Both the number and percentage of Americans with a disability are on the rise (1). And with the skyrocketing rate of autism diagnoses—1/50 children; 1/31 boys, (2)—every children’s ministry leader can expect to walk alongside a family touched by disability at some point or another. Consider the following ways your ministry team can support the parents of a child with special needs:
Reach out to a family processing a new diagnosis via text and email. Families appreciate caring friends who convey both concern for their family and acceptance of the child with special needs. Because unexpected and even embarrassing grief may surface in the early days after receiving a special needs diagnosis, texts and emails give parents the ability to choose how and when to respond. For the sake of siblings and perhaps even a spouse, parents appreciate the opportunity to converse with composure.
Pray for and with the parents as if you were walking in their shoes. Few things are more appreciated than heartfelt prayers petitioning God’s redeeming hand while conveying an understanding for parents’ concerns and grief. Connecting with the family emotionally is important for developing a relationship and providing heartfelt support.
Avoid common sentiments that may come across as dismissive. Parents fresh off of a special needs diagnosis share that the following phrases often do not provide comfort:
Any statement that begins with “At least. . . .”
“God doesn’t give us more than we can handle.”
“Special needs children are a blessing.”
“God chose your family for this child.”
“Everything happens for a reason.”
Invite parents to share about their child’s journeyfor the purpose of becoming familiar with their family’s unique story. Allow parents to express their authentic feelings, supporting them if they are feeling grief or sharing in optimism if they are hopeful for their child’s future. Refrain from offering opinions or advice. While well intentioned, unrequested counsel may feel demeaning, providing a listening ear will be much more appreciated than recommendations for support groups or treatment options.
Talk about disability with the typically developing children in your ministry, encouraging them to see their peers with differences as equals. Model interaction and facilitate communication between peers with and without additional needs. Foster friendships by introducing the family of a child with special needs to other church families who may be sensitive to and inclusive of children with differences.
Give a gift card to a restaurant or provide free childcare for siblings. Families impacted by special needs always have added stress with additional doctor’s appointments and therapy sessions. Few things are more appreciated than acts of service that spare the parents time or provide a fun memory for a sibling, who may otherwise spend their day sitting in the chair of a doctor’s waiting room.
Sources for Statistics:
Excerpt from Leading a Special Needs Ministry: A Practical Guide to Including Children and Loving Children by Amy Fenton Lee (©2013 The reThink Group, Inc.). Amy Fenton Lee also blogs at www.TheInclusiveChurch.com.