Parenting is a tough job. Parenting a special needs child is a tougher one. And as human beings interacting with a special needs parent, we have the opportunity to make things a little bit better or a little bit worse. Here are some things you need to know if you’re hoping to do the former.
- It is rude to stare. Kids with special needs will often look different or behave differently to other children. This does not give you the right to stare, judge or gawp at them. These kids and their parents already have their plates full. They don’t need the added discomfort of your judgements. What to do instead? If you see a child having a meltdown in the shopping centre, how about asking the parent if there’s anything you can do to help.
- Don’t offer sympathy. It may seem strange to those of you not in this situation, but parents of special needs kids want to be treated like normal families – not like some charity case to be pitied. Yes they have bigger challenges, yes they have things they feel sad about, but they’re also proud of their kids, and have incredible gifts from their children that you could never understand if you didn’t stand in their shoes either.
- Never use insulting labels. Believe it or not, there are still people who will call a child a ‘retard’ or other such derogatory names. Please be aware of the language that you use and how hurtful this can be. We’re very aware of racist or homophobic comments and so should we be with any kind of intolerance.
- Be inclusive. If there is a special needs child at your school or in your child’s class, include them in parties and play dates. Go beyond your own fear and discomfort and allow these children to be part of the greater community. You will be surprised how much you will learn from them and you will give your own children the opportunity to go beyond labels and judgements.
- Don’t judge the parents. Parents of special needs kids are likely to be more tired, stressed, and overwhelmed with daily tasks than you are. Give them a break. If you see them losing their temper, know that they have probably been pushed beyond their limits. Give them a break. Even better, lend them a hand.
- Stop talking about your perfect child. Parenting a special needs child can be scary and lonely, and parents can often feel jealous of others whose lives are less complicated. They may even resent you and your child for getting to do the ‘normal’ childhood stuff and celebrate the ‘normal’ childhood milestones. Of course you are happy for your child, but be sensitive about not rubbing it in.
- Watch your questions. Please do interact with parents of special needs kids, but don’t bombard them with questions. They will talk when they are ready to talk, and some days (like all of us) they just don’t feel like discussing the intricacies of what they are going through. Have normal conversations. Speak to them like other parents – they are. And don’t ask: “What is wrong with your child?”
- Special needs parents are parents just like you. They love their children. They have good days and bad. They have challenges and joys. They worry about their child’s future. They want to talk about their child’s achievements. They need friends and date nights and girl’s nights and time out and a shoulder to cry on – just like you.
Every child is special. Every child is unique and has their own specific challenges, talents, gifts, and difficulties. Keep this in mind whenever you want to judge any parent, and particularly one with a special needs child. You have no idea what someone else is dealing with, what kind of a night they’ve had, when last they slept, what new obstacle has just been thrown in their path. If we start every interaction with another human being by first understanding where they’re coming from, we are more likely to be kind, considerate and compassionate. Every parent is trying their best. Let’s start with that assumption.