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Reader's Digest: 8 Things to Never Say to a Special Needs Parent

Special needs parents are often faced with judgmental comments and stares. Here are some things not to say to the parent of a child with special needs and what to say instead.

Dr. Christina Low Kapalu
Written by Amy Boyington

"It's amazing how smart he is."

It seems commonplace for others to assume that children with special needs automatically have a difficult time learning. Claire Campbell, a mom of two deaf children who wear cochlear implants, says that this comment is one of the ones she hears most in different forms, such as "Doing well for a deaf kid—we feel so disappointed when we hear that from teachers."

Christina Low Kapalu, PhD and licensed psychologist at Children's Mercy Kansas City Division of Developmental and Behavioral Sciences, says that people tend to place their own limitations on children with special needs that can have devastating psychological effects on both the child and the child's parents. It's important never to assume that a child's disability limits his or her intelligence. Instead, you can ask a question like, "Is she enjoying school? What is her favorite subject?", which can leave a more open-ended response for parents. 

"I am so sorry."

It's common for people not to know what to say to parents of children with special needs, and a quick response may be, "I'm sorry," as if a child's disability is a negative thing for the child or his parents. Noelle LaCharite, mom of Max, who was born with Down syndrome, says that seemingly harmless comment was one that she found the most irritating. "I would instantly go into Mama bear protective mode," LaCharite says. Her standard response is, "There's nothing to be sorry about. Max is amazing!"

Dr. Kapalu says that it's important never to pity a parent or child or their situation. Instead, she says to "ask questions that help you understand what it is like for them." This shows both your compassion and interest in their situation.

Picture by Eleonoria_OS/Shutterstock


"Stop spoiling her."

Dr. Kapalu has heard several stories from parents of children with special needs about hurtful comments they've received from family and friends who tend to blame the parents for their child's behaviors. Some special needs, like ADHD or autism, can be more invisible than others, as in they aren't detectable just by looking at someone. Unfortunately, parents of these children often receive judgment regarding their children's behaviors. "Small comments such as 'they can control that right,' 'the kid just needs to try harder', or 'they are like that because you are too easy on them' are not only infuriating but also very painful to most parents. These types of comments come from a place of judgment and serve to belittle a parent of a child with special needs," says Dr. Kapalu. Instead of judgmental comments, outsiders can offer a helping hand to show their support for both the child and his parents. 


Read the full article via Reader's Digest.

Learn more about the Division of Developmental and Behavioral Sciences at Children's Mercy.