During the past 12 years of parenting special needs children, I have heard a lot of comments from strangers, family, and even friends that want to help, but end up saying things that do the exact opposite.
I won’t go as far as to say that these phrases are offensive because most people really do mean well, but sometimes they way they express their thoughts comes off as judgemental, critical, or patronizing.
So, if you were ever wondering what to NOT to say to a parent of a child with special needs, I have narrowed it down to my five favorites.
1. "Can’t you just…”
Oh, if only I had a nickel for every time someone has said this to me!
Upon learning of my daughter’s feeding tube, I’ve had people ask, “Can’t you just make her eat?”
When I share how infrequently we are able to go on date nights, I inevitably hear, “Can’t you just get a babysitter?”
The list could go on and on, but the bottom line is, if I “could just,” I “would have” already.
Saying this to someone is presuming they have not already exhausted every avenue trying to solve the problem that you seem to have a “simple solution” for five minutes after meeting them; it’s really patronizing.
2. “I don’t know how you do it!”
It sounds innocent enough, and it’s the most oft-repeated phrase I’ve heard, and I don’t really know how to respond most times.
“I do it because I have to.” sounds like taking care of my kids is a detestable chore, which could not be farther from the truth.
And yet that is the truth; I do it because I don’t have a choice.
Because what is the alternative? Crawl under the covers and hide from the world?
Not an option here.
- 3. “You’re a Superwoman”
I know this one is meant to be a compliment, but I honestly think all parents are superheroes in their own ways.
We all struggle with different things; we all have challenges. We all have our strengths and our weaknesses.
When someone calls me a Supermom, I feel like I have to live up to an image I don’t deserve.
4. “What can they do?”
I get this one a lot when new-to-us people learn that my daughter has autism.
They automatically assume she is some sort of savant, and are disappointed when I tell them otherwise.
She’s a 12-year-old girl with autism and intellectual disabilities.
She has a silly sense of humor, loves the color pink, her trampoline, and music.
And she gives the best hugs, ever. That should be enough. She is enough, just the way she is.
5. “I’m sorry!”
I’ve heard this one a lot pertaining to my kids’ diagnosis, in particular with my daughter’s autism and intellectual disability.
It often comes with what I refer to as the “pity head tilt” if it’s done face to face.
Even though diagnosis does not define a person, it is part of who they are.
Imagine being the child and people apologizing to your parents for you being - you.
As I said, most people really do mean well when they say most of these things, but if you want to offer support, it’s probably best to steer away from assumptions or unsolicited advice, however well-intentioned it may be.
Most of the time, parents of special needs kids just need a little encouragement and someone to listen.
That, and a great deal of strong coffee!