Below is a partial transcript from Part 1 of my interview with Debbie Reber, author of Differently Wired (afflinks).
Watch the full interview here:
Sarah of Dandelion Seeds Positive Parenting: Welcome and Intro
Hello. I am Sarah with Dandelion Seeds Positive Parenting and today I am so excited to talk to Debbie Reber, author of an amazing book for parenting in general, and specifically for differently wired kids.
This is the kind of book that makes me elbow my husband in the ribs and say, “You’ve got to hear this, you’ve got to hear this!”
We are both better for your work, Debbie, and I am so glad to have you here today.
Thank you so much! What a nice intro.
Sarah on adjusting from the child we “thought” we’d have to the one we really do have
Let’s dive right into the discussion of differently wired children. Let’s talk specifically about getting to know the children that we have, not the children necessarily who we envisioned having long before we birthed or adopted them.
They don’t always “look” exactly like what we envisioned they would. When parents learn their child is differently wired, how do they typically come to terms with the child who they actually have and are raising?
Is it intuition? Is it a diagnosis? How do we even come to know this child who we have?
Debbie Reber on acceptance of the differently wired child
Well, it’s a slow process for many of us. I describe it in the book like pulling off a Band-Aid® very, very, very slowly because a lot of kids fall under the “umbrella” of differently wired, as I use it, which is just being neurologically atypical in a variety of ways.
It isn’t so obvious, and a lot of the differences are invisible.
When they’re younger, it may look like really intense behavior. A lot of us have kids who were colicky when they were little.
Just more intense — the more kids like more energy, more movement, more emotions.
So we always kind of have a sense that, “Okay, this is a little more intense than I was envisioning and wasn’t expecting it to be this hard.” Perhaps those are thoughts that we might have.
And then over time, we start to gather more information, right?
We kind of intuitively may recognize something’s going on, but we’re also usually looking for evidence that everything’s fine, which is always welcomed by us, right?
When we have little ones, we want someone to say, “You know, this is all kind of developmentally normal.”
So, often, it’s just piecing together information — feedback from preschool and other teachers, which many of us start getting more and more of us are kids get older. And observations from other people.
And then we start asking questions. Eventually, many of us will go in for an assessment with an OT or with someone to start piecing together the information. But it’s a slow process. And there’s a lot of self-doubt, I think, that happens for parents as we’re trying to determine, you know, is something going on or isn’t it? Is this just in my head? – Debbie Reber, author of Differently Wired
[We wonder] are we being overprotective? Are we being helicopter parents? Are we paranoid? What’s really going on?
Sarah on other people’s insight
Yeah, absolutely. And I love how you say that other people offer some of the insight that sometimes we’re seeking.
We want to know, “Is our kid okay?” We want to know, “Are we okay?”
I know in my experience, I might have felt that something was different. This wasn’t necessarily what I envisioned parenting would be, but it wasn’t until another parent would come to me and say, “Oh — is your daughter (and then she’d fill in the blank).”
I’d never even heard that term before. Let me look that up. And lo and behold, “Hey, that resonates. That makes sense to me. I think we have something to explore here.” [Or no, that’s not on target and I can release it.]
Debbie Reber on normalizing being differently wired
Yeah. I would say that most of my friends would often normalize what we were experiencing. It was very well-intentioned — “You know, well, my child does this, too” or “This happened to us,” and as a way to make me feel better, but that was more confusing to me.
And it was a friend, ultimately, I think when my son was four, when I was trying to explain some of the intensities and challenges we were having, she was the one who said, “Oh! That sounds like a sensory processing issue. You should read this book…”
That’s when the light bulb went off for me for the first time. I was like, “Oh, there could be a reason for all of this,” beyond just my husband and I not nailing it as parents. – Debbie Reber, author of Differently Wired
Sarah on rethinking our frame of reference
Yeah, absolutely — because of course you were doing the best you could with the information you had.
Let’s talk a little about our frame of reference.
Most of us grew up naively thinking that everybody was more or less 10 percent within the same range, neurologically speaking. Is it that we are simply more aware of neurological differences at this point or have children always been differently wired, and we just kind of said, “Oh, that child is just a busy child” or whatever.
How have the labels changed? How is the understanding changed over time?
Debbie Reber on understanding neurological differences in differently wired children
I think the understanding has changed a lot. In raising my son and doing the research for this book, I reflected so often on kids that I went to school with back in the 70s and the 80s.
I was like, “Oh, oh my gosh, that’s what was happening with this kid, and with this kid,” and I I started realizing, you know, just kind of piecing it together. These kids who, back then, even something like dyslexia was not really talked about her understood.
And so it was really grouped on intelligence or the weirdos or you know, like we just had these kind of broad labels: the bad kids.
The kids who had no emotional regulation were just bad kids and they got punished or they dropped out of school. They went down that road.
