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The Same But Different

with Susan Wagner

Susan Wagner is a freelance writer and editor, an avid runner and a mom of two boys. She's tentatively navigating the teen years with her oldest son, who has ADHD and an anxiety disorder (because puberty isn't hard enough already). [Insert blog name here] chronicles her efforts to balance science homework, basketball practice and panic attacks without completely losing her mind. Follow Susan on Twitter and Instagram (@workingcloset) and at her personal blog, The Working Closet

Why My In-laws Don’t Get a Say In How I Parent

Categories: family, mom guilt, parenting, support system

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It takes a village to raise a quirky kid — or at least to keep that quirky kid’s parents from losing their minds — and my husband and I are fortunate: We have a wonderful support network of friends and family who are there for us, all the time. And while it would seem that there would be no down side to that, there occasionally is, particularly when we talk about people who are super invested in our son and his life, and who have strong opinions about how we should be raising him.

For example, the grandparents.

We’ve always known that Henry was different, but it’s only been in the last few years that we’ve clearly identified what is different about him and begun to find strategies that really work for him. When he was younger, we would talk with our parents about how hard it was to raise him and how much we were struggling. And they were always there with a sympathetic ear and a suggestion.

My mother-in-law thought we were just too hard on Henry, too strict, that if we would just relax a little, we would all be less stressed. My dad, on the other hand, recommended that we push him a little harder, make him do more things, challenge him a little more. Their suggestions, while always thoughtful and well-meant, often left us feeling even more defeated, because we had tried all those things and nothing worked. Clearly we were failing at parenting — everyone could see it, even the grandparents.

When Henry was diagnosed with generalized anxiety, it was like a light went on for us. All of his behavior suddenly made sense — and so did our failure to engage with him. Because of course, even though we wanted what was best for Henry, we were going about it all wrong. We needed to rethink the way we interacted with him, to acknowledge his anxiety and start helping him to manage it. This was going to mean some big changes for our family as well as for everyone who spent time with Henry in any kind of consistent way.

Our first step step was to talk with the grandparents.

We went to lunch with Wade’s parents and over barbecue sandwiches we told them what we had learned about our son. My in-laws listened carefully as we talked through the details of the psychologist’s report; they asked smart questions about medication and therapy. And then my mother-in-law said, “What you need to do is…”

And my husband stopped her. He held up his hand, and firmly, politely, looking her right in the eye, he said, “You don’t get a say in this. We’re going to do what the therapist is recommending, and we need you to do the same. It has to be consistent or it won’t help him.”

My heart stopped a little. We’d never told any of the grandparents how to do their job, how to love our kids. But now we were, for better or for worse. And while I was relieved that Wade had spoken up, I was terrified that this would be the beginning of a rift between us.

Instead, my mother-in-law nodded and said, “You’re right. Tell us what we can do to help.”

The most amazing part of that moment was not my mother-in-law’s willingness to do what we were asking, but the fact that my husband drew that line in the sand. He was right; the best way to help us — and to help Henry — is to stop offering suggestions. The most helpful thing everyone can do is work with us, not question what we’re doing. But it can be hard to say that, especially to the people who want to help the most.

It’s easy for me to tell a teacher that she’s asked Henry to do something unreasonable, because for the most part, those conversations are impersonal and are about the work, not the teacher. A couple of weeks ago, Henry’s literature teacher had the class read and interpret slave narratives. Because Henry has a pragmatic language disorder, he was completely unable to do what she was asking. “It’s a great assignment,” I told the teacher, “but he can’t do it.” She was happy to meet me in the middle because I wasn’t criticizing her teaching, just asking for a modification for my kid.

It’s harder to have that conversation with the grandparents. My in-laws recently got a new dog; she’s well trained and calm and delightful — and Henry is terrified of her. “Is there anything we can do to help him be less afraid?” my mother-in-law asked. No, I said, there isn’t. It’s been hard for them to accept that Henry will never make friends with the dog, but they’re trying; instead of insisting that Daisy won’t hurt him, they take her outside or into another room when he’s there. And we appreciate that.

Raising a special needs child can be exhausting, emotionally and physically. It’s important to have help. So telling someone to stop helping seems completely counterintuitive. But it has worked for our family.

Have you ever asked someone to stop offering advice? How did it go?

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