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Confronting Speech Delays Without Family Support

By Amalah

Dear Amy,

Last week, my daughter was diagnosed with a speech delay. She’s nearly 21 months old and has a grand total of four “words” (all animal noises). Her receptive language is fine–she understands everything we say–and they found her right on track or advanced for her age on all the other developmental indicators they looked at. For a while I had also been privately concerned about some sort of sensory processing issue, as she wouldn’t touch or walk on sand or grass, or eat anything smooth, but in the past couple of months she seems to have gotten over that. I was not surprised when the therapists conducting the evaluation told me there was a delay (it’s 50%, meaning she has the expressive language skills of a child half her age), and in fact I was glad to hear it. Her lack of spoken language (she has about 70 signs) is frustrating for all of us, and now she qualifies for free services to help her (weekly individual therapy, for the time being). What’s bad about that?

Well, it apparently is bad because means that I am an overzealous parent who will not acknowledge the complete perfection of my mother-in-law’s only grandchild. I knew she thought that going for the evaluation was silly, but she asked to be called when we knew what was going to happen. Now there are lots of comments (many directed to the baby while I am nearby) about how she’ll talk when she’s ready and surprise us all and there’s nothing wrong. She keeps questioning me about the evaluation (don’t they know the baby uses sign language to communicate? don’t they realize that kids that reach the physical milestones relatively early are sometimes a little later on verbal skills?) and telling me about other children she knows who didn’t talk until they were three! Four, even! And look, now they are at Harvard Law! Or finding the cure for cancer!

Seriously, more than once this weekend I’ve wanted to say, “Yeah, I mean, look at us early talkers. We just grow up to be housewives.” Luckily we only see my husband’s parents once a month, and I can avoid the phone calls (it just happened that this month’s visit fell the weekend immediately after our evaluation and diagnosis). I am trying to be as patient as I can, but it’s just so frustrating to feel this disapproval.

It’s not the first time my mother-in-law has expressed her dislike of how we do things. I’m still nursing and co-sleeping with my toddler, I quit my job to stay home when she was born, and I even use cloth diapers. Clearly I am just a crazy hippie, right? But those are all parenting choices, things that work for us (and that I know are not for everyone), and if she doesn’t like it, it doesn’t particularly bother me. But this disapproval stings, because this is really about my baby’s well-being, you know? This is about seeing how my child is held back in her interactions with people, and finding a way to help her along. When our pediatrician gave us the referral to Early Start at the 18-month check-up, she told us that she wasn’t particularly concerned about the baby’s level of speech now, but that it would be better to get things checked out now than wait until she was two and still not talking, and then have to deal with the wait to get an evaluation and then set up with services and everything. So I feel that we are being proactive and trying to help our daughter, and I’m being frowned on for that.

(I feel I should also note here that my husband also wants to go ahead with the therapy but isn’t taking his mom’s displeasure as personally as I am.)

I’m sorry.This has gotten terribly long. I guess I don’t even really know what my question for you is here. I suppose I’m simply looking for support from someone who has dealt with a speech delay and had to explain things to family members.


First of all, for what little it’s worth, I think you’re doing a wonderful thing for your daughter, and I’m confident it’s exactly the right thing for her. Honestly, your path to Early Intervention sounds a lot like ours — initial concerns at 18 months, referral for services and evaluation at 21 months. My son’s delay was not as pronounced as your daughter’s (he was more like 25% delayed for expressive since he had a few simple nouns), but the sensory issues were pretty obvious, and he didn’t have any sign language at the time. All told, pretty similar tales, so I feel pretty good at promising you a happy ending here. Speech therapy will be GREAT and once you get out of the interminable limbo of WAITING for speech therapy to begin, your confidence in your decision will be constantly boosted by positive results, and your mother-in-law’s words will bounce off you much easier, because seriously. There’s no reason to defend what’s obviously working for your daughter.

But you aren’t at that point yet, and I remember being where you are, stuck in that hand-wringing No Man’s Land before services actually start and IT IS HARD. Confronting these problems is HARD. Admitting that your child isn’t a perfect, incredibly-advanced genius is HARD. And that’s where your mother-in-law’s “disapproval” lies. She just isn’t there yet. She can’t (or won’t) see that a problem exists. Partially because speech therapy just wasn’t given to toddlers back when she was raising her children (and just talk to any mother who has had to argue with grandparents about newborns not needing bottles of water anymore and that THEY MUST SLEEP ON THEIR BACKS, and you’ll know that these old parenting techniques are hard for previous generations to shake). And partially, perhaps, because she sees shades of one of her children in your daughter. A child who maybe would have benefitted from early therapy, but instead just had to wait and “catch up” at their own pace.

