Talking to your child about his disability

Having a child with special needs can be both physically and emotionally challenging for a parent. When your child starts to realize that he or she is different from other people around them, how do you explain why? How do you still encourage him or her? Thomas Hobson, director of Child Life at Le Bonheur, answers some questions for parents about talking to their child about a disability.

How should parents communicate with their child about a disability?
Similar to any other conversation, a parent should communicate directly and honestly to her child and answer questions he or she has. There are two important aspects to consider:

  • Match the message to the age and developmental level of the child. The younger the child, the more concrete and simple the answer needs to be.
  • Gauge the child’s reactions and questions. You may be able to answer a few simple questions and your child will be happy. This reminds me of a story from when my brother and I were “too young” and asked the dreaded question, “Where do babies come from?” Instead of a long answer, my father simply said, “from the usual place,” and with that answer, my brother and I found out enough information and went on with our day. Simply put: don’t make things more complex than they need to be; especially when the child is young.

What’s the proper age to have such a discussion with a child?
One of the most important aspects to talking with a child about his disability is that it is not a single conversation. Instead, it is a series of conversations that will take place multiple times as the child grows up. As the child grows and develops, his understanding of himself will change and so will the questions that he has However, a parent may want to wait until their child asks about it first. This way you know that they child is ready to discuss it.

How should parents let their child’s school know about their child’s disability or limitations?
This depends on the specific disability and/or limitation the child faces, and what the parents decide is best for their family. Personally, I lean more towards letting the school know, so that the best possible experience/situation can be provided. It shows that the parents want to be partners with the school to create the best experience for both the child and the teacher/personnel.

How should a parent handle bullies, if the child is being bullied because of his disability?
It seems like at some time, all children are bullied at school. I would recommend the parents handle it like any other bullying situation. Begin by giving the child some skills and options to handle the situation for himself. If the child has tried to deal with it, but the problem continues, encourage the child to talk to the teacher about it. Finally, if that doesn’t seem to work, than the parents need to contact the teacher. The most important part of this process is to have the child empowered to deal with the situation himself. Allow the child to work through the issue before intervening.