Why Parents Must Never Make Assumptions

When our kids are non-verbal and unable to ask questions, it is easy to forget how much—or how little—they understand what is being said around them. It’s so important we check with them about what they understand!

Sometimes they know more than we think.


My daughter and I were talking about a specialty medical appointment she had a couple weeks ago. She liked the doctor and laughed at his jokes, but she seemed distressed after the meeting.

The doctor had mentioned that we need to have her brain scanned to rule out the possibility that my daughter might have a brain tumor. Not surprisingly, this bit of information was upsetting to her.

I don’t think the doctor realized she knew about brain tumors. I didn’t imagine she would know much about them either, nor did I expect the possibility to come up during the appointment so I could prepare her. But it turns out that she does know that they can be very serious, and the idea she could have one frightened her. Who knows where she’s heard about brain tumors? Who knows what knowledge or misconceptions she might have about them?

We talked and I tried to reassure her; she seems to feel more relaxed about things now.

But her reaction was a good reminder to me that our kids just might understand things we don’t expect them too.

At the same time, gaps in our kids’ experience may limit the understanding they have. Remember that the inability to ask clarifying questions is a HUGE limit to experience, too.

This means we must explore misconceptions our kids might hold...even when they don’t have the ability to put these misunderstandings or questions into words.

This is tricky, both for parents and professionals. We have to explain so that a child’s understanding is accurate and complete, yet without belittling what information the child may already have. It’s a delicate balance.

It isn’t like we can say “Tell me what you know about _____,” as we might with verbal children, when our kids have little or no expressive language. This is equally difficult if their ability to express themselves is limited to the choices we offer as “expression.” In fact, offering choices might actually add to their confusion and misconceptions.

So what can we do to promote understanding and expression?

Here’s what I can come up with; I’d love for you to add on your thoughts in the comments:

1. Presume your child may know more than you think. Many kids are sponges, picking up information from all around them. They hear things at school, on television, in stories...and you can’t be everywhere they’ve been to know what they’ve heard in these places. They may know just enough to have lots of questions and fears.

2. Add background knowledge. Sure, your child may have been exposed to an idea, but we don’t know if their understanding is complete. If they can’t ask questions, we need to provide answers to those questions they can’t articulate.

3. Keep information appropriate to your child’s level of understanding. When in doubt, consider what their age-mates would want to know and keep your information geared to that level.

4. Be truthful about your own fears. Can you imagine how lonely it would be to think you are the only person in the world experiencing a particular fear? By letting our kids know that we are afraid—but will be strong for them—then they know they aren’t alone.

5. Revisit sensitive topics. Sometimes more questions come up in time. We don’t have to beat an idea to death, but it’s good to ask our kids if they have any new questions or fears. I plan to go over the new concerns my daughter may develop as the date for her brain scan gets closer.

Do you agree that it is important for other adults in our kids' lives to refrain from making assumptions about what and how much our children understand? We (and I speak in the inclusive "we," meaning educational and medical professionals as well as parents) are in a position to educate them by example.

Thanks for reading, and thanks for your prayers for my daughter’s health. Not only do I look forward to health improvements for her sake, but also so I can get back to blogging more often. I really miss spending time with you here.



Anonymous said...

You cover both sides of the issue well, Rose-Marie. I'm sure many parents struggle with this and some have no means to resolve the information gap. But your recommendations are solid for speaking to a non-verbal child.


Junior said...

excellent post, we have had troubles with doctors speaking without realizing that Junior understands much of what they are saying, then they can't figure out why he starts to cry or get upset.

thanks so much for the suggestion about markers for the lightbox. I just ordered some to try.

Lauren said...

Hi Rose Marie! This is Lauren Cramer from NWRSF. Can you send me an email with your address? I think we must have it wrong because your Christmas card was returned. The email is nwrettsyndrome[at]gmail[dot]com.


Jennifer said...

I really love your blog! You really bring things to a new light. I would like to nominate you for the Liebster Award. Jump over to my page to grab the button and read the instructions.

Shane Knight said...

Thanks for the great share really like it the way you say the things and encourage all of us