And that really breaks my heart when I think about that and recognize, “Oh my gosh. So many of these kids had ADHD, or were on the autism spectrum, or had these other differences.”
And so I think we’re so much more attuned to it now.
Even from when my child was in early elementary to now — he’s 16 — I feel like we’re still evolving as a society and there’s just more and more awareness, but it’s been a long time coming.
Sarah on when we “didn’t know better”
Yeah, without a doubt, I had the same reaction you did when I think about the kids who I grew up with, also in the 70s and 80s.
It really takes me to a place of compassion and empathy and my strong mama heart wants to go and hug all of these little versions of these now adults, and say, “Now I understand. You weren’t trying to be difficult or whatever label you may have had. We just didn’t understand you. And as your classmate, I’m sorry I didn’t know that about you because I would have loved to show up for you better.”
Debbie Reber on parents discovering their own neurodivergence through their children
Yeah, and so many adults are discovering their own neurodivergence through raising their child.
I actually did a couple podcast episodes on this where I interviewed adults who had realized they were on the spectrum or had ADHD in their 40s.
What does that do? There’s a sense of relief. There’s also a sense of sadness, right? And all those pieces fitting together and then realizing, “Oh my gosh. This little person that I was for all these years, and my needs were not being met, and this is how I internalized it. It’s really challenging for a lot of people to reconcile.
Sarah on rewriting our stories from a place of greater understanding
It is. You know, and at the same time, to your point, a lot of these adults get to rewrite part of their stories. If an adult grew up thinking, “I’m just a tricky personality.” “I’m just hard to love.” “I’m just hard to be around.” “I’m disruptive” — all of the lies that they were fed as kids — now they can say, “I did the best I could with the wiring that I had — and look at all of the ways that I did learn to cope and to regulate and to exist in a world that wasn’t necessarily built for me. Look what a superpower that was to get where I am today.”
And I love how you had it from a place of empowerment rather
than a place of, you know, self-punishment or any of the negative things that parents could be doing. Now they’re saying, “Hey, I’ve got this too, and now I understand all the better what my child might need.”
Debbie and Sarah on the labels we had
Debbie: Yeah, a hundred percent. For me it explains the class clown label that I was given in the senior poll. “Best excuse maker.” So that gives you a little sense of who I was in school.
Sarah: Awful, awful labels. Yeah, I was “most reserved” and I hated that one. This doesn’t define us anymore, does it.
Debbie: Absolutely not. No. I’m still a bit goofy, but I’m definitely not a class clown anymore.
Sarah: Right there on the goofiness with you. That is an important element of success in today’s society.
Debbie: [laughter] Yes. True.
Sarah on the diversity of being “differently wired” — and helping parents avoid feeling too overwhelmed
One thing that I love so much about your book is that you don’t limit “differently wired” to one specific medical diagnosis. You talk about a broad range of things — ADHD, Asperger’s, ASD, giftedness, sensory issues, learning disabilities, anxiety, twice exceptional, highly sensitive children, and various combinations thereof — and that’s not even a full list.
This is not a single, “Ooh, I can point right here and say that’s what it is” and build our life around that. Many times these things coexist together.
So for the parent who is getting, be it a single diagnosis or some combination of these things, how does the parent keep from getting totally overwhelmed?
And what does the parent do with this information once they have it?
Excerpt from Debbie Reber, author of Differently Wired
Debbie Reber and the labels and diagnoses our children receive
I think labels are so tricky and I certainly talk a lot about them. I’ve thought a lot about them.
Labels can be super helpful as we’re getting information because it can give a context for things that are happening with their child. It can open up the door to services or accommodations or other types of support that we need for our kids, especially, you know, legally, depending on what the diagnosis is, but they don’t actually solve anything.
I used to really want the label because I wanted an answer, right? I wanted to know this is what it is and I wanted the answer so I knew exactly what to do to fix it.
And I think that’s what so many of us, especially when we’re earlier on in this journey, we want an answer to explain what is challenging in our lives and ultimately, a label — well, I can give you some insight into a course of support or areas to prioritize your support on.
But [a label] doesn’t change who your child is and isn’t — there’s no playbook, like, ‘Do this, this, and this and that will fix or solve for all of these symptoms.’ – Debbie Reber, author of Differently Wired
So I think that they’re tricky. In Venn diagrams of differences, you’d see so much overlapping between, you know, profoundly gifted, ADHD, and autism spectrum, for example. Sometimes they could fit into any of those buckets.
What I like about the term “differently wired” — it’s not a medical term, obviously, but it’s a positive term that parents can embrace and hopefully reframe what could be seen as a negative or a deficit or a problem that needs to be solved. Instead, it’s about an understanding that my child’s brain isn’t considered neurotypical; and my child is a unique thinker; my child’s brain wiring is is outside the box and that’s okay. – Debbie Reber, author of Differently Wired
It’s a difference.
