It can be difficult knowing what to say to a parent of a special need child. Often people are scared to come right out and ask questions, for fear of upsetting or offending – but often what they say instead is far worse, even when said with the very best of intentions…
There are a number of things that are repeatedly said by well intentioned friends, family members, and strangers, which are not particularly well received when it is YOUR child they are talking about:
- “I know this child who…” this almost always is a story about a child with no adverse medical problems, who was a little late to develop – being compared with your child, who has a medical diagnosis, and a real reason why they may never reach some of their milestones.
- “You’re lucky that…” this is often a comparison to a something perceived as worse, but in reality is not anywhere near what you have experienced “. For example, I recently met a mum whose son was born healthy, and at 6 months developed severe epilepsy – the seizures caused brain damage and severe muscle spasticity. A family friend once said to her, “gee, you’re lucky he didn’t have febrile convulsions, my daughter had them once and those things are really scary”.
- “You’re lucky that…” Yes, there are two of these! The second is the comparison to someone worse off than your child. If you ever say to someone “gee you’re lucky that he didn’t end up with [insert condition]” or “your lucky she’s not as bad as [insert example of worse off child]”, please remember that somewhere, there is a child with that condition, and while it is normal to be grateful things are not “worse”, please have respect for those that have a greater struggle.
- “That kid needs some proper discipline.” In some cases, that might be fair enough to say – however, most of the time, we are not in a position to judge others. A child having a tantrum at the supermarket may well just be a normal kid who didn’t get to put what they wanted in the trolley. They may also be a special needs child having a sensory overload, and not able to cope. This is not discipline related, and really, do you honestly think the parent doesn’t realise their child is screaming in the middle of the supermarket? Are the dirty looks and covered ears really necessary?
- “There’s nothing wrong with him/her”. I touched on this in a previous post. Parents spend a lot of time worrying about their child’s development, and their future. Telling a person who has spent countless days, weeks, months and maybe even years trying to get a diagnosis for their child, and then spending their waking hours trying to overcome that diagnosis, that there is nothing wrong, is NOT helpful. It is belittling, and honestly, it is like getting a slap in the face.
So, what should you say? If you don’t know anything about the diagnosis of the child – ask. Instead of saying, “he looks okay, surely there’s nothing wrong with him”, try saying, “I don’t know much about cerebral palsy (or ASD, or whatever the diagnosis is), could you tell me about it, and how it affects your child”. Or perhaps say, “are you okay, is there anything I can do to help?”. Or you could be really crazy, and say “what’s his name, what is his favourite toy, game, colour etc”.