Red Flags

Years ago, when Andy and I had a meeting with our child’s preschool teachers, I remember sitting around the little table meant for Playdough and snack-time and the preschool director saying something about certain behaviors being “red flags.”

I had walked in expecting to hear something like, “his crayon scribbles are really creative” or “he really likes hanging on the climbing structure.”  To be honest, to this day I can’t really recall what the “red flag” was a “red flag” for, just that there was a “red flag,” and that this made me feel woozy, and sad, and worried, and inadequate.

A red flag that made my inner Ferdinand just want to sit and smell the flowers; a red flag that made me swoon with fears about having already messed up my kid, maybe by being a therapist, maybe by giving bad genes.  I’ve worked with so many parents by now that I’m more calm to know that we almost ALL seem to have these worries to some degree or other.

I have since worked with many families dealing with children across the range of anxiety, OCD, ADD and ADHD (on through LMNOP), autism, Downs, depression, learning differences, etc. etc., but one thing I have always kept in mind is that parents are not just hearing facts about their children (or, more accurately, opinions), but parents are also having feelings about these things, strong, heart-felt, sometimes heart broken feelings.

My point about “red flags” is two-fold:  firstly, that we want teachers and specialists to notice things and alert us early, because small interventions and bits of assistance early-on can make huge differences for kids later on; but secondly, that we parents must keep in mind that many skilled specialists and experienced educators can at times be “right,” yet also be lacking in bedside manner.

I think that there are several reasons for what I would consider empathic lapses in these raise the red flag sorts of moments.  For one, experienced educators are so used to a range of issues that saying that a child has a red flag for a learning difference or a socialization issue is like a pediatrician saying, “It’s a low grade infection.”  Yet when it’s our baby, we so want nothing ever to be “wrong” with them that it pierces us to hear anything potentially negative, especially when our kids are so young, especially with first children.

Another trend that sometimes appears is the specialist who has no children, now I have known some who are incredibly sensitive to the feelings of parents; but others can be a little clueless about what it actually feels like to have kids, especially to worry about kids—from that spiked fever, to that alarming cough, to that biting incident at school or the toilet training drama that gets a bit late into “normal” development.

Yet another empathic lapse I’ve seen is where specialists may be unconsciously aggressive toward some parents… only for me to later learn that their own child had the exact issue at hand.  Unresolved guilt, anger and sorrow of their own experiences seemed to unexpectedly show up in the form of coldness, harshness or lack of empathy when a particular case hit a raw and all too familiar nerve.  Sometimes, it seems, as with certain autism-spectrum disorders, that a specialist himself or herself may have a touch of the very difference they are so adept at recognizing and even treating… but not necessarily in meshing with the “normal” parents of the child in question.

In sum, we parents want to get straight talk from the experienced educators and specialists who encounter our kids—and thus my point with my words here is to either front-load compassion into whatever you will hear about your child in the future, encouraging you to stay open and trusting that this is how we can provide children with optimal learning and growth environments, or else by way of these words to add some compassion into the painful things that you have already heard in the past, sloppily or carelessly delivered by well-meaning (or even not so well-meaning) experts, educators and/or specialists.

So, let’s dedicate today to putting compassion into our words, to thinking about not just what they mean, but how they might feel to those who receive them—striving to be brave, involved, pro-active and effective, and also kind—in the service of all our collective children.

Namaste, Bruce

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7 Responses to “Red Flags”

  1. Lindsey Says:

    I’m so glad to read this today, Bruce. I had a teacher conference this week about my son & found some of the teachers’ comments to be slightly careless. I think they realized this as the next day one of them hurried over to me and corrected herself … But thr damage was done. I don’t know what it says that my first reaction was to think this exchange said more about the school than about my son.
    But you’re so right – a little caution & compassion would go a long way. I’ve had similar experiences with doctors. Particularly in my second pregnancy. Astonishing to me, still, that someone who chooses high risk ob as a field could have such an utter lack of (or, seemingly, interest in!) empathy.

    • privilegeofparenting Says:

      Sometimes it helps to consider the possibility that others who are unconscious (or afraid of affect) have an uncanny way of giving their feelings to others. I have seen this lead to systemic pathology when the head of a school, company or other organization actually needs that organization to hold their pain (or pathology) for them.

  2. BigLittleWolf Says:

    Incredibly informative. Wish I’d had this perspective years ago. Thankfully, I always took those “red flag proclamations” with a grain of salt, and as opinion to be factored into what I felt and observed as a parent.

    Some are legit red flags; others are observations based on a norm that is only that – a standard measure, no more, no less. And just one more piece of data that we take in, and put into a broader context.

