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Balancing emotions with IEP advocacy

Amanda Griffith-Atkins, a family therapist and disability parent, shares advice for managing emotions before, during, and after the IEP meeting.

The butterflies. The nerves. The sense that you’re about to go into battle and that you need to fight for your child—your baby—at all costs. Yes, IEP meetings can kick up all sorts of emotions. Confoundingly, we’re usually told to keep emotions out of meetings. They should be about practical facts and data, no tears and no raised voices. It’s so hard! 

That’s why we talked to Amanda Griffith-Atkins, a Chicago, Ill.-based licensed family therapist and a mom of a child with disabilities. She’s a force in the advocacy world: relatable, compassionate, and grounded in clinical wisdom mixed with real-world warmth.  Here’s her advice for managing emotions before, during, and after that big meeting.

What would you say to a parent who’s about to prepare for the meeting? It feels so incredibly high stakes. It’s tough to keep emotions in check.

The biggest thing is calling people whom you know will give you encouragement. Maybe it’s a best friend, a child’s grandparent, or your partner. Get a pep talk: These are my priorities; this is what feels most important. You need an honest place where you’re able to express your anxieties. So much of going into an IEP is being confident and being able to advocate for what you need. But I think we also need space to express the softer side as well, and I think it’s safe is to do that with our support system. You don’t even need to get advice; you just need to be able to express yourself and have someone listen to you.

We go in, armor on, ready to advocate and looking like a warrior. But that’s not always what’s underneath the armor, right? You have the right to express the anxieties, the fears, the frustrations. Get all that out, so when you’re in the face of the IEP team, you’re able to be confident.

What about in the hour to even leading up to it—right before clicking Zoom? Sometimes it can feel like you’re going into a courtroom. There’s so much information to synthesize.

I’m thinking about right before you take a big exam, where you say: I’m prepared for this. Now, it’s: I’m a good parent, I’ve advocated, I know what I need to talk about, I feel proud.

A half-hour before, it’s important to give yourself some downtime. Maybe that looks like drinking a coffee, going for a walk, or just giving yourself permission to take a minute to gather yourself to literally bring your heart rate down.

Remind yourself that you know what you’re doing, you’ve done all the work that you need to do up to this point, and really connect to what your goals are. Calm yourself so that you’re able to be calm and present in the meeting.

If you’ve practiced a bit of self-care right before you go into the meeting, you’re able to be a little bit more chill, a little bit more balanced, and maybe more in touch with your personality and who you really are. You’re able to be the real you, which I think is way easier to work with than trying to be this assertive, aggressive warrior.

If you’ve practiced a bit of self-care right before you go into the meeting, you’re able to be a little bit more chill, a little bit more balanced, and maybe more in touch with your personality and who you really are. You’re able to be the real you, which I think is way easier to work with than trying to be this assertive, aggressive warrior.

How do you de-escalate during the meeting, if you feel your blood beginning to boil?

I don’t think it’s bad to show emotion within reason. You don’t want to seem irrational, obviously. You want the team to take you seriously.

If you’re noticing that your heart is beating fast, your blood pressure is rising, and you’re feeling incredibly angry, you need to take a second. You can say: “Can we take two minutes? I need to just take a break for a second.”

If you’re noticing that your heart is beating fast, your blood pressure is rising, and you’re feeling incredibly angry, you need to take a second. You can say: “Can we take two minutes? I need to just take a break for a second.”

It’s OK for you to take charge of the room and take a breath. You’re just not going to be bringing your A game when you’re totally flooded with stress.

Also, remember that there’s always a Plan B. We all know you don’t have to leave the IEP signing the document. There’s always more time. Nothing’s set in stone in the meeting. Practice that self-talk: “It’s OK; I’m not under a crazy time constraint. I have time to advocate and do what I need if I’m not getting what I want in this moment. There’s time for me to figure this out later.” I think that’s important because it takes a bit of the pressure off.

