Please Stop Describing Parents of Neurodivergent Children, As Anxious

It is time to stop describing parents as “Anxious” each time they advocate for their childrens needs!

All too often we hear or read statements where the parent of a child with Neurodivergent nèeds has been labelled as “anxious”. Such statements can often be underpinned with judgemental and critical tones.

Too many professionals who are not qualified to do so, have a propensity for making observations of parents such as; “Johnny has difficulty with X and we also observed Mum displaying high levels of anxiety.”

Sadly these judgements are not made exclusively by professionals but can also extend to, equally unqualified, family and friends.

Anxiety is something we all feel when we are worried, tense or afraid. Anxiety is a natural human response when we perceive potential threat. All people feel anxious at times, but it is particularly common and understandable to experience anxiety while coping with stressful events.

There is not a single manual that defines anxiety as a flaw, an inability to cope, or a fault. Yet when SEND parents are referred to as anxious, a critical lens and tone is very often evident.

All parents are naturally and understandably worried and concerned about their child’s difficulties. All parents of children who have more frequent stress responses, or falls, or illnesses, remain “on alert”. It is a natural and instinctive response for parents to have and it is developed so that parents can become fully attuned with all of their child’s needs. When parents are on alert, it is a functional and adaptive response and it is necessary.

Parents of children described as having SEND will likely recount numerous examples of how being on alert has prevented falls, injuries or a child experiencing higher levels of distress.

When a parent steps in to deflect, distract or to simply offer their child a feeling of additional safety with their presence, there is always a good reason for them doing so. Very often the reason is to safeguard the child’s psychological and physiological wellbeing.

Attending medical appointments, parks, social activities, can often very stressful. Lots of additional planning and support is needed and for parents this usually means never being able to fully relax.

Another concern I have with labelling parents as anxious; is the gender factor. We rarely hear the phrase “Dad was observed as being particularly anxious”. Infact Dad’s words and Dad’s responses often seem to remain unreported and invisible.

But are Fathers less anxious?

In reality, present Fathers can be just as concerned and just as “on alert” as Mothers. However, in our culture there is greater propensity to pathologize women’s responses, and to judge women’s ‘mental health’ through a critical lens.

The gender stereotypes of women as fragile and vulnerable are unfortunately not as outdated as we may like to think. Outdated stereotypes still dominate narratives about parenting, especially in health and social care settings.

“Anxious” should not be used as an adjective with inbuilt criticism and judgement. Indeed, without the professional training and experience in making assessments about a person’s psychological wellbeing, is it appropriate for such judgements to be made at all?

The irony of all of this is that very often it is the systemic and societal battles that parents have to endure, that ultimately take their toll on their emotional wellbeing. Struggles often arise much less from any challenges their child faces, and much more in response to the systemic failures to provide support.

So, if you haven’t walked for a week in the shoes of a parent who is doing their very best to gain the support their child needs, before passing judgement on their wellbeing, ask yourself how might you fare if the roles were reversed.

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By Jessica Matthews

Writer, home educator and Autistic advocate, with specialisations in psychology, polyvagal theory, Autistic / neurodivergent wellbeing.
BACP Integrative therapist, Post Grad training in Clinical Psychology , BSC Psychology Hons degree.

One reply on “Please Stop Describing Parents of Neurodivergent Children, As Anxious”

[…] PDA was not only unrecognised within crucial services though, it was also relatively unheard of within the general population. Understanding of the very different set of needs and support required for people with PDA was very poor. This meant that all too often children with PDA were perceived as “naughty” and parents considered to be either lacking in discipline or “anxious”… […]


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