Hi, I’m Brad and I don’t have a special needs child. Some of my family members and closest friends do. That doesn’t make me an expert on what I’m about to write. These are just thoughts and ideas from a guy who is burdened for his burdened family and friends.
The word that comes to mind when I talk with mothers (and dads) of special needs children is exhaustion. Physical exhaustion. Emotional exhaustion. Spiritual exhaustion. Relational exhaustion. It’s hard to imagine walking a mile in their shoes. My daughter doesn’t come unglued in the grocery store check-out line. Her reactions to different stimuli are pretty predictable. She doesn’t bite and punch to communicate. Most kids like to play with her.
That’s not always the case for parents with special needs kids. They love their children as much as I love mine. They are proud of their kids. At the same time they are discouraged, exhausted and sometimes feel utterly defeated.
There is no Essential Oil, cup of coffee, glass of wine, piece of pie or Netflix episode that can soothe and encourage like a good friend. So, how do we be good friends to our family and friends who need us? Here is what I’m learning (not mastering):
1) Pray for them. It sounds overly simplistic, but when we actually do pray for them two things happen: 1) God hears and 2) We care. It reminds us of their burden. It keeps their struggle in the forefront of our minds and interactions with them.
2) Don’t pretend like you understand what you don’t understand. Okay, you watched Parenthood and appreciate Max’s portrayal of a kid with Asperger’s. It doesn’t mean you fully understand all the struggles of your friend. Children with special needs are not all the same. The challenges vary. Don’t try to offer similar comparisons of behavior in your children. It’s not the same. To my friends who’ve heard me do this, I’m sorry.
3) Allow their norm to invade your norm. If you’re going to be a good friend, you have to be OK with some of your stuff getting scratched, broken and untidied. Your carpet might get peed on. There may be more yelling and noise in your house when you invite them over. Welcome to their everyday. Embrace it and love your family and friends by not letting it be a barrier.
4) Offer empathy instead of advice. “I’m sorry, that really stinks. I wish you didn’t have to deal with that.” is 100% better than, “If I were you, I’d _____________.” Remember the Old Testament story of Job’s friends? They were awesome when they were present and kept their mouths shut. Everything went south when they started handing out advice.
5) Provide respite. A date night or two hours to shop, nap or watch a movie may be the best gift you could give your friend. You might need to get some training. You may have to keep to a strict set of guidelines. Do it. That’s what good friends do.
6) Be a safe refuge. When your friend or family member vomits up their frustration – don’t look at them like they’re terrible human beings for expressing how they feel. Be a safe place for your friend to express the pain, grief and sadness they are feeling.
7) Pray WITH them. Put your arms around them and be willing to pray, cry and hurt with them. In person – flesh on flesh.
Your family or friends with special needs children may not say these things to you, but from my experience – they want to.
Let’s be good friends and bear one another’s burdens.