I don’t know how you do it!”
It was a simple statement. There was no ill-will behind it, just an honest thought from one mom to another. Something I’ve thought a thousand times about other parents. However, this was directed at a mom gathering her five kids, most with special needs, into the car after a trip to the store.
The mom smiled and replied, “You just do.”
Every parent has been there, walked through something challenging, and kept going. It’s what we do as parents. When you have a child with special needs, there’s more.
Sometimes it feels like the challenges never end. And the stakes feel high. A lot of times parents of kids with special needs have to push through really hard things—often alone because people don’t know how to help. Here are 10 ways you can help support families of children with special needs:
1. Keep Showing Up
More than anything, they need people in their life that are not afraid to show up— even when they don’t know what to do. You don’t have to have the answers, you just need to be present.
2. Include Them
Kids who have special needs are often left out of fun activities, like playdates and birthday parties. Have a quick conversation with the parent or send a text asking what you can do to help their child enjoy the activity. You could invite them for a one-on-one playdate instead of a group playtime. Or you could welcome the parent to stay for the group activity and ask if they need any accommodations.
3. Don’t Gossip
This should go without saying, but it’s easy to forget. Don’t talk about the family or the child’s needs with other people. If you have a question, simply ask the parent. By going directly to the parent, you’ll also be modeling good behavior to your child.
4. Get Practical
Special needs often require special care and appointments. This can mean multiple doctors, therapists, and specialists within one week or even one day. Bring coffee to school drop-off. Offer to babysit their other kids. Leave a meal on their porch or send delivery. These small acts can go a long way for a tired family.
5. Ask Kindly
Most families are familiar with people wondering about their child with special needs. Instead of steering clear and avoiding the subject, ask thoughtful and kind questions. It is far better than staring. Special needs are nothing to be ashamed of!
6. Respect Privacy
Everyone has a story. It’s natural to be curious about someone’s situation, but it’s important to give people the privacy they deserve. Just because you can see someone’s special need, doesn’t mean they want to share every detail about it. Honor what they are comfortable talking about and what they would like to keep private.
7. Invite the Parents
We all need friendship and community, both of which can be hard to come by when you are caring for a child with special needs. Invite the parents out to dinner or to a barbecue. They may not be able to come as often as they would like—or ever—but being invited reminds them that they are seen and valued. Keep inviting them and reminding them there is no pressure.
8. Accept Quiet
If you text or call and you don’t hear back, try not to be offended. Think of how much you are juggling daily and throw a dozen more things in the mix—some of them life and death. This is what parents with a child with special needs handle regularly. If they don’t get to text or call back, there may be a reason. Don’t write them off. A simple, “I’m thinking of you” to follow up can remind them that you care.
9. Interact with Them
Sometimes people don’t know what to say when they see a child with special needs, so they say nothing. Make the effort to interact with the child. Ask them what their favorite color is or what they want to be when they grow up. Value the child and show the family they matter.
10. Do more than Smile
Families with special needs have a lot of people who smile and say a quick hello, but never engage. It may feel new and unfamiliar for you, but making the effort to engage in real friendship with families makes a big difference for them and for you. Try it and see!