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The holidays can be the most wonderful time of the year. But they can also be the most stressful for families with kids who learn differently. That’s because, for some, the holidays mean telling relatives about their child’s learning differences for the very first time.

Sometimes, this talk goes smoothly — other times, there are a few bumps in the road. In this episode, listen as Julian explains:

  • Steps parents should take to prepare for the talk

  • Why parents should avoid using technical terms when telling relatives

  • And the importance of setting boundaries

Related resources

Episode transcript

Julian: From the Understood Podcast Network, this is "The Opportunity Gap." Kids of color who have ADHD and other common learning differences often face a double stigma. And there's a lot that families can do to address the opportunity gap in our communities. This podcast explains key issues and offers tips to help you advocate for your child. My name is Julian Saavedra. I'm a father of two and an assistant principal in Philadelphia, where I've spent nearly 20 years working in public schools. I'll be your host. Welcome to Season 3. 

Hey O.G. family! Welcome back to another episode of "The Opportunity Gap." It's me here, and you get to spend some time with your host, Julian, to talk about something that I think all of us experience. It's the holidays, and if you're like me, the holidays can be either a wonderful time of the year or it can be one of the most stressful times of the year. 

For many of us that are parents, and for those of us that are parents with children with learning and thinking differences, sometimes it can be a little tough. We're going to talk a little bit about what it's like to share about your child's learning and thinking differences and learning disabilities with relatives. 

Sometimes the conversation can go really smoothly, where everybody is on the same page. Sometimes it can be really stressful. And so we're hoping that we give you some concrete tips on how to walk through that. So, how do you get through this conversation? I'm really glad you asked. Let's dive in. 

All right. So, first things first. Let's prepare yourself, right? You know that this is happening. The holidays are coming up. A whole bunch of people are going to be around that you might not normally see. Or maybe you do see them and you're just now in this contained space and you want to start to share about your child. 

Well, first things first. You, as the parent — let me say that one more time — you, only you as the parent. You get to decide who knows about your child's learning and thinking differences. You also get to control how much a person knows, and that includes family, right? Like you're the one that gets to choose what you share and what you don't share. 

And we always say on this show, you are your child's biggest advocate, even when it comes to family. So, I encourage you to decide how much information do you want to share with different family members? I know from my family, I have a pretty large family. And, I have a rambunctious family, to say the least. My nana was the biggest influence in my family's life, right? 

Like, she was the person that would come into the room and she owned it. You could hear her voice from a mile away. With her? I was sometimes nervous to share things about my own life. So, I can only imagine if I had to share information about my most precious person in my life, which would be my children. And if she wasn't ready to receive that, I would be nervous. 

Like, well, how is she going to react to this? What is she going to say? Guess what? You don't have to tell everybody. You don't have to say anything if you don't want to. It's your choice. It's completely up to you. Now, luckily, if you have a nanny like I do, you can share anything and she'll embrace you and give you a big hug and then start laughing again. But if you don't, you have to be prepared. 

So, sharing information, no matter how much or how little, can help family members better understand your child's needs. It can also help to demystify learning and thinking differences and clear up any questions that they may have. And it also can really help find relatives who understand your child. All right. If you're willing to share more information about them, this is a great chance to find out are there relatives that could really help advocate for you. And you might find out more than you ever knew. So, here's some tips for how to have that talk. 

So, here's my first tip. Be ready for the different questions you may come across. Be prepared for the questions that may come from different relatives. Some relatives may know a whole lot of information about learning and thinking differences. You may have educators in your family. You may have family members that have children themselves who have learning and thinking differences. You have no idea. There might be people that have knowledge about this that you didn't anticipate. 

On the other side, you might have family members that have very little knowledge of learning and thinking differences. And especially for family members that are a little bit older, a little bit up in age, a lot of things have changed for how we do things in the special education world and in school in general. Since when your parents or your grandparents were in school, you know? 

So, when my Nana was in school, things were very different. We've talked about that at length in different episodes on "The Opportunity Gap." Education's drastically changed and so, be prepared for the host of questions that might come at you, especially from older family members. 

