Talking to Your Child About Their Disability

Talk to your child about her disability.

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Whether your child has epilepsy, dyslexia, cerebral palsy, or some other disability, it’s important to talk about it. You’ll likely need to revisit the conversation quite often.

As your child matures, they 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 they can’t succeed.

But ultimately, ignoring the topic does kids a great disservice. A child who isn’t told they have autism may not understand why they struggle with peer relationships. They may make incorrect assumptions about themself and grow to believe they're unlikable.

Similarly, a child who isn't aware they have been diagnosed with a learning disability may think they're stupid. But learning that their struggles stem from a learning disability that causes them to learn a little differently than most of their peers may cause them to feel relieved. Acknowledge your child’s disability and be willing to talk about it.

When you're willing to talk openly about your child's special needs, they're less likely to feel ashamed or embarrassed about their disability. They'll also be better equipped to explain their disability to others when you've talked to them about it.

Timing Matters

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 their disability will also be a factor in your conversations. If you learned about your child’s disability the day they were born, you’ll have a much different experience from parents who are learning about a child’s learning disability when they are 10 years old.

Your response to your child’s disability will influence the way your child views themself, so it’s important to send a message that acknowledges the challenges your child faces, while also telling them they are 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 their limitations or anxiety over their future could cause your child to experience those emotions too.

Present information about your child's disability 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, they need 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 their abilities and their future potential based on what you do, rather than what you say.

If you treat them like a capable kid, they'll be more willing to see themself that way.

Be Honest but Keep Information Age Appropriate

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

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

Give your child simple answers to their questions. If they want more information, they'll ask more questions—or they'll ask the same question again in a different way.

In simplest terms, you can use phrases like, "Your muscles struggle to work with your bones," or "This medicine helps your lungs work better."

Invite Your Child to Ask Questions

Your child’s questions about their disability will change over time. When they enter puberty or when they begin to think about career options, they'll likely have new questions.

Your child won’t ask you those questions if they think it’s too upsetting for you to answer them, and they’ll avoid bringing up the subject if they think you’ll minimize their concerns.

Make it clear that you’re happy to answer questions any time and make sure your child knows they can ask other people questions too—such as their physician or other members of their treatment team. Help your child identify trusted adults who will be willing to answer their 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 them. Discuss how scientists are researching the condition and what they’re hoping to discover.

Also, talk about how their physicians, therapists, teachers, and coaches are invested in helping them reach their greatest potential. Remind them there are many people on their team supporting their 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 their disability. While your child doesn’t owe anyone any explanations, helping them develop a script to respond to questions can help them feel more comfortable if they choose to respond.

Ask your child what they would 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 their tracks. They also may be able to put an end to the rumors others are spreading about them.

Role play different ways they could respond to various questions or comments. If they are struggling to find the words, give them a simple script.

Help them practice it with you and talk about whether it’s working for them when they use 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.

Tell people if they are good at math or a talented artist. Make it clear that their disability doesn't define them.

Make sure they know that a physical disability doesn’t have to keep them from succeeding in school and a learning disability doesn’t mean they can’t excel academically. They just might need some extra help in reaching goals.

Talk about all the things they're good at and remind them of all the things you love about them. 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 their 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 they're interested in meeting other kids with a similar disability. If they're interested, work to facilitate these interactions. Spending time with other kids who have experienced similar obstacles could be instrumental in helping your child reach their greatest potential.

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