It’s inevitable: If you’re a strong advocate for your child, you’re eventually going to clash with someone. It might be a teacher, the principal, or even your spouse.

The complexity, emotions, and energy involved in parenting a child with special needs can take a toll on you and your relationships with others. So it’s natural that misunderstandings and conflict will happen at some point.

We surveyed parents of children with learning and attention problems about conflict in their lives. More than a thousand responded to our survey, providing tried-and-true tips for dealing with discord.

You’re probably familiar with some of the advice that follows — and you may be using many of the strategies described. Yet, if you’re like most of us, you will benefit from frequent reminders to help you stay on track. And you might pick up some new ideas or insights to add to your relationship repertoire.

Savvy strategies to prevent conflict

The best way to handle conflict is to avoid it in the first place. We asked parents for tips for advocating in a way that encourages cooperation from their child’s team, rather than consternation.

Parents answered:

  • Be prepared and be clear about your objective. Have evidence to illustrate why your child needs help. Give specific, concrete examples (of both the difficulty and the solutions).
  • Have as much up-to-date data (testing, letters from professionals, teachers’ statements) on your child before going into the meeting.
  • Know what you and your child are (and are not) legally entitled to. Know the laws of IDEA and use them.
  • Acknowledge whatever support the other person (such as the teacher) does give your child. Be respectful and empathetic; try to understand their perspective and challenges. “Let [teachers] realize that you understand the struggles involved with teaching, because you know how tough it is [to help your child] at home. Ask the teacher how you can support her,” said Anne from Michigan.
  •  Be a team player; offer to do your part to help your child at home, and follow through. “Doing our share of the work … we follow our part of the IEP plan, make sure homework is completed, and attend IEP meetings,” said Karen from Oklahoma.
  • When you disagree, “find a piece you do agree with, or a piece you can positively acknowledge in some way,” advised Teresa from Maryland.
  •  Make the relationship about more than just your child’s problems. Get to know the parties involved in other types of situations (for example, by volunteering at the school).
  •  Keep your emotions in check; don’t make it personal. When upset, “I try to slow down my ‘short fuse’ and rethink the situation,” said Cricket, a mother from California.
  • When all else fails, hire a professional (an advocate, attorney, etc.) to help you represent your child and his or her needs. At the very least, take someone (such as your spouse or a friend) with you to meetings.

Resolving conflict and restoring relationships

If all your attempts at avoiding problems fail — which, at some point, is bound to happen — try these parent tips on restoring your relationship with the team.

Parents answered:

  • Allow for a cooling-off period.
  • Apologize and admit to your role in the conflict. “The best thing to do is apologize. If there is nothing to apologize for, then apologize for a breakdown in communication,” said Stacey from California.
  • Wipe the slate clean and then focus on facts, not feelings. “Remember that you don’t have to like someone to have a working relationship with him,” advised Cheryl from California.
  • Communicate in person, and be sure to listen.
  • Enlist a mediator or an advocate. A lawyer or advocate can help write a proper IEP and establish a level playing field. A mediator can help with the healing.

Building a support system 

No one should walk this path alone. Having support is the key to managing the myriad practical and emotional details that being an advocate entails, parents said.

We asked parents who they turn to when they clash with a member of their child’s team. The vast majority said they get support from their family (with lots of shout-outs to spouses) and friends. Others turn to fellow parents of kids with special needs, and around the same number rely on a therapist. Another great source of support and information, many parents reported, is books and websites.

Learn from your experiences

We asked parents about the one thing they wish they’d known when they first started advocating for their child. The number one response was: Trust your instincts! “When I listen to my gut, I know I will always be my child’s best advocate,” said one mom. Other parents said they wished they’d been better versed in the law and in their child’s specific disability.

“Don’t be intimidated by authority figures,” said another parent, while several wished they’d known more to “document, document, document.” Last of all, one parent offered this advice to newcomers: “Be prepared for a long, hard journey. Develop patience and persistence.”

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