Accepting Differences

Not all children are the same. This should come as no news to anyone, of course, but at the same time most parents hope that their child is exactly that -- the same as other children his or her age. From infancy, when we listen to where our children fall on the "growth chart" at the pediatrician's office, or compare the age at which our child crawls with the normal "developmental milestones", we all hope that our child will be "normal." Likewise, most parents worry if the characteristics they see in their child deviate slightly from what the experts proclaim to be typical. Of course, every book on child development has numerous cautionary words about the variations that occur in "normal" development, and urges parents to look at what is written as loose guidelines, not strict parameters.

But what happens when you discover that your child is "different"? Maybe the difference is that he walks later than other children. Maybe it's that she's not as verbal as kids her age or that he weighs more than others. Or maybe your child has ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder), Dyslexia, Sensory Integration Disorder or any other of the myriad issues that can afflict children.

Coming to grips with the knowledge that your child is different from other children - particularly if the difference is permanent - is no small task for most parents. Yet in order to successfully parent your child, it's important to handle your oftentimes conflicted emotions so that you can come to accept her differences with equanimity.

Obviously, you still love your child. Most parents in this situation, however, do feel a sense of loss upon learning that their child "has something wrong" with him. So the first step, really, is two-fold: recognition that it is normal to feel conflicted and important to grieve for the loss of your "perfect" child, and, that no child is perfect.

Whether your child has received a diagnosis or is different from others in the way she looks, she's still "normal." The ADD or dyslexia or whatever, is part of who your child is, and has always been a part of who she is. Nothing, really, has changed, with the exception that you now recognize that the issue is an intrinsic part of her.

In some ways, part of the grief parents feel has to do with a myth that most of us carry around. The myth that if we do our job as parents right, and we don't make any mistakes, then we can control our child - his behavior, his feelings, his happiness, his successfulness in life. Abandoning this myth is a huge part of accepting the differences in your child - whatever they may be. You can no more change his "issues" than you can change his height, or shoe size, or eye color.

Recognizing that ultimately your child hasn't changed from the child you've loved all along does not mean, however, that you should be in denial about the things that make him different from other children. The opposite, in fact, is true.

Your job as a parent is to help your child uncover her full potential. I once heard it described in the following way: Each child is like the negative of a photograph. There are certain elements of that negative that are intrinsic to it, because of the way the picture was taken with the camera. These are elements of style, focus, and composition that developing won't change. But your job is to develop that photo as expertly as possible so it is the best possible photo it can be given the raw elements it contains and which it cannot change.

For parents whose children are "different" this means not being in denial. For in order to help your child grow into his potential, you must understand "the negative" - the raw elements - as well as you can.

In part, your understanding of what ADD is, or how language develops, or what children with sensory integration disorder go through will enable you to accept the original, unique and special photograph that is your child. Even more importantly, your acceptance will allow her to come to accept herself - which is the key to being the best you can be as an adult.

Understanding your child can be achieved in many different ways. An evaluation by a pediatrician or specialist for example, can help pinpoint exactly what your child has or is going through. Armed with this knowledge, personal research can provide you with details that might not be covered in a short visit with a doctor or other professional. In addition, you might think of specific questions that you can then discuss with that professional at another visit. Support groups where you meet with other parents can give you a sense that you and your child aren't isolated or alone in figuring this out.

Most importantly, though, treasuring all the positives about your child will keep the two of you growing and understanding one another together.

Sometimes finding positives is simply a matter of reframing your language. Look at the following brief list and see if you can add qualities or characteristics specific to your child:

Instead of: Hyperactive, Try:Enthusiastic and energetic

Instead of: Unfocussed, Try:Curious about many things

Instead of: Moody, Try:Sensitive

Instead of: Overweight / fat, Try:Rubenesque

As simplistic as it may sound, negative labels and language will cause you to feel negatively about your child. Turning negatives into positives will help you cherish your child as a whole person. And a child who feels cherished for all of her qualities is a child who will truly reach her full potential someday.