Tell Your Child About Diagnosis: A 7 Step Guide for Parents

guide for parents

It’s official. Susan Boyle is relieved. After 52 years of feeling “different,” she now has clarity, and confirmation. I can almost see her wiping her hands of the matter, and getting back to the work of making extraordinary music – and history.

“It’s a relief,” she said. Yes! That’s what any diagnosis should be. Even in her 50’s, a diagnosis is helping Susan understand herself. And the beauty of diagnosis is that, once you understand the challenge you’re facing, you can actually DO SOMETHING about it!

I encounter parents all the time who don’t know how to talk with their child about a diagnosis. Sometimes, they choose not to tell their children. Their intention is honorable. They don’t want to saddle their child with a label. They don’t want to give their child an excuse for failure. Perhaps…they don’t want it to be true.

But I actually have a soap-box to preach from on this topic:

Diagnosis is a boon, not a bust!

A diagnosis of ADHD or a learning disability, or even a more “alarming” mental health disorder like bipolar or depression, is not terminal – it’s chronic. And chronic conditions can be managed with intention, education and structure. But let’s be serious, it’s awfully hard to manage a chronic condition if you don’t know you’ve got it!

I will never forget the night I told my daughter she has Dyslexia. She was 7. I sat by her bed and said something like, “sweetie, now we understand how your brain works, and we’re going to be able to help you learn to read.” With tears streaming down her face, she responded, “Mommy, I’ve been trying so hard!” My tears unleashed, too, years of frustration and fear trickling down our cheeks.

It’s a testament to my child’s resilience that she doesn’t really remember that night, though it’s etched in my memory forever. It’s like a beacon, a constant reminder that our children can handle much more than we give them credit; that when they understand themselves, they can learn to master themselves; and that diagnosis can be an empowering portal to success. That night was a pivotal moment in a long journey for my daughter, a moment of awareness that set the stage for her future success.

Personally, I’m not quick to jump to the doctor’s office over little things…often, they resolve themselves. I completely understand a parent’s tendency to see if things will work out with a little time. Not everything must be diagnosed, for sure.

But chronic issues are another matter, entirely, and they’re more likely to morph into something more complicated than they are to disappear by waiting them out. In fact, when it comes to challenges that impact a child’s social or educational development, early intervention is profoundly connected to future success.

The most difficult conversations I have with parents are inevitably about older teens who are failing to thrive. When kids hit a certain age, usually teenage years, pleasing their parents is no longer a strong enough motivation to meet expectations. They must have an internal drive, a reason for self-improvement.

Absent an understanding of their challenges, however, they all too often feel “stupid,” “lazy,” or otherwise a failure. They’ve given up, because they’ve convinced themselves that they are hopeless. Very often, these are kids who’ve been diagnosed with a challenge but only minimally treated, or have not been evaluated despite suspected challenges. Either way, the child is the one who suffers.

So, how do you make diagnosis a boon?

Honestly, there are many ways, but here are the top 7 that should get you through the initial conversation and on the path to management:

  • Express compassion for your child’s frustration: “I can see that this is hard for you.”
  • Assure your child you will help: “Now that we understand it, we’re going to be able to help you learn to handle this challenge.”
  • Be matter of fact: “Everyone’s got their challenges in life, I guess this one is yours.”
  • Foster resilience and belief in your child: “I know that you’re going to be able to handle this. I believe in you, and I’m going to be with you every step of the way!”
  • Find role models: “You know, I heard they believe that Albert Einstein had Dyslexia and ADHD, too. I guess that must mean you’re really brilliant!”
  • Be available and create a learning environment: “I know this is hard to take in, so I want you to know that we can talk about it any time; and if I don’t know how to answer your questions, we’ll find someone together who can.”
  • Celebrate the little successes: “Wow, that was great that you read that book/didn’t interrupt my conversation/sat at the table for all of dinner – I’m not sure you could have done that 3 months ago. Way to go!”

Early diagnosis and active intervention – that’s what kids with challenges need today to manage this complicated world that we’re all trying to navigate. If you suspect something is going on with your child, I urge you – don’t wait. Relief may be just around the corner. And, you might just be surprised at how empowering it can be!

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