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Pure Friendship for Individuals with Special Needs
Karen Wang

Handle With Care: 8 Ways Special Needs Parents Can Make Friends

I am not an expert on friendship.  In fact, I have a history of many failed friendships.  But I keep trying, because friendship is the one thing that I value most at this point in my life.  Even though I keep insisting that I’m really an introvert who doesn’t know anything about making and keeping friends, I often get comments and questions like these:
  • “Maybe you could share some ideas on how special needs parents can be a friend to someone with ‘typical’ kids.”
  • “I am drawn to clues that build relationships. I want to be seen as friendly and playful.”
  • “How about what not to say, or what to say, to a special needs Mom? Or how can I help a special needs Mom?”
  • “There are all of these articles for people to better understand how to be a friend to special needs parents, but there's nothing that helps special needs parents with how to be friends with someone whose kids are typical.”

An Emotional Minefield

Friendship can be an emotional minefield between parents of children with special needs and parents of children without disabilities.  I know that I experience a mixture of joy and sadness when friends and family members rattle off their children’s many accomplishments and milestones. On the other side, parents of typical children have confided in me that they don’t know how to approach or what to say to a parent of a child with a they usually say nothing. To complicate matters further, when a child’s disability is discussed among friends, there is a tendency to dismiss it:
  • “Oh, but all kids do that.”
  • “He looks fine to me!”
  • “That’s nothing to worry about, my child is much more medically involved.  She’s had 4 grand mal seizures and 2 emergency room visits so far this month - and we had to replace the toilet after she clogged it with toys again!”
  • “At least he can talk!”

How To Make a Friendship Work

In his philosophical dialogue On Friendship, Cicero points out that the Latin word for friendship, amicitia, comes from the word for love, amor.  Friendship is a spirit of goodwill between two people; ability and disability don’t figure into that definition. There are pitfalls, of course.  I know how those mistakes happen, because I’m guilty of them all. Fortunately, with a little bit of forethought and a lot of afterthought, there are ways to make a friendship between a special needs family and a non-special needs family work.

1. Start with light conversation

Not every conversation among friends needs to be deep and soul-baring.  I try to think of 2 or 3 positive, light-hearted comments to say, and even that can be challenging for me at times.  After spending most of my life baffled by small talk on topics like the weather or movies, I came to realize that it is actually a social cue that opens up conversations.  Friendship When I attended the Friendship Circle’s Mom’s Night Out during the summer, I brought my waterproof camera to the pool.  My friends and I spent the evening laughing about taking pictures of each other jumping into the pool and swimming underwater - the photos were not flattering at all, but provided a great opportunity for fun. Some might say that small talk and goofing around are not meaningful, but mental health professionals agree that these interactions decrease isolation and increase well-being.

2. Know the difference between a friend and a psychotherapist

Some parents of children with disabilities, such as myself, prefer to cut to the chase and talk about what’s really important.  Over-sharing and interrogating are common conversational tactics among some of us, but it puts others on the defensive.  If you find it necessary to apologize for unloading your worries and venting your frustrations every time you talk with a friend, then it may be time to schedule an appointment with a counselor to work through your issues.

3. Keep explanations short and sweet

Parents of typical children are sometimes puzzled by the things I do for my children.  Although I know that I do not owe them an explanation, I found that saying something like, “He needs extra help with ____,” puts them at ease and opens up the possibility of developing the relationship further.

4. Find a common cause

My most amazing experience with parents of typical kids happened when I was recruited to help write grant proposals for a new playground at my son’s school.  Group of FriendsBecause we were all working toward the same goal, I felt accepted and respected.  Acceptance is a two-way street: because I felt accepted, I was able to function as a productive and supportive member of the group.  When we accomplished our goal, we celebrated together. Finding a class, volunteer group or activist group not only provides topics for conversation, but also the sense of inclusion that everyone needs.

5. Reciprocity

I received the following comment on one of my articles: “These same parents -- the ones who spend years unable to maintain the basest elements of the social contract, who forget reciprocity is an important element in relationships -- are baffled as to why their formerly close friends desert them. They aren't seeing the forest for the trees.” For many years, I was unable to reciprocate hospitality among friends and social groups.  I still have difficulty coordinating hospitality when we have out of town guests, because of daily demands at home.  But there are other ways to reciprocate in friendship:
  • Take an hour to treat a friend for coffee while the kids are at a scheduled activity
  • Offer to include your friend’s family in a field trip, or to swap siblings for a short period
  • Invite a friend for a walk at a park
  • Offer a service or creative solution to a problem that is troubling your friend - my friends are always surprised that I have therapeutic lesson plans, educational activities and out-of-the way field trip destinations in the back of my head
  • Explain that your family situation makes it difficult to reciprocate in the usual manner, but that you are open to other ideas

6. Listen without judging

The biggest conflicts in friendship arise from judgment - it could be a false assumption, trivializing another person’s problems or a frustration over the lack of resolution of recurring problems. When my son’s school started incorporating “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People” into the curriculum, I had the most trouble with the fifth habit, “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.”  I think that human instinct is to communicate one’s own needs first, but the way to build relationships to is to slow down, listen and understand another person as a gesture of goodwill.

7. Be involved but not over-involved

Close friends are an exceptional gift.  But closeness is not the same as co-dependency, which can backfire in emotionally charged circumstances.  Another commenter on one of my blogs wrote, “I did all of these things everyone suggested. I cleaned her house, I babysat, I threw a festival to help raise money for their medical bills, sat with them in the hospital, would drop everything to help her and I took them on vacation with us. In the end, she decided I was a bad friend. Told me she doesn't like to see my perfect family, said that she thought I loved her son, but because I was moving I must not. She accused me of hating people with disabilities. I did all of these things as her friend because I felt that's what I would want people to do for me.” Families that are in a long-term crisis may react in unexpected ways, and for me, it’s necessary sometimes to take a step back to reconsider my knee-jerk reactions and dependency on others.

8. Diplomacy

Earlier this year I wrote about IEP diplomacy, and some of the same concepts apply to friendships that we hope to see blossom.  Everyone likes to feel appreciated.  But everyone also needs some space for private thoughts and feelings.  Some may say that it’s dishonest not to share 100% of our thoughts 100% of the time with a friend, or that friendship shouldn’t be handled so delicately.  But I think friendship is too valuable to handle roughly. As Cicero says, “Friendship makes blessed situations more brilliant, dividing troubles and sharing good cheer.”

WRITTEN ON September 29, 2014 BY:

Karen Wang

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"