Apologies in advance to anyone who actually makes it to the end of this post. When I started this blog in 2014, I did so in part because parenting is hard. And more specifically, because a good friend of mine kept telling me that she always found my parenting advice and solutions so helpful, every time she reached out to me with a problem.
Well, I have a confession to make: For the past three weeks now, my heart hasn’t been as into offering parents everywhere the tips, tricks, and hacks they need. Why not? Because I haven’t yet figured out how to hack (er, find the shortcuts around) the elephant in my own living room.
No, that’s not a picture of an elephant. Besides being an apt visual metaphor for how we’ve been feeling lately – none of the pieces fitting together, everything pulled apart – it’s a game of the girls’ that’s been sitting on our living room floor for at least a week now. I’ve asked them a few times to clean it up, but I haven’t had the energy to make them follow through, or to deal with it myself.
If I had all the answers to our current parenting challenge, believe me, I would have written a dozen posts already with all the free advice you can handle on the topic. (Not to mention made the time to put away the darn game already, or gotten the girls to do so.)
But some parenting challenges, like how to make a ghost costume, how to protect your kids from tick bites, or how to get mud out of clothes, have actual answers. And for others, the answers are anything but clear-cut – and take a lot longer to figure out, if there even are answers.
Why Parenting Is Hard
I don’t want to tell you exactly what color the elephant in our living room is, or a whole lot of specifics on what it looks like. Partly, it’s still too new to us. Partly, I’m trying – as always – to keep the girls’ privacy first and foremost in my mind.
But I can say this much: As parents, when we know our child is struggling, it just breaks our heart. And especially if you’re a take-action kind of person (as I am), you just want to go and “fix” it all.
Yet as a Gen X mama, who grew up in an era where children learned early to be self-sufficient and fend for themselves, the last thing I want to do is solve all the girls’ problems for them. If anything, I’ve actively resisted the temptation to be a helicopter parent, as much as I can, throughout my time as their mama. My husband shares this parenting philosophy 100%.
Nor do we wish to become part of the even newer parenting phenomenon known as lawnmower parenting. Where instead of just hovering around your child, you clear a path ahead of them so there’s nothing left to stumble over. (!!!)
Just stop and think for a moment: Have you ever watched a chicken hatching from its shell? Or a butterfly escaping its cocoon? It takes forever (at least that’s how it feels) for that poor critter to get out. There’s a part of you that just wants to go and crack that darn shell open, so the poor thing can be free at last.
Even though, deep down, the rational part of your brain knows that the struggle to break free from its shell is an essential muscle-building exercise. And that the creature being born CANNOT skip over this step, if it wants to be healthy and fully-functional.
The struggle is real
But that doesn’t remove the temptation.
As parents, we all want to help our kids navigate life, and grow up into self-sufficient adults who can take care of themselves. But figuring out how best to do this is often hard. Especially when the daily challenges of parenting the child you’ve got go WAY beyond all those parenting books for new parents.
(Perhaps you’ve missed the posts referencing how my girls made it through their first few years on insanely small amounts of sleep. As in, amounts small enough to drive their exhausted parents insane.)
And so it’s been around here lately. One of our Dear Daughters has had a doozy of a spring at school. Her grades are still fine overall, but in every other respect, she’s been floundering.
What would you do?
It’s one thing to watch your child come home from school in a bad mood. It’s another thing when this happens Day. After. Day. Or when you get yet another email from her teacher, this time saying that OTHER teachers are starting to notice DD’s struggles as well.
Or to ask DD about the email, and learn that she is deeply, profoundly unhappy with her existence at school – much as she loves her teachers and loves learning.
Or to ask her why she finds things such a struggle, and have her spell out the exact same tendencies that you as parents have noticed (but never mentioned to her) since she started preschool at age two.
Tendencies that are at the heart of who she is as a person. But which don’t always make it easy to get through school, or to develop lasting friendships once there.
When do you reassure your child that you’re always in her corner and will always support her, but let her sort it out for herself?
And when do you decide to cross that line that you’ve tried so hard to maintain, like a firewall, against “overparenting” and trying to “fix” things for her?
Our choices so far:
The first thing we did was bring up DD’s struggles, in her own words as much as possible, at her birthday doctor’s visit with the pediatrician. (Memo to self: oops, forgot to schedule the kid’s birthday checkup. Fortunately, it wasn’t too far past her birthday when the initial conversation with DD happened, and the office was able to squeeze her in pretty quickly.)
The pediatrician grilled us on specifics, and then suggested testing for several learning disabilities. (Or learning differences, if you prefer. We’ve always used “learning disabilities” in my family, since my baby bro Evan grew up with dyslexia and has no qualms about identifying as dyslexic, even though it doesn’t define 100% of his identity.)
Ever since we got DD’s official diagnosis, I’ve been collecting books online and reading them as fast as they come. They all tell me that as a parent, I’m supposed to be “in shock” or “devastated” by this diagnosis.
