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Most parents start their parenting journey with ideas of what it will be like, and what their kids will be like. But what happens when your expectations don’t match reality? How do things change when you find out your child has a learning or thinking difference? 

In this episode, hosts Gretchen Vierstra and Rachel Bozek welcome Suzie Glassman, a writer and mom of two kids. Suzie shares how her parenting changed after her daughter was diagnosed with ADHD and dyslexia. 

Find out how she parents to meet the needs of the kids she has, rather than the kids she thought she’d have. Learn how she celebrates her kids for who they are, and how she’s letting go of parenting shame.

Related resources 

Parenting guilt: Tips to get past it

Dyslexia: Ways to help your child at home

More stories from Suzie: 

Episode transcript

Gretchen: From the Understood Podcast Network, this is "In It," a podcast about the ins and outs... 

Rachel: ...the ups and downs,

Gretchen: ...of supporting kids who learn and think differently. I'm Gretchen Vierstra, a former classroom teacher and an editor here at Understood. 

Rachel: And I'm Rachel Bozek, a writer and editor with a family that's definitely in it. Today, we're talking about learning to parent the kids you have... 

Gretchen: ...as opposed to the kids you maybe thought you'd have, before your actual kids came along. 

Rachel: Our guest today is Suzie Glassman, a journalist who wrote a beautiful story for Understood on this topic. 

Gretchen: Suzie has a son she says can be somewhat impulsive, and a daughter — two years younger — who has a diagnosis of dyslexia and ADHD. 

Rachel: We're so grateful she joined us on the podcast for this very honest conversation about learning to be the parent your kids need. 

Gretchen: Suzie, welcome to "In It." 

Suzie: Thank you! 

Gretchen: We're so excited to talk with you today. And so we're going to take things back all the way to the beginning. 

Suzie: OK! 

Gretchen: So, when you began your journey as a mom — first with your son and then with a second child, your daughter — tell us how you pictured them, what you imagined they would be like, what you imagined parenting would be like? 

Suzie: I mean, it's a good question because especially with their first child, I didn't really have a huge picture of what motherhood was going to be like. I just thought that I would have sort of normal kids with normal behavior and everybody thinks that they're going to be the shining example of, you know, you see what everybody else does and "Oh, I'll never do that kind of thing."

Gretchen: Right! 

Suzie: But I certainly didn't expect some of the challenges. 

Rachel: So, when did you start to notice that things weren't going exactly as you had imagined they would go or that you had kind of planned even if you didn't even realize you were planning? Do any particularly frustrating moments stand out? 

Suzie: I mean, the things that stand out to me, it was when I had them both, right? They're 23 months apart. So, when they got to be around two and four, at playdates or playgroups. I had one who would cling to me, right? And another, you know, he would be rambunctious or, the other kids would sort of follow along and do the craft and my kid's off running circles around the room. 

And it's kind of like, "Ugh, everyone's staring at me." And, you know, in a restaurant, like my kid's the one who's like, throwing everything on the floor and we're lucky if we get 20 minutes before we're, like, panicking and where's the bill? And we have to leave. And then I would just sort of pay attention to these other kids who would just sit quietly and color. And mine wouldn't do that. 

Yeah, I mean that's kind of when I first started to notice and then there became a lot of "What am I doing wrong?" Right. It became a lot more... not so much "What's different about them?" as "What are these parents doing that I'm not?" 

Gretchen: Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. Looking at other parents and wondering, right? I know a lot of us do that as parents. So when you're going to these places and you notice like, you know, you said your son's like running around while everyone else is doing the craft, like, did you try to make them fit the mold of all these other kids? 

Suzie: Yeah, I think I did for a long time. So, I would get frustrated or upset or like, bribe. Like "OK, if you just sit down and do this, when we leave we'll get ice cream," right? You know, all of those sorts of things, giving them, you know, an iPad or a tablet at a restaurant just to get them to sit in a seat long enough for my husband and I to have a conversation and enjoy a meal. 

So, there was a lot of what I would say, I guess, you know, the word is bribing them to behave in the way that I wanted them to. Or like "Well, wait till we get home" and "If you can't behave then you're not going to get your favorite treat" or "You're not going to get to watch Sesame Street" or whatever it was, right? 

So, it was either bribing them with rewards or threatening them with punishment. And none of it works, by the way. None of it works. 

Gretchen: Yeah, it never does. 

Suzie: It never does, it never does.  

Gretchen I know, it really doesn't. 

