Differences are difficult to navigate. When we avoid saying the wrong thing, our silence can be deafening. When we wait for others to act, we risk no action at all.
As the mother of a special needs child, I can tell you that life can be isolating.
When your child is different than the children of your peers, it makes social situations challenging, exhausting, and at times, lonely. And I get it! When I meet children whose needs differ from my own, the conversation can be difficult to navigate. What if I don’t use the right words? What if I accidentally say something offensive? What if she doesn’t want to talk about it? What if my kid says something embarrassing about her child? Supporting other moms can feel like a delicate dance– but it doesn’t need to be! Here’s what you can do to support the mom of a special needs child.
Ask Her Your Questions
Asking questions is a sign that someone cares. It might feel awkward or risky to ask about someone’s child, but chances are, they will be happy to share what they know. Are you wondering how to address a behavior? Wondering what the doctors say? Wondering how you can help? Curious about a child’s disability? Unsure of how open your friend is about their child’s differences? Chances are, your friend would love to share with you. Moms of special needs kids want their children to be known and accepted. Personally, I love talking about my child and I’m happy to answer anything you want to know. Even if your friend is caught off guard or uncomfortable discussing the issues right then, the simple act of asking shows that you care. Chances are, she’ll share more when she’s ready– and she’ll feel safe sharing with you, knowing that you care.
Listen To Understand
When you do ask questions, it’s important to be ready for the answer. Like any vulnerable aspect of life, it’s hard to dive into a well of emotional information without the security of a focused listener. In my experience, it’s difficult to have a deep conversation while wrestling with multiple kids at a playground or chasing after your kids at the zoo. You may need to consider the environment and whether you’ll be available to actively listen.
If it’s the first time you’ve discussed the subject or have a question that may have a lengthy answer, consider getting together without kids. Set up a time to talk in-depth about how your friend is doing, or simply share that you’d like the opportunity to learn more. I’ve had several conversations between pushes on the swings or trips around the block pushing strollers. Other times, I’ve met with friends separately to talk things over. Sometimes a heads up helps moms prepare to share– it may be new or emotional to discuss how their child is doing with someone outside the household.
Put Your Fears Aside
Yep, you might feel awkward. You might stumble over your words or not understand. That’s okay. I’ve never met a mother of a special needs child who wasn’t ready to give grace and explain misunderstandings to those who care about her and her child. You won’t offend her by asking about how she or her child is doing! If you don’t know her well, you may want to start with a few specific compliments about what you enjoy about her child, and then ask away! Consider framing your questions based on how you might include her child — what does he or she like best? Are there any specific things to avoid?
Invite Her Along
It’s easy to assume that certain environments aren’t the best fit for a special needs child, but never make assumptions on behalf of a momma and her family. You may be surprised at what moms can do to help their child be successful. Even if the outing isn’t a good fit, being invited means a lot. You could even ask if there’s anything specific you could do to help. When my son was younger, it was hard work to raise him alongside his peers, to work up the energy and courage to attend playdates with other moms. Being invited opened the door for crucial social interactions with peers, something kids of all abilities desperately need!
If your friend shares something specific with you, do your best to follow up with her. Did she mention an upcoming appointment that might give the family new answers? Is she trying a new therapy or returning after quarantine? There’s rarely a dull moment when parenting a child with special needs. Most likely, there’s a skill she’s trying to tackle, an appointment she’s trying to schedule, or a new intervention she’s working to research. Mark your calendar or set a reminder on your phone to reach out and see how that specific thing is going. I’ve had many a day brightened by a friend reaching out to check on me, my family, or my son. If you think about her or wonder how she’s doing, let her know! It never hurts to reach out.
While there may not be a mom of a special needs child in your immediate circle, I’m sure you don’t have to look far to find one. In an age of social media, the world is at your fingertips. Is there a friend from high school who posts about her child’s struggles? Send her a message! Is there a neighbor closeby who you might reach out to? A mom who seems isolated at pick up or drop off at school or daycare? As we reenter a world where all kids have sacrificed socially, consider how you widen your circle and invite others in. You may gain more than you could imagine!
If you’re looking for more information on parenting a child with special needs or places to connect, here are a few places to connect on social media: