By Raising Children Network
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Happy family walking with boy with a disability
People will react in different ways to your child’s disability. Understanding how your thoughts affect your feelings and behaviour can help you work out how to respond.

Your thoughts and feelings about people’s reactions

Your thoughts, feelings and behaviour are strongly related.

You probably think certain things about your child’s development and ability and how you’d like him to be treated.

For example, you might think, ‘My child deserves the same educational opportunities as every other child in Australia’, or ‘My child needs extra help to get around’, or ‘My child is really cool and funny’.

These thoughts influence how you feel about your child and how you act.

Likewise, what you think about other people’s reactions to your child’s disability can affect how you feel and behave.

For example, if someone says, ‘Your child can’t do that’, you might think, ‘That’s unfair – you don’t even know my child’. Then you might feel angry, hurt and offended. You might even take your child out of that activity.

But another, more helpful, way to think might be, ‘I know my child best and I know what she can do’. This might give you and your child the drive to try the activity – no matter what other people think.

Responding to people’s reactions to disability

Most people will be supportive, sensitive and helpful. But sometimes people aren’t sure how to respond so they might make comments that can be unhelpful or even hurtful. Usually, this is because they don’t know much about your child’s disability or they’ve got the wrong information.

Dealing with people’s reactions can be a challenge when you’re still coming to terms with your own feelings about your child’s diagnosis.

Sometimes you’ll respond better than other times, and that’s OK. It depends on how you’re feeling. But having some strategies to fall back on can help when you’re faced with unhelpful reactions to your child’s disability.

Use the opportunity to educate
People think and react depending on what they know – and they might not know as much as you do. So before you react, ask yourself, ‘Do they know my child or anything about the disability?’ or ‘How can I use this opportunity to talk about my child’s strengths?’

When other people don’t know as much as you do, it’s a great opportunity to educate them about your child’s disability. For example, ‘Many children with autism go to regular primary schools’. If another child asks you about your child’s behaviour or ability, you can answer honestly in language the child can understand. For example, ‘The muscles in Tia’s legs get tired, so she can’t walk fast’.

Part of educating people is letting them know which comments and reactions are helpful and supportive – and which ones aren’t.

Use a standard response
Sometimes a standard response is all you need. For example, ‘I prefer not to discuss it with people I don’t know well’ or ‘You could find out more by looking up the disability on the Raising Children Network website’.

Choose not to respond
Sometimes it’s OK to say you just don’t feel like talking about it. For example, ‘I can’t talk to you about this now. Can we talk another time?’ It’s also OK to ignore the comment and not respond at all. For example, ‘Hasn’t the weather been great/awful lately?’

Challenge the comments
If you’re dealing with an organisation or professional, it’s a good idea to be prepared to ask questions to challenge or question the comments. For example, ‘How do you assess whether he’s able to take part?’

Emphasising your child’s abilities and strengths encourages other people to see your child the way you do – as a whole person, not just a disability or medical condition. For example, ‘Thien is excellent at computers, and he loves helping other children’.

Take a moment before responding
If you take some deep breaths before responding to a hurtful comment, you’re more likely to be able to say something constructive and positive. For example, ‘These days, most children born with Down syndrome grow up to lead happy, healthy and productive lives’, or ‘I feel really hurt by that comment because …’.

Discrimination can take many forms. For information on what discrimination is, how Australian anti-discrimination law works, and what to do if you want to make a complaint, you can read our article on anti-discrimination law in Australia.

Talking to your support people

Being constructive and positive is great most of the time, but it’s also completely normal if you need to let off steam sometimes.

When you need to vent your frustrations, try doing it with someone you can trust – like your partner or a close friend. You could even say, ‘I just need to vent. You don’t need to say anything. Just let me talk for a while’.

If you’re finding other people’s reactions particularly difficult to deal with, or you find that you’re often getting upset, it might be helpful to seek professional support for counselling or specific advice.

You can share stories, advice and support with others in our forum for parents of children with disability.

Other people’s reactions: examples

Other people’s thoughts about disability can affect how they react to your child. You might feel supported or hurt by other people’s reactions, but accepting that there are a range of views out there can help you cope.

Helpful reactions
Here are some helpful reactions you might come across:

  • Empathy – ‘That sounds pretty tiring. Is there something I can do to help?’
  • Respect – ‘It’s such a privilege to work with Ahmed. He’s a great kid’.
  • Positivity – ‘Melia is fantastic at painting. She’s very creative. She might enjoy our after-school art group’.
  • Equality – ‘All the kids at the party will get to have a turn on the jumping castle’.
  • Encouragement – ‘I can see that you’ve worked really hard to teach David how to ask for help’.
  • Celebration of progress – ‘Jill played beautifully with Yasmin today. It’s exciting to see her progress’.
  • Helpfulness – ‘The local play centre has a fantastic ball pit. Would Tim would like that?’

Other reactions
Here are some examples of other reactions:

  • Denial – ‘There’s nothing wrong with him. Boys are like that – very active and into everything’.
  • False reassurance – ‘She’ll probably grow out of it. Some children are just slow’.
  • Anger – ‘It’s probably his father’s genes that caused it. You should have never married him’.
  • Blame – ‘It's your fault for working right up until she was born’.
  • Sibling frustration – ‘He wrecked my drawing. I hate him. I wish he wasn’t in our family’.
  • Overprotectiveness – ‘Don’t take her to the playground. She can’t see very well and she’ll probably get hurt’.
  • Teasing or bullying – ‘Let’s hide the ball from the kid with the funny eyes’.
  • Exclusion – ‘Sorry, but we can’t invite him to Robyn’s birthday party. We’re having a jumping castle and he couldn’t do that anyway. He’ll just get upset’.
  • Staring, whispering, tactless curiosity – ‘What’s wrong with her?’
  • Embarrassment – people might blush or look away.
  • Intrusive questions – ‘Was he born like that because something happened when you were pregnant?’
  • Insensitivity – ‘Luckily your other children are normal’.
  • Ignorance – ‘I don’t expect Min to learn as quickly as the other children. After all, she has such difficulty just moving around the classroom’.
  • Discrimination – ‘Blake can’t come on the school excursion. We don’t have a bus that can take a wheelchair’.
  • Age-based comparisons – ‘She has the mind of a one-year-old’.
  • Focus on the disability rather than the person – ‘Fragile X kids usually have trouble doing that’.
  • Slang expressions – ‘How did your child end up a cripple?’
  • Unwanted or unsound advice – ‘This package I saw on the internet will fix the problem in no time’.
  • Pity – ‘It must be so sad having a child like that. Can you have another one?’
  • Last updated or reviewed 22-10-2012
  • Acknowledgements This article was developed in collaboration with Rachel McGregor, Consultant Psychologist for Centre for Disability Studies, Sydney.