Words of Advice For Parents of Kids with Social Language Problems

Originally published September 2013

If I knew then what I know now.

When you first think about having babies, you wish for all the good things. 10 fingers, 10 toes, no third eye in the forehead—that kind of thing. But rarely do you think, especially with your first, “I hope he doesn’t have a speech disorder.”

Small things, I know, in light of so much we read about—and yes, it could be so much worse. I am blessed with three healthy kids, each insanely talented in their own special ways. But it’s been a road with my oldest, now a senior in high school. And had I known earlier about the existence of pragmatic language impairments, maybe I would have done things just a little differently.

A pragmatic language impairment (PLI) is simply put, the extreme difficulty or inability to understand verbal and physical cues in social language. Pronouns get flipped. Key words in conversation are missed. Body language is misinterpreted. Inference and the understanding of satire are out of reach. Organization in thought is difficult. Reading comprehension is low.

Try navigating high school and texting and social media with that on your back.

So here are just a few words of advice—whether you’re the parent of a kid with a PLI, or think you might be:

Ask your doctor about PLIs: It’s not for a lack of investigating that it’s just now I’m learning about PLI—an early speech delay has had my son in some sort of treatment or educational intervention since he was 2. It’s more often than not that PLI is missed or misdiagnosed as something else.

Find a social language group sooner than later: Finding social language groups for a teen is no small task, but there are a number of therapists and practices that work with younger kids, when, I guess, therapy makes a bigger difference.

Be patient. Patient with teachers, patient with your child’s friends, patient with the doctors, patient with your kid and patient with your spouse. Because at any given time, you are going to want to lose it with any one of these people. It’s so much easier for people to believe your kid just doesn’t get it. That they’re immature, rude or inappropriate. What they don’t understand is that your kid really is trying to say the right thing and act the right way, he or she just don’t know how to get their brain to say or do the right thing.

Communicate with your child’s team. Let the doctors know about tough times, share upsets and frustrations with teachers … keep everyone in the loop. The more teachers know about your child’s impairment, the more understanding he or she can be when a situation develops.

Be prepared for heartbreak. Watching your child struggle mightily trying to navigate the social network can be soul crushing. Getting the phone call from a parent when you find out there have been too many texts. Or the school because your child’s frustration boiled over into a nasty argument. Or when your child tries to invite someone to a dance and is turned down. For every social victory, there’ll be what feels like a thousand defeats. Buck up.

Find the gift. Maybe it’s just my own personal defense mechanism, but I love each of my kids for the gifts they bring into this world, and the lessons they teach me every day. The gift of my son’s challenges is this—it’s taught me patience (see above) along with empathy. It’s offered us more bonding time than I think any mother gets with her son—those hours spent studying together, working on homework, reading—and it’s given me a special appreciation for the little things, like watching him excel in art or march with his friends as part of the band. It’s the gift of a very sensitive soul, who is more worried about my feelings when he’s been turned down to a dance, who wants nothing more than to please his parents, who just likes to see people smile. Find the gift, and it gets easier.

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