One of the unfortunate parts of parenting a child with special needs is dealing with misguided comments and questions from relatives. Though most of the time these remarks arise from good intentions and consideration for the well-being of the family, the questions and comments can do more harm than good if they are hurtful and insensitive.
Tact is necessary when discussing disabilities and developmental delays, especially in children because the long-term outcome is often unknown. Here are some common hurtful comments, along with explanations on why you should never say that to a parent of a special needs child.
1. “He/She looks so normal”
These comments are often paraded as well-intended but are actually extremely offensive. What is normal anyway? Using words like typical, age-appropriate, even average is acceptable but not being “normal” implies that their child is in fact “abnormal”.
2. “I didn’t know anything was wrong with him/her.”
There is nothing “wrong” with their child. While they may have physical, mental or developmental challenges that most children don’t have, that doesn’t mean there is anything “wrong” and to suggest that is offensive to the sentiments of the parents.
3. “She/he’s going to grow out of it, right?”
People don’t “grow out” of autism or other developmental conditions, it is a lifelong condition. What can be hoped for is continued progress that leads to an independent life, but with the knowledge that these difficulties are lifelong.
4. “My aunt’s brother’s cousin has autism, so I know what it’s like” or “My cousin has autism, too. He’s really good at math. What is your child gifted in?”
While these comments may be intended to make the parents feel like they’re not alone, they are often misguided. A famous quote reads, “If you’ve met one child with autism, you have met one child with autism.” – this is to highlight the fact that every child with autism has their unique challenges along with the unique challenges faced by their parents. Do not suggest that you know what their struggle is like, because you probably don’t.
5. “God only gives you what you can handle.”
This is another hot button issue for most parents because it implies that their child’s condition was a result of “fate”. It is absurd to suggest that God chose them and said, “they can handle a whole lot of difficulties and stress, so I think I will give them a whole lot of extra hard work to deal with, and in the process, I’ll cause their child to struggle and face multiple barriers to development and growth”. More importantly, it shuts down the conversation when a parent is asking for extra help or support, leaving them to fend for themselves. Hence, this comment is a highly problematic one.
6. “She/He’s one of God’s special angels.”
If I thought this was something you say about all children, it might be acceptable, but reserving it for children with special needs is just patronizing and implies “otherness”.
7. “It’s just a phase. You’re over-reacting!”
Understand that it is not your place to suggest how parents should react when their child has been diagnosed with a lifelong condition. Refrain from suggesting that “it will be over soon” because quite possibly, a lot of hard work lies ahead for them. Instead, try saying “You seem really concerned, If you want to talk about it, I’m ready to listen and support in any way I can”
8. “Is it genetic?”
For parents who were previously unaware of their own genetic predisposition, bringing up this fact is not only hurtful but counterintuitive as not much can be done about what has transpired in the past, and the parents are doing whatever is possible. For other parents for whom the disability does not have a genetic cause, the undertone of this question is that you are wondering if they are somehow to blame for causing their child’s challenges.
9. “It must be nice getting to relax all day since you don’t have a job.”
Taking care of children with special needs is a lot of hard work and a full-time commitment. Whether the parent works outside of the home or not, assume they have a full-time responsibility that does not leave them with a whole lot of time for leisure.
10. Radio silence – no phone calls, e-mails, birthday wishes or holiday visits.
While hurtful comments can be difficult to deal with, silence and the implied abandonment by the family who find it difficult to empathize with the circumstances can be even more heartbreaking. Instead, pick up the phone and check up on them from time to time and offer your support whenever possible.