Denial River

Nile

I have VERY strong feelings about denial—and no, I don’t mean the river in Egypt (lol, puns).

In as ~gentle~ of a way that I can, I try explaining to my clients’ families that denial only serves as a temporary band-aid, a fake escape from whatever might be unveiling before them. Parents and families with kids who have special needs may be in denial about their kids’ capabilities at present, their kids’ capabilities in the future, MY capabilities about what I can do about their kids’ capabilities in the future, and other such concerns.

I love Olivia Pope’s wardrobe, but no, I’m not that kind of “fixer.” Oh, but can I get her white coat though??

At my core, however, I’m afraid of denial.  It’s a tempting lull into a false reality where we can convince ourselves of anything! We can convince ourselves that what matters to us or our children no longer does. We can convince ourselves that the world has stopped to allow us to wallow in some discomfort.

Every day, I walk into situations full of denial. Families resist and refuse to make changes in their home environment because their kids should just know what the rules are. They convince themselves it’s their kid who’s the problem, denying their own roles in shaping future behavior. It’s denial that continues spurring this whole anti-vaccination nonsense!

“Jackie, do you believe this whole vaccination conspiracy theory thing?”

“Omg that’s just ridiculous. I can’t believe there are people out there who believe it.”

“THANK YOU! It’s so refreshing to hear a behaviorist say that vaccines cause autism.”

“Wait, wait oh no, wait WHAT??”

“This anti-vaccine conspiracy theory is crazy.”

“Wait, oh no, vaccines DON’T cause autism. Ohemgee, um, your kid’s not vaccinated? HE COULD DIE OF MEASLES!”

“But you work with autistic kids, you know. Kids could get autism.”

“THEY COULD DIE OF MEASLES AND BE DEAD, THOUGH.”

I’m constantly asked by new clients’ parents if I have any kids myself. UGH I hate that question! If I DID have my own kids, they’d be completely different! They wouldn’t mirror what’s going on with their kids, so as a comparison sample, they’d be shaky at best. But because I DON’T have my own kids (they laugh and say, no, my cats don’t count, whatever), I’m seen as some twentysomething Millennial who thinks she can just come in to their house and tell them what to do.

But I am, though.

I AM a twentysomething, a Millennial who came of age in the 2000s, who studied herself into the wee hours of many mornings, who earned the degrees and completed the trainings that mean, yes, I can tell them what to do. Because I study behavior. Because I’m not in denial about what behavior patterns look like, what they can predict and tell us about future behavior patterns.

Does this make it hard to do my job sometimes? Duh. Parents don’t like being told how to parent—go figure. But I’ve had to check myself on the resistance these parents initially show me.

I’ve been asked by many professors and other clients, how do I address parents’ denial? There’s no set way, but the first thing any behaviorist must understand is that the denial is a symptom of underlying emotional conflicts. The parents didn’t just wake up one morning and decide, “I’m going to make myself think that my 13-year-old child, who can’t use more than 10 words to communicate, will graduate from medical school!”

Behaviorists can get sticks up our butts when it comes to the emotional conflicts underlying many families’ issues. We ourselves can get into our own denial, thinking that the world turns in the same logical, behavioral equations as the ones we use in intervention plans. That’s something I’ve tried imparting to the therapists on my teams—the training and mindset that enable us to see patterns in people’s behavior is trained. It’s not innate, and it CERTAINLY isn’t as simple when one’s own child is thrown in the mix.

Professionals in our field need to remember that denial is simply a coping mechanism against the harsh realities of what their lives and their loved ones’ lives suddenly become. Denial is absolutely dangerous to a child and family’s progress, but the onus also lies with us professionals. When we create such binary worlds for these families, with stark and sharp realities harsh and cold, families’ defaults will be a retreat into something that doesn’t hurt to the touch. And then professionals complain that families won’t meet them halfway—but have WE met the family halfway? Or did we draw a black-and-white picture, a stoic portrait of a devoid future because, well, it’s easier for us that way?

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