10 Tips To Support A Parent With A Special Needs Child

by Joyce Marrero-Zahariadis
A child with special needs sitting in a wheelchair and talking to her friend in a park
Martinbowra / iStock

It can be uncomfortable being around a friend or family member who has a child with special needs. Their special needs child may behave in a way that is odd to you, and even at times, scary. It is a situation that is new to you that you may not know anything about.

You feel so bad for them, but you have no idea of what to say or how to act. You wonder what you could possibly do to make this news, this burden, this heartache any easier. There is a lot you can say and do that really will make this change in their life better.

It is so easy for them to isolate themselves, especially when they themselves are trying to adjust to this. What they need the most is your support. Here are 10 tips for how to support a parent with a child who has special needs.

Just be there.

Your friend or loved one has so much going on in their life and in their head. Throughout this journey, they may feel alone, overwhelmed, withdrawn, and different. It is a lot for anyone to adjust to and handle. They need you! Let them know you love them and are there to help them any way you can.

Be willing to learn.

Be willing to learn about their child’s disorder in order to support them the best way you can. The more you educate yourself with why their child acts the way they do, how the disorder affects them, treatment options, and what the parents are going through, the better you equip yourself at being the best support they need. It will knock the fear of the unknown out of the equation, and the unknown will become the norm. In return, the parents will feel less isolated and more willing to open up this world and let you in.

Reach out to them.

They may not be ready to reach out and ask for help, so as their loved one, reach out to them. Ask them if there is anything you can do to help. Call them just to say hi. Keep the communication open. They may feel like you don’t want to be a part of their new world. After all, they didn’t choose this so why would someone else choose to be a part of it. People tend to stay away from the new, the strange, the uncomfortable because they don’t know how to respond to it.

Show them you are willing to adjust, to learn, to try right along with them. It will make all the difference in the world to them just knowing they are not in this alone.

Offer to watch their other children.

Offer to watch or spend time with their other children. When you have a child with special needs, depending on what their disabilities and needs are, your world tends to revolve around them. They get most of the attention. Day-to-day is normally centered around how they are doing, appointments, therapy, and behavioral issues. As a result, other children in the family learn that they have to adjust and be patient. They may feel their needs aren’t being met or that they are not as important as their special needs sibling.

We parents worry about this!

We want siblings to learn to understand why it is this way and that in no way does it mean we love them less or they are less deserving. To have a family member or friend that we can trust be willing to spend that time with them — away from their daily routines of not getting the attention they want and deserve — would put some of those worries to rest.

Help with housework and running errands.

Think about the day-to-day tasks that we all do — cleaning, doing the dishes, getting kids ready for school, getting ready for work, making dinner, doing laundry, running to the store, helping kids with homework, bath time, bedtime, just to name a few. When you have a child with special needs, these simple tasks that become second nature to us are no longer simple. A quick run to the store becomes a planned-out, time-consuming task, and we often need to decide if what we are running out for is worth it. By offering your help in any of these areas would be so appreciated by us parents.

Visit them.

There are also many aspects of special needs parents’ lives that impact how often they get out of the house. These include things like their child’s specific disability and needs, their marital status, support system, other children, whether or not they have their own vehicle or share one, and whether they work or stay at home. For a special needs parent, it can be such an ordeal to go out while people who do not have a special needs child would not even think twice about.

This is another way these parents end up feeling isolated. They may not even realize it as it is happening. As their loved one, take the time to visit them to help them remain connected to the world.

Being the parent of a child with special needs is overwhelming at times. It is an emotional roller coaster that will change day to day and even moment to moment. As much as we parents want to be perfect all the time, it is impossible with all that is going on in our daily lives. We wear our capes as if we are superhuman and can handle it all, all the time. We are human, but we forget that.

They need to take that cape off sometimes in order to take care of themselves, so they can in turn take care of their children, partner, and family. You can be a big part of this by offering to watch their child, giving them that much-needed break so they can rejuvenate and come back anew.

Offer an overnight stay.

This is a big one! In my own experience and meeting many parents and special needs children through the years, many of these children do not get on a daily routine of sleeping through the night. My daughter is 27 years old now, and she still does not sleep through the night.

It is absolutely exhausting.

When you first bring your newborn home from the hospital, you are prepared for the lack of sleep you are going to get. But you know at some point within the next couple of years you will be able to get your child on a regular nightly routine, and most nights they will stay asleep.

You are not prepared for it to last past the toddler years, into their teens, and eventually into adulthood. Lack of sleep on a regular basis is no good for anyone. You can offer to stay the night and get up with their child so they can actually get a good six to eight hours of sleep, or if they trust you and you feel comfortable, you could have a sleepover at your place. Either way, this would be a huge one!

Invite them.

Their world is turned upside down, but they will adjust to this life. Things will be different. They may not be as available as they used to be, but don’t take it as an insult.

Help them stay connected to the rest of the world by inviting them to church, birthday parties, or other celebrations. Make sure they know their child is welcome and invited as well.

Try to put yourself in their shoes: If your child was not welcome, would you feel welcome? Even if they decline the invitation, just the fact that you didn’t forget about them and continue to include them will send a positive message.

Help them celebrate.

There are so many things we celebrate in life. It brings people together. It helps us accomplish goals, reward hard work, and feel loved. The accomplishments our children will make will seem so much less than your child’s accomplishments, but they will be just as big and important to us. Please help us celebrate and acknowledge the importance of our children’s successes.