Please Stop Describing SEND Parents As Anxious

It is time to stop describing SEND parents as “Anxious”.

All too often we hear or read statements where the parent of a child with special educational needs or disabilities (SEND) is 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 to experience some 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 SEND parents are naturally and understandably worried and concerned about their child’s difficulties. All parents of children with disabilities remain “on alert”. It is a natural and instinctive response for SEND parents to have and it is developed so that parents can become fully attuned with their child and their additional needs. When SEND parents are on alert it is a functional and adaptive response and it is necessary.

Parents of children with SEND will be able to provide numerous examples of how being on alert has prevented falls, injuries or a child experiencing higher levels of distress. When a SEND 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. These are normal developed responses that SEND parents have, in order to safeguard their child’s emotional and physical well being.

Attending most events; medical appointments, parks, social activities, is often very stressful. Lots of additional planning and support is needed and for parents this usually means never being able to fully relax. This can feel quite difficult for family and friends of SEND parents and in itself can lead to conflictual feelings.

The other beautiful facet in labelling SEND 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 of children with SEND less anxious?

In reality, present Fathers of children with SEND can be just as concerned and just as “on alert” as Mothers of children with SEND. However, in our culture there is great readiness to pathologize women and 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. These critical 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. And unless you have the professional training and qualifications required to diagnose someone with clinical anxiety, you do not have the expertise to comment on such matters.

The irony of all of this is that very often it is the systemic and societal battles that SEND parents have to endure, that ultimately take their toll on parents’ mental health. This is not due to the needs of their child or the challenges their child faces, but due to systemic failure to provide support and failure to withhold ill informed criticism and judgement.

So, if you have not walked for a week in the shoes of a SEND parent, please do not describe the way in which a SEND parent presents, or pass judgement on their style of parenting.

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By Jessica Matthews

Neurodivergent Mother, Independent Researcher, and Writer. Background in Psychology and Counselling with postgraduate training in Clinical Psychology (BSc Hons Psychology and Trained Integrative Counsellor). Passionate about Neurodivergent Identity, Non-neuronormative Narratives and Polyvagal Informed Parenting.

One reply on “Please Stop Describing SEND Parents 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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