How to Talk to Children about Special Needs

Megan Moore

Contributing Writer
Published: Oct 05, 2022
How to Talk to Children about Special Needs

We don’t have to shy away from differences—we can and should make them a wonderful part of life.

My youngest son, Seth, has noticeable special needs. He looks different, and he behaves differently. We get a lot of stares from both adults and children, but children are the ones who often make comments or ask questions. This is completely normal and completely acceptable. Kids are supposed to be curious and wonder and feel safe asking why things are the way they are. It can also be embarrassing for their parents and hurt our family. There is nothing quite like the pain my momma heart experiences when I hear, “What’s wrong with him?”. 

What can we as parents do? I think talking honestly about differences is the best option. When I have been asked what’s “wrong” with Seth, I try to explain to the other child that there is nothing wrong with him and that we are all unique and that my son does things differently than you or I do. Seth has hearing aids that attach to a magnet implanted in his skull. When I excitedly tell other children about how cool it is that his ears work that way, they love it and look at it like a superpower. We don’t have to shy away from differences—we can and should make them a wonderful part of life. 

As the parent of two other children who do not have special needs, I talk to them about differences and how to interact with and include others who might need extra help. If you are looking for ways to talk to your children about special needs or any other difference so that they can include others, be more compassionate, or just stop embarrassing you, here are some ideas to consider:

Honest Conversation

My favorite quote on talking about hard things comes from Mister Rogers. He said, “Anything that’s human is mentionable, and anything that is mentionable can be more manageable. When we talk about our feelings, they become less overwhelming, less upsetting, and less scary. The people we trust with that important talk can help us know that we are not alone.” When we talk about things like special needs with our children, those differences become manageable. Kids are naturally curious, and we don’t want to shut them down when they have questions. An open and honest conversation is the best way to teach acceptance. It is ok if you don’t know what to say. You can always tell your child you aren’t sure but will find out. Your friends raising special ones are happy to give you some good advice on what to say and what not to say. 

We all know that words matter, and it can be tricky to keep up with the changing language of a group you are not actively in. If you aren’t sure what the right thing to say is, you can always ask a trusted friend. For example, you may know that the word “retarded” is no longer used, but you may not know what is appropriate now. You can kindly ask a friend, “My child is asking questions about special needs, and I need some help with the correct language. Could you guide me?” We must teach our children how to handle delicate situations when we don’t have the answers. In speaking about and with individuals with special needs, we don’t need all the answers; we just need love and humility. The goal is to give grace and respect, not pity and avoidance. 

We also know that we can talk about and handle anything in this world because Jesus told us that He is bigger than the world! In John 16:33, Jesus says, “I have told you these things so that in Me you may have peace. In this world, you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” These are difficult conversations, but you can have peace in your hearts as you maneuver all the challenging talks that come up because Jesus has overcome all of them already. 

God's Image

We must teach our children that each of us is formed in God’s image (Genesis 1:27.)  My son, with his cognitive delays, crooked smile, sweet giggle, and silly personality, is displaying qualities of our Heavenly Father. We can look at him and see a child who is non-verbal, has behavior fits, and will likely never live on his own. Or, we can see a creation of God that was known before he was even formed in the womb (Jeremiah 1:5) and a beautiful person who is deeply loved. 

We can teach our children that special needs is a misnomer because we are all special. We all do things differently, and we are each unique. Children (and adults!) love to talk about themselves. We can ask questions to get our kids thinking. What are some things that you do differently than your brother/sister/mom/dad/friend? What are some things that you are good at? What are some things that are hard for you? Once you work through how we all have strengths and weaknesses, you can start to ask those same questions about others. Questions about my son, Seth, would be like this: What are some things that are hard for Seth? What are some things that he is good at? (I like asking these questions in this order because we are often good at saying what we are good at and what others struggle with.) Do not be afraid to provide your own answers to any of these questions, and never fear asking hard questions—Jesus asked a lot of hard questions! 

Importance of Interaction

Encourage your children to interact with those who are different. This can be as simple as saying hello when they see someone at school or the store. Acknowledgment gives humanity to those who are often overlooked. Perhaps they want to be helpful and open the door for someone blind or carry a lunch tray for someone in a wheelchair. Seth loves it when other students push him on the swings at recess, even just for a minute or two. There are so many easy ways to open our hearts and show love. 

Above all, live by example. In most things, our children are paying more attention to how we act than what we say. We are commanded throughout the Bible to love and care for the “least of these” (Matthew 25:40). Our kids are watching what we do, how we act, and who we love. Are we inviting “the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind” to join in our feasts (Luke 14:12-14)? Are we opening our mouths to defend the rights of the mute, destitute, poor, and needy (Proverbs 31:8-9)? The power of God is being displayed in lives (John 9:1-3). Let’s all be there to participate!

"For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise: God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God." (1 Corinthians 1:26-29)

Photo Credit: ©Getty Images/olesiabilkei

Megan Moore is a military spouse and mom of 3 (through birth and adoption). A speech-language pathologist by training, she now spends her time moving around the country every couple of years. She is passionate about special needs, adoption, and ice cream.