When Friends and Family Don’t Understand Your Child with Special Needs
“Have you tried spanking?” “Do you have to use that medical equipment in front of me?” “If he were my child, he’d never get away with that.”
When you’re the parent of a child with special needs, you’re used to misunderstanding and stares in public. Maybe those stares come from strangers as you prepare to feed your child through a tube. Maybe other parents shoot disapproving looks your way because your child with a neurological disorder is having an epic meltdown. Maybe your child is self-soothing by stimming and it’s drawing attention from other kids.
Dealing with this is harder than you let on, but you’ve developed a thick skin to get through your public outings. You’re getting better at advocating for your child and not tolerating unkindness.
But when those stares come from your friends and family? When your friends and family judge your parenting choices, the behaviors of your child, or anything else that has to do with your child’s disability, it can hurt worse than any of the stares you get at the mall. Read on to learn how to cope.
It’s Okay to Feel Hurt
First of all, it’s not wrong if your feelings get hurt when a family member chooses not to invite your family to a gathering because “your kid is too rowdy.” It’s even reasonable to be hurt by somewhat well-meaning comments, like, “We didn’t invite you because we didn’t want your child to feel bad that she couldn’t eat anything on the menu.”
Allow yourself to feel hurt, but don’t let it consume you. Accept the hurt and process it. However, if a family member is nasty on purpose, and you don’t see that ever ending, there’s also nothing wrong with putting some distance between the two of you.
Try to Step into Their Shoes
If you feel you can, try and see things from your family members’ points of view. Maybe Aunt Bea didn’t truly mean anything when she offered parenting advice. She does offer advice to everyone, after all. Maybe the gluten your child can’t tolerate is only on the menu because your parents truly forgot to check the labels. Being ignorant to your struggles, or forgetful of every detail, is not necessarily cruel. Offer some grace when you can.
But don’t let hurtful comments continue. Your role, whether you wanted it or not, is now an advocate and educator. You’ve read the studies, you’ve talked to the doctors, and you live with your child’s special needs day in and day out. You are better positioned than anybody else to teach your family about your child’s special needs. You are in a unique position to create a safe space for your child within your circle:
- Provide literature that explains your child’s disability.
- Keep the lines of communication open. Tell your family you are willing to answer any and all questions — and be open to the questions they have.
- Call your child’s disability by its name so nobody thinks it’s taboo to talk about it.
- Invite important family members to therapy appointments so they can hear your child’s disability discussed by a professional.
- Come up with analogies that capture the difficulty of your child’s disability, like this mother’s analogy for apraxia: “It’s like a marble in a drain. Sometimes the water can pass, other times it gets stuck. His speech processing is exactly like that.”
Join a Support Group
No matter how much your family and friends want (or don’t want) to support you and your child, they will never fully understand what you’re going through. While their unconditional love and listening ear can be an invaluable part of your life, a support group can give you a different strength. Finding others who experience the same day-to-day struggles you’re going through will help you feel like people finally “get” you.
And beyond the emotional support, you’ll find practical advice from parents who have tripped along the same road you’re walking now. And when you can return the favor by offering another person support? You’ll be doing your part to make the world a safer place for children who share your child’s special needs.
Check out our resource center for parents of kids with special needs, including therapies, products, medical providers, and more.