9 Things Never to Say to a Parent of a Special Needs Child

9 Things Never to Say to a Parent of a Special Needs Child

By Amanda Greene Kelly

If you know a mom or dad of a special needs child, you probably want to let them know that they have your support. But plenty of well-meaning statements can come across the wrong way. Read on for nine lines-all heard by real moms-that are likely to offend, plus ideas for what to say instead. Photo by Thinkstock

1. "Wow, you must be so busy."

You're probably trying to empathize by implying that this mom is maxed out with responsibilities. But it comes across as condescending. "We may have to schedule therapy visits around soccer practices and might even know the receptionist at the hospital by name, but we're doing what we must to survive-just like parents of typically developing kids," says Emily Vanek, who writes about her son's special needs at ColoradoMoms.com. The best thing Vanek heard from a buddy? "'You're doing a great job.' That made me feel like I was keeping it together enough for people to notice." And instead of remarking on your friend's stress levels, offer support. Joni Eareckson Tada, disabilities advocate and founder of Joni and Friends International Disability Center, suggests trying: "You have a group of friends-me included-who aren't going to let you go through this alone. We're here for you!"
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2. "I'm sorry."

While a sympathetic statement like this seems inoffensive, it can put the person you're saying it to in a tough spot. As Vanek explains, "How am I supposed to answer that that? 'Don't worry'? 'Thank you'?" Think of their child as any other. "I want my kid compared to everyone else's kids and treated like his brothers and sisters who don't have special needs," says Mary Anne Ehlert, founder and president of Protected Tomorrows, an organization that provides support to families with special needs children. "Ask about the child's friends or her hobbies. Or ask them for a playdate."

3. "You're lucky you have a normal kid too."

Along with "But he looks so normal!" this implies that there's something wrong with your friend's child. According to Marie Hartwell-Walker, a psychologist who works for the Massachusetts Department of Developmental Services and author of the upcoming e-book Tending the Family Heart When the Children Have Special Needs, this line negates the value of a child with disabilities. "Most parents love all of their children. They shouldn't have to defend that love." So offer to listen, but don't try to solve what you deem to be a problem. "Most families embrace their child and find meaning in their relationship and experience. They usually welcome support, but they don't need to debate family and friends who have an idea of the 'right' way to think about it."
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4. "He'll catch up."

"As a parent of a 4-year-old with the vocabulary of a 9- - 12-month-old, hearing this is similar to nails on a chalkboard," says Vanek. "He physically cannot speak. While I certainly hope he can someday, hearing that he'll catch up doesn't help, especially when we've had him in speech therapy for the past three years." Children with intellectual disabilities will have many accomplishments, says Hartwell-Walker, but it's unlikely they all will "catch up" to their typical peers. "When confronted with that statement, a parent has to explain what may be a painful truth." Instead, suggests Ehlert, ask about their child's unique abilities and interests. "What are her hobbies? What's her favorite book?"

5. "You should take care of yourself so you can take care of him."

While it's true that any mom needs to look after herself as well as her family, suggesting an unrealistic getaway or "me time" can be presumptuous-and offensive. "I'd love a trip to the spa or a week when I don't have to coordinate hours of therapy around my family's schedule," says Vanek. "But it's not realistic. And I don't think I'm less of a parent for putting my child's needs ahead of my own desire for a pedicure." If you sense your friend can't get away, offer to pick up some of the slack for her. Hartwell-Walker suggests that friends take on carpool duties, make meals now and then or babysit so that the parents can enjoy a date night. "It's a cliché, but it really does take a village. Help without an expectation of reciprocity provides a family with much needed respite."
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6. "We're only given what we can handle."

What you may intend as a compliment can come across as a meaningless platitude. Plus, "it implies that you're supposed to be able to handle it," says Ehlert. "But some days you can't handle it. Some days you feel like you can't go on any longer." Saying something like this may even make your friend feel like she can't discuss her worries and feelings with you because she's "supposed" to be balancing everything well. Again, it's better to lend an ear-or give her a break. An offer to help your friend find a support group for parents of special needs children can be helpful as well, Ehlert says, so long as your pal seems receptive to the idea.

7. "Have you tried..."

Though you may be trying to help or show your friend you've taken an interest in the subject, suggesting treatments or medications can offend. "I don't care what you've read in a magazine or what your cousin's hairdresser told you. Unless you're living in my house, observing my child 24 hours a day, consulting the specialists we consult, doing the research we've been forced to do, you have no idea what you're talking about," says Terri Mauro, About.com guide to Children with Special Needs and mother of two kids with special needs. Tada suggests saying something like, "Any disability is a scary thing, but I want to work alongside you to find the best resources available."
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8. "Kids aren't really autistic--they just need discipline."

"Autistic kids can't control their emotions as well as others, and children with sensory disorders sometimes have big reactions to small changes or sounds," says Vanek. "They can't help it, and most times the parents can't control it." Instead of blaming moms and dads, recognize their strengths, advises Hartwell-Walker. "Parents of kids with special needs sometimes feel anxious, uncertain and exhausted. Acknowledge how well they're parenting a child with challenging behaviors."

9. "What's wrong with him?"

Michelle Turner, a mother of two children with special needs, has had everyone from grocery-store baggers to strangers in the library ask this in front of her kids. "I know that people want to know everything, but sometimes even the parents don't have all the answers. It took our family three years to get a complete picture on my son's wellbeing." As Mauro points out, "I need to guard my child's privacy; there are appropriate places and reasons to talk about his special needs, but 'in public' and 'because you're curious' are not among them." A better approach: Highlight the positives. Say, "Wow, he has such a great smile!" or "What a cute outfit!" "Statements like these will allow a parent a moment to be proud and talk about something special that they're doing for their child," says Turner.
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Original article appeared on WomansDay.com.

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