To a Child, Different is Bad

Aug 12, 2019

Sometimes it’s easy to forget if a child has a developmental delay, when dealing with their behavior problems. In this episode, Dr. Brenna Hicks delves into the mindset of a child with developmental delays and how it affects their self-esteem and behavior. Dr. Brenna gives three tips to parents who are dealing with this issue to help build up their child.
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Podcast Transcript

Hi, I’m Dr. Brenna Hicks, founder of The Kid Counselor Center and Play Therapy Parenting. Today I wanted to share a very interesting story with you and it correlates to not only something that happened to me at a chiropractor’s office, but also how I was able to acknowledge something that I know and that I deal with on a weekly basis in my practice. And I think it’s very helpful and important for you as parents to understand the implication of this thought.

So let me backtrack a little bit to talk first about what I typically ask when a parent comes in to meet with me for the very first time. So I provide an initial consultation where parents come in and I let them start and I basically just say, “Share with me what you think is relevant or helpful for me to know about history, background, what your current concerns are,” things like that. So as parents are disclosing things, I typically get behavior, emotion, things about school, etc. And one of the consistent questions that I eventually ask if the parent did not initially provide that information is have they ever been diagnosed with any kind of delay, disorder, disability, struggle? And then I usually clarify that – a speech impediment, a learning disability, an academic struggle? Do they need extra time to take tests? Do they struggle to read, do they struggle to write, do they have dyslexia? Things like that.

And here’s why I ask; because I have learned in all of the years that I’ve worked with children that often that is forgotten as a contributing element to a child’s struggle. And what I mean by that is it’s easy to look at aggression or emotional outbursts or tantrums or meltdowns or violence toward other children or siblings, things like that – those tend to be the highlight and the focus when parents come in and share concerns with me. But what has been a consistent common thread throughout a lot of the children that end up in therapy with me is that they have some kind of differentiating quality that makes them feel inadequate in relation to peers.

If you don’t read as well as everyone else in your class, you feel different. If you don’t speak as well. If you have a hard time and mix up letters or numbers. If you had a delay of any kind – you walked later than everyone else, you talked later than everyone else, you potty trained later than everyone else, you have not yet developed the same motor coordination and function that your peers have. Sometimes they’re very clumsy, sometimes they are very awkward, and don’t perform well athletically or in sports. All of those things start to make the child feel different and different from an adult perspective is just that – different. Different from a child’s perspective is bad. Different is always a negative thing in relation to their sense of self and those around them.

So now that I’ve set that stage and helped you to understand why I ask that question and how that really does put a huge burden on the child for feeling abnormal and feeling less than everyone else, I want to share what happened in the chiropractor’s office. So I’m waiting in the room for the chiropractor to come in, flipping through a magazine and there is a story on Henry Winkler who played Fonz (that was probably one of his most famous roles). And he was talking about as a child struggling a whole lot in school, really having difficulty with peers and with the academic side and just his entire childhood was very challenging for him. And I’m actually quoting a couple of the sentences that he said in that article; “There’s an emotional component to the learning challenged.”

Pause: He was diagnosed after the fact with dyslexia. He knows now that he was dyslexic as a child. He did not know it at the time. So let me start over. “There’s an emotional component to the learning challenged. You don’t have a sense of self because you’re not keeping up with everybody. I felt terrible about myself. I thought I was nobody.”

And I read that and I immediately thought about each and every child that comes in to me in my playroom and they feel that they have no sense of self. They feel that they are nobody. They feel terrible. Why? Because they’re not keeping up with everybody else. And I know that and I talk about it and I train parents about it. And then here is an adult who was able to look back reflectively and acknowledge that was true for himself when he was young. That was really powerful to me to have that validation of what I already know about what is true for kids.

And I think it’s really helpful as parents and caregivers and adults in children’s lives to recognize the significance of kids feeling that way and why they start to doubt themselves, why they struggle with self confidence, with self esteem and with a sense of self worth. So let me share three things that I think are helpful to help address those concerns. If that’s true of a child in your life, and even if you don’t necessarily see evidence that they are (struggling), but you know that there has been a delay or disorder or something developmental or something academic with a learning disability or something like that, please take these thoughts and these suggestions and begin to implement them even as a proactivity perspective because there is always almost an underlying current of ‘I’m not good enough and there’s something wrong with me’ when that has been true for a child.

So three tips that I think you will find helpful. The first is your own awareness and recognizing it for what it is. If you start to think and process exchanges and conversations and awareness of the child’s interactions with others through that lens, that they might feel that they’re less than their peers, they may feel that they are no one, that they feel terrible with themselves, those types of thoughts, even if they’re just internalizing them, that equips you to understand and help them to navigate that. So first and foremost, it’s just awareness. Pay Attention, watch their interactions, watch their facial expressions, watch their tone of voice. See if you can start connecting the dots that they have some of those underlying thoughts.

