Putting Out Fires (Or, “Why Some Families Don’t Seem to Care About Things that Professionals Think Are Important…”)

Sometimes I am working with a family, or speaking to a mentee who is working with a family, of a child who is exhibiting significant delays. Perhaps the child’s technology is poorly programmed, infrequently used, or both. Maybe the child’s educational and therapeutic situation leaves a lot to be desired. Whatever the cause(s), this child is struggling. As someone who has …ahem… been known to be a bit dramatic from time to time, I sometimes see these situations and think, “Oh my gosh, if this was my kid, I would be treating this like an emergency. I’d be pulling the fire alarm!”

And some families react this way, too, and put out an all-hands-on-deck response to their child’s delays to help them optimize their potential. But others don’t. And some don’t seem too terribly bothered by the delays, either. That used to both perplex and perturb me. And then my own fire alarm comment got me thinking… You don’t pull the fire alarm on burnt popcorn if the house is burning down. In other words, some families aren’t or don’t seem bothered by their children’s delays because they have much, much bigger fires to fight in their lives.

You don’t pull the fire alarm on burnt popcorn if the house is burning down.

It’s hard to get up in arms about your child’s hearing aid wear time if you’re worried about making sure your child has something warm to wear. It’s hard to stress about whether or not you’re implementing home carryover if you don’t know where you’re going to call home each night. It’s hard to worry about your child’s knowledge of food vocabulary if you just want to make sure your babies have food.

Now of course, this is not always the case. Some families of children who are exhibiting delays may be meeting them in a way that seems even-keeled or unbothered to us because that’s just their temperament, or perhaps they have different expectations for their child. That’s important for professionals to know about, honor, and reflect in our treatment. But I would argue that the vast majority of parents who seem not to grasp the gravity of their children’s delays a) actually do grasp the delay (they’re not stupid) and b) just don’t have the emotional wherewithal to go attack the problem (or to attack it in ways professionals would deem appropriate/acceptable).

So what can we do in these situations? We should be empathetic, yes, but our job is to help parents help their children with hearing loss learn to communicate. We can’t just throw up our hands and say, “Well, you’ve got a lot stacked against you, so let’s just let language slide.” The long-term neurological, educational, and social consequences of giving up are just too great. It’s also not our job as communication disorders professionals to be all things to all people. We are not psychologists, social workers, food bank operators, or rehabilitation centers, and we shouldn’t pretend to be. But we absolutely should know of these types of professionals and resources in our community and share that information with families who may be fighting those particular kinds of “fires.” To take. the fire analogy further, we need to fight it on multiple fronts: connecting the family to resources that might help extinguish some of the other fires in their lives, crafting our intervention so that it fits seamlessly into their daily routines and is not adding another fire to their list, and helping children and families build resilience so that they can be truly fireproof.

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