Second tip, this is a big one. Avoid using technical terms. So, even if your relatives have heard the name of your child's condition, they may not know much about it or how it affects kids. They might say, "Well, what is that ADHD or ADD? What does that even mean?" "What do you mean they have dyslexia or dyscalculia? What is that? I don't even know what that means. They just need to learn how to sit down and be quiet."

Not to say that that's what's going to happen, but it could. And so, when you have technical terms, sometimes it can be a little abrasive for family members because they might not know what it means and so they might interpret it a different way. Using plain language as much as possible is really helpful to help them understand. Well, "Hey, ADHD, it really means that my son needs a little bit of extra help managing his emotions and he has a little bit of extra energy, so he might need extra reminders." So, it's really important to use plain English or plain language to just make things clear. 

Number three, third tip. Give helpful details. So, for example, you could say, "Dougie has a hard time with sensory overload. It's really tough for him to be touched, even by the people he loves. Please ask him before you try to hug him. He may not want to be hugged sometimes, but please don't take it personally." All right. So, think about, just like I had said earlier with ADHD. 

Like, if you know that auntie goes in and she tries to give Dougie a big hug and he reacts in a certain way, making sure that you explain what's happening and providing that proactive sense of detail is really going to be helpful for everybody so that they understand what's going to be best for your child. Because again, your goal is to make sure you're being your child's biggest advocate. 

Number four. Number four, fourth tip. Lead with the positive. Lead with the positive. I mean, we can't say that this goes for everything. Praise your child's efforts and bring up some strengths and qualities that your relatives might have missed. And this is, especially holidays, I go extra on making sure that everybody's hearing all the positive that my child's doing. Of course. 

"Oh, great job! Did you just set that table? Look at that! Excellent work." Or "Wow! Did I just hear you use manners? Great job! I love to see that." Making sure that you're providing that extra positive incentive for your children in the midst of this potentially stressful situation is really important. But it's also shadowing to everybody else, "Hey, these are things that are important, so you should be doing the same thing, too." 

So, you could try something like, "Dougie is doing so well in reading this year. He loves chapter books and his teacher is super impressed with how many he's read this fall." I mean, something as simple as that. It helps reframe the conversation to focus on all the positive that your child is bringing to the table. 

My last tip. Last but not least. Set boundaries. Let me say that for everybody in the back. Everybody in the front. Everybody in the middle. Set boundaries. Remember — and I cannot stress this enough — remember, you are in control. And I know this is a touchy subject. Like family is family. And family can be great or not so great. It all depends. 

But ultimately, you are the one that's in control. You get to decide what you're comfortable sharing. If you're not comfortable sharing something, you don't have to. Simple as that. You don't have to share anything you don't feel comfortable with. You decide to create your own rules for your family. 

And so, don't have any shame or don't feel any type of way about setting boundaries around answering or not answering questions or managing or not managing a situation like it's ultimately your child. And again, as a parent myself, I completely understand. Generational differences come into play with how we parent our children and sometimes we have to be strong enough to say "Pause. It's my child. In this household, this is what we do, and that's it."

So, in closing, the first time you speak to your relatives about your child's challenges, it may feel a little awkward. It may feel a little awkward. The important thing is to keep the conversation going. The more you talk, the more others may feel comfortable doing the same. And in some cases, you might find out more information than you didn't previously know. 

So, before I go, I have a few resources I'd like to share and we'll make sure to link them in the show notes. Understood's article "Six Ways Talking about your Child's Challenges" can help. Check it out. It's a great article. Understood even has a worksheet you can use to prepare for this conversation or this talk. Get practical tips for dealing with holiday challenges in this episode of "In It," one of our other podcasts on the Understood Podcast Network. So, check out "In It" as well. Until next time, listeners. Thank you so much. Take care. 

"The Opportunity Gap" is produced by Tara Drinks, edited by Cin Pim. Ilana Millner is our production director. Our theme music was written by Justin D. Wright, who also mixes the show 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 and see you next time. 


  • Julian Saavedra, MA

    is a school administrator who has spent 15 years teaching in urban settings, focusing on social-emotional awareness, cultural and ethnic diversity, and experiential learning.

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