The Best Way To Work Through Mom Guilt When Your Child Gets A Diagnosis

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Some diagnoses can come with challenging life experiences and challenging emotions. And the most challenging? Mom guilt.

I've had the privilege of working with literally hundreds of children and families living with some type of neurodiversity.

From learning disabilities, to ADHD, to autism, to severe anxiety disorders, children with neurodevelopmental diagnoses can experience significant struggles in their daily lives. And their parents struggle alongside them, especially their moms.

While it's true that fathers also experience huge feelings about the struggles that go with raising a child with special needs — including guilt — moms solely carry the often unspoken guilt about their children's prenatal development.

After all, their children's prenatal development happened inside their bodies.

RELATED: How To Stop Mom Guilt From Making You Feel Like A Terrible Mother

What causes mom guilt?

Just about everything and anything that you can imagine.

From the levels of stress they were under before, during, and after their pregnancy, to the feelings of frustration from trying to find parking on the way to their child's assessment appointment.

Did they not eat well enough? Should they not have exercised as much as they did? Should they have exercised more?

Did their grief about a previous miscarriage create a less-than-ideal emotional state? What about that one glass of wine they drank the week before they knew they were pregnant?

Or those fleeting thoughts about wishing that they had a little more time between pregnancies? Or their worries about finances or career or extended family or whatever else?

Should they have spent more time with their children in play? Or did they push too much?

They shouldn't have co-slept. Or they should have.

They shouldn't have breastfed. Or they should have.

They shouldn't have divorced. Or they should have.

If there's anything that even remotely could have contributed to their child's diagnosis, they'll worry, wonder, and feel guilty about it as they attempt to understand what might be at the root of their children's struggles.

The "theory" of "refrigerator mothers" — that "cold and aloof" parenting was the "cause" of Autism — doesn't help.

This widely discredited theory was most likely based on observations of mothers who were already emotionally and physically spent and in states of overwhelm, who were trying to seek help for their children.

And, in case you think that getting the diagnosis at the end of a lengthy assessment — something parents have to work long and hard to get — provides any relief, think again!  

The questions clinicians need to ask as part of the assessment process can highlight all the details of life, from prenatal development to the parking lot, and leave parents with confusion, self-doubt, and guilt.

So what do moms really need to address mom guilt?

The same thing we all need when we're working through difficult feelings.

Understanding. Validation. Empathy.

Parents don't need someone to tell them that they're wrong to feel guilty; to just set it aside, focus on the present, and move on; to be grateful for the opportunity to have the life they do.

No.

RELATED: The Worst Thing About Motherhood Is Also The Most Painful Thing To Admit

They need someone to tell them that they understand how they might be second-guessing themselves and feel the way they do — guilt and all.

Mom guilt doesn't come out of nowhere. 

Given how painful it is to watch their much-loved child struggle. Given how hard their family's journey has been. Given how much they've given of themselves to meet their child's needs.

Because it's been hard. Because so many things can and do go wrong. Because it's not fair.

And that it wasn't their fault.

Why? Because everyone needs to be accepted and understood for the way they feel.

And that, despite those understandable feelings, they also need to hear from trusted others that they were not to blame in the great cosmic game of life for those struggles.

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Autism, ADHD, and other developmental conditions have many causes.

Researchers have been working for decades to try to identify and understand them, but there are still no clear, definitive answers. Genetics, epigenetics, and environmental toxins are certainly providing some new ideas, but the results are not definitive.

So the work continues.

But the one thing they do know for certain is that parents are instrumental in optimizing children's development — whether or not their child has a developmental diagnosis.

So, if you're a mother of a child with a developmental diagnosis and are struggling with feelings of guilt, talk to someone you know, like, and trust.

Someone who cares about you and can offer you the empathy you need and deserve. Depending on your situation, that may mean joining a support group or working with a therapist.

Whatever you choose, remember that you deserve to be able to work through and let go of feelings of guilt. Not just because it wasn't your fault, but because your children need this too.

Your children need you to be able to experience joy and delight and peace of mind with them in the here and now and in the years to come.

Feelings of guilt will only rob you and your children of this precious opportunity.

If you're someone who cares about a family who is raising a child with a developmental diagnosis, you now know what you can do. Be open-minded and open-hearted.

Really listen, understand, validate, empathize, and then reassure.

Parents deserve compassion.

RELATED: 3 Simple Tips For Parenting A Child With ADHD (When You Have ADHD, Too!)

Judith Pinto is a Registered Occupational Therapist in Alberta, Canada. The focus of her clinical practice is integrative mental health and psychotherapy for neurodiverse children, families and adults. Learn more about her work by attending the upcoming (FREE) Empowering Autism Summit.