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Karen Wang
BY Karen Wang

10 hurtful comments from relatives about your child with special needs

One of the painful parts of parenting a child with special needs is dealing with comments and questions from concerned family members.  Most of the time, these remarks arise from love for the child and consideration for the well-being of the whole family.

But the questions and comments don’t always come out that way, and the fallout may shatter family relationships.

Tact and gentleness are necessary when discussing disabilities and developmental delays – especially in children, because the long-term prognosis is often unknown.  Here I’ve collected some real-life quotes along with some suggestions to soften the dialogue for more constructive purposes.

1. “It’s just a phase.  You’re over-reacting!”
Instead: “You seem to have a lot of concerns.  If you want to talk about it, I’m ready to listen.”

2. “She looks normal to me.  She just needs a little help with _____.”
Instead: “What type of support does your child need?”

3. “Maybe if you didn’t _____, then he wouldn’t _____.”
Instead: “What can I do to alleviate some of the stress?”  Or offer to do something specific for the family, such as mowing the lawn, making dinner, taking the child outdoors to play for 15 minutes, tidying up the toys – whatever you are capable of doing at that moment.

4. “Can’t you just…?”
Instead: “I guess there are no easy answers in this situation, but you’ll always have my love and support.”

5. “Haven’t you tried _____?”
Instead: “I keep hearing about new therapies.  Is there something I can research for you?”

6. “Does he talk yet?”
Instead: “How are you?  Tell me about the wonderful things that your child has been doing lately.”

7. “I’m glad you’re finally doing something about your child.”
Instead: “I can see that you’re working hard to do what’s best for your child.  It’s been difficult for me to observe everything that’s happened, but I’m here for you.”

8. “Did you read the Newsweek article/see the story on the news about _____?”
Instead: “I want to learn more about _____.  Could you recommend some reliable sources of information?”

9. “Why are you so sensitive about this?  I’m only trying to help.”
Instead: “I love you and I love your family.  What can I do to help?”

10. Silence – no phone calls, e-mails, birthday cards or holiday visits.
Instead: Pick up the phone and say, “How are you?  I was just thinking about you today.”

Have you received well-intended but hurtful comments from family members?  What would you rather hear instead?

Karen Wang

Written on July 26, 2012 by:

Karen Wang is a Friendship Circle parent. You may have seen her sneaking into the volunteer lounge for ice cream or being pushed into the cheese pit by laughing children. She is a contributing author to the anthology "My Baby Rides the Short Bus: The Unabashedly Human Experience of Raising Kids With Disabilities"
  • AnnMarie Deis

    Ummmmm, No. 9 is a constant for someone who has and has a child with food allergies. I wish I could carry a recorder with me to play back what it sounds like to the people who speak ill words. But methinks that would land me in a heap of trouble. Thank you, Karen, for writing this piece. 🙂

  • Sabrina

    I get no support from my family when I try to discuss with them that my daughter has dyslexia. They keep telling me that until I get her officially diagnosed with it they don’t want to hear it.  It makes it hard to not be able to discuss the struggles I have with her when working with her on her writing and reading.   I just wish I could call them and say I have had such a hard day today and they would say tell me about it and  lets see what we can figure out that you can try to help her .

  • Cindybriz

    My daughter has Asperger’s and Bipolar and instead of following her plan designed by a team of specialists, my family is constantly giving into her every whim and blaming her behaviors on the rest of us who live with her…they look for reasons why she struggles instead of focusing on what helps her…This type of “help” has hurt all of us very deeply and is destroying our relationships with them…very sad for the rest of my kids who are left feeling like they aren’t important and just don’t matter…

  • Chrissiet63

    I would just like family to acknowledge my son has special needs instead of completely ignoring it. But then again, I’d probably, no most likely get all that wonderful advice listed above.

  • Olivia575

    I let my relationship w/ a very close cousin, who was like a sister to me, deteriorate after she told me that maybe I should have had an abortion after I told her about the stress, emotions and worries I deal with. This happened about 6-9 months my son was diagnosed w/ Classic Autism.

    • KJC

      Wow, and I thought my family’s downplaying and lack of involvement was bad. I hope the rest of your family is more supportive. I have an almost 6 yr old son with classic autism and apraxia, so he is verbally delayed. We are hopeful that he will speak some time.

      Hang in there,

      • hozhoni01

        Thx! And no, we have no support.  The only people who seem to care are my coworkers, of whom two are very good friends I can call on when I need to. We do everything ourselves with some aid from my son’s PCA 2x a week for a few hours.  So thankful for her.  My son is about 75% non verbal.  He’s made a lot of strides within the past year.

  • Jeniferrburks

    You forgot the classic one I have heard many times, maybe a little discipline (corporal punishment) would help.  I am sure if he visited me he wouldn’t act like that for long.  Really?  Really?  

  • Carolwright14u

    My daughter was called a “retard” by  a young rheumatologist. When I got through with her She was crying. I Left her office without being seen and I wrote a letter to the hospital president. Just remember many people care.

  • I had a cousin (who’s a complete idiot) ask me if my son “really” has special needs.  I said yes and her response was “oh, that is sooooo sad”.  I spun her around to look at my child and told her “look at my child, he’s happy, he’s healthy, he’s loved, he has friends.  What about my child do you think is sad?  That he learns differently?  That he has trouble speaking?  There is nothing sad about my child – my child is amazing. You, on the other hand, you are very sad indeed”.  I haven’t spoken to her since.  What would I prefer to hear?  Your son has special needs?  I didn’t know that – what exactly does that mean for him?

  • JoanneBastante

    It’s hard to have thick skin when talking about your children. I have a son with Down syndrome and am astounded how little most people understand about it. I learned from another mother that if we intend to make a more positive impact and raise awareness, we too need tact and gentleness. The reality is that most people do not intend to hurt us or the child. When someone says something that is a bit offensive, it gives us an opportunity to present the truth (hence dispel myths based on fears and lack of knowledge).

  • Idahosprout

    Great article.

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  • Maybe time to share a little uplift.
    What the Paralympics mean to us parents of special-needs children

  • ariannehowell

    I guess these are not the right words that you could say for those who has a special needs because they are still human and needs love and affection. They are maybe special but they are still God’s children.

    Child Development Adelaide

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