My son has cerebral palsy. He was born extremely premature and suffered a brain bleed during the early weeks of his life. His official diagnosis is spastic diplegia. As a result, we are no strangers to the therapeutic community including occupational, physical, speech, feeding and rehab. Max’s early years were filled with endless appointments and programs. For the first 3 years, therapists would come to our home. But, once he “graduated” from a home program, the majority of his therapies would only be accessible through a specialized pre-school program. And, even after we started our homeschool journey when Max was 7, we continued to participate in structured therapies for many years. And, here is what I noticed.
Once we ventured outside the home for his therapies, (school, clinic or hospital), I noticed a shift in attitude from “what will work for Max today” to “here are my (therapist) goals for today”. Therapies are inherently assessment and outcome driven. There are specific goals, and timetables to meet them. And, when you only have an hour (or 30 minutes as might be the case in a school setting) in which to accomplish these goals, gaining compliance from the child is considered a necessary part of the process. More often than not, that compliance would be gained by using my relationship with Max as leverage. Typically, the phrase would be, “If you don’t do ‘x’, then I will have to ask mom to leave.” Or, an outright threat, “Stop ‘x’ or mom will leave” without even conferring with me if that was an option. And, in the midst of my son’s tears, the therapist would turn to me and calmly say, “I think it’s best for you to leave him with me.”
And, in those early years, before my own paradigm shift and recognizing the power of connection, I would do just that. (Even as I type this, my heart aches for that little boy, and the confusion he must have felt, that I would leave him when he so clearly needed me.) With my stomach in knots, a lump in my throat and tears in my eyes, I….would…..leave. I believed that was what I was supposed to do. I believed experts knew better than I how to work with my child. I believed that it was more important to meet external goals than to meet the needs of my child.
As I grew in my understanding of creating connection with my son, and my role in helping him feel safe, I began to see these therapies through a different lens. Rather than relying on “the experts” to tell me what my son should be doing, and how to get him to do it (usually by offering rewards or threatening to take something away), I started focusing on how to strengthen our connection.
What did that look like? In a therapy setting, I would be his voice when he couldn’t communicate what he was feeling. When I sensed he was overwhelmed, I would ask Max if he was doing okay rather than allow the therapist to move forward with her agenda. And, I would suggest to the therapist that we try another approach, or share what I had witnessed at home that would exemplify his ability with a new skill. Basically, I would step IN, and in doing so, I would let my son know that our connection was safe, that he was safe, and that I would not sacrifice his need to feel safe for another’s need for compliance.