Maybe you're the mom or dad of the kid wandering through the vast margins of childhood. He or she doesn't fit neatly in school, church, the town soccer team, not into your schedule, often not even into your home. Your child is unhappy. The school is unhappy. Your face sags from worry and from thousands of hours of researching and brainstorming, how can I untangle this mess? At night your eyeballs fixate on a dark ceiling replaying lists. Call more specialists, call school, study more, work more, email more, talk more, pray more. Must. Help. Child.
Maybe your child has a label. ADHD, Aspergers, Epilepsy, Autism, depression, dyslexia, anxiety, addiction, Sensory Processing Disorder. Or worse, there's no precise explanation for your child's challenges. Everyone's got an opinion though: your mother-in-law, your preacher, the principal, the teacher, the psychologist, your sister -- even your dog stares at you lopsided. But opinions vary widely. One thing's consistent -- few people seek you out exclaiming, "You're doing a fantastic job parenting that challenging kid!" Instead you hear "shoulds."
"You should get more rest!"
"You should take care of yourself."
"You should be strong for your family!"
You agree, sort of, but barely hear them as you race on. Though you've consulted with experts in all kinds of therapy (and spent all your money,) these experts have assigned you reading and homework and projects relating to: sensory diets, special exercises, nutrition, behavioral plans, clothing, special ways of talking, walking, and taking deep breaths... Breathe, parent! And then drive to the next special appointment. Drive, parent. Drive!
Then, in your spare time, you've gotta earn big bucks. You need money to pay the specialists. Or, you've gotta spend time and hire advocates and lawyers (more money) to convince the school to use your tax dollars to appropriately educate your child.
Meanwhile, you welcome insight, but dodge unrequested advice, accusatory statements, and "hidden" glances from seemingly judgmental bystanders. You also fend off your own critical mind. Maybe I'm not doing enough. Maybe I'm doing too much. Discipline less. Discipline more. I should be able to fix this! Sometimes you feel angry at every grinning parent with the apparent perfect child, who isn't giving you a hug just for getting through the morning, for god's sake.
And since your stress has suctioned itself about you like a well-fitted scuba suit, you barely feel your own body. When you become sick, you wonder what part of you feels bad. Is that your toe or your nose? Since you haven't had time to exercise, eat well, or visit a doctor, you walk lopsided and are grumpy as hell.
If you're lucky, you don't turn to alcohol. You don't freak out at your spouse (if you still have one.) Instead, you do other things to cope such as talk too much, cry too much, eat too much, isolate yourself too much, or spend too much time on social media trying to placate your upset mind. Must help child. Must find peace.
Now you might be thinking, "How dramatic! That's not me!" Well-- congratulations! But you're needed. Please keep reading.
Parents. You've all got your struggles, I know. Finances, health, busy schedules, work, marriages and so-on. You can empathize, even if your kids are thriving -- can't you? You can help! Notice those who aren't going to soccer games, parties, and school picnics. Seek out the ones who aren't riding bikes in the neighborhood. Wonder about the parent who isn't smiling. Extend invitations to the park, to coffee, or wherever! Teach your kid, heck yourself, about differences. Don't do this to be nice. Do it because you live among families who need each other to thrive. Nourish the community that your child will need someday. Fill up the margins in your town and neighborhood with compassion. You'll instantly be rich with gratitude. I promise!
Schools. Protect the quality of the classroom and our children's education by supporting parents. Create weekly special needs parent support groups at every preschool and elementary school. I recently started such a group in my community. Do you know how many worn-down parents are seeking a supportive community, but can't find it? Before you call 211 or DCFS or whatever legal hot button you've been using to deal with difficult school behaviors, consider reaching out to families personally and humbly. Take a time-out yourselves. Think about how you could affect a parent, thereby affecting the wellbeing of a child. Challenging children need parents not overburdened by school demands, but available to nurture and support. Don't isolate a child in a room or a closet or a classroom or a curriculum where he or she doesn't fit. Work harder to deliver every kid the educational fabric needed to flourish. Create after school programs and sports that provide social opportunities for every child. Integrate social skills and teach empathy throughout your curriculum.
Teachers. Call those parents with struggling kids. Not to complain or incite anxiety, but to offer assistance. Ask what you can do to help. Improve classrooms by demonstrating support for the people who are bearing the responsibility for the children. Brainstorm ways to work through individual challenges before difficult situations become critical. Tell administrators what needs to change in the classroom, in the school, and on the playground rather than ignoring needs unmet. Get to know your population of kids and create school days that serve them. Create sensory spaces and quiet spaces. Teach empathy.
Readers. These kids in the margins with all the complicated labels -- they're growing in numbers. Every day. These parents need each of us, whether we have a challenging kid or not, to lift one another upward, with hearts woven together. Let's stretch ourselves, embracing every parent and child, fully, with humility. If we come together with empathy, I bet we'll begin to see kids and families and entire communities finally begin to heal.