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October 18, 2012 / the speech monster

Walking in their shoes: how to work more effectively with parents

“When your baby is screaming, even if you don’t want to do anything because you’re over it or know nothing seems to work, at least pretend to do something about it because it’s annoying when a child keeps crying on a flight and the parents don’t try to do anything.”

— A family member’s advise to my husband about how to deal with a situation if our then 7-week old baby is crying non-stop on a plane (as we were prepping to travel overseas).

If you’ve ever had babies or taken care of them, you’ll know that sometimes when they cry, they are inconsolable no matter what. Or when they are really tiny little babies, you might still be trying to work out their dislikes and take a longer time to figure out how to console them.

If you’ve ever traveled with your baby on a flight, you know how tough it is and you’ll know that most of the time, it’s not the parents’ fault that their babies can’t stop crying.

But if you, like my relative who gave us this golden advice, never had children (and doesn’t want children), you will probably not understand why sometimes parents just stop trying to pacify their child. Sometimes parents are exhausted or perhaps incapable, but if you’ve never had to deal with raising a child, how would you know that kind of exhaustion? Or if you are not an incapable person, how would you know how difficult it is to rise up to the occasion?

What’s my point in telling you this?

I’ve been working with children for a long time, probably over a decade now although I’ve only been an SLP in the last 4 years. Having worked with all kinds of children and families, I have on many occasions passed judgements on parents and their parenting skills, or made sweeping conclusions about parents’ interests in their children’s eduction, such as:

Mum is not good about following up homework.

The parents never return phonecalls.

Parents are not reliable; they didn’t show up to the appointment.

Parents are in denial.

Because there is no real standard procedure to enrolling children in school based speech-language pathology services in Australia, to manage the enormous caseload at schools, some speechies resort to using perceived family support (e.g., mum didn’t request for programs, or parents don’t show up to therapy sessions) as a reason to remove kids from therapy programs.

Shocking, but it happens quite often.

There are also other consequences of uninvolved or perceived unreliable parents, as SLPs stop trying to involve parents or pay less attention to those children.

Since becoming a parent myself, I have come to appreciate that raising a kid is an absolute enormous task that is really not for the faint hearted, and learned to be less judgmental on parents.

For example, for about two months, my baby slept poorly, waking up once every 40 minutes; that nearly sucked the life out of my husband and me, and created two very cranky, almost walking zombies. I became quite absent minded and missed a couple appointments. It was hard, and yet, compared to what some of the other parents go through, my sleepless nights were actually really nothing!

Before continuing, let me just say, I am NOT trying to find excuses for uninvolved parents and most certainly expect parents of kids that I see to take responsibility for their kids’ education.

However when parents seem to be difficult, in my experience, there are often reasons why. Such as:

– Parents are overwhelmed; many of these parents have more than one kid, and are juggling work plus health appointments and social events. We (female) SLPs who are quite the overachievers and love multitasking and organizing (YES you know I’m talking about you!) need to understand that not everyone is like that.

– Parents did not get the memo. Let’s face it, our kids misplace things: notes, books, etc. Our kids are often disorganized and forgetful, and so very often, they don’t pass on information to their parents!

– School did not communicate clearly to parents. If you work in a school, sometimes school personnel leave it to you to inform parents about speech-related activities (such as reports). Always be clear about communication channels and ensure the other parties are aware of the channels, too.

– Something happened at home that the school is unaware of. I remember once trying to contact a parent; kept leaving voicemails but didn’t hear back. After a couple weeks, I finally got a hold of her, and realize she did not return my calls because there was a death in the family and she was mourning.

– Parents are in denial. They don’t think anything is wrong with their child and don’t see any importance in speech-language pathology, therefore not paying attention to it.

How to address these issues? Get to the bottom of the matter. There is always a reason to why parents behave the way they do. As SLPs I feel like we need to be better at understanding parents in order to work with their more effectively to achieve better outcomes for their child.

Here are some ways to work more effectively with parents:

– Communicate!!! I have a work background in advertising/PR and know how important it is to communicate effectively with others. Heck, we’re SLPs, this should be our forte! Involve parents in your goals and therapies. How often do you let parents know what activities you’re doing in therapy?

– Offer alternatives: if parents are overwhelmed by their kids’ tasks, break them down for the parents. E.g., instead of doing 5 questions, do 1, but do it well.

– Offer solutions: if parents need reminders for an appointment, and if it’s not too hard for you, why not send an email reminder? Or ask the school receptionist to put through a reminder phonecall?

– Agree on goals/tasks, and ensure parents are aware and concerned enough about child’s difficulties: parents and SLP need to be on the same page!

– Be empathetic. I’m sure most SLPs have no problems with this but after being in the profession for awhile, we might forget that the parents of the kids we work with go through setbacks and may grieve more often than we think.

– Finally, analyze the situation but don’t judge; it doesn’t help. A minister said recently in a sermon to ask these questions before saying or thinking anything negative about someone that I find very helpful especially in this context – “Is it true? Is it kind? Is it necessary?”

Remember: parenting is hard, and parenting a kid with a disability takes twice (or thrice) as much effort. Unless you fully understand their situation, you are really in no position to pass judgement. Let’s try to walk in their shoes and try to offer more empathy, solutions and constructive help.

Do you have other suggestions on how to work more effectively with parents? OR, if you are a parent reading this and your child sees an SLP, do you have suggestions on how we can work more effectively with you?

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