When a child receives as psychoeducational diagnosis following an assessment process, many parents are faced with the same key question: ‘When and how should I talk to my child and other children about the assessment results?’ While each child is unique and individualized guidance can be key in navigating the best approach for your family, the following are some guidelines for you to consider.
Choosing the right time - In a big picture sense, it is extremely important to consider your child’s developmental stage and the complexity of the information they are able to process. Once again, individualized support can help you determine how much information you should share with your child, and the right age and stage to do so. Often, however, a psychoeducational diagnosis may come hand in hand with a range of strategies including school supports and accommodations, tutoring, counseling, and other forms of skill-building. In such cases, children will often begin to develop their own curiosity as to why they have unique learning strategies in place. Additionally, children can be extremely perceptive about some of their challenges and stressors and might even express to you that they feel different from their peers. When kids begin to bring up these types of questions, it can be a powerful indicator that they are ready to learn more about themselves and the unique variables impacting how they learn.
Once you have made the decision to start a dialogue with your child, choose a time when you can speak uninterrupted and remember that discussing a diagnosis often takes place through numerous conversations, over the course of multiple months or even years.
Choosing the right vocabulary and balancing the conversation - When framing a diagnosis to a child, try to avoid using terms such as “deficit,” “disorder,” or even, more broadly speaking, “weakness.” Although there can be clinical or technical rationale underlying these words, they can be perceived as discouraging indicators that a child is fundamentally and insurmountably lacking in a particular domain. Instead, consider talking to your child about how we all have “tricky things” or areas in which we have to work a little bit harder. To help normalize this reality, share some of your own “tricky things” to help your children understand that it is a healthy and human thing to have areas for growth.
Along with discussing “tricky things,” try to have a balanced conversation by focusing on your strengths, too. You can share your perceptions of your child’s strengths and encourage your child to do so, too. In all cases, there are unique strengths attached to a given diagnostic label or category. It is important to highlight these positive elements so that your children have an opportunity to reflect on their gifts and strengths and how their abilities can support their happiness and success.
Discussing the label itself - In some cases, you may choose to share a formalized diagnostic label with your children. In these cases, help your children understand that a diagnostic label is simply a term assigned to a particular group of “tricky things” to help people with that particular combination of “tricky things” be able to find resources and more easily identify their needs to others. For younger children, they may wish to assign their own term or label to their constellation of needs. Doing so can be an entertaining and empowering way to help your child understand that they are not defined by a particular diagnostic term and they can exercise control over how they want to identify their “tricky things.”
Normalizing emotion - Some children may feel frustrated or confused as to why they are experiencing a particular constellation of difficulties and may express to you that it feels unfair that they have certain learning needs or a particular diagnosis. Although we hope for conversations about diagnoses to have a positive and empowering tone, it is important to allow children to openly express their feelings and to help them recognize that it is normal and completely okay for them to feel disappointed, sad, angry, and to have questions. Remind your child that they can ask questions and share their feelings with you about their diagnosis any time.
Outlining a plan and making resources available - Following a discussion about a diagnosis, do not expect immediate interest or curiosity from your child. Give them a sense of next steps and the types of strategies and supports that will be beneficial to them and will be implemented at school and at home; this kind of overview can help reduce your child’s anxiety and structure their expectations. Once again, it is important to let them know that they can ask questions at any time and to remind them that the door for further conversation is always open. Many children will take time to process information and will take time deciding if and when to revisit the topic. That said, you should think about leaving kid-friendly resources about your child’s diagnosis around the house, without pressuring your child to look through them. This approach will allow your child to begin engaging with the materials at their own pace, as and when they are ready to do so. You might also wish to include information for your child about other well-known individuals who have similar psychoeducational diagnoses to help your child recognize they are not alone, and they have the potential to pursue a bright and fulfilling future.
A diagnosis is not an excuse - Perhaps most importantly, communicate to your child that a diagnosis should never be used as an excuse or a reinforcement of limitations. Instead, for all of us, once we have identified a diagnosis or an underlying learning need, we have an opportunity to develop new skills and tools that we can use to become the happiest and most successful version of ourselves. As such, a diagnosis should be viewed as an empowering opportunity for growth, rather than a stumbling block or a barrier to success.
Truly, for all of us as human beings, our job is to learn how to be the best possible version of ourselves. While we might not all have the same “tricky things,” we all have strengths and areas for further development and it is critical that we continue working at self-improvement throughout our lives.
Soraya Lakhani, R. Psych., is the Clinical Director of Yellow Kite Child Psychology, located in Calgary. Her work has frequently appeared on Global, CBC, and other major media outlets. For more information, visit yellowkite.ca.
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