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Tyler Jacobson
BY Tyler Jacobson

Say This, Not That: 7 Talking Tips for Parents of Teens with Special Needs

Raising young children is hard work. Then your kids reach the teen years, and it becomes a different kind of hard. Teenagers can be difficult to read and even harder to communicate with. Raising teens with special needs can add complexity to that communication. As a parent, you worry about what kids and adults might say to your young person, but it also helps to be aware of your own communication. Here are some tips that might be helpful for a parent—or anyone else—who communicates with teens with special needs.

1. Listen First

It’s been proven that, while we can speak at a rate of 125 words per minute, we can listen faster: about 400 words per minute. Here, science gives us a great parenting tip. Sometimes—even most of the time—it’s best to listen more than you talk. When your teen is talking to you, focus on what he or she is trying to say, not on how you’re going to respond. You’ll get more respect for your opinion if you carefully hear your teen out so you can adequately address what’s being communicated. Then, make it known that you appreciate what your teen has told you, and ask if you can give some feedback.

2. Think Before Reacting

Many teens, no matter what their needs or limitations, will sometimes say things to see how you’ll react. If you become defensive, things can easily escalate into arguments. Instead of letting that happen, avoid becoming defensive yourself or giving a negative reaction—even if it seems like that’s what your teen wants. Your attitude, even when faced with a verbal attack (voluntary or not), will go a long way to defusing a tough situation.

3. Validate

We all have a human need for validation, and your teen with special needs is no exception. After listening, validate teens’ feelings and acknowledge that they have a right to them. Say something like, “Wow, I’m sorry, that must be so hard.” Ask how you can support them and help them to feel better, but also encourage them and let them know how strong you know they are. “You are great at figuring things out. How can I help you manage this?”

4. Try a Helpful Spin

A teen with special needs will often pick up on your own frustration. Instead of ordering teens not to throw things or slam doors, offer to get something else they’d like better, or ask if you can show them how to shut the door quietly. When something they want is unavailable, rather than telling them (again) that you don’t have it, tell them how much you wish you could get it for them, but kindly offer whatever alternatives are available.

5. Keep It Positive

Positive communication and reinforcement is usually more effective than negative for everything from discipline to motivation. Instead of asking “What’s wrong with you?” ask how you can help. Find out what your teen’s needs are and what you can do to meet those needs in the current situation.

The same positivity should apply when talking to your teen about potential outcomes of behavior. Rather than offering potential punishments, stay positive and offer incentives. Instead of saying, “If you don’t finish eating soon, we won’t have time to see a movie,” try, “When you finish lunch, we’ll go see that movie.”

When communicating with teens who have special needs, emphasize strengths and abilities. Focus on what they can do and what they’re good at. Acknowledge their hard work on life skills and other goals. Whatever challenges they have, those are only a small part of who they are. Make sure you communicate with them as a whole, unique person who has a lot to offer.

6. Remember They’re Still Teens

Some teens with disabilities are fully articulate, and some are not. With articulate teens, take note of how they talk to you. What type of words do they use? At what level is their own vocabulary? If you model your speech after theirs and take your cues from them, communication is more likely to be effective. With teens who are not verbal, there is usually no reason not to speak to them the same way you would speak to anyone else of their age. Unless teens talk to you at a different level, just speak to them in an age-appropriate way.

7. Discourage Assumptions

Many people make the mistake of assuming that a physically disabled person is also intellectually disabled. How you publicly address and treat your teen can help other people take their cues from you, rather than jumping to conclusions and speaking to your teen in a potentially embarrassing way (for both of them). If you speak to your teen as you would to any other teenager, others are likely to do the same. If you use different language that’s more on your teen’s level of understanding, those around you will probably take your lead.

In their zeal to be helpful, many adults and teens will try to jump in and take some “helpful” action before asking if that’s what a disabled person wants or needs. By your example, you can show others how to use the proper respect; asking your teen what help he or she might want before making an assumption that might be offensive or minimize his or her abilities.


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Tyler Jacobson

Written on August 14, 2017 by:

Tyler enjoys going to the mountains near his home in Draper, Utah to connect with his wife and children through camping, hiking, and quality time together. When he isn’t rebooting in the outdoors, he shares his fatherly experiences with the world through writing and creative designs. Tyler shares the ups and downs of family life and the solutions he’s found through lengthy research and involvement in the industry and his own experiences to help parents everywhere. Follow Tyler on: Twitter | LinkedIn
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