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Parent Advocate: Checking YOUR Baggage at the Door

When we first become parents, we cannot help but reflect on our own childhood. It is, after all, our only real frame of reference. We remember all the happy times and look forward to continuing those traditions or sharing similar experiences with our children. We also recall our more painful and unpleasant experiences, our mistakes and regrets (come on, we all have them) and silently vow to never let such things happen to our kids. This is just some of the "baggage" all parents carry with them.

As our children grow, we tend to see more and more of ourselves in them. At first, it's physical characteristics like eye color or a crooked smile. Later, other inherited traits begin to manifest; some positive, some not so positive. Your daughter may share your wry sense of humor as well as your poor body image. Your son may have your musical ability and your temper. We see our children react to situations in eerily familiar ways and say to ourselves, "Yep, That's my child alright." We identify with them and their experiences as we are reminded of similar experiences we had growing up. There is a danger, however, in over-identifying with our children. If we have unresolved issues, for example, arising from painful childhood experiences, we can unwittingly project those negative feelings onto our children. Parents may become over protective or overly defensive of their children as they subconsciously try to right the wrongs of their own past. More baggage! This can be especially true if the child has a disability.

A parent's response to learning a child has a disability can vary depending on many factors, some of which include the severity of the disability, whether one or both parents have a disability and the parent's perception or understanding of the disability. Some parents may experience feelings of anger or resentment, anxiety or fear over their child's future, panic or confusion. In my experience, the one response we all seem to share on some level is guilt. What did we do wrong? Is there something more we could have done? No matter what parents initial responses are, they are usually accompanied by an overwhelming need to fix it or make things better for their children. That baggage beginning to feel a little heavy? We all want to protect our children but we also want them to have as full a life as they possibly can. This includes an appropriate education. Enter the Parent Advocate.

In order to effectively advocate for our children, as parents we must not allow our emotions to get the better of us. That means when meeting with school personnel, leaving our baggage at the door. It isn't easy. I say that not as a casual observer but as a parent who has literally been there and done that. I would see my children struggling with things like peer relationships, attention problems and bullying, things I too had struggled with as a child and I would be filled with emotions. It took me a while to realize that leading with my emotions clouded my judgment. I became vulnerable. I would storm into meetings and make demands and point fingers and accomplish little, if anything. I would walk out of the meeting and spend the next hour (or week) kicking myself for agreeing to services or supports I knew were either inappropriate or inadequate.

What is the best way to keep your emotions in check? I may sound like a broken record but the answer is to PREPARE. We can't stop having emotional responses to our children's struggles but we can stop acting on them. When a problem arises, don't storm into the front office guns blazing. Instead, take some time to let your initial reaction settle. If you feel the need to vent, call a friend or contact a support group. Then, examine the problem rationally. Formulate a plan to address it. Request a meeting. Gather all the facts and information you can. Write down the key points and questions you want to raise. When the meeting starts, stick to the plan. To secure the supports and services your child needs will require the school's cooperation. You are much more likely to get that if you are in control.

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