Every parent has been there, walked through something challenging and kept going. It's what we do as parents. When you have a child with special needs, there’s more.
Published: August 31, 2023
By: Rebecca Hastings
“I don’t know how you do it!”
It was a simple statement. There was no ill will behind it, just an honest thought from one mom to another. Something I’ve thought a thousand times about other parents. But this was directed at a mom gathering her five kids, most with special needs, into the car after a trip to the store.
The mom smiled and replied, “You just do.”
Every parent has been there, walked through something challenging and kept going. It’s what we do as parents. When you have a child with special needs, there’s more.
Sometimes it feels like the challenges never end. And the stakes feel high. Parents of kids with special needs often have to push through really hard things, often alone, because people don’t know how to help.
Here are 10 ways you can help support families with special needs:
- Keep showing up: More than anything, they need people in their life that are not afraid to show up, even when they don’t know what to do. You don’t have to have the answers; you just need to be present.
- Invite the kids: Kids with special needs are often left out of fun activities like playdates and birthday parties. Have a quick conversation with the parent or send a text asking what you can do to help their child enjoy the activity. You can invite the child for a one-on-one playdate instead of a group playtime, welcome the parent to stay, and ask if they need any accommodations. Ask how you can meet the family where they are and welcome them.
- Don’t gossip: This should go without saying, but it’s easy to forget. Don’t talk about the family or the child’s needs with other people. If you have a question, ask the parent. This is enough of a struggle for the kids they encounter. They don’t need adults making it more challenging.
- Get practical: Special needs often require special care and appointments. This can mean multiple doctors, therapists, and specialists within one week or even one day. Bring coffee to school drop-off. Offer to babysit their other kids. Leave a meal on their porch or send delivery. It can go a long way for a tired mama. And don’t forget the paper plates!
- Ask kindly: Most families are familiar with people wondering about their children with special needs. Instead of steering clear and avoiding the subject, ask thoughtful and kind questions. It is far better than staring. Special needs are nothing to be ashamed of. We can talk about them in ways that we are all comfortable with.
- Respect privacy: Everyone has a story. It’s natural to be curious about someone’s situation but giving people the privacy they deserve is important. Just because you can see someone’s special needs doesn’t mean they want to share every detail about it. Honor what they are comfortable discussing and what they want to keep private.
- Invite the parents: We all need friendship and community, which can be hard to come by when caring for a child with special needs. Invite the parents out to dinner or the barbecue. They may not be able to come as often as they would like (or ever), but being invited reminds them that they are seen and valued. Keep asking them, reminding them there is no pressure.
- Accept quiet: If you text or call and you don’t hear back, try not to be offended. Think of how much you are juggling daily and throw a dozen more things in the mix (some of them life and death.) This is what parents with a child with special needs handle regularly. There may be a reason if they don’t get to text or call back. Don’t write them off. A simple I’m thinking of you to follow up reminds parents you care.
- Interact with the child: Sometimes people don’t know what to say when they see a child with special needs, so they say nothing. Make an effort to interact with the child. Ask them what their favorite color or want to be when they grow up. Value the child and show the family they matter.
- Do more than smile: Families with special needs have a lot of people who smile and say a quick hello but never engage. It may feel new and unfamiliar for you, but engaging in genuine friendship with families makes a big difference for them and for you. Try it and see!
Rebecca Hastings is a freelance writer.