When it comes to supporting a special needs parent, the first rule of unsolicited advice is: don’t dole it out. Ever.
But—I can almost hear you protest—I mean well. I’m a kind, concerned friend/relative to a parent who is struggling. They may have just received their child’s diagnosis—Autism, ADHD, or any other medical condition—and I see them, rudderless in a sea of forms and appointments.
If you want to offer help and support (of course you do), the best advice is to back off. Seriously, step away from Dr. Google.
Don’t share links to studies (seen this?) or therapies (tried this?). Chances are, she has pored over them months ago and is too polite or exhausted to tell you so. And if she is looking for advice, she’ll consult those who know firsthand what she’s going through—a parent group or forum. These are the only people qualified to give her any advice without sounding like asshats.
Do make her laugh. If you want to send her links, opt for a funny meme or an adorable gif. Think micro pigs and Outlander. If she can get out, seek out the stupidest movie you can find playing (not hard these days!). Think Bridesmaids or Bad Moms versus any weepy Oscar contender. Reminisce or gossip over brunch mimosas, and make her laugh until her cheeks burn and her sides ache.
The parent may be lost right now, and she may be feeling a maelstrom of emotions. She may go from sad to angry to confused in the space of a morning—and believe me, you don’t want that wrath directed at you. Remember what paved the road to hell, and if you truly are a friend, be what she needs. And what she probably needs most right now is comic relief.
Don’t complain—or brag—too much about your kids to her. By all means, you can talk about your children. They’re not a taboo subject. She likes you and your kids, she really does. It’s just hard to hear you whine about having to drive to ballet or hockey or having to go to yet another birthday party. The fact is, she’d probably kill to have those kinds of “problems” because it would mean that her kid’s life was somehow typical.
Do say “So what’s X into these days?” or “What cool or funny thing has X done lately?” No parent can resist a chance to gush about their kid—special needs or not—and your interest gives her an opportunity to reflect on the positives. She may jump at the chance to share an amusing anecdote or celebrate some milestone her child has recently met.
Don’t make her kid the elephant in the room, either. When you ask about her child with special needs, avoid adopting that grave, hushed tone. “How is X?” The child has special needs, not a terminal illness.
Do be a fairy godmother. Is she having a tough week or month? Drop off her favourite Starbucks order, then magically disappear. Or, if you’re not local, mail her a token gift card with a little note of encouragement. If you sense she’s deep in crisis mode, drop off a lasagne or Instapot casserole ready to throw in the freezer.
Don’t ask if she needs help. Know that even if she does, desperately, she likely won’t come right out and admit it. That’s moms for you. Actions speak louder than offers.
Do check in, often and without expectation. A simple wave—I see you—can do wonders. Try not to get offended if she doesn’t always reply or show up. That’s not to say you should make yourself her personal doormat. Just keep in mind that it’s really not about you right now.
Hang in there. If you are the kind of person she needs you to be now, you will be one of the few she clings to while others fall by the wayside.
Author’s note: while this article uses the pronoun “she” throughout, the advice applies to all genders/parents.
Julie M Green is a freelance writer and featured blogger at Huffington Post and Yummy Mummy Club. Her articles have appeared in a variety of publications, including Today’s Parent, the Globe and Mail and Parents Canada. Over the years she has given interviews for CTV, CBC and BBC Radio, and HuffPost Live. She lives in Toronto with her family—an Irish expat hubby, a crazy bulldog, and an amazing 8-year-old son with autism.