When Giving “Positive Messages” to Children Can Harm

On an online support page for parents with children with dyslexia, one mom wrote in and shared a touching letter that her daughter had “written to God.”  In it the girl wrote of her shame of being different, “not normal.”   She pleaded with God to make her the same as everyone else.

Nearly all of the well-meaning advice from other parents were aimed at changing this little girl’s feelings and thinking by convincing her that “she is perfect” or that “her learning difference is really her superpower.”  Tragically these attempts to “make the child feel better” can short-circuit and interrupt real healing opportunities. Here was my response to the mom:  

“My advice is quite different from what you’re reading here and I want to express it tenderly and with compassion for both you and your daughter and the many folks who are offering  different well-intentioned suggestions that amount to “correcting her feelings and thoughts.  

When your daughter or any child writes such a vulnerable letter to God it’s important NOT to immediately try and convince her that her thinking and feelings are wrong.  When she feels so very broken, telling her that the conditions that led to her very real feelings of hurt and self doubt are really “gifts” or “a superpower” can further drive her wounding down, hidden away (only to resurface later and in different forms).  That’s when trauma turns inward from legitimate pain.  Believe me I totally understand the desire to protect our children and to try and help them reframe struggle into triumph.  But educational trauma is a vey real thing.  Our attempts to help our kids feel better is often a result of our own struggle and uncomfortableness with their pain.

It’s important that her feelings are allowed to be validated; and to hold space for them as a parent is difficult.  The most psychologically damaging habit we as parents can do with our kids is to try and convince them their feelings are wrong.  It’s a slower process but more beneficial to first acknowledge her thoughts and feelings of pain, frustration and of imperfection or “not being good enough.”  The most important first step is simply allow the child to have the space and relationship to express the hurt. Later, one can share compassion and empathy with stories from our own lives where we felt some similar things.  Messages of positivity or even examples of great and truly creative thinkers with learning differences can’t fit where’s there’s no psychological room. Timing is everything.”

Only then do we stand a chance of helping children reframe struggle and real challenge and experiences with an ill-equipped or insensitive school system towards resiliency and hope and self-worth.

Years ago a study examined the traits of successful adults who also had Learning Disabilities.  One of the traits was “self-awareness,” which was described as being aware of the realities of the struggle without over-identifying with them and the diagnosis.  You can’t supersede one for the other with children. 

About Sanford

Learning Disabilities specialist and Educational Consultant
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