3 Words To Never Say To A Special Needs Parent

by Jennifer Arnold
SeventyFour / Getty

As the parent of not one, but two children with special needs, I have heard more than my fair share of unsolicited criticism, suggestions, and advice. But there is one phrase in particular that makes me want to poke myself in the eye with a fork every time I hear it.

“Can’t you just…?”

I’ve heard this in regards to my daughter’s feeding tube way too many times than I care to count.

“Can’t you just make her eat?”

“I could, but shoving food down someone’s throat is typically frowned upon, isn’t it?”

I’ve also had this phrase thrown at me after dealing with a meltdown in public.

“Can’t you just give her a good spanking?”

“No, you can’t spank the autism out of someone. But thanks anyway.”

And of course, when I try to explain to people how hard it is for us to get out for a date night, I’ve heard more than my fair share of this gem.

“Can’t you just find a babysitter?”

“It’s actually not that simple. Why? Are you volunteering?”

Enough already! Do you really think that in all my years of being a parent to these children, that thing you “suggested” hasn’t crossed my mind, or been tried already?

I guess all the books I’ve read and the hours spent doing research on the internet, and oh yeah…actually living with these children and knowing them inside and out are useless, because you’ve spent an entire five minutes with them and automatically have the magic answer.

Believe me, if a parent of a special needs child wants your advice, or your opinion, they’ll ask. We are always on the hunt for answers to our kids’ issues, but assuming that we already haven’t exhausted every avenue trying to solve a problem is patronizing and insulting. Nothing is simple when it comes to raising kids with medical and behavioral diagnoses. Nothing.

The bottom line is: If I “could just,” I “would have” already.

I realize that most people mean well, and they truly don’t understand what our life is like. They want to help, but honestly, this phrase does the opposite. We don’t have all the answers, and sometimes it feels like we are trying to reinvent the wheel when we’re dealing with the issues our kids have. Making these “suggestions” is like implying that maybe we haven’t tried hard enough to find solutions that will help our child, when in reality we’ve lost sleep trying to figure it all out.

If you want to help a special needs parent, don’t offer suggestions unless they ask, especially if you don’t know them well. Instead, a few words of encouragement can go a long way.

“You’re doing a great job.”

“I know it can be hard. Is there something I can do to help you?”

“If you want some company, give me a call. I’ll bring the coffee!”

Most of the time a friendly, nonjudgmental ear is all we need.

And coffee. Lots of coffee.