Rachel: So, what happened then that led you to change your approach? Did you have like an "aha" moment that sometimes come to us when we least expect it, where you were just kind of like, "Oh OK, like maybe this is what it is, this is what I have to look at" versus just like "I'm doing it wrong." 

Suzie: Right, I want to say the "aha" moment came much later. I wish it had come sooner, but it was really when my daughter got diagnosed. So, they had started school. My son is pretty neurotypical, especially when it comes to school, so learning was pretty easy for him. He learned to read very easily. He's an advanced reader and he's two years ahead of her. 

So, when she started school and things were not easy for her, in my head, I thought, "Well, maybe she's normal and he's advanced and this is just how it's supposed to be." And then like many people, when the pandemic hit and they were home for school, I could see like, "Oh, this is not normal." She's not keeping up with her class. These struggles that she's having with reading, they go well past where she should be by this point, and she was in third grade. 

And so that's when we had her tested. And that — when I learned that she has dyslexia and then later we went into the ADHD diagnosis — that was the light bulb moment that became, "OK, she's not just misbehaved or can't pay attention, I think this is the way her brain works."

And so that's what really led me to start thinking that all of these expectations and sort of dreams that I had for them are going to have to change. 

Rachel: So, did your son get a diagnosis as well? 

Suzie: Sort of. I mean, I would say he could potentially have ADHD. He's never been through the formal evaluation process. She was nine, he was 11. Some of it was like, well, is he just, you know, a boy and these are normal boy behaviors? I do think that he might have some mild — more with impulsivity and things like that — issues. But certainly not in the way that she does. 

Rachel: Got it. So when you got this dyslexia diagnosis, how did you feel? 

Suzie: You know, on the one hand, it felt somewhat devastating and on the other hand, it felt like a huge relief. And I will say that the relief came in the fact that, from, since kindergarten, I had these gut instincts that said "Something's not right here." But for years, her teachers were like, "She's fine, she's fine. She'll catch up, like, she's normal," you know? And then to have that validated, all the feelings that I'd had about her is like a flood of just like, tears wash over me in the sense that, like, I'm not crazy, right? 

And then, you know, the devastation part was an interesting feeling that I had to examine in myself. And that's when I started really thinking, I'm like, I remember saying to my sister in law like "She's just not going to be a straight-A student." And that's because I was, and learning for me was easy, a bit effortless. I think I was a little bit heartbroken that school was going to be hard for her in a way that now — since I know so much more about dyslexia and somewhat of the advantages it gives her — I don't feel that same heartbreak that I did. 

But I mean, to be honest, when I first learned it was a bit of panic and fear. You know, I remember someone telling me "This is not a diagnosis that means like, that she's not capable of anything." But I think there's just when you know very little about it, it can definitely be scary. 

Rachel: Yeah. And I think that fear is such a big part of, like, the hurdle, right? Like to even get to like, "So now what?" Like, that's a lot to process. 

Suzie: Yeah, it is a lot to process. It's gotten easier, for sure, like that was about three years ago. And I would say even then it wasn't maybe until about a year ago when I heard this concept of "parenting the child that you have," right? and not not the child that you want. So even though I knew how they were, and I say they because when they're together they feed off each other. So I love telling the story of when we were in one of those like big department stores shopping for winter coats. 

And my kids are just running all over the store and hiding in the clothing racks and giggling and just one of those classic, embarrassing parent moments that's like, "Oh my gosh, why can't my kids just sit down, right?" And so, any little bit of hyperactivity he has when they're together, it's just like explosive. And I remember hearing that comment like "Parent the child you have," made me really want to understand more about how they tick, who they are, and what they need, versus what I think they should be. 

Rachel: So, once you kind of had that in your mind, how did that or did it change your approach to parenting? Like, what did that mindset do for you? 

Suzie: I would say it changed things quite significantly because I stopped yelling at this behavior that they can't necessarily control. You know, we try to watch a movie or spend some time together, and the fact that my daughter needs to get up and she loves to flip around on the couch and she's just always doing cartwheels and just getting that same energy out, the classic, you know, she's driven by a motor sort of thing. 

And that thing used to really irritate me. And now it's like, "That is who she is," right? You know, we're watching a movie, she's paying attention and like, she's not being disruptive. She's just behind the couch doing cartwheels, right? And so I'm not fighting that so much anymore.

I have been lucky enough or are maybe smart enough to surround her with other teachers and instructors who get that, and so who are also accepting of sort of the energy breaks that she needs, or understanding that she may not be looking directly at you, but she is paying attention. 

