I'm a mama of two boys with over a dozen diagnoses between them. My life can easily be consumed by their needs, their therapy appointments, their diets, etc. My faith has struggled along this journey. It is a hard and lonely path, I am not going to lie.
I know people mean well and are trying to be encouraging when they tell me a few commonly heard phrases. But those phrases, though meant well, are simply not true and can in fact be very discouraging.
I'll admit, there have been times when I haven't known what to say to people who are hurting. Especially if I haven't been in their shoes. To help you know what to say to a Christian special needs parent who is struggling in life and in their faith, here are four things to not say, and what you could say and do to truly encourage them:
If someone says this phrase to you, it makes you feel guilty, like you should be able to handle all the challenges life throws your way on your own. I promise you, life can be challenging and your circumstances more than you can handle on your own, which is exactly when you find yourself on your knees, begging God to help you. It is God who gives you strength in those moments. This commonly heard phrase is a misquote from 1 Corinthians 10:13 which states "God will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear." Meaning, we will face many temptations in our lives, but with self-control, we can always say no. It doesn't mean life will be easy and we won't experience hard circumstances in our lives. So many Bible heroes faced more than they could bear and turned to God for strength. They definitely experienced more than they could handle, and so will we on earth.
What to say instead: "I know life is challenging right now, how can I be praying for your family?" Listen intently to their answer. Bonus points for praying with them right then and there, or follow up a few days later with a card, phone call, email or text letting them know you've been praying for them. It would mean the world to them, I promise.
I dislike this phrase for three reasons. First of all, we as parents of children with special needs don't like hearing that phrase, because we're just being parents, doing what must be done to care for the children we have been given and love with all our hearts. Any parent who loves their children and has the resources to do so, would do the exact same. Secondly, the phrase sounds like we are like Job, God found us with some kind of super-spiritual faith and decided to test us/bless us with the challenges of parenting children of special needs to see how we'd do. God longs to bless us, not bestow challenges upon us. Thirdly, the astoundingly high number of special needs children in the foster care system and in orphanages around the world show that sadly, children with special needs are given to parents who cannot step up to the job. Nope, special needs parents aren't special, they are just parents doing their best for their child(ren).
What to say instead: "You're a great mom/dad!" or "You're doing a great job!"
Although this statement may be said in admiration for a person's strength and perseverance, hearing this statement (no matter what the life situation is) is just not encouraging. It makes you feel like something is wrong with you or your life. Yes, it is true that we special needs parents have a lot of burdens to bear and we could use some encouragement and support in carrying the load, but you could do the same as us if you had to. After all, we "can do ALL things through Him who gives us strength." (Philippians 4:13, emphasis mine). I think that if your own child had special needs, you would be doing exactly what we special needs parents are doing, loving and supporting your child in every way you knew how.
What to say instead: "What can I do to help?" Or, pick something to do to help. Ask if you can bring over dinner one night and find out about dietary needs and restrictions. Offer to baby-sit one night so the parents can go on a much-needed break or date night. Invite the family to hang out sometime to get to know them better.
Although well-meaning and trying to be helpful, offering an expensive therapy or diet or product is not helpful when advice is not asked for. It also makes us feel like our children need to be fixed, and the next thing we try could be the "silver bullet" that will "cure" or "heal" our child, rather than our children being loved and accepted for who they are.
Chances are, we've already done a ridiculous amount of research ourselves. We're already doing a lot and paying a lot of money to help our child. Being offered yet another thing to try makes us feel like we're not doing enough to help our child and if we just try this one more thing, it will work wonders for our child too.
And if it's a question coming from someone trying to sell something within their direct sales company, that can come across as selfish and salesy, rather than helpful and supportive. (Note, I'm not against direct sales, I actually love and buy from several direct sales companies, but I'm sure you know what I mean, feeling like you are being sold to rather than supported).
What to say instead: "How are you doing?" or "How are things going with [child's name]?" Then listen to the answer. See what their needs are. If they admit they need help or don't know what to do, then you can suggest whatever you have in mind to suggest, as they are asking for your advice. But if things are good or they don't ask for your advice or opinion, then don't share it. Either way, just be supportive. Be a friend. Let them know that you're on their side and you love them and their child just as they are.
What it comes down to is we want to be reminded of the love and the promises of God by our fellow believers. We don't want to be treated as special, or ignored because people don't know how to help us or what to say to us. We want to be treated as fellow members of the body of Christ who need a little love and encouragement. And we want our children to be loved and accepted just as they are.