Written with thanks to my friend Mark Brown, among a few others, who encouraged me to write on this topic.
Well-intentioned people accidentally say hurtful things all the time. To a parent of a child with special needs, like me, this can be amplified. Here are some common questions and suggestions for positive ways to express care and concern for these people in your life:
When I share that I have a child with special needs, instead of saying “I’m sorry to hear that,” you may consider asking, “Would you like to talk more about what that means for your child/your family?”
When you see my children and want to ask how old they are, consider what you might say if you already knew their ages. If you are also thinking, “What cute kids,” or “They seem so happy,” please share those positive thoughts. I might not feel like telling you that the child you’re admiring is 5 ½, not 3 ½ as he probably looks and may be acting right now.
If I mention that my son has challenges, please do not ask me what is wrong with him. It does not welcome a warm response. Trust me. Instead you can ask a number of other questions like, “What do some of his challenges look like?” or “What things has he recently been working on or overcome?” Help us both focus on the positives of what he can do and is showing progress toward. This will help you get to know him as well as how his diagnosis currently impacts him.
If we look tired, overwhelmed, or you haven’t seen us in a while, check in on us. A simple text, phone call, or message on social media saying something like this goes a long way, “Hey, I’ve been thinking about you guys lately and miss seeing you. How are things going? Can we come bring a meal or visit soon?”
I inadvertently land in “hermit mode” when things feel too heavy to bear or I’m overwhelmed with things going on. If I stay in my shell long enough, the dark gets comfortable and I don’t always feel like emerging to ask for help, nor do I necessarily even know what I’d like help with.
Instead of asking if there is anything you can do to help, try offering to bring a meal (or a bottle of wine, cup of coffee, or another treat to share) or to come and help me fold laundry, mow the lawn, or assist with another household task you like to do. It is easier to say “yes” to a specific request than trying to come up with something specific you might be interested in doing on my own.
If you ever want to talk about something you perceive may be a sensitive subject, it’s okay to tell me that you’re feeling that way. Some of the most beautiful conversations I’ve had began with, “I’m not quite sure how to bring this up or talk about it, so I was wondering if you could help me understand _____ or learn more about _____” If you’re brave enough to ask, I’ll find the courage to answer.
All in all, let this verse drive you in our conversations, and we’ll get along just fine:
“May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be pleasing to you, O LORD, my rock and my redeemer,” Psalm 19:14 (NLT).