Maybe you see a stranger with their child with special needs, and you want to make a connection but don't know what to say.
Or maybe you have a friend or family member who has a child with special needs, and you want to be supportive but worry about saying the "wrong" thing.
Here are some ideas of things to say, based on my own experiences as a parent of a child with special needs:
To a stranger, friend, or family member:
1. "He has the sweetest smile."
2. "I like his spirit."
3. (To a parent of a younger child) "He's so cute/adorable/handsome/beautiful."
4. (To a parent of an older child) "He's so handsome/beautiful."
5. (To a friend or family member whom you haven't seen in a while) "He's made so much progress since I saw him last."
Even better: Be specific about what area(s) you've seen progress in.
6. (To a stranger) "I have a son/daughter/grandson/granddaughter/niece/nephew with Down syndrome/cerebral palsy/[fill in the blank]."
Tread carefully with this one: Don't assume you know the child's diagnosis.
Also, it's often best not to go into much detail about your loved one. If your loved one is much older than the child and is doing well, you could say something like, "I have a nephew with Down syndrome. He's 20 now, and he's doing great." Parents of young children with special needs often worry about their child's future, so saying that your loved one with the same or a similar diagnosis is doing well can give them hope.
7. Compliment an ability you see:
- If you witness the child dancing, you could say, "I like his moves!"
- If you witness him running: "Wow, he's fast!"
- Or if you witness him accomplishing a difficult feat, like climbing up the stairs of a playground structure while wearing braces on his feet: "Wow! Look at him go!" or "Wow, he's doing great!"
8. Compliment good behavior you see:
- "He's doing a great job sharing his toys."
- "He's being so patient waiting for his turn."
9. ....or, simply, smile.
The key is to try to keep the interaction positive. Focus on the here and now. Avoid talking about the child's distant future or asking about the child's long-term prognosis—unless the parent brings it up—as these topics can be scary and upsetting for the parent to think about and discuss.
To someone who has just shared with you challenging news about their child (e.g., a difficult new diagnosis, recent medical incident, etc.):
1. "That sounds tough/challenging."
2. "I'm so sorry you're going through this."
3. "I'll be thinking of him/praying for him."
4. "How is he doing now?"
5. "I'm glad he's doing better." (If he is indeed doing better)
6. "How are you doing?"
7. "Is there anything I can do to help?"
Even better: Think of something you could do to help, and offer to do it. For example, offer to babysit their other children for free, pick up groceries for them, or drop off a homemade meal.
8. "I'm here for you if you ever need to talk."
********The key is to respond with sensitivity and compassion. Again, it's best to avoid asking questions about the distant future or predicting the future (e.g., saying you're sure he'll make a full recovery). Also, just being a good listener can be helpful to the parent.
********I hope you found this article helpful. If you did, please consider sharing it on social media; it would mean a lot to me.
Also, I'd love to hear any additional ideas you have of things to say to a parent of a child with special needs in the comments section below.
Thanks so much for reading!