Why shouldn't I say "I'm sorry" to a parent of a child with special needs and what can I say instead?
Here is a common Faux Pas I have been privy to. A parent tells you of a child's diagnosis and your statement that follows is, I am so sorry to hear that. Unfortunately, this is a go-to statement for many. Do not be the person that says this, please. Saying I am sorry to someone after hearing about a child's diagnosis signals a lot of negative things.
When you say I am sorry after hearing about the child's diagnosis it signals that the child is a failure. When I think back to things that I have apologized for they are normally things where I have goofed, made an error or mistake, and need to apologize. When you apologize for the child's diagnosis, you are assuming the parent should now be disappointed and upset. It is an awkward statement to say because there are so many other statements to say, and we will talk about some of those statements. You are implying pity or judgment by saying I am sorry. Oh, I am so sorry, he has Down syndrome. I am sorry that he has Williams Syndrome. I am so sorry she has hydrocephalus. There are more productive and meaningful things that we can say aside from I am sorry. It implies that the child’s state is not desirable and many other negative connotations.
Instead of saying sorry, try these reflective questions or statements instead.
- How are you feeling about the diagnosis?
- What progress have you seen since the diagnosis? (If the diagnosis occurred over 6-12 months ago.)
- How are you taking care of yourself since learning about his diagnosis?
- What are you most concerned about right now?
If a parent says their child was just diagnosed with Williams Syndrome, instead of saying I am sorry, you can say, "So how are you feeling about that?" That is a very reflective, compassionate response. It is not a yes or no answer. The parent can give you a lot of information when answering that one compassionate question.
When asking the parents what they are most concerned about you can find out how you can help support them. It takes only a second to provide resources, whether you put them in the cubby or send them via email. Providing resources helps support the family to increase their quality of life. Another thing you can do is simply say, “I am here to support you. I am here when you need me. The center/program is here and I am here.”
This Ask the Expert is an edited excerpt from the course, Perspective-Taking: Understanding Challenges, Fears and Joys of Parents of Children with Special Needs, presented by Christy Jones-Hudson, MA, IMH-E®.