Being A Parent of Children With Communication Difficulties
A slight change from my usual blog posts this time – I’ve been reflecting on my own experiences as a parent of children with communication difficulties recently, and thought I’d write a more personal post to share with other parents – I hope it will strike a chord, and provide encouragement too.
I am a speech and language therapist, but I am also a parent. I have got two teenage children. How I work is shaped not only by my training and clinical experience, but also by my personal experiences. Between them my children tick quite a lot of boxes, which continue to affect their learning, social interactions and self-esteem. For example:
- Auditory processing difficulties
- Difficulty following instructions and remembering what to do
- Poor planning and organisational skills
- High levels of anxiety
- Literal understanding of language and rigid thinking
- Speech sound difficulties
- Difficulties learning abstract vocabulary
- Difficulties understanding social rules, e.g. appropriate behaviour for different situations
- Difficulties with emotional regulation
- Difficulties coping with change
I Can’t Be Asked
Auditory processing difficulties continue to cause my son quite a lot of problems, even though he is in his GCSE year at school. For example, a popular phrase with his peers is, “I can’t be arsed.” My son finds it hard to process the speech sounds in words and to remember them. When he is not sure what he has heard, his brain tries to fill in the missing information and guess what it could be, based on similar words that he knows. So my son thought his peers must be saying, “I can’t be asked.”
As a result, he used this when he was talking to a teacher, which was obviously totally inappropriate. He got a detention and I got a phone call. My son was completely bewildered by the whole situation and could not understand why he had a detention. When I explained that it was inappropriate to speak to a teacher like that, he could not understand why. When I explained that it was rude, we uncovered the fact that he was saying: “I can’t be asked” and did not know that everyone else was saying, “I can’t be arsed.” Unfortunately, the school did not believe that his behaviour was the result of auditory processing difficulties. My son has difficulty saying long words and often sings incorrect song lyrics, which is not very cool when you are 15 and singing along to rap songs with your mates.
The Struggle To Get Help
I have had to fight my children’s corner since they were young. I realised that they had some difficulties and were different to many other children when they were around 5 years of age. However, it took a long time to get schools to listen and to get help from outside agencies, e.g. CAMHS (Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service). In fact, it took 12 years to get help from CAMHS. We were passed from pillar to post and it was a truly horrible experience that made me feel as if I was a totally incapable, neurotic parent.
Eventually, my daughter got a “label” at the age of 16, but we had gone all those years with no help at all. Things might have been different if she had got more help when she was younger and I perhaps she would not have become a school refuser. When parents tell me that they know something is not right, I listen. I recognise that feeling. They might not know what is wrong, but they know when something is different or unusual. Research tells us that early intervention is key, yet it is often very hard to get sufficient support and help when your children are young. Often it takes a serious breakdown to get the help.
It took a private Educational Psychologist’s report to show my son was dyslexic, not lazy, which cost money I did not have. He was playing the class fool to cover up his difficulties, but the school branded him as being naughty and lazy. He has very low self-esteem and gives up easily as he has no confidence in his abilities. I think that this would be different if he had had earlier help. He did not get any help until he was 8.
Parents want to help their children but often don’t know what to do or how to do it. On top of this, children often don’t want their parents to take on this role. My daughter had speech sound difficulties, but she was very resistant to working with me. Her music teacher once said, “She needs a speech and language therapist,” and I had to shamefacedly admit that I was a speech and language therapist! It is not easy.
I am a speech and language therapist and I work with some very complex children, but it is different when it is your child. A child needs a team around them in order to make progress, e.g. parents, therapists, teachers, teaching assistants, etc. They need to work together so that everyone is supported and singing from the same song sheet. Everyone involved needs to feel confident and comfortable with the support they provide, e.g. with the strategies they use, the activities they do. Parents often need support and don’t have anyone to turn to. Many parents feel responsible for their child’s difficulties and blame themselves. A parent recently told me that a total stranger had publicly accused her of being a bad parent. Her child is on the spectrum, but the stranger did not consider for one moment that the child might be behaving in a certain way because they are finding a situation extremely stressful and challenging. The current cuts do not make it easy to build a strong, supportive team around a child, sadly.
Don’t Give Up
My son has just got a C in his first GCSE, which is a great achievement for him. The GCSE was General Science and he got a B in Chemistry! He uses a computer in school, which makes a very big difference to what he can achieve as it reduces demands on him in the classroom. My daughter is under CAMHS, and although we have had some very difficult experiences with branches of this service, we are now with two amazing practitioners. So don’t give up, because you can make a difference to your children.
If you believe your child needs help, trust your instincts and keep fighting until you get the appropriate agency to listen and act on your concerns. There is help available, even if cuts to services mean it’s less than ideal. There is lot that schools can do to help, once they are aware of difficulties and can work together with other professionals.
Four Ways You Can Help Your Child To Interact Successfully
There are things you can do to help too. If you are aware that your child has communication difficulties, four very basic things you can do to help make communication easier for your child, and help them interact with you successfully are:
1. Ask fewer questions
We can often ask a lot of questions without realising we are doing this, especially if the child finds talking difficult. We often try to fill the silence with questions, but this does not help them talk. It can make a child feel under pressure to answer you. They might understand what you have said, but have difficulty thinking of the answer or difficulty expressing what they want to say.
2. Offer A Choice
If they don’t answer a question, try offering them a choice of two possible answers – the real answer and a non-answer. For example:
Adult: “What did you do at school today?”
Child: no answer.
If you stop here, the child may feel bad because they could not answer your question, so try offering a choice to help them answer it.
Adult: “Did you ride a horse or did you do some writing?”
NB: if you make one of the possible answers very obviously wrong, it makes it easier for the child to choose.
3. Use a home/school or home/nursery book
It’s useful to know what your child did at school and for the school to know what he did at home. Put photos of activities in the book so that you can talk about these at home and at school. For example:
Adult: “Look! It’s you! Painting!” (You are using language to describe what they are doing and they can see the picture to help recognise and understand the words).
4. Pause and Wait
Pause and wait to see if they will add any information, rather than ask a question. For example
Reflect back what they have said to give them the chance to hear the correct language, and to expand their understanding. For example:
Adult: “You’re painting a picture!”