LWB Community Blog

Wisdom Wednesdays: Parenting a Child with a Visible Special Need

I adopted my son, who is missing part of his arm, six years ago. He is such a wonderful, loving child, and not a day goes by that I don’t give thanks for the privilege of being his mom. Here are three things I wish I had known, however, about parenting a child with a visible special need.

1) I wish I had known that an incredible number of parents never take the time to teach their children that pointing at someone who is different is NEVER EVER EVER acceptable. So many children (and adults) respond terribly when they see someone with a visible special need. I wish more parents would be proactive and explain to their children that just because someone looks different, it is never okay to whisper, giggle, or say mean things. If you are a parent who hasn’t had that talk yet with your kids, please do it today. Making fun of someone who might look different is just plain wrong.

2) I wish I had known that I needed to prepare myself in advance on how to react in public when people were being mean to my child. The first few times it happened, I guess I was just so stunned that pure emotion took over and the Mama Bear came out. It is important to have a plan for your whole family, including your other kids, on when and how you wish to respond. This can be very empowering for your child as well, for him to know that the whole family has his back when people are being unkind. In our family, we usually give a pass to kids who are under seven or eight years old, as most of the time their comments (even if not said in the right way) are more curiosity than cruelty. But above age eight, if someone is laughing or pointing at my son, I am going to ask the child where his parents are or take him aside and tell him how rude he is being. I get phone calls frequently from parents who adopted children with limb differences who tell me that they never realized just how powerful their feelings of anger would be when someone is making fun of their child.

3) I wish I had known just how much my son would teach me about perseverance and overcoming obstacles. He is such an inspiration to me. I remember sitting with a preschool teacher as she told me that there were things TJ would never be able to do, such as threading beads or using scissors. Meanwhile my “don’t tell me I can’t do it” son was sitting behind her threading a necklace in his own special way. He has taught me that even when others are trying to make you feel different or tell you something is impossible, with ingenuity and inner strength you can definitely ‘achieve what you believe.’

~Amy Eldridge, Chief Executive Officer

If your child has a visible special need like Amy’s, what are some things you have learned?  We look forward to hearing your words of wisdom in the comments below!

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  • […] one is so important! parenting a child with a visible special need So many times kids point out Cecilia’s difference and I calmly explain to them “she was […]

  • Cathy says:

    I work at a center for people with multiple challenges – cognitive, physical, medical. One of my favorite chaplains was prone to saying, “we all have differences, some just aren’t so apparent.” We are all beautifully and marvelously made and we all have differences.

  • Amy,
    It was an excellent post. I love where you say that regrettably many parents don’t take the time of teaching their children that it is, borrowing from your words, “NEVER EVER EVER” acceptable to make fun or anyone. I find it deplorable that quite often even the targets of the comments try to justify the wrongdoers by saying that they “didn’t realize.” It is crystal clear that some comments are totally rude and some questions should never be asked. That’s what I emphasize the most in my etiquette book entitled “Etiquette for All,” which is intended to help parents teach good manners to their kids. That’s the way I was taught and that’s the way I taught my own children. That’s how my three older (biological) ones do more than words can say for their younger brothers, adopted internationally with some special needs. One day one of my younger sons, who has spina bifida and uses a wheelchair, one day asked one of his older brothers, Gerard, if he could jump rope. Gerard and his twin brother are 15, and very athletic–yet, his answer was negative. He replied he could not jump rope. As Stephen looked surprised, Gerard said he could do it a little, but not well. Even though Stephen is not envious at all, Gerard could not say respond that he could do something his younger brother will never be able to do.
    My Mom was called by Our Lord on September 1. I remember her being angry at me only one time long ago when I was in my fourth grade and had a very mild comment about a classmate being the shortest girl (I went to a girls-only school)in the class. Those comments were not acceptable and would not be tolerated. Conversely, whereas throughout her life my Mother’s kindness, compassion, and self-abnegation had no limits, on the other hand she had very little tolerance for anyone who purposefully makes the wrong comment or asks the wrong question. My Mother’s position on that was that those who make cruel comments need to be taught a lesson so that nobody else will be the victim of their mordacious tongues. That’s what I say in my book, and I’m happy to see that you, Amy, do that by asking for the child’s parents. Good for you! By confronting the other child you show your own son who is right and who is wrong. You show him that he is definitely NOT the one who should be ashamed. I’ll quote the excellent answer that a little girl gave to a boy who asked about her under-developed hand. The question and answer were posted some time ago in an adoption Yahoo group by the girl’s mother. The boy said, “Eeeew, what happened to your hand?” The little girl replied, “Eeeew, what happened to your manners?”
    The answer could not have been better. People need to stop making comments about their fellow human beings’ disabilities, physical appearance, accent, or anything else. Is that so difficult? The problem is that a large number of people deem it acceptable. I was shocked to find that many teacher consider that being cruel is not that bad. When in her second grade at a small non-denominational private school, Catherine, my oldest child, now 26, went to the rescue of a little first grader who was being asked why she didn’t look like her adoptive parents. I was appalled at the teacher’s reaction: instead of congratulating my daughter for stepping in, she said that since the comment was not addressed to her, Catherine should not have intervened. In reply to my protest that the question had been a cruel one, the teacher said as a “normal” thing that “children are cruel.” Well, she may have been speaking for her own–certainly NOT for mine!!!
    Religion is a HUGE plus for anyone. For children with special needs, it is crucial that they understand that they are perfect before God, perfect for their families, perfect for anyone who doesn’t need to make others feel badly in order to booster the very poor image they have about themselves.
    Thanks. God bless, Lillian Godone-Maresca

  • sarah says:

    Thank you so much for posting this! My daughter has a limb difference (she was born without part of her left hand). It’s visible and I find it very upsetting when people point it out, I’m still trying to find a way to curtail my emotions so she doesn’t see me get upset or angry. It’s a difficult thing. We all want to be mama bears to our babies!

  • Anonymous says:

    We have a son who is severely physically and mentally disabled. He uses a wheelchair to get around and is prone to yell loudly when stressed. I used to be upset when people would look and stare. I never knew how to handle it and it would make me angry. After a while though, I realized when I saw someone with a limb missing or facial burns or other issues, I too stopped and looked, but I made sure I smiled and said hi. I taught my children to do the same and they are amazing with all sorts of children and adults with different special needs. What makes me angry isn’t so much the staring as the parents who grab their children, turn them around, and more or less run away from my son, like he has some horrible, contagious disease. Those are the people I would like to talk to. I have yet to find an answer that I am okay with. I think everyone has to figure out the response they feel is appropriate and deal with it. We have to be careful about being angry though because our children pick up on that. I would rather have a child who is so secure in his abilities and gifts from God that he prays for the person who is lost because they can’t see anyone else’s gifts.