In my private practice in Dallas, I often work with mothers who parent children with a range of special needs. Many are overwhelmed, some are nearly drained, and almost all are frustrated in one way or another by the schools, the current systems or society in general. Occasionally I meet moms who are truly passionate about advocating for their kids; educating teachers and classrooms, putting up a good fight when need be and using their energy passionately in productive and results focused ways. These moms serve as my ongoing reminder that parents are in fact a child’s best advocates, and that goes for any child, with or without special needs. Let’s look at what being your child’s advocate might look like…
For Kathy Katona, mom of three, whose school-age daughter deals with Social Anxiety and Selective Mutism, it means, “always be[ing] diligent. I have been to three school systems and just because an IEP (Individualized Education Program) is secured, it does not mean it is being always followed, even in the best school systems. It means having good communication channels with both the teacher and special education units. It means following your instinct and thinking out of the box on methodologies that you know your child will respond to and trying new ideas that may unlock a new level of learning in your child. Staying positive and being kind, yet having your voice heard has advantages,” she says, as well as educating people both in the system and out on behalf of the child, who is now learning through therapy to self-advocate as well.
For Amy Ingber, mom of two, whose school-age son is dealing with ADHD, it means fighting for the school system to get her child tested for a learning disability when she noticed increased difficulty with his reading and writing. At first the school agreed to do a small version of the test but “as my child’s advocate I talked them into the full extensive one….As a parent you are the one who could speak up the most to be your child’s advocate. Every parent should do this for their child. If the parents isn’t the child’s advocate then who really is?” she says.
For Rhoni Golden, mom of three, whose middle child has severe Autism, being an advocate has become part of who she is so much that I was unable to nail her down for an answer. This mom spent considerable time researching and then raising money to enable her son to receive the very best service dog and today she is on the board for Autism Service Dogs of America. She has invested time, energy and resources in teaching her son and those around him to communicate via special iPad programs. Most recently she advocated for the Dallas public school system to accommodate her son and his new dog Hope. Hope is the first service dog of any kind in DISD and she accompanies Gray to school every day. Rhoni also writes a blog called Hope for Gray where she shares her and her family’s life and the profound difference that Hope has made for them as a family, hoping to make a difference for other families and children living with Autism. Rhoni has more passion and positive energy for life than most moms I know. She uses her energy and passion to make a difference, always educating people along the way and naturally advocating for her son wherever the family goes.
Jamie Lambert, mom of three, advocates for her child with Asperger’s by letting him be who he is and celebrating his differences, (something we could all learn from by the way), even if that means dressing in a 5-piece suit to Target or McDonald’s! “We get stares,” she says, “but I let him know how creative he is and remind him how unique he is”. Instead of getting embarrassed, Jamie and her family go with the flow, even when that means getting to know the entire staff at the yogurt place where they go every single day no matter the weather and get the very same thing. “No doubt you have to be their advocate!” says Jamie. “I celebrate him, love him, and cherish him….it’s scary and hard but he is my child and I am going to help him realize being a little different is cool!”
For Jennifer Helms, mom of two, whose eldest deals with Sensory Processing Disorder, “being your child’s advocate means educating yourself and others so everyone in your child’s inner circle works together as a team to nurture, support, and promote good health for your child….The first thing you have to do is get yourself educated”, she says,”….You have to partner with the therapists and teachers every step of the way”. The next step is to educate others. “Chances are your parents, in-laws, teachers, coaches, babysitters, nanny, and other caregivers have not been researching this disorder as much as you now have. The best thing I did to educate others was to draft a memo all about my child and his disorder.” Jennifer reminds us that being an advocate is a process. “This is a marathon, not a sprint. The more you learn, the more you will learn there is more to learn. Keep learning and keep teaching others,” she says.
A child need not have special needs to require our advocating on his/her behalf or to need our support or intervention with schools, classmates or friends (or friends’ parents depending on the child’s age). I believe it is our responsibility as parents to advocate for our kids of any age when we feel it is necessary and in their best interest. It is true that sometimes we need to let them figure things out on their own and find and assert their own voice for there is a tremendous amount of personal power and inner strength to be gained from such experiences. Other times they may just need some handholding, some guidance, or a push in the right direction. Often, however, parents just need to step in and stand up for their kids!
Please share with us the ways in which you have advocated for your child with or without special needs. We can all learn from and support one another!
Galit Birk, PhD is a PCI Certified Parent Coach® and Owner of CORE Parent Coaching based in Dallas, Texas. She writes regularly for the CORE blog and is a contributing guest to DFW Child’s various blogs and publications.