And so I really love that language as a way not just to feel more positive and optimistic. But also, when we are honed in on this one little diagnosis, we’re very narrow in our vision. I feel like societally, that keeps us marginalized because we’re all in our own little buckets.
And so we can talk about well, it’s not that many kids who are dealing with this, or it’s only this percentage of the population has this issue so it keeps them all “problems.”
But when we expand and more inclusive and say actually there are so many people whose brains are not considered “normal,” we have to accommodate for that.
Debbie Reber, author of Differently Wired, on education
We have to take a step back and look at what are we really doing in terms of how we’re educating kids.
We’re educating to a majority that probably isn’t even a majority. I think that differently wired kids make up more than 50% of the population if I were to put money on it.
Sarah on our desire to “fix” our differently wired kids
I agree wholeheartedly and I love how you reframe the labels. So much of our ability to come to terms with who our child is, is to look at them in a positive light, you know?
I often talk with my clients about reframing a tantrum as an emotional release. It’s the same thing, but it really feels different if we look at it as this is a healthy expression of emotions.
The same is true for what you said. If you have a child whose brain simply differently wired, that doesn’t make them less worthy of love, compassion, all of the gifts that we have to offer as parents — and also as a society.
[And I agree that the numbers of differently wired kids are much higher than what’s typically stated.]
You also said another word that I want to go back and highlight for a minute. You talked about our desire to “fix” our differently wired kids. This reframing really helps us reframe the need to fix our kids, too, doesn’t it?
Debbie Reber on accepting our differently wired children
Yeah, because fixing implies that there is a problem or that there’s something broken. And that is because we are holding up our kids to a neurotypical standard. We’re suggesting that there is one way of “being” that is acceptable and normal and okay and everything else…well, and in order to to fit into this “normal” bucket, all of these issues have to be fixed or addressed.
That does such a disservice to so many people. Again the ‘normal’ side of people — there’s nothing ‘normal’ about it.
The mental health problems [people have] and the ways that people compensate to get by in society — and those who struggle with so many things like executive function and paying their bills and being organized and running a household — all of those things — everyone’s making it up as we go along right? There’s no one gold standard. – Debbie Reber, author of Differently Wired
And so this divide, and thinking that these other people aren’t somehow broken, it just really does such a disservice. It implies that they’re not okay in who they inherently are. To give a child that message is just heartbreaking to me.
Sarah on changing the narrative and addressing parents’ fear of raising the differently wired child
It is. And it doesn’t have to be that way. We can reframe it, and it is on us as the parent to say, “I’m going to change the narrative, not only for my child but also in the narrative that my child shares with those around them as they grow up, too.” That’s so important.
Let’s talk a little bit about fear. One of the most common themes that I hear from parents is fear.
Suddenly, they’re raising a differently wired child who may not feel at all
familiar to them — or perhaps feels very familiar to them. Either way, it’s a little bit scary sometimes as a parent, wondering how we can best support our child.
How can parents move from a place of fear to a place of trust and growth in parenting their differently wired child?
Debbie Reber on making peace with parenting our differently wired child
I think that it’s really important to to know that fear is part of the human experience. It’s part of our inner self trying to protect us and keep us safe.
We don’t want to make fear [of raising a differently wired child] to be a bad thing. We want to have a relationship with it. We want to see it for what it is. – Debbie Reber, author of Differently Wired
I encourage parents to get really open and honest with themselves about investigating what things they’re really worried about. What are their biggest fears?
They’re often about this unknown future. Because the path is very unclear and not laid out before us, and the way that we assume everyone [else is] raising a neurotypical kid.
Related guest post: One Mother’s Journey of Raising an Atypical Child
And so yeah, when we’re kind of spiraling out of fear about future unknowns and all of those things, and “Can I do this?” and “This is going to be hard” and all the things that we do — yeah, we run into problems. And we’re not parenting from from a place that would really most benefit our kids.
Understanding what those fears are, questioning those fears, and choosing love, you know, I talked about choosing love and possibility.
I love that quote by Neale Donald Walsch: “All human actions are motivated at their deepest level by two emotions–fear or love.”
When we start to understand what making a choice from fear feels like in our bodies, like usually know we’re doing it. Our gut my may be saying, “This is the wrong move, Debbie” but in my head, I’m like, “But X, Y and Z.”
So we’re living in our heads and not our bodies.
So, if we can start to tune in more with our bodies and and parent from that place; make choices from that place, we will start getting feedback that that was the right choice to make. It’ll feel lighter. – Debbie Reber, author of Differently Wired
It feels scary. I’m not going to say it’s not scary, but it’ll it’ll feel like a lighter choice or we’ll start to get feedback that the results are, “Oh, that was the right decision to make.” And it’s kind of like a muscle that that we’re building.
I think, again, we have to uncover the fears of raising a differently wired child and acknowledge their existence; make some sort of uneasy alliance with it and then keep pushing ourselves to choose love and possibility instead.
See more from Debbie Reber, author of Differently Wired: