You may have seen the special needs parent memes talking about how we need more coffee than other parents, and we totally do (or at least that's my justification for my caffeine addiction). But in all seriousness, there's actually a lot you can do and say to parents of kids with special needs that can make things a little easier.
Being a special needs parent can feel incredibly stressful and isolating. It's a job I've been doing for over 16 years now, and while it changes, it never really gets easy. Every kid is unique and has specific needs, and there are all kinds of different challenges parents face. There's no one-size-fits all playbook here, but these are a few things that have helped over the years.
Realize That Every Child Is Different
My son is on the autism spectrum, and there's this great saying in the autism community: "If you've met one person with autism, you've met one person with autism." That's true for all disabilities and challenges (and basically all humans in general). We're all different, and our kids are all different too. The depictions you've seen on TV or the people you've met in your life are not a version of my kid just because they happen to have the same label.
When someone tells you their child has a special need, ask them what that's like for them or just listen to their experience. Know it will be totally unique.
Really Listen Without Offering Advice
When it comes to listening, sometimes we need you to do just that. Listen. You don't have to offer solutions or try to fix the "problem." I get it. It's totally normal to want to help when someone you love is struggling; what people often need in these times is someone to listen and empathize.
One way to do this is to reflect back what they say in new terms, showing that you're listening. This is especially important when the other person is talking about their feelings.
There's a lot of pressure on special needs parents to see the beauty and happy parts of their kids and their parenting experience. The thing is, we're human, and we're doing a hard job that can involve frustration, loss, and grief. Sometimes we really need someone to listen to the hard parts.
Support Special Needs Parents in Their Self Care
Early on, most special needs parents learn that they need to take care of themselves in order to take care of their kids. This is easier said than done, though. Anything you can do to help, whether it's hanging with the kid at their house for a couple hours so the parent can get some alone time or just inviting your friend to lunch when you know they can get away.
I have a teenager on the spectrum now, and he's fairly high functioning. Yet I find this is one of the points in life that I need self care more than ever. I need breaks (officially called a "respite") in order to maintain my patience and try to avoid eating my own young. My parents help with that a lot, taking him overnight one or two nights a week to give me a little space.
Reach Out to That Special Needs Family at the Playground
If you've ever been to a playground with kids, you know how they tend to congregate around the equipment and sometimes even play together with kids they haven't met before. Not all kids do that, though, and having a kid that's different can feel super isolating. Some kids can't use the equipment easily, and some don't interact with other kids in a typical way.
I used to sit and watch my kid line up and count all the wood chips while the other kids were playing together. A lot of the time, other parents didn't talk to me at all, but when they did, I really appreciated it. Even just a smile makes that other parent feel included, and that matters more than most people know.
Celebrate Their Victories With Them
When you have a typically developing baby or young kid, every milestone can feel like a miracle. Those first steps and words are amazing! But when you have a kid with special needs, those milestones often don't happen in the same way or at the same time.
Parents of children with disabilities or special needs often have to work really hard to help their kids reach some of the milestones. We're talking hours of physical, occupation, speech, and other types of therapy, plus tons of time reinforcing things at home. When their kid reaches a milestone (in their own way and their own time), this is a huge victory and the culmination of a lot of effort. Celebrate this victory with the family.
Help Them Be an Advocate for Their Child
Many people don't realize that parents of kids with special needs often need to advocate for their kids. They need to make sure the kids are getting the support they need at school, the medical care (and insurance coverage) they need in the health system, and the social and practical support they need to be included in daily living activities. That's a lot of conflict sometimes for the parents, and it can be exhausting.
Help them advocate in any way you can. Once, when a school was going to dismiss my son from services he really needed, my dad called the state department of education for me. That call changed everything for my son at that school. A million other times, my mom read through my son's individualized education plan (IEP) and gave really good advice about how to make the goals better.
You don't have to step in and make calls or read documents to help a parent advocate. Offer to play with their kid for an hour so they can fill out forms or check over IEPs. Give them positive feedback when you see them changing the world for their kid. It really matters.
See What Makes Their Child Special
Having a child who is different can be a beautiful thing. Sure, it's incredibly stressful and frustrating at times, but it's also lovely. There are times when my son says something so wise or beautiful that it brings tears to my eyes. I love it when people see past the strange things he does or says and bear witness to the beauty in his soul.
A child with special needs is special in ways that have nothing to do with their needs or even in ways that exist because of their needs. One of the best ways you can support a special needs parent is to really see their kid for the miracle they are.
What to Say to a Special Needs Parent
You know how there are times when someone says something, and it's just the exact thing you needed to hear in that moment? These are a few things you can say that might feel like that to a parent of a kid with challenges:
- I love the way he/she/they [insert positive thing the kid is doing].
- How are you really doing?
- You're the exact parent your child really needs. No one would do a better job.
- You don't have to be a superhero. You just have to do the best you can, and you totally are.
- You aren't alone. Let's hang out or chat.
- How can I help you find some time to do something for you?
Six Things Not to Say to a Special Needs Parent
When people say the wrong thing, it usually comes from a place of not understanding other perspectives. These are a few things you should try not to say to parents of children with disabilities or challenges:
- He's totally normal. You just need to relax.
- You just need to be better about discipline.
- What's wrong with your kid?
- When I was a kid, people didn't let their children act like that.
- I don't know how you do it.
- Your kid looks perfectly normal. I had no idea.
Just Show You Care
The fact that you're thinking about how to support a special needs parent means you're already on the right track. The key is just knowing that every kid and every family is different, and the way they experience and respond to challenges is unique, too. If you're not sure how to help, just ask what they need. Just showing you care matters so much.