How to Talk to Your Child About His or Her Disability

Talk to your child about her disability.
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Whether your child has epilepsydyslexia, or a physical disability, it’s important to talk about it. You’ll likely need to revisit the conversation quite often.

As your child matures, he or she will likely develop new questions or concerns about their disability. The way you approach these conversations will greatly influence how your child feels about herself and her potential.

Acknowledge Your Child’s Disability

Sometimes, parents avoid conversations about a child’s disability.

They fear bringing up the subject will make their child feel bad or that it will cause a child to think she can’t succeed.

But ultimately, ignoring the topic does kids a great disservice. A child who isn’t told he has autism may not understand why he struggles with peer relationships. He may make incorrect assumptions about himself and grow to believe he’s unlikable.

Similarly, a child who isn't aware he has been diagnosed with a learning disability may think he’s stupid. But learning that his struggles stem from a learning disability that causes him to learn a little differently than most of his peers may cause him to feel relieved, so acknowledge your child’s disability and be willing to talk about it to your child.

When you show him it isn't a secret, he's less likely to feel ashamed or embarrassed about his disability and he's more likely to feel comfortable in his own skin when he knows you're OK talking about it.

Hold Ongoing Conversations With Your Child

There are several types of disabilities—emotional, physical, intellectual, and sensory. The type of disability your child has will play a big role in how you approach the subject.

The timing of when you and your child learned about his disability will also be a factor in your conversations.

If you learned about your child’s disability the day he was born, you’ll have a much different experience from parents who are learning about a child’s learning disability when he’s 10-years-old.

Your response to your child’s disability will influence the way your child views herself, so it’s important to send a message that acknowledges the challenges your child faces, while also telling her she’s a capable kid who has much to offer the world.

Be Matter of Fact in Your Conversations

Putting too much emotion into your conversations will influence how your child feels. Expressing sadness over his limitations or anxiety over his future could cause your child to experience those emotions too.

So present information in a matter of fact manner. Talk about the science behind your child’s disability, or acknowledge that while other kids can take the stairs, she needs to use an elevator. But don’t insert too much opinion about those things.

Steer clear of lengthy lectures and long-winded inspirational speeches. Your child will learn more about his abilities and his future potential based on what you do, rather than what you say. If you treat him like a capable kid, he'll be more willing to see himself that way.

Be Honest But Keep Information Age Appropriate

When your child asks questions about his condition or his prognosis, be honest. Just make sure the information you share is in a kid-friendly manner.

A 4-year-old who asks about his genetic condition won’t understand the neuroscience behind his disability and a 10-year-old doesn’t need to know about all the latest medical research behind why he takes a certain medication.

Give your child simple answers to his questions. If he wants more information, he’ll ask more questions—or he’ll ask the same question again in a different way.

Invite Your Child to Ask Questions

Your child’s questions about his disability will change over time.

When he enters puberty or when hhe begins to think about career options, he'll likely have new questions.

But, your child won’t ask you those questions if he thinks it’s too upsetting for you to answer them, and she’ll avoid bringing up the subject if she thinks you’ll minimize her concerns.

Make it clear that you’re happy to answer questions any time and make sure your child knows she can ask other people questions too—such as his physician or other members of his treatment team. Help your child identify trusted adults who will be willing to answer his questions.

Talk About Who Is Helping Your Child

Rather than focus on all the bad things about your child’s disability, talk about all the people who are making a big effort to help him. Discuss how scientists are researching the condition and what they’re hoping to discover.

Also, talk about how his physicians, therapists, teachers, and coaches are invested in helping him reach his greatest potential. Remind him there are many people on his team supporting his efforts.

Help Your Child Identify What to Say to Others

Other kids at school—and perhaps even adults in the community—may ask your child questions about his disability. While your child doesn’t owe anyone any explanations, helping her develop a script to respond to questions can help her feel more comfortable if she chooses to respond.

Ask your child what she’d like other people to know. A child who can say, “I have Tourette's Syndrome. That’s why I twitch sometimes,” may be able to stop a bully in his tracks and she may be able to put an end to the rumors others are spreading about her.

Role play different ways she could respond to various questions or comments. If she’s struggling to find the words, give her a simple script. Help her practice it with you and talk about whether it’s working for her when she uses it with other people.

Focus on Your Child’s Strengths

Don’t let all your conversations be about your child’s disability. Invest a lot of time into talking about strengths, too.

Make sure he knows that a physical disability doesn’t have to keep him from succeeding in school and a learning disability doesn’t mean he can’t excel academically. He just might need some extra help reaching goals.

Talk about all the things he’s good at and remind him of all the things you love about him. A child who can recognize skills and talents is much more likely to feel competent and confident.

Identify Healthy Role Models Your Child Can Relate To

All children feel discouraged and frustrated sometimes. But for kids with disabilities, those feelings can become pervasive. Identifying healthy role models with a similar disability can help your child feel inspired.

Whether you know an adult in the community who has the same disability as your child or there are athletes, musicians, or successful entrepreneurs with a similar disability, talk about other people who persevere.

Seek Support for Yourself and Your Child

Talking to other parents who understand what your family is going through could help you feel more confident in the conversations you are having with your child. Consider joining a support group—either in-person or online—where you can talk to other parents of children with similar disabilities.

Seek advice from the professionals who work with your child. Your child’s pediatrician, speech therapist, physical therapist, or special education teacher may be able to offer more specific insights into how to talk to your child about her disability.

Finding support for your child is important too. Whether it’s a week long summer camp or a monthly support group for kids with similar disabilities, your child may appreciate getting to know other kids with shared experiences. So talk to your child if he’s interested in meeting other kids with a similar disability.

If he’s interested, work to facilitate these interactions. Spending time with other kids who have experienced similar obstacles could be instrumental in helping your child reach his greatest potential.

Sources:

Bassett-Gunter R, Ruscitti R, Latimer-Cheung A, Fraser-Thomas J. Targeted physical activity messages for parents of children with disabilities: A qualitative investigation of parents informational needs and preferences. Research in Developmental Disabilities. 2017;64:37-46.

Marino ED, Tremblay S, Khetani M, Anaby D. The effect of child, family and environmental factors on the participation of young children with disabilities. Disability and Health Journal. 2017.

Slattery E, Mcmahon J, Gallagher S. Optimism and benefit finding in parents of children with developmental disabilities: The role of positive reappraisal and social support. Research in Developmental Disabilities. 2017;65:12-22.

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