiety that can come with tackling this issue, here are 7 tips for conversations with your child about being neurodiverse in a neurotypical world.
It begins with a conversation
In my experience, parents of neurodiverse kids can be reluctant to have a sit-down with their kiddo about their diagnosis. Parents often worry that their children will use the information as an avoidance strategy for tasks they don’t prefer. There’s also fear that their child will internalize negative ideas about themselves.
However, empowering children with knowledge about their diagnosis allows them to have a better understanding of their capabilities, sensitivities, challenges, and needs. Without knowing what support or accommodations they require, children are less able to make good decisions, advocate for themselves, or even keep themselves safe. If your child didn’t know they were allergic to avocados, for instance, they might head right for the guacamole!
When a child is asking why they’re different, it’s time to start talking about it.
Kids can tell when they’re somehow different from their peers. If they don't know the underlying reasons for this, they may come up with their own conclusions—incorrect ones—for why that might be. When a child is asking why they're different, why they go to therapists and evaluators, or why they have trouble in certain situations, it's time to start talking to them about their diagnosis.
While some parents prefer to have a professional explain the diagnosis to their child or to the whole family as a group, you can absolutely have that conversation yourself. Here are seven things to keep in mind if you do decide to have that conversation:
1. You need to understand your child's diagnosis—and accept it—yourself
After finding out about your child’s neurodifferences, you might experience fear and pessimism about the future. This is understandable: you had a different vision for how your family would look and feel and how your child would respond to and be received by the world.
Take the time to grieve the loss of the vision you had, which involves allowing yourself to not only experience your deep sadness but also expressing that sadness to a supportive person who will listen to you without judgment. Then, comprehensively educate yourself about your child’s diagnosis. It can be helpful to find first-hand accounts of parents and children going through similar challenges.
2. Normalize difference
Make a regular practice of pointing out the ways in which the people they know personally are unique individuals. Maybe one sibling loves chocolate, and the other hates it. One friend is great at a certain sport, while another is weaker at it, but has incredible artistic skill. Maybe a child in their class is allergic to peanuts, but no one in your family is. One parent isn’t bothered by loud spaces and the other one can’t think straight unless it’s quiet. Even someone who has the same diagnosis as your child may have a whole different set of strengths and challenges. The idea here is that difference is just a fact, not a value judgment.
3. Don’t wait until they have a negative experience
Some children may notice they’re different and have thoughts and questions, but don’t verbalize them, especially if they’re too young to know how to put their thoughts into words. With younger kids, it’s good to give them some information about their challenges before they start seeing themselves as "the one who’s always in trouble" or having thoughts like "no one likes me."
4. You don’t have to tell them everything at once.
To start, give small chunks of information to your child over several short conversations rather than in one overwhelming lecture.
If a child asks a direct question about their differences, make sure you understand what they’re asking, and what they already know. Before giving an answer, you might ask, “That’s an interesting question! What’s your guess about it?” Correct any faulty information they have, but try not to overwhelm them. Give only the information they are asking for at that moment, and allow them to digest that before giving more. Let them know you’re open to answering any questions they have now and in the future.
5. Define important terms
Every child is different and will need and want different information. For some children, you won’t need to use terms like “dysgraphia” or “dyspraxia” or "pathological demand avoidance.” Sometimes, just talking about strengths and challenges is sufficient. Regardless, kids will one day need to know definitions of the terms disorder, disease, disability, and difference, and how they do or do not apply to their situation.
6. Make the information personally meaningful to your child
Link the discussions to their lived experiences. Talk about situations that are easy for them and situations that are more difficult for them. Does your child have a strong interest in a certain topic like dinosaurs? Use that! Filter the whole conversation through the lens of dinosaurs, and your child will be more motivated to engage with the information you’re giving them and internalize it.
7. Focus on coping strategies, talents, and well-being
Your child needs to know that a diagnosis isn’t solely about a cluster of traits that have a label. It's also about knowing how to best support them to be the best they can be.
Emphasize your child’s unique capabilities and what they can do, rather than only focusing on what’s difficult. And just as it’s important to talk about situations where your child might struggle or excel, it’s also important to talk about situations where their diagnosis makes no difference whatsoever. And make sure to point out your child’s positive qualities that don’t have anything to do with their diagnosis.
While they will have challenges, help your child understand the positives in their unique ways of experiencing and relating to the world.
Talking to your child about their diagnosis helps them understand themselves, but also other people's reactions to them. Neurodevelopmental disorders are often invisible, and people may under and overestimate your child's capabilities at times. Kids who know about their diagnosis can feel empowered, have less confusion about why things don't always go well, better advocate for themselves, and have higher self-esteem.
While your child will have challenges, help them understand the positives in their unique ways of experiencing and relating to the world. Neurodivergence is only a "deficit" because society has decided that being neurotypical is the "right" way to be. The ultimate message for both you and your child: being different doesn't mean being "less than."