(Fast-forward 30 years or so, and imagine your daughter looking up at you over her own baby and telling you that nursing into toddlerhood has been proven to cause such and such problem, or cloth diapers have been banned because of such and such other problem, or that she’s putting her baby in daycare because she’s been told it’s essential for her immune system and social development, or…SOMETHNG. Imagine being told that a decision you made out of love and total confidence that it was the right way to do things was absolutely wrong, according to modern medical advice.)

I noticed this sort of thing from my own family — who were, really, very supportive for the most part. But they still did cling to the stories about who didn’t talk until he was three and who just outgrew their stutter one day. I think they meant them as a form of comfort to us, but it IS easy to read as disapproval or as judgement of overly neurotic modern parenting where every tantrum gets slapped with a neurological diagnosis.

I definitely noticed this sort of thing from comments on my website. People would openly JUDGE US for getting our son the help that his doctor and our county agreed he needed, and would tell me straight up that I was being ridiculous and pushy and you know, if I just turned off the TV for a few minutes a day or read him a damn book occasionally he’d be JUST FINE. It was often very easy to read through the lines and see a parent defensively defending THEIR parenting choice to ignore a delay, desperate to find a way to blame ME for Noah’s problems, to assure themselves that my kid was autistic or I was just a bad mother or a crazy drama queen.

Luckily, these people were far and few between, and were easily outnumbered by the parents who DID tackle their children’s problems head-on and were there to testify that it was the best decision they ever made. It would have been harder, I think, if the judgey “OH CALM THE EFF DOWN” people had my home phone number like your mother-in-law does, but I advise you to take her comments just as seriously as you would take comments from the anonymous online peanut gallery.

And hey, tackling Noah’s problems head-on and pursue speech therapy for him was probably the best decision we ever made. I’m confident your daughter will benefit greatly from services and will enjoy them, and you’ll be amazed at the progress you’ll see after just a few months. And when that happens, your mother-in-law’s comments will go from empty chatter (yes, yes, so-and-so didn’t talk until he was four, but he also likes Vaseline on toast, so…) to something you can just tune out completely, because your choice — your overreactive, neurotic choice! — will prove to be the right one. It will, because it is. You know your daughter, you know what’s best, you know the success rates for tackling delays before the age of three, you know it’s better to swallow your pride and ask for the help she needs.

You know all of this, you do. I don’t need to sit here and type all the possible justifications you can use on your mother-in-law. You don’t need to sit there and argue with her and attempt to change her mind. This is YOUR daughter, your decision. It’s wonderful — WONDERFUL — that your husband is on-board with you (trust me, I’ve gotten emails from mothers who are COMPLETELY alone in this, with partners who refuse to acknowledge obvious problems and give the exact same sound bites as your mother about EINSTEIN DIDN’T TALK UNTIL HE WAS THREEEEE). (And look, Einstein had a LOT of problems growing up, genius aside. Personally I’d be JUST FINE with my son not having that much in common with Einstein.)

Let your husband deal with his mother as much as possible, change the subject when she brings it up with you, cut her off with a curt statement about how you simply don’t see the POINT in NOT pursuing the FREE FREAKING THERAPY — it’s a nice teacher coming over with TOYS, for God’s sake, not strapping the kid to a chair and showing them flashcards all Clockwork-Orange style — because if it MIGHT help, why not? It’s certainly not going to hurt her. The end.

You might never change your mother-in-law’s mind. She might still believe that any success your daughter achieves in therapy would have “just happened” anyway. (We get that too.) But it does get easier to ignore. Try to recognize that her judgement says much more about her than you. It really isn’t about you, or even about your daughter. She is not open-minded or intuitive enough to see and accept the truth about your daughter and what she needs, but you are, thank goodness, and since YOU are the parent here, that’s all. That. Matters. Also. The. End.


About the Author

Amy Corbett Storch


Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy’s daily mothering adventures at Ama...

Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy’s daily mothering adventures at Amalah. Also, it’s pronounced AIM-ah-lah.

If there is a question you would like answered on the Advice Smackdown, please submit it to [email protected].

Amy also documented her second pregnancy (with Ezra) in our wildly popular Weekly Pregnancy Calendar, Zero to Forty.

Amy is mother to rising first-grader Noah, preschooler Ezra, and toddler Ike.

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