The second is help them to find something that they can excel in when children are less than their peers in a certain capacity. So a child may not read as well as everyone else in the class. They automatically feel less than everyone else, but they probably can excel in something else. And it’s about helping the child to discover that sense of worth and sense of identity because of something that they can thrive in. So that’s an intentional and purposeful coming alongside of the child and helping them to find and discover what it is they can be passionate about and what it is they can excel in. So if a child is not coordinated physically, obviously athletics and sports and things like that probably may not be a good fit. But they might be able to thrive in music or in art or in drama or something that does not require those skills. And similarly, if a child has a speech struggle, speech impediment or speech delay, they might really thrive in a chess club or something that they can use their brain and they don’t really have to speak to other people to succeed in that activity. So that would be my tip number two, help them and come alongside them to find what they can really latch onto and be a gift that they have. Because one of the things that helps to balance out the negative self talk is provide the contrast of the positive. So that may look like “You have a hard time reading, but you are very skilled at swimming” or something like that. And so finding that balance where they can accept both pieces of their personalities.

And then the third tip I have is having age appropriate conversation with them. We as parents and as adults in our children’s lives, we work really hard to shield them from pain and we work really hard to avoid conversations and topics that we think may be difficult or hard for them. And in the end and in the long run, we end up doing them a disservice by not helping them process and dialogue about what it is that they’re struggling through. So it’s about coming along to them and having an age appropriate conversation. “I wonder how you feel about having a hard time reading. I wonder what has happened at school when you’ve struggled to say words correctly. I wonder what’s happened when you’ve been at PE and everyone runs faster than you.”

And those are really difficult things to bring up, and I know that. I live in that world of helping kids deal with difficult things. And as a parent it’s especially hard, but please know they have to sit in that struggle and solve the problem for themselves. We can’t fix it for them. We can’t make it better. We can’t solve it. They have to feel within themselves that they are okay. And in order to do that, they have to be able to process it. And it has to be dialogued with someone that can offer some perspective. So open up that conversation with I wonder statements. Please don’t ask them questions. Kids live in their emotions. They don’t live in their heads and questions put kids in their minds. So use I wonder statements. I wonder what that was like. I wonder how that felt. I wonder what happened, so that that opens up the dialogue.

They may not be comfortable right off the bat. They may not want to talk about it right away and that’s okay. But what you’re doing is showing them that you’re available if they want to and that the door has already been opened on that topic. Often kids will protect us from their deepest pain because they’re worried it will upset us. So if they don’t feel comfortable bringing up a painful topic because they think it will make us upset, they won’t. But by you introducing it, it opens up the door and lets them know, ‘If I want to talk about this, they’re okay with me bringing it up’ and then provide them with objectivity.

So if they say things like, ‘I’m awful at reading’ or ‘I’m the worst reader in the class’, or ‘I’m always the slowest runner when we run the mile at PE.’ Or if they start saying things where you can tell that they’re struggling with that ability that they have, counteract it with another perspective. So “It’s really frustrating when it’s hard for you to read, but I noticed that you were the fastest to climb the rock wall,” or “I noticed that (whatever you have seen them thrive in),” it gives them the other side where they can have a little bit more perspective that ‘Yes, I do struggle with that, but I’m good at this.’ And that helps them to see that you can accept all parts of yourself and you can be okay with every part of you, even when you tend to dwell on the negative, because that’s what we do as humans. We focus on the negative rather than the positive. So you can provide the positive perspective and help them see the other side.

So if you love a child that has any of these struggles where they have probably felt that they are less than everyone else as a result, I hope that you find these three tips helpful. And if you enjoyed this video, please like it. And if you have comments or questions, please leave those for me in the comment section. I would love to hear from you. Thanks so much for watching. I’ll see you again soon. Bye.

Cochran, N., Nordling, W., & Cochran, J. (2010). Child-Centered Play Therapy (1st ed.). Wiley.
VanFleet, R., Sywulak, A. E., & Sniscak, C. C. (2010). Child-centered play therapy. Guilford Press.
Landreth, G. L. (2002). Play therapy: The art of the relationship (2nd ed.). Brunner-Routledge.
Bratton, S. C., Landreth, G. L., Kellam, T., & Blackard, S. R. (2006). Child parent relationship therapy (CPRT) treatment manual: A 10-session filial therapy model for training parents. Routledge/Taylor & Francis Group.
Benedict, Helen. Themes in Play Therapy. Used with permission to Heartland Play Therapy Institute.

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