Help I'm Drowning! You CAN Help

“I feel like I am drowning.

I don’t even know what I am expecting out of this conversation, I’m just a little desperate for someone to understand because I feel like I am failing.”

Gut punch.

A young mother’s words hurl me back in time to the very same emotions – self doubt and overwhelm verging on the cliff of despair.

Parenting is difficult. But for parents of kids living with neurodivergent minds, the challenges come with an added intensity, duration and complexity. The solutions are rarely straightforward and all too often outside observers are quick to offer opinions, advice and wisdom that may be well meaning (and sometimes not) but for many reasons, it is either unhelpful or destructive.  

Problem behaviours rear their heads like a game of Hungry Hippo. But these hippos aren’t cute like they are in the game. They cannot be pushed back down with a simple tap on the head. Unexpected aggression towards self and others, intense meltdowns and a chronic state of flight or flight prevails for kids whose brains work differently, leaving parents and teachers exhausted and feeling intensely ill equipped to help.

All of this played on my mind as I scanned the message, wracking my brain trying to come up with clever solutions for all of her problems. What could I possibly offer that would make any difference to her despair?

Sure, I have raised a son with autism, and taught a lot of students living with autism, but never did I have to endure those demands within the context of lockdowns, mandates and massive disruption to everyday life.

I couldn’t help but feel that I had little to offer without investing a lot of time and energy.

But I was wrong.

Ironically, my immediate reaction was to see only the complexity of the situation. Without thinking, I had overlooked the one simple conviction that I knew deep in my bones as a mother of a child with special needs would make a world of difference. In fact, I had spent my career imploring parents, grandparents, educators – anyone who would listen - to never allow themselves to underestimate the power of this principle.

The best gift we can give another human being is our presence and compassion.

All too often people don’t need us to solve their problems, but rather to give us a safe space, and our fully attentive presence. Sometimes all a person needs is someone who ‘gets it.” An empathic listener offers a ‘soft spot to land’ and THAT can make all the difference. And sometimes, once you have truly heard what the person says, and felt what they felt, you may actually be able to offer some practical help after all.

Admittedly, I am one of those who wants to help so badly that I fail to listen to understand too often. I am too quick to offer solutions before a person has been heard and more importantly, before they ask for answers.

This one message sent to me from someone I didn’t know reminds me of two significant lessons for those who are raising and/or educating children with special needs:

  1. Never allow yourself to ‘go it alone’ in your role. This is not a sign of strength. It is not the best way to help a child either.

Be the person, like the young mom who bravely wrote to me, who takes the initiative to reach out and express what it is you are feeling, or if you know, what it is you need. Some will respond with compassion, empathy and a willingness to serve. Others will not. Many will not. Your job is to keep connecting; search to find the people who will hear you, empower you and affirm you.

  1. Never underestimate your power to be there for another human being by simply listening with an ear to hear.

For those, like me, who are on the receiving end of a plea for help, I want to remind you that your first job is to read or listen really carefully. Catch yourself before you default to “I need to fix it” mode.

In these chaotic and disruptive times the daily struggles and challenges are many, but, genuine human connection, the gift one’s time, and concern can be more powerful that a room full of experts with a host of solutions.

Thank you to the young mom who reminded a fellow traveler of this all important life lesson.

Join the conversation. I would love to hear from you in the comments below!

When have you found that being listened to has made a world of difference? 

What thoughts or experiences came to mind when you read this blog? 


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