Honestly, though, it’s a huge relief. Relief to have a sense of validation, for all of DD’s struggles over the years. And all the things that seemed “not quite right.” And especially all the things that kept making me feel as if there must be something wrong with our family, because we just couldn’t seem to manage certain basic things as gracefully or easily as many other families around us do.
But the elephant in our living room wasn’t the diagnosis in and of itself. That was like someone telling us that our living room was painted a certain color, and us looking at it and saying, “Oh, so THAT’s what that color is called!” as if we were seeing it afresh, with new eyes.
The real elephant in the room
No, the real elephant we’ve been trying to find a path around is this: trying to figure out what to do about DD’s school situation. Which, without getting into a whole lot of detail, stems from a deep sense of alienation and social isolation from the other kids – a sense that began long before her recent diagnosis.
How do you help a kid who’s so profoundly unhappy with her daily existence at school that it’s starting to hinder her ability to learn?
What do you do? How do you help her “fix” that?
The next thing I did was a reality check with DD on how miserable life truly was(n’t). As I talked through her after-school activities with her, one at a time, she confessed that the sense of “not belonging” she feels each school day is limited to school. She doesn’t feel that way in her extracurriculars.
I then explained to her how (over)generalizing her troubles at school into character flaws that colored all areas of her life was a great example of what psychologists would call a cognitive distortion. No, these challenges don’t mean that she’s fundamentally “damaged.” Moreover, in other settings, she has far fewer issues along these lines.
Just hearing that from us seemed to be a huge relief. Even if it didn’t make her feel better for the one out of three hours she spends each day going to school, at school, or coming home.
My husband and I both learned a ton about interacting with others from all walks of life through our public-school educations. Because of this, we’ve always been firm believers in public education. And we researched local school districts carefully before buying our current home.
But much as we’ve been pleased with the education our girls have received at our local public elementary school so far, one thing has become crystal-clear this spring: For the DD in question, her perceptions of that experience are turning more toxic by the day.
And nothing we’ve tried to help her turn that ship around has helped.
So over the past few weeks, as school is winding down for the summer, I’ve spent my days frantically researching what, if any, options might exist that would be a better fit for DD next school year.
As I said earlier, I’m a “take action” type of person who can’t stand sitting on her hands and doing nothing.
So earlier today, I submitted the last pieces of DD’s application and financial aid forms to a local private school for next year. One whose approach will, we think, be better suited to where she’s at academically, socially, and mentally right now.
This ride has been a scary one for our family, into uncharted waters we never anticipated (let alone budgeted for!).
And if she does land there in the fall, we’ve already warned DD that the first several weeks will be a huge culture shock, and a steep learning curve.
But on her first visit yesterday, within minutes another girl approached DD with a friendly smile, introduced herself, and asked where DD currently attends school. When DD told her, she responded, “Oh, yeah – I used to go there.” And DD smiled. Something we’ve seen all too rarely these past few months.
Breaking the silence
We’re no longer having doubts about our decision to consider removing DD from what she sees as a toxic environment. The bottom line is this: She is not thriving where she is now.
If anything, she is instead slowly drowning.
We’ve let her sit with these feelings, and we’ve tried to help her work through them, both with us and with qualified pros. She’s wrestled with them for long enough, and she’s exhausted.
Even so, we’ve second-guessed ourselves more than once on whether something so drastic as changing schools would be the right way to help DD through this.
And because our hoped-for solution is far from a done deal, we’ve tried hard not to discuss what the spring has been like for DD and our family with others.
But as I’ve mentioned bits and pieces of our struggles to other mama-friends in recent weeks, the support and encouragement we’ve received has been overwhelming. It has been so reassuring to hear from others who (unbeknownst to us) have firsthand experience of either growing up with a diagnosis similar to DD’s, or parenting a kid whose brain is wired in the same distinctive ways as hers is.
So if I have any tips to offer you this time around, they are these:
- Above all else, make sure your child knows that you love them unconditionally, and you are ALWAYS in their corner.
- Don’t be afraid to share your struggles with others! You might be surprised to discover allies you never knew you had.
- And especially when you’re doubting whether you’re doing the right thing for your child, take this advice from my own mama: “The quick fixes are usually NOT the best fixes.”
The path of least resistance right now would be to continue to let DD flounder where she is. Choosing this other path will mean a challenging adjustment for her in the short run, and require a lot of work and effort on her part. But if she takes this path, the dividends down the road should more than make up for it.Above all, make sure your child knows that you love them unconditionally, and you're always in their corner.Click To Tweet
If you’re a parent, have you ever found yourself teetering on that fine line between wanting to help and “over-parenting”? Or have you ever faced a struggle (in parenting, or in life more broadly) that you just didn’t know how to handle? If you have any words of wisdom, please share them with us in the comments!
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