What Not to Say to a Special Needs Mom
They say kids say the darndest things. Well let me tell you: adults do too.
As I move through my life as a mom, people have made the most interesting comments about my family.
We are a big family.
We are an adoptive family.
We are a transracial family.
We have special needs kids.
We are most certainly a unique family.
We cannot sneak into places very easily. We often get stares — and that is okay. For the most part, people are very kind and generous. This makes up for the few times that others are not.
It is human nature to want to help. When we see a situation that is different or difficult, we want to comment or help. But most of us, although we may have good intentions, do not know what to say.
I have been on the receiving end of some weird comments. These comments can come from total strangers. Sometimes, they can also come from well meaning friends.
So as a special needs mom, let me give you some do’s and don’ts of talking to someone with children like mine.
Don’t: Offer solutions.
I find myself wanting to do this also. When we hear about someone else’s struggles or problems, we want to jump in and help with solutions. But most of the time with my children, there are no quick solutions. Don’t say, “my teenager did this and I did this”, especially if your child is a cognitively normal teen. My teenager is not your teenager. My child has a brain affected by trauma and is not a neuro-typical teenager.
Do: Offer help
Ask what you can do to help. Think about what tasks that might be difficult for a mom with special needs kids to accomplish. Picking up prescriptions, grocery shopping, household chores are a few.
Offer respite. Having respite for even an hour can make an incredible difference in the life of a special needs mom. It can give her the strength to keep going.
Sometimes, I am so overwhelmed I cannot think of one thing to ask for. So pay attention. Bring coffee, flowers or when you are at the grocery call me and ask if I need anything.
Also, If I tell you I am fine, bring me coffee anyway. I am not always the best judge of what I need.
Don’t: Compare your situation to mine
Please don’t say, “I know what you are going through” and then launch into a story about you pet’s medical issues. I cannot tell you how many times this has happened to me. Once, a lady compared her anxious dog to my mentally ill child.
I am sorry for your pet health issues. I truly am. But it does not compare to what I am walking through every day with a seriously impaired child.
So do not try to compare trauma. Please.
If you need to ask a question, make it appropriate and supportive. Pay attention to what I am saying but also notice my body language.
I may not want to talk about my child and our struggles. Or, ask me about myself. As a mother of special needs children, I do not get much of a break. I spend a lot of time discussing my child. I do not always want to talk about this subject. I am more than a special needs mom. So ask me about something other than my child.
Don’t: Put me on a pedestal
“You must be so patient/strong/holy/fill in the blank with any lofty adjective.”
Yes I can be patient and strong. But I am not every day. When I am made out to be perfect, it only makes me feel more alone. You have compared me to Mother Theresa. Therefore, I cannot be honest about how I stood in the shower and cried. I cannot tell you that I am tired, disappointed, and want to quit. Do not assume that because I appear calm that this burden isn’t heavy and hard.
Also — do not say, “I could never do what you do.”
This is very unhelpful. You have not been asked to do it; I have.
Do: Offer realistic encouraging words
Say something a little more close to earth like, “I know you don’t feel like it but you are doing a great job.” I can guarantee you all moms need to hear this. On any given day, we don’t think we are doing a great job.
Don’t: Offer unhelpful platitudes
There must be a reason…
God has a plan…
- or my personal favorite -
God never gives you more than you can handle…
These may make you feel better, but they do not make me feel better. So often I see no reason for what we are walking through. It is my job as a mother to keep walking, helping, and loving my kids. So many days I do not feel like I can handle it.
Do: Offer compassion and empathy
This can be as simple as a hug or an “I am sorry and I am praying for you.” Sometimes it helps to feel seen. Sometimes that is all it takes to get me through another day.
Don’t: Judge me or my parenting
This happens often, especially when you have a child with a hidden disability. My child has severe behavioral problems but she looks like any other kid. So what you are seeing when she has an outburst in public is not the whole story. It may not be a result of my parenting.
Do: Smile and walk away
Special needs parenting is relentless, complicated, and tiring. It is also extremely lonely. So please smile, hug, and let the special needs mama in your life feel seen. So remember that you don’t know the whole story. Just remind her that she is a great mom, and that she is a warrior.