Since my daughter’s diagnosis of cystic fibrosis, I have heard many comments and received tons of unsolicited advice from people who probably mean well, but who leave me feeling hurt and inept. They might just be words to you, but here are some key phrases to avoid when talking to a parent of a child with special needs.
Parents of children with special needs do not want to be pitied and even more so, don’t want their children to be pitied. Telling someone that you are sorry that their child has autism or Down syndrome may seem like you are offering kindness, but to the parent, it is a statement of shame and misfortune rather than compassion.
Good Thing He Has Such a Great Personality
Maybe the child does have a great personality, but he has more to offer the world than a smile. This statement implies that the child isn’t worth more than his good personality. To the parent it sounds as though you believe the child has no skills, no talents, no intelligence, and is of no worth to the world.
She Looks So Normal / She’s Looks Fine to Me / She Doesn’t Look Sick
These statements are slightly different but lead to the same hurt feelings. The first, “she looks so normal”, means that you don’t think of the child as being normal. That’s painful to a parent who doesn’t want their child to be labeled as different, and have to grow up struggling to overcome that label. The other statements, “she looks fine to me” and “she doesn’t look sick” imply that the parent or the child is making up the condition. Some special needs can’t be seen with the naked eye. If you aren’t an expert, don’t decide that the child doesn’t have a special need just because it isn’t apparent to you.
He’ll Grow Out of It / He’ll Walk or Talk or Eat When He’s Ready
Again, you probably aren’t an expert. Children with special needs are often delayed in developing their motor skills while others won’t ever be able to walk or talk. Chronic conditions aren’t something to be grown out of. It takes a lot of treatment, hard work and determination to overcome each obstacle that the child is facing, if those obstacles can even be overcome. Minimizing the severity of the child’s condition is hurtful to the parents and child who work very hard to improve skills and abilities.
She Just Needs More Discipline / Do You Discipline Her? / Do You Think She Does It for Attention
These statements undermine the parent’s ability to care for his child. You are telling the parent that it is his fault his child behaves the way she does. Some children, due to their condition, are unable to act in age appropriate ways. Helping the child goes beyond discipline and takes a great amount of behavioral therapy.
I Don’t Know How You Do It / It Takes a Special Person to Take Care of a Special Child
These are, in my opinion, the most common statements made to parents of children with special needs. You may mean these words as a compliment to the parent and most parents won’t be too offended by them, but no parent wants to be labeled as the special parent. No one wants to feel like they or their child deserves these obstacles and challenges because they are stronger or have more patience than most people have. In addition, all parents of special needs children feel that they are simply doing what must be done. They don’t believe that anything they do to care for their child is worthy of accolades. They also know that most parents would do the same thing when faced with raising a child with special needs. They don’t want to be singled out as special, especially when these statements aren’t followed up with a “How can I help?”
So what do you say to parents of children with special needs? If you are a friend or family member, ask how you can help and offer to babysit. If you are a stranger, speak to the child directly. If you are caught staring, smile and offer up your own story of a child with special needs in your life. If you want to know about the child’s condition, don’t ask “what’s wrong with her?” but rather “does she have a diagnosis?”
Parents of children with special needs want what we all want – for their child to be accepted and loved. Treating them as though they are better than we are, worse off than we are, or just plain different, can lead to hurt feelings and strained relationships. Please don’t offer advice unless you have lived through the same or similar situation.