When you become a mother, you experience the strange phenomenon by which people feel license to opine on everything from the way you burp your baby to the types of shoes you buy your toddler. For moms of children with cerebral palsy, though, the commentary is not just unsolicited — it can also be inadvertently hurtful.
Regardless of our intentions, we all have likely at some point been guilty of blurting out something offensive to a parent with a special-needs child. Such is the everyday reality for parents of children with cerebral palsy, or CP, a collection of disorders caused by abnormal brain development or damage to the brain that usually occurs around the time of birth.
Although these parents respond with incredible grace by smiling, nodding and taking the time to educate when necessary, it doesn't mean the comments sting any less. So in an effort to help minimize those unintentionally barbed moments, here are six things not to say to a mom whose child has CP.
1. "I would never know just by looking at him/her"
It may seem as though you are reassuring or comforting a CP mom by saying this, but what it actually accomplishes is the downplaying of the daily challenges the child and his or her parents face. The reality is that you don't understand the sheer amount of effort it has taken the family for the child to reach this particular point. It very likely involved years of therapy, research, tears, smiles, struggles and fatigue. Don't dismiss that journey with one sentence.
2. "Is it genetic?"
Many factors can lead to cerebal palsy. Certain genetic conditions carried by the parents can affect the development of the brain, so some cases of cerebral palsy are genetic. But genetics is just one of many factors. So although you might think this is a straightforward question, consider for a moment its implication. If the mother did, in fact, have genes linked to her child's cerebral palsy, you can see how the question could cause her pain and even guilt. If her child's disability has nothing to do with genetics, you're still implying that someone is to blame. Either way, this question is ill-conceived.
3. "Is it contagious?"
Absolutely not. Cerebral palsy is a disorder, not a disease, and it cannot be passed from person to person. That last thing a parent of a CP child wants to hear is that you are cautious or afraid of "catching" