What does denial look like when a parent learns of a child’s diagnosis?
Denial is a typical initial reaction for parents who learn of a child's diagnosis. It may show up in the classroom setting when a parent says things such as,
- This is not true.
- My child does not have autism.
- I do not believe the diagnosis.
- I do not believe the doctors.
- This is not happening to my child.
- This is not happening to us.
- Not me, not my child.
Sometimes during this stage, parents may go above and beyond what you would consider reasonable for additional evaluations. For example, they might have gotten a couple more evaluations after receiving the diagnosis. When you see parents going to great lengths, such as going to different states, different psychometrists, and evaluators to get a different diagnosis, then that may signal the parent is a bit in denial. Especially when the behavior being exhibited by the child indicates that, yes, this may be a pretty accurate and reliable diagnosis.
It is also critical to realize that many parents began the denial phase long before their child received a diagnosis. In this case, the diagnosis may further intensify this stage. You may hear a lot of parents who, when you attempt to provide your observational feedback to them, may say statements such as well, he does not do this at home. He does not do that at home. This behavior does not happen for me; he's completely different at home. Sometimes it may be difficult to tell whether or not the parent is actually stating a true reflection of what happens within the home or whether the parent is denying what is going on with their child.
One associated feeling many parents may go through during denial is avoidance. A parent may avoid you or avoid listening to what the child is doing in the classroom. They may avoid parent conferences, phone calls, and quick chats because they are not in the space to hear what is going on with the child.
Another associated feeling with denial is elation. Some parents may be the complete opposite of those in denial. Some parents may be elated to find out that they now have a diagnosis and can go on with their lives. They can get the treatments and interventions that their child needs to be successful. A lot of parents do find joy in finally getting that diagnosis.
Some parents are confused. Depending on the educational level of the parent, they may not understand what this means for them and their child. You may be able to see that with the parent when you are trying to explain certain things about the diagnosis or if they are trying to explain to you things that therapists are saying. They may be completely confused because no one has taken the time to clearly and effectively describe to them what the diagnosis means and what they should be doing to increase the odds of success for their child. Lastly, another associated feeling with denial is fear. Once some parents receive a diagnosis, they are afraid because they do not know what it means or what the future holds for them.
This Ask the Expert is an excerpt from the course, Perspective-Taking: Understanding Challenges, Fears and Joys of Parents of Children with Special Needs, presented by Christy Jones-Hudson, MA, IMH-E®.