Making Merry When Joy is Elusive

Earlier in December I had the wonderful opportunity to attend the National Training Institute of Zero to Three – an amazing organization that “provides parents, professionals and policymakers the knowledge and know-how to nurture early development” (www.zerotothree.org). There was an incredible display of expertise and action and it was so invigorating to be a part of it. Speaker after speaker drove home the point that good developmental outcomes are built on good, solid early relationships. Most interesting to me were the reports by neuroscientists about the biological and neurological underpinnings supporting the critical need for bonding and nurturing in the early years.
The one thing that rattled me though, was to walk outside of the conference center to blue skies, ocean swells and palm trees covered with Christmas lights. Being from the North, I never could rectify the idea of Christmas and summer-like weather. How could everyone be so nonchalant about Santa in a bathing suit while I felt so weird and out-of-touch? How come nobody else noticed that something was just not right?

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Fast forward to the next week, going back to the therapeutic preschool where I work as a music therapist. The school had made plans for a ‘Holiday Party’ and invited families to come in for the day to celebrate with their little ones. The hustle and bustle of the holidays is often a whirlwind for typical children, but can be totally overwhelming for our kids with developmental disabilities and autism. Partying within the safe confines of our school gives them a chance within the familiar structure to experience some of the holiday without too much stress. Of course, one of the biggest parts of the day is the family sing-a-long. We do songs and instruments that the children already know and we invite the parents, grandparents and siblings to join along. The children seem so excited to share their music with Mom or Dad, and they look toward them with the spoken or unspoken command to ‘sing along’.
As I sat up front, though, and looked at the sea of little and grownup faces, I couldn’t help but linger on those few grownups (mostly Moms) that had that same look that I must have had on my face when seeing the Christmas displays on the beach. The look said ‘Why do I feel so weird and out of touch? Why is everyone else so joyful and merry when I am just not feeling it?’ These are just the parents and caregivers that I had been learning about at the Zero to Three conference. The ones that wanted to be a good Mom or Dad, but just couldn’t find the energy or resolve to respond to their child with joy and happiness. Those are the grownups I know I need to reach out to if I really want to help their child.

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So my resolve for the New Year is to work harder at including the entire family system into my work with young children. Here are some thoughts that I hope will guide me and perhaps will help you in your practice.

Understanding the Disconnect

There are many reasons why a disconnect happens between parents and children, especially those with disabilities. Here are a few:

Depression

Maternal depression is more common than you might realize and makes it difficult or maybe impossible for Moms to pick up on and respond to the signals of their child.

Denial

Diagnosis of developmental disabilities is often a long, drawn-out process. Many of the signature symptoms don’t manifest until later. Some parents deny that a problem exists. Holding on to that denial is often exhausting and the work it takes to keep it up prevents parents from responding to their child.

Disappointment

We live in a society that values achievement and success. Sometimes having a child with a disability feels like a failure. The feeling of failure can become overwhelming and can block a parent from being able to respond to their child’s strengths and positive personality.

What Can I Do to Help?

Again there is much that we can do to help parents. A few things to keep in mind:

Recognize

Learn to recognize the signs of depression. Understand from a parent’s perspective the challenges that they face every day. Know how those struggles impact how they respond to their child or to you.

Relate

Although my job is to help the child, I can go a long way in helping the child by creating a relationship with the child’s parent. Reach out to parents as people and work to show respect and understanding.

Refer

As professionals, we have access to information about available services in the community that can help parents. Once you have created a relationship with a parent who might be struggling, share information on resources.




What does any of this have to do with music? Well, within music we can give parents an opportunity to be in a safe environment; to learn simple ways to play with their child in a way that all can respond to; and we can use music to create a respectful and mutual relationship.
Thanks for taking to time to think about being ‘ in’ and ‘out’ of touch in this holiday season.
Beth