For parents, there are few situations that can cause such a sweat-inducing jumble of emotions — from embarrassment and frustration to oh-crap-I-forget-how-to-explain-this-right — than when your child stares (or, worse, points) and loudly asks, “Mommy, what’s wrong with that boy?”
Explaining disabilities and special needs to children can seem overwhelming, especially in the middle of the grocery store. But the tools you need are likely things you already practice as a parent. Those include encouraging questions, giving age-appropriate information and modeling the compassion you’d like your child to show others.
Here are some tips to keep in mind for how to talk to typically developing kids about kids with special needs:
Even though you might be mortified at the inopportune time your child chooses to ask about a girl using a wheelchair or a boy with Down syndrome, it’s important not to chide them for being curious, experts say.
“One of the big teachable moments is when our children are staring. We suggest to families that it’s OK to look, it’s OK to ask questions,” says Jena Wells, early matters coordinator for the Down Syndrome Association of Greater Cincinnati and the mom of four boys, including one with Down syndrome. “Instead of saying, ‘Don’t stare,’ suggest they say ‘Hello,’ or instead of ignoring the other child, they can ask them their name.”
Experts say it’s best to address a child’s question in the moment and validate what they asked. For example: “I see you noticed the little girl in the shopping cart with no hair. Everyone’s hair grows in different ways,” and then either find a place to talk more or assure them that you’ll talk more about it when you get home (and then follow up).
Give Age-appropriate Information
When it comes to discussing those with disabilities or special needs, target the information to your child’s maturity level.
For 2 to 5 year olds, keep it very simple with very basic language. You may also want to explain that disabilities are not contagious. Starting around 6, you can explain things a little more in-depth, emphasizing that all children have their own strengths and things that are harder for them.
Although you may have trouble remembering the correct vocabulary to use when your kid has a spur-of-the-moment question, avoid words like “sick” or “wrong,” and try “typical” instead of “normal.”
“Share information with your child in a clear and honest way. Talking to your child at their eye level is very important, and avoid terms that seem confusing to your child,” says Karen Martin, director of recreation and leisure at Stepping Stones Ohio, a nonprofit that offers programs for people of all ages who have disabilities. “You want to let your child know that while people come in all shapes, colors, abilities and sizes, and while we may look, sound or do things differently, inside, we are all very much the same.”
Focus on Similarities
Highlighting how your child and a child with a disability or special need are alike can be a helpful tool, experts say. Similarities can be obvious: “You both have eyes, a nose and a mouth!” Or a common interest: “I wonder if he likes ‘PAW’ Patrol’ like you do?” Or it can lead to a deeper discussion about common feelings and emotions.
“You can talk about differences, but parents can emphasize what’s the same, because kids always like to hear how they’re the same,” Wells says. “Make sure they’re aware that the person with the disability has a lot of similarities: they want to have friends, they want to be included, they want to play.”
Of course, you can say all the right things — encouraging questions, giving age-appropriate information and focusing on similarities — but as with anything you do as a parent, what your child will learn about disabilities and special needs really comes down to how they see you act around those who are different than you.
“Children are very receptive to their parents’ body language and emotions. If you’re anxious, your child is going to pick up on it,” Martin says. “Take time to teach your child about people’s differences at home. Let your child take the lead. As a society, we’re all getting more comfortable with inclusion.”
Here are some phrases to use when explaining a disability to a child.
2 to 4
|“Most children like you are born with everything they need, but sometimes children are born without everything they need. Sometimes they need crutches or wheelchairs or braces to help them do what you do naturally.”|
5 to 8
|“Kids are all different, and they have different strengths as well as things that are harder for them. Some things that are easy for you to do are very difficult for other children to do. It takes a lot of courage for kids with physical disabilities to keep trying and working at it.”|
9 to 12
|“Whenever you see someone with a disability, remember that even though they are having a hard time, they’re still kids who need friends and understanding.”|
Credit: United Cerebral Palsy of Greater Indiana