And then with my son, you know, same sort of thing, but really trying to understand the things that he enjoys, the things that motivate him. And I will say, one of the biggest things that that happened is I gave up on grades being this sign of success and achievement and more focusing more on effort than grades.

I understand that, for my daughter who can put in 3 to 4 times the effort and not get the grade, that my son who can just study for ten minutes and pull out and A. So I don't reward the grades. I really look to reward effort more so than anything else. Yeah. 

Rachel: Just one thing you said kind of caught my ear about, you know, like the constant movement when you're watching TV or just kind of like not having those experiences in the kind of conventional way or the way you may have pictured it.

And you mentioned something in one of your articles that's on Understood where you said like "People aren't going to remember her because she ran up and down the aisles during the movie" right? Like, that's not the thing. And so, it's kind of like choosing your battles and it's like, that's an OK thing to just kind of let go. 

Suzie: Yeah, absolutely. It's like learning to let go of those things that you think are sort of conventional norms. Like, you're in this environment and this is how you're supposed to behave, and if you don't, then there should be punishment or consequence. And now it's like, "OK, well, if you're not hurting anything." I like to think about in doctor's offices, I used to just be mortified because they love to sit on the doctor's chair that, like, spins around, you know? And I'd be like, "No, you have to sit on the table!" And I'm like, "Fine, spin around in the chair."

It's just kind of letting go of some of those things. And I think it's enhanced our relationship because they have more trust in me to understand them and not to just yell at these behaviors that sometimes they just can't control. 

Rachel: I want to talk about parent-teacher conferences for a minute, because you wrote a piece for us about realizing that you had to change your approach to those meetings. That maybe what you were looking for and expecting was getting in the way of some of those harder conversations you needed to have. Can you talk to us about those conferences with your daughter's teachers? 

Suzie: Of course. So one of the things that I believe — and you guys probably know this more than I do, with girls and ADHD — is that a lot of times they go under the radar because they can be very well-behaved in class. 

Rachel: Yup.

Suzie: Because, you know, she's obviously a little bit, have that inattentive, but also her processing speed is also very slow. So she doesn't interrupt, right? She doesn't — these classical sort of boy behaviors that get them in trouble and obviously girls do them, too but, you know — act out, interrupt, talk in class a lot. Like, she doesn't talk very much, she's very well-behaved because she's actually afraid to speak up, right? She's afraid to blurt out an answer because she doesn't think that she knows it. 

So parent-teacher conferences, especially in the beginning for her, because my son had always had that "He talks too much," right. So for her, it was like "We just love your daughter," you know, "She's so great, she's so sweet," which is all those things that you want to hear, as a parent. So you realize after you left, like wait, we didn't even talk about her academics or how she's doing. 

And I don't know, I read somewhere that, you know, teachers don't get a lot of training in how to deliver kind of what might be considered bad news or concerns or things like that. So when they're looking at a child like my daughter — who's just very much kind of in line with how they're supposed to be — and then maybe she's not reading aloud in class or maybe she is, you know, not she's a little bit behind the others, but not a lot. She's not very vocal, so I don't think she just called any attention to herself. 

So those parent-teacher conferences, initially were like "Oh, great!" right? And then we had one in second grade, I remember, and it was in the spring. It was right before everything shut down for Covid. And her school, they don't get grades in elementary school. It's like "Meets expectations," "Doesn't meet or like, exceed expectations," right? And everything was like "Approaching expectations."

And I asked the teachers like, "Well, what does it mean, like 'approaching expectations?'" Because I said, "Well, what if she finishes second grade and she's 'approaching expectations?' does that mean she's not, she didn't learn what she was supposed to learn?" Like, I didn't understand. 

Rachel: Right. 

Suzie: Is the first I ever thought to like, question this, and...

Rachel: Yeah, is a good question. 

Suzie: Right! And her teacher was, again, I got the like "Well she doesn't score well on the test, but from what I see in the classroom, she's fine." So it became maybe like, well, maybe she's just an anxious test-taker. And when we left, I still felt really uneasy and we scheduled a meeting with the principal to talk to him because I was like, "I don't, I'm not getting clear answers." Like, don't know what "approaching expectations" means. 