What do you do if you’re in a conversation where things get testy? How do you walk yourself back?

That’s so hard. There is instant anger. What makes us more angry than feeling like our kids aren’t getting the services that they need?

Remember: We cannot lead with emotion. It’s not going to get us what we need. If you notice that you’re arguing with the social worker or whomever, remind yourself that they’re not bringing their A game, either. But also remind yourself: This isn’t how I want to go about doing this. Arguing with this person is not going to solve the problem right here and right now. It’s really a waste of your time and precious energy at that point.

Remember: We cannot lead with emotion. It’s not going to get us what we need.

I think it’s really important to try avoiding arguing with people in the IEP meeting, because it’s just going to heighten your emotions.

Let’s talk about the after. You log off. You realize you didn’t get what you wanted, or you feel like everything went by in a blur. You feel powerless. What do you do with those emotions?

I’ve totally been there before, and it’s the worst feeling, because there’s all these messages. “I didn’t do a good enough job. I should have been more present. I should have been more prepared.” It’s all these things that parents of kids with disabilities know all too well — the “should have, could have.”

Take a breath! You just got through an IEP meeting. You survived, and you did your best. And again, just remember, there’s always more time. You can always call another meeting; you can always not sign. It was just one hour of advocating for your child out of many.

After the meeting, if you have some flexibility in your schedule, maybe take the rest of the afternoon off work. Maybe you schedule a lunch with your partner or a friend. What is it that you need to bring yourself back down and to practice some self-care after any really stressful event?

Give yourself permission to unplug and try to battle against the should haves and the could haves and just say: “I showed up.” And, if you have [regrets], just take it as information on what to do differently next time, not as a source of beating yourself up, because it’s not helpful.

In the ensuing weeks or months, if you sense your child isn’t getting what they need, how do you cope? Advocacy can become central to our lives. Do you have any suggestions for compartmentalizing or not catastrophizing?

Have a relationship with the teacher. Let them know that you care. I think some of it is being a parent who’s involved, and you can do that with kindness. You don’t have to be aggressive and angry all the time, because I don’t think that’s going to win us any battles with teachers, either. Teachers are overworked and underpaid. I have so much compassion for them as well. But I think it’s important, with the teacher and the support staff, to let them know that you’re around, you’re checking in, and if there’s anything they need from you, that you’re there to collaborate. It shows that it’s a priority and that your expectation is to work together to meet the goals of the IEP.

Also, across the board with disability parenting, there’s only so much you can do. You need your own identity, apart from this. It’s a tricky one, but if it’s taking up 100 percent of your energy, ask: Where’s your joy in life? We need to have times where we’re able to be grownups and friends and things besides a parent.

Any parting thoughts?

If you’re attending the IEP meeting with your partner, I think that can cause a lot of stress, too!

Stereotypically, when we think about these situations, if it’s a heterosexual couple, mom is going in having done all this research. (This is not always the case!) But often they spend hours a week researching, and it’s: “You just show up to the meeting, and nod and smile, and everything’s fine, and then you go back to your workday, and I’m pissed off for three days after that.”

We don’t want it to ruin our marriage. Already, disability parenting takes such a big toll on marriage that I think it’s important to do a little prep work with your partner ahead of time on the IEP. Maybe you schedule an evening a couple of nights before the meeting where you go over everything, and where you get your partner’s buy-in on it. And you say, “This is what I need from you and from the meeting.”

The last thing you want is to be mad at your partner and be mad at teachers, because then you’re dwindling your support system. It’s important to have a united front with your partner and to feel supported by them.

Already, disability parenting takes such a big toll on marriage that I think it’s important to do a little prep work with your partner ahead of time on the IEP. Maybe you schedule an evening a couple of nights before the meeting where you go over everything, and where you get your partner’s buy-in on it.


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Permission to talk about the hard stuff, with Amanda Griffith-Atkins