Children with Learning Disabilities and Various Chronic Health Conditions
Children build their lives and their future using all materials they come across on their life path. They use whatever skills we teach them, as well as the habits we attempt to shield them from. They also use whatever they may get from their peers and some of what their teachers tried to install in them. However, the main building blocks are the children’s natural predispositions and abilities they were born with and later had a chance to develop and expand. A child who was born with excellent hand-eye coordination and a deep intuitive understanding of visual-spatial relationships will most likely develop a nuanced and enjoyable connection to the world of visual art. The same is true for musically, mathematically, or otherwise gifted children – they were given something in excess of what their average peers were given (even though no one has even seen an average child, we can pretend she exists). These children have more building blocks, which they may or may not utilize in shaping their future.
Children with learning disabilities or chronic physical illnesses were given less of these building blocks in some areas, even though in other areas they may be very gifted. Telling these children that their difficulties do not exist, or that “everybody is born the same,” creates a situation where their experience of the world is negated and devalued, which exacerbates their problems. My goal when working with children with any kind of chronic problem is to help them learn who they are, as well as who they are not, which presupposes developing their strong sides while accepting their limitations. The “accepting their limitation” cliché has been used so many times that we don’t really think about the meaning of it anymore and what it entails. The essential part of acceptance is love and respect, combined with knowledge of the person. The very same is true for self-acceptance; self-acceptance is nurtured when a child is learning what she can and cannot do, as well as how she tends to think, how she makes her decisions, what she desires in life, and what she is fearful of. When the child learns all of the above in an atmosphere of respect and kindness, she can incorporate this attitude toward herself into her personality structure, which makes her more resilient, active, and ultimately more successful in life.
Parental Counseling. At an early point in my professional career, I used to work with people who were newly assigned to a job that required them to be responsible for the safety of a large number of people. The job was also physically and emotionally challenging, and included a complicated set of managerial tasks. Not surprisingly, many of them had difficulties adjusting to this job. My role in this scenario was to diagnose and prevent burn-outs. All of those professionals mentioned that, by far, it was the most difficult job they had ever done - “besides parenting”, pointed out those of them who were also parents. Why would those pilots and crew captains of intercontinental flights make such a comparison? As a parent myself and as someone who works closely with parents, I can tell you that the question is purely rhetorical. Parents are just like pilots in so many ways. Parents have to know their destination and how to get there, and they have to adjust quickly and effectively to ever-changing circumstances. They have to maintain the spirit of their crew while keeping an eye on the dashboard (a.k.a. the family budget), and they, not the teachers or physicians, are ultimately responsible for the lives and well-being of their children. This is because, at the end of the day, every decision weighs on their shoulders. How do they survive? Some of them don’t. Of course, I am exaggerating- but only slightly. After all, one of the frequent complaints I hear from the most sophisticated and self-reflective parents is about loss of their sense of identity; a loss of themselves. “I know that I am supposed to become enriched by my [parenting] experience, but I feel like I am losing myself. I can hardly recognize that yelling, ill-tempered guy I’ve become...Where is my sense of humor? …I am able to keep my cool at work… I become somebody else when I am at home with them,” a father of two teenagers once told me. Parenting is incredibly challenging; it brings out the absolutely best and worst in people, and once you have started, you are never done. That is why I offer parental counseling in my office, and do it in many forms: individual and group counseling, ongoing and crisis counseling, and not to mention occasional tune-ups for parents who may not need continuing support but could definitely use it when they feel they are facing an issue that could potentially bring on a significant problem.
One of the forms of parental counseling is conducted by me at a child’s home. As we all know, many problems start when children are very young. However, when you bring a baby or a toddler to a doctor’s office, the parent-child interaction will be artificial and not very informative diagnostically. That is why I do home visits when there is a need to access specific dimensions of the delicate relationship between a very young child and a parent. This way, my recommendations concerning the cornerstones of future development – the routines, the details of environment, and the quality of the bond between the child and the caregiver - will be very specific and family-tailored.