If you know someone with a special-needs child, chances are, you have watched them struggling with everyday things that many of us take for granted. Taking a shower or a nap may be difficult or impossible. Going shopping or having a haircut may be monumental tasks that take hours or days to prepare for. Added to this is the social isolation that often comes with parenting a special-needs child because friends don't know how to respond to a family situation that lies outside of their own experience, or because the parents themselves no longer have the time or ability to engage in normal activities with friends. So what can you do to support special-needs parents?
Help Them Retain Their Identity
One of the ways that a friend, family member or teacher can support special-needs parents is to encourage them to remember who they are. They had a well-established life and identity before their child was born, but caring and parenting takes so much time and focus that they are in danger of losing their unique identity. Some of the ways you can do this are:
- Encourage them to make space in their lives for the things they used to enjoy doing, even if it is only for a short time or once in a while
- Treat them the same way you always have. Don't allow their circumstances to change the way you see them or interact with them
- Ask if there is anything you can do to help them engage in activities that are outside of their parenting role. This might mean babysitting while they go shopping or have a haircut or helping them with household chores to free up some time.
Some days are just hard and your plans might fall flat. Don't take it personally but remind yourself that the other person's situation is unpredictable and plans need to be flexible. Some things you can do to support special-needs parents by being flexible include:
- Avoid placing expectations or pressure around plans. Make sure the other person knows that it's OK to cancel or change plans and that you will be fine.
- Allow them the freedom to choose times and places that are suitable for activities
- Encourage them to participate in activities that they would like to do even if it is hard.
Respect Their Space
Sometimes, supporting special-needs parents means giving them space. Some days they might not feel like getting enthusiastic about the sports game you were going to watch, or they have had a particularly rough week and have called off the play date you were planning. Try these tips for respecting their space:
- Parents may not feel like talking about what is going on or might just need a break from talking about their child's needs. If they want to talk about what's on TV instead, respect that and keep the conversation neutral.
- Listen if they want to vent but don't be intrusive.
- Be honest and tell them to let you know when they need space. Make sure they know that you are fine with it.
Engage with Their Child
Most parents want their children to have good social connections. For special needs kids, this is much harder because people outside of their family unit often don't know how to engage with them. While the ways that you can interact will obviously vary according to the child's needs, parents will usually appreciate that you are trying to make their child's world a little brighter and more interesting.
Give Them Permission to Fail
There will be days when failure feels like a constant companion and dark shadows hover over everything they do. If a parent is going through an experience like this, it's important to be there to remind them that yes, they can do this, and it's OK to fail. Try these tips:
- Remind them that special-needs parenting has no rule book. Every family is unique and comparisons with others are not a great idea because no one else is going through the exact same experiences.
- Encourage them to find the positives in their situation – there are always things to be thankful for.
- Don't offer advice, criticism or judgement when they fail. Just be there to help them get back up and keep going. Also, respect that they know their child better than anyone else and the best thing you can do is to avoid giving your opinions or advice unless they ask for it.
If you are a support person for special-needs parents, you are part of a community of support people. At Life Skills 4 Kids, we know what special-needs parents face on a daily basis and we are here for support too. If you have any questions or comments, feel free to get in touch with us. We would love to hear from you!