Wediko Blog

Resistant parents or “Warrior heroes?” New research helps schools and counselors understand family reactions

Posted in: Blog, Press & Publications, School counseling  |  By:  | 

Amy C. Sousa, Ph.D.Amy C. Sousa, Ph.D.

Wediko Children’s Services is proud to highlight the accomplishments of our Executive Director, Dr. Amy C. Sousa, for her recent publication in Disability Studies Quarterly. Her article, “Crying Doesn’t Work: Emotion and Parental Involvement of Working Class Mothers Raising Children with Developmental Disabilities,” analyzes in-depth interviews with low-income mothers, raising children with significant developmental struggles.

Dr. Sousa’s article sheds light on the varying interactions between these mothers and the institutions they rely on to provide service for their students. She reveals how income and emotionality inform family reactions to school demands.

To learn more about how the findings relate to the families Wediko serves, I sat down with Terry Landon, LICSW, a senior clinician and consultant for Wediko’s School-Based Program.

Terry Landon, LICSWTerry Landon, LICSW

Q: To start, what was your initial reaction after reading Dr. Sousa’s article?
A: I think the article really shines a spotlight on the complex and contentious relationships between school districts and parents with regard to meeting student need. What Amy emphasizes is the exact reason why Wediko started our group therapy program for mothers. There can be a real panic on the part of parents when they get a phone call from the school. For these mothers, a call from the school can feel antagonistic. This article beautifully offers categories and a richer and deeper understanding of the parental responses. For example, where a school or layperson may see an overly aggressive parent, Amy counters with the “warrior hero persona.”

Q: The article was based on ethnographic interview data from three specific mothers. How does this model serve to communicate the state of mothers raising children with developmental disabilities?
A: This model was a phenomenal way to get right to the source. The in-depth interview component served to value the parent experience without pathologizing it. This model helps to explore the ‘why’ regarding the reactions seen from these mothers. Given the model utilized, the article becomes even more useful to agencies and schools in terms of understanding why parents are employing the strategies they are. To call these women resistant is ridiculous. They won’t cooperate the way that schools think they should and get labeled resistant or aggressive or negligent. Amy’s point is that there is a definite coping strategy underlying parent response patterns. This underlies Wediko’s clinical model, which strives to provide partnership between two separate entities both looking for a student’s best option.

Q: You mentioned the connection between Wediko’s model and the struggles this article emphasizes. Can you elaborate on Wediko’s role in this difficult process?
A: On an organization-wide level, Wediko works to facilitate understanding of parents’ perspectives: their vision, their understanding of the child’s difficulties and strengths, and their interpretation of their child’s behavior. Regarding the group clinical services Wediko provides, Amy’s article did a great job of articulating the different ways to engage with parents of children with developmental disabilities. When the school is blunt about ways in which a student isn’t doing the right thing, it often feels to parents as though the school doesn’t like their child and further reminds them of future difficulties for their child. Wediko creates a shared language and culture for discussing the child’s care, including children’s strengths, challenges, and passions.

Q: This article focuses specifically on the distinction between families in middle and lower economic classes. What additional challenges arise for lower income or “working class” mothers raising students with disabilities?
A: First, pressure comes from all directions for these parents. There is a decrease in social supports, which leads to an inherent reliance on state agencies. Along with that, the lives of these parents are often so stressful that their responses to schools and other institutions are simply reactive.

Wediko serves families who are upper, middle, and working class as well as families well below the poverty line. Impoverished parents face lower levels of education, coupled with potential issues of their own from school. So, they’re in the “I won’t let my child struggle the way I did” phase. Some may call them combative or resistant. We think of them as being vociferous.

Q: There is a duality referenced in the article regarding parents’ engagement with systems like schools. Can you help explain these potentially contradicting styles?
A: What we all have to understand is that, too often, these parents are off balance all the time. Their child’s IEP (Individualized Education Program) may be structured but much about the child’s school day is reactionary. When the school’s goals or outcomes for a student don’t seem to match the parent’s goals or outcomes, the parent loses feelings of shared understanding. They feel like the school is only focusing on the failures. That said, these are the same systems on which parents depend if their children are going to get the help they need. From this, there is an emotional investment in these bureaucracies as well. The contradiction can feel impossible to navigate.

Q: The article is called “Crying Doesn’t Work.” Why is this title effective?
A: It’s a cautionary tale. Displaying the raw emotion that reflects your real levels of distress is not useful and doesn’t help your child’s case. Dealing with institutions that focus exclusively in information means emotion doesn’t help. Also, it isn’t enough. For reactionary parents, fear can quickly convert to anger. Joy, one of the three women featured, emphasizes using emotion as a drive to learn. This is the basis of Wediko’s Getting It Together group: seeking to provide women with constructive outlets for their understandable emotional reactions.

Q:What do readers learn from these women’s stories?
A: You learn that we each develop our own style of interaction, based on goals, strengths, and previous experiences. Schools want parents to nod their heads, and often parents of typically developing children do exactly that because their child isn’t experiencing difficulties. When the frequency of communication between schools and parents increases, a different style of interaction emerges. Hearing the stories that Amy so gloriously tells in this article, you are able to zoom out from the idea of a parent not fulfilling school duties and suddenly the context makes sense. These in-depth stories create a shared appreciation for what’s best for the child.

Q: What are the major takeaways from this article?
A: Understanding that parental styles with schools are different for a reason. These parents aren’t simply resistant; this is the way they function. It is import to see their interactions, not as withdrawal or aggression, but rather as coping strategies for more complex issues than the schools or other institutions may be aware. Also, the article provides an institutional perspective. It helps provide understanding of how parental styles evolve and how schools can enhance the supports given to families.

Dr. Sousa’s article, “Crying Doesn’t Work,” is not only a reflection on the level of compassion seen in every level of Wediko leadership, it is an indication of Wediko’s unyielding determination to provide the highest quality care to all children. It also reflects Wediko’s commitment to provide parents with the skills necessary to continue a lifetime of advocating for their child. Wediko is proud of Dr. Sousa’s work, and gratified to participate in creating positive change for families of all income levels.

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