    I think the “clueless because they aren’t parents” issue is significant.

    Illuminating post, Bruce.

  3. aa Says:

    Sometimes it is difficult to remember things that you don’t particularly want to remember or hear. What our son Nate proclaimed is that he was going to blow-up the school with his Power Rangers. Bruce and I were simultaneously disturbed and holding back the chuckles. I mean it was truly funny. But, looking back I do think it was an indication of deep feelings that were difficult to express and Nate expressed them the best way he could–he didn’t like being there, wanted to go home and wanted some sense of power over his situation–call in the Rangers. Cut to 10 years later and he still sometimes bubbles with uncomfortable feelings at school, yet he often denies them. Luckily his language and self-knowledge are as such that eventually he quite eloquently describes his mental state.

  4. Lindsey M Nelson Says:

    My three year old twins have speech and language delay and are also very spirited little guys. I am very sensitive, they are both very sensitive, needless to say the whole evaluation and treatment process was very painful for me and seemed to be for them as well. And because I practice attachment parenting, other aspects of my life came under the scrutiny of these professionals as well. We strive to parent without using punishment, rewards, or praise and the styles of the professionals clashed with that.

    Most of the people we worked with did not have children.

    I almost never felt that my intimate knowledge of my sons or my instincts regarding them were ever respected or taken into account. I was never treated like I was the expert on my children.

    After a year of speech therapy and not a huge amount of progress, we were transitioned out of early start and had to cease receiving speech therapy while we waited for services from the school district to begin. In those short weeks, when the pressure was off, my sons made more progress than they had in months of therapy. And when we started services through the school district, the therapist said that my older twin was “just lazy”. And of course, she said it right in front of him.

    We have stopped services and my kids are coming along just fine. We plan to keep them at home for school because I can’t bear the thought of them receiving this kind of disrespectful treatment anymore.

    • Stephanie Says:

      Hey there Lindsey,

      I just wanted to write that what you went through sounds horrible and when my son was three I was so concerned about it I started doing a documentary about the state of the school system.

      And I remember Bruce telling me that finding the right school seems to happen – and that was exactly what happened, we got really lucky to get a school just right for our boy where students are treated respectfully and where what you describe would never happen.

      I just want to encourage you because I love the school and the families there and it has been so important to all of us in the family to be a part of it, and there might be a place like that for you guys too.

      Keep the faith!


      Stephanie H.

    • Sue Says:


      I have experienced a similar thing, Lindsey, with the early start program – the implied judgements on your parenting and how that might relate to my child’s skills. My son was delayed in gross motor, then fine motor, then speech. Both he and I are also very sensitive and I SO often have instincts about what he wants or needs that I can’t explain, just because I “get” him.

      My achilles heel was that I am a working mom, so I wasn’t there all the time for my son. I worried that I would be judged for that, and also for being overweight and not active enough with my son. Luckily, either I had a consultant who agreed with my parenting style, or one who was very wise about how she talked to parents. She praised the very aspects of my parenting that I was proud of, often enough that sometimes I wondered if she was just encouraging me as a way to get even more cooperation and results. It didn’t really matter; praise feels good and I looked forward to working with her and implementing her suggestions.

      If only everyone had the wisdom and self-awareness to practice the adage that you catch more bees with honey than vinegar. I’m sorry your experience was not good. Mine has been as good as the practitioners working with us could make it; there was sorrow and fear and still some mourning for our first and only child who has more challenges than we would have wished for. But somehow (self-preservation?) I have been able to look at the bright side through most of it. My son has had a very rich first 3 years, full of wonderful people and many many activities. He got our full focus as much as possible because we knew he needed it. I was a hesitant mom and I think this was partly the universe’s way of giving me what I needed – a child who would need me just enough to make me bond tightly with him. I have documented every step of our journey, our highs and lows, in his scrapbook because it is part of his story and what has made him who he is. If I ever find time I might actually write a book about it someday.

      Good luck with your sons! I think there is a little bit of nature’s timing in all this – it could be that they started talking when they were ready, as well as when they were comfortable – with you. My son certainly seemed to blossom at a certain time and there isn’t a whole lot of explanation for when it started. It just did. Don’t twins often speak late anyway? Boys, too.

      I also agree with Stephanie (and Bruce) about the “right” school just appearing. I hadn’t thought of it that way before, but that is basically what happened with my son at his IEP last fall. I never would have predicted we would end up at the school he is at and be so happy with it, but that is how things worked out. Just keep trusting your instincts. I firmly believe that will make you the best mom you can be for your sons.


      P.S. Awesome post, Bruce!

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