“She’s really such a beautiful girl,” the mother of a classmate offered as our children skipped hand-in-hand toward the playground. Smiling, I thanked her and mentioned how much my daughter loves playing with hers.
As the day went on, I thought about how, to a parent of typically developing children, that exchange wouldn’t cause a moment of pause. But to a special needs parent – to be honest – some of the common reassurances and cliches can leave a lasting sting.
We know people mean well and want to be supportive. And we tell ourselves to be less sensitive, to remember that in your shoes, we may likely have uttered some of the same things we now dread hearing.
There’s no doubt that to someone outside of our lives, it isn’t intuitive what to say and what to avoid. So, to help make things easier on both sides, I will attempt to demystify the emotional minefield!
Special needs parents never want to be the recipients of pity. If you feel badly when you think about our life situation, that may be natural, but it’s best if we can’t tell you’re feeling sad for us.
A good rule of thumb is:
Would you say the same thing to someone who didn’t have a child with special needs?
5 Things NOT to say
1. She’s a beautiful child
The somber, wistful tone is what makes this one hurt. Often people say it as if leading with a silent “But at least….”
“‘Oh, he looks normal’ is not a compliment.”–Melissa Montoya
Even if you mean they have a beautiful soul, it still has a way of coming across as if that’s the only thing you can think to praise, because other qualities might be lacking.
Using the typical child guideline, you’d generally compliment a child’s skill set or particular action. “It was so nice when….” not their physical appearance. Stop complimenting little girls looks is a great article for more on this trending topic.
2. My child learns so much from your child
We know this is likely true, because we’ve learned immense amounts from our child too! It’s a really kind sentiment, but…. if any part what’s being learned came as a result of seeing how challenging things are for our child, this can’t make us feel good.
If what’s being learned is how to accept / be kind to others with differences, or to be grateful for one’s own good fortune, those things don’t come from anything our child is actively ‘doing’ to teach others or would make us proud.
The fact that our child’s struggles can help teach others life lessons is wonderful. But it’s a small consolation and if we could take away their challenges and leave the world with one less person to learn from, we would in a heartbeat!
3. He’s happy, so that’s all that matters
This one falls into the category – we can lie to ourselves and say it – but you can’t. Because really, so much more than happiness matters in life.
Things like whether they can communicate their basic wants and needs, whether they can dress themselves, whether they can read. These things do matter. A lot. If they didn’t then everyone could simply forget school and work and go around being ridiculously happy all of the time!
And also, if this were true, when we take our children for medical procedures or anywhere that may make them extremely anxious and unhappy, are we horrible for taking away the only thing that matters? ….It’s a cliche simply best avoided.
4. I don’t know how you do it / I could never • You’re a superhero • God gives special kids to special people
This group of ‘compliments’ are often the hardest hitting. It may seem as if we do heroic things on the daily, but we know we aren’t doing more than most people would, given the same situation. We are ordinary parents who’ve been required to step up.
This good-natured praise can make some people feel good, but it can also make our hearts ache because it’s a reminder of just how different our lives are than other parents. And unlike saying “I don’t know how you to it / I could never” to someone with a new baby or a temporary hardship, we may not have an end in sight to the difficult times.
“I’m not handling my daughter’s disability because God gave me as much as I can handle. It’s actually because of my own resilience and determination to make our lives as normal as possible.” –Serena Fuller
Whether or not God intentionally gives anyone a child who has serious life challenges is also risky terrain, not knowing someone’s religious beliefs. I personally don’t believe God wants any innocent children to suffer.
5. She’s so lucky to have you
The way we see it, our kids have not really been handed a tremendous amount of luck in their lives. We certainly aren’t egotistical enough to count ourselves among it.
Especially when we often feel like we’re failing them, regardless of whether you say we aren’t. Some parents may even feel they environmentally or genetically failed their kids and contributed to issues, so complex emotions may be triggered with this statement.
If it can be morphed into a more descriptive compliment that convinces us we’re truly doing a few extraordinary things, then it may work! Some suggestions for that and other words that could make us smile are …..
5 Things TO say:
Of course these are only a handful of examples. Any genuine sentiment applicable to someone you know can work perfectly! Please also know, you don’t really need to ‘compliment’ us at all.
Actions can show so much more than words and we already know by your friendship that you care.
Being a true friend, sharing life’s real moments, supporting one another, those are the things we need and the things we want to give! Your interest in our lives and ready smile will brighten our day more than any specific words.
Listen to our stories.
Tell us yours.
Laugh with us.
For a moment, we may forget there are differences.
And in that moment, you may have brightened our whole week.
And for many moments to come, we will smile when we think about the gift of your friendship and appreciate it more than you may ever know.
To find our blog and Facebook Group for parents of children with special needs please visit Recovering Kids
*A special thank you to each and every one of my incredible friends for always being supportive and especially to Laura (Rowley) Lippert and Julie Obradovich for sharing laughs during an autism event in this photo.