I don't know, you know, talking about things we're seeing at home, like she reads really slowly, she's exhausted, you know, after reading four lines of text, right? all of these things. And he said, you know, the last words were like, "Well, we'll look into it," right? And then Covid happened. Yeah. And then she was home, which, you know, which then led me to get her evaluated. But that was kind of our parent-teacher conference leading up to that. 

And I notice even now — you know, now that she has the diagnosis — there's still a bit of a fear I notice on teachers. I try to make them more comfortable because they don't want to say like, "OK, well, she tested in that, I think she was like 13th percentile for oral reading fluency." And I'm like, "No, that's OK!" I feel like I'm reassuring them in a way. Like, I understand that's where we're at, let's deal with that in a way. 

So parent-teacher conferences are still interesting, and I think there's a lot that could be done. I don't blame the teachers at all. I just think that there's not a lot of training in how do we talk to parents about these issues? 

Rachel: Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. You mentioned earlier, you referred to your daughter's dyslexia as having plus sides or kind of like some benefits. And so, I wondered, what have you discovered about both of your kids in terms of like their strengths or their, you know, we say sometimes superpowers that you didn't see before when you were maybe more focused on like what was going wrong, that now you see as like a plus. 

Suzie: The thing about my daughter that, now that I know her brain works differently, I think I almost seek it out in a way. Like she and I will have these conversations where I'm like, "Wow, that's, you know, that's really interesting thought, like, tell me more." Whereas at first I might be like "Well, that's not accurate" you know, or like, you know, she would say something about the moon and I would be like "No, the moon is this." And then now it's like, oh, let's see, trying to see things more through her lens and the way she sees the world. 

And it's really interesting, she talks about like, she'll see a car and be like, "I wonder how they came up with the design for that car," right? Or so be like, "I wonder who invented that." She's talking about stuff like that all the time. Whereas I might be in the past like, "Well, just Google it," right? and now it's like, "Well, who do you think?" Now it's like, "What do you think they were thinking? Right? And I, like I'm just so into and she's like, "Mom, why are you asking me questions?" I'm like, just "Your brain, like, it's so fascinating to me I just want to understand," right? 

Oh, and the other thing I would say about my daughter that I think is really cool is she's very intuitive in a way about how other people are feeling. And so she has this really cool way of saying, and she's in middle school now, and she'll talk about some of the drama or something. And I'll say, "Well, are you OK? Did that affect you?" And she's like, "Mom, she's 12, she's just going through something," right? And it's like... right? she's just very like sympathetic... 

Rachel: Wise beyond her years, right? 

Suzie: Yeah, exactly. Like very forgiving of people. Very, like, understanding of when somebody is in a place. And for my son, I think one of the differences I look at is what is it about the things that he gravitates to just on his own without any prompting? He loves facts, figures. He has good like, memorization skills, those sorts of things. And I think some of his strengths are also like he's very much a leader. He's always had kids that just kind of gravitate to him. 

He loves being around kids, you know, those things that before I would have maybe not thought so much as a strength, but now I see that as things like in the future, like "Hey, you could really work with kids." And he loves like broadcasting or things like that, because he can remember facts really well. So, those are things to me that I play up more than just, you know, getting a good grade in science. It's like, OK, what you know, what are the skills that you have that are really going to serve you well in life? And then how can we develop those in ways that will make you even stronger? 

Rachel: That's great. I mean, I love that, you know, you have this you know, this angle now of parenting the kids you have and really focusing on their strengths. We talk a lot about that at Understood. But we all don't do that right from the start. You know, as parents, we might have faltered and I know you've written a little bit about some of the shame you might have felt of feeling like you were trying to fit your kids into what you saw as the norm. 

So, what advice do you have about parents who might regret something that they had done in the past or like, you know, or feeling shameful about how they might have parented their kids before they knew about their diagnosis? 

Suzie: Yeah, I will echo that, that is a very valid way to feel. It's honest and it's upsetting sometimes to think like, oh I remember back to just these battles, these homework battles we would have, right? And "You're just not paying attention" and "You're not trying hard enough" and "You're just being lazy and you're so smart, why don't you get this?" Right? And I did feel a lot of guilt and regret over that because none of that was her fault. She was actually probably trying harder than any kid, right? Because no child doesn't want to please their parent, right? 

Like she was trying really hard. But the way I handled that, I remember maybe six months or so later, I just apologized to her, right? And she was nine and I don't know how much she understood, but, you know, I just said "Hey, like I realized that I was treating you this way and I want you to know that I see how hard you are trying and I see the effort you put in. And I know that you were doing your best and I'm sorry I didn't recognize that and I didn't treat you that way. 

And, you know, just like I'm really going to try to understand you and understand what you're going through. And also I'm going to try to get you all of the help that you need to be successful and to understand, you know, that you're not dumb or any of these things that you might have thought, you know?" And I remember her response was like, "OK!", you know, that I'm sure that, you know, I'm sure somewhere along the line, like it really sunk in. 

Rachel: No, they get it. 

Suzie: Yeah, yeah. She did get it. And then it's just kind of forgiving myself. And then, I will say, because I know Understood has the "Wunder Community," I think finding other parents — or as myself, a mom, other moms — has been one of the biggest things that I could have done for myself to understand, like, "OK, I'm not on an island here." When I started talking about her diagnosis, I found maybe five people in my neighborhood whose children were also either dyslexic or ADHD. One had an auditory processing disorder. 

And so all of a sudden, I had a network I didn't know was out there and I will say that has been one of the saving graces of all of this. It's you know, I can put out there "Guys I'm looking for, I need a tutor, you know, who knows Orton-Gillingham" or, you know, some of these instructional methods that are great for kids with dyslexia. And then, you know, says, "Oh, try this person" or, you know, and sometimes it's just finding like "I'm looking for... she, you know, she needs to get tested for this, like, where can I go?"

Or saying like, "Hey, you know, my child's doing this. Is it normal?" Right? And then just having people come back and say, "Yeah, I'm going through that, too." I know you guys were talking a lot about the holidays coming up and how to deal with sensory processing challenges and, you know, some of these things that like make us feel very ashamed as a parent. Like, especially when you're with family and family can be sometimes the most judgmental of all. 

But then just kind of being able to call a friend and laugh about it, right? Like my mother-in-law, she's like insisting we do this, right? And then you just kind of laugh and it just eases the tension a bit. So, yeah, I would definitely say there's nothing to be embarrassed about. There's so many kids. And I think the more that we recognize that and the more community we build, the better off we all are. 

Rachel: Yeah. 

Suzie: Yeah. 

Gretchen: And I just love your advice and story about the apology. You know, I just, I feel like no one ever apologized to me when I was a kid, you know, like, I don't think that was something people did. 

Suzie: No! 

Gretchen: But like we do it now and I think it's good like to just acknowledge like we all make mistakes and we're all still learning. 

Suzie: Yeah. Well, you know what's cool is that when you apologize to them, I think they learn to apologize to you, right? In a way, like last night, you know, she's in dance and after dance, she was kind of rude to me, right? And she's also 12. But, I mean, maybe 10-15 minutes after she calmed down, she came back and said, "Mom, I'm really sorry." Right? And I think that she learned that from like, sort of me and her dad modeling that behavior to her, so.

Gretchen: Yeah. That's awesome. You got an apology for tween-teen behavior. 

Suzie: Right, right. Yeah. 

Rachel: Well, thank you so much for talking about all this, Suzie. 

Gretchen: Yes, Thank you so much. 

Suzie: Yeah, well, thank you guys for having me. I could talk all day, all day about this, so I appreciate it. 

Rachel: If you want to read Suzie's articles about parenting the kids you have and about changing your own approach to parent-teacher conferences, we've got links to those and other related articles in our show notes. 

Gretchen: You've been listening to "In It" from the Understood Podcast Network. 

Rachel: This show is for you. So we want to make sure you're getting what you need. Email us at init@understood.org to share your thoughts. We love hearing from you. 

Gretchen: If you want to learn more about the topics we covered today, check out our show notes. We include more resources as well as links to anything we mentioned in the episode. 

Rachel: Understood.org is a resource dedicated to helping people who learn and think differently, discover their potential and thrive. Learn more at understood.org/mission. 

Gretchen: "In It" is produced by Julie Subrin. Ilana Millner is our production director. Justin D. Wright mixes the show. Mike Ericco wrote our theme music. 

Rachel: For the Understood Podcast Network, Laura Key is our editorial director, Scott Cocchiere is our creative director, and Seth Melnick is our executive producer. Thanks for listening. 

Gretchen: And thanks for always being "in it" with us.

Hosts

  • Gretchen Vierstra, MA

    is the managing editor at Understood and co-host of the “In It” podcast. She’s a former educator with experience teaching and designing programs in schools, organizations, and online learning spaces.

    • Rachel Bozek

      is co-host of the “In It” podcast and the parent of two kids with ADHD. She has a background in writing and editing content for kids and parents. 

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