Be an Encourager, Not a Discourager for Families with Special Needs

Relating Well

Be an Encourager . . .

What can each one of us do to help a family with a child who has special needs? During our year-long, ethnographic research process, families in the study shared with us those specific things which encourage them – create positive energy and feelings that mean so much. Consider how you can incorporate one or more of these encouragement attitudes and behaviors into your life with a family who has a child with special needs.

  1. Listening without judgment. Be empathic. Good listeners allow others to share their personal stories – whatever that story is without judgment. Some parents of a child with special needs feel unfairly put down by people. Affirmation and acceptance keep us going.
  2. Listen without advice. Only offer advice, assistance and help when asked. They are the experts with all the experience and insights about what works.
  3. Demonstrate your support by giving them time. It is easy to become isolated because of the family demands. Friends break through the isolation with trust, acceptance and no strings.
  4. Facilitate meaningful interaction of the child with special needs and others. “Our oldest son’s baseball and football teams always include him in the team huddle. He even has a team jersey. That makes him feel like part of the team!”
  5. Engage the child with special needs into your world. Every child senses when they are being ignored, avoided, or their behavior is disrupting. “When a stranger or even someone I know is extra nice to Chris, it touches my heart.”
  6. Use specific sincere words of encouragement. “I’m amazed at how well you keep the house with all you do.” Or “how do you manage to get to all the kids’ events?” Any unexpected act of service or kindness-holding door open, raking my leaves , making dinner, feeding Natalie and changing her diaper at church asking if we want home grown veggies. Anything that lets me know someone is thinking of us.
  7. Offer a ‘can do’ attitude and belief; negativity helps no one. “Our son has been through a lot in his young life and we were told he would never do this, or do that. There is nothing you cannot do if you want it.”

. . . Not a Discourager

Families in the study also clearly revealed the attitudes and behaviors that cause discouragement, disappointment, and can be harmful to families with a child with special needs. With a little effort and raised awareness we can all avoid any of these attitudes and behaviors which can cause irreparable harm.

  1. Using disparaging words & phrases that judge or put down. “You shouldn't worry about what you can't change. You just have to deal with it.” “Whenever someone speaks in a way that demeans, attacks, criticizes, or minimizes me, it makes me want to retaliate or defend myself. I feel embarrassed when others say those things to me.”
  2. Don’t ignore me or my child. “Several friends and family members do not know how to deal with our son’s situation. They tend to ignore us by never asking about our son.”
  3. Assuming that the actions of a child with special needs comes from poor parenting. “It is discouraging and aggravating for people to hint that our son is allowed to misbehave because we do not correct him. That could not be farther from the truth. It hurts to realize that people blame us for our hard- to-manage child’s behavior.”
  4. Giving poor ignorant advice. Naive people think they know what we should do but have no idea what we have to deal with.
  5. Ignoring the well developed insights of parents. Moms and dads are usually the experts in their child’s care, but some folks pay no attention to their wisdom. “If someone invited us over to a late gathering, and I said that our son with special needs wouldn't be able to stay up that late, they would say ‘Oh, he would be fine. He would have fun.’" They don’t understand his limitations and they don't see that my family has specific limitations.” was founded as a result of the hundreds of hours our researchers spent with the families with who have children with special needs. A subscription to provides practical tips and tools to navigate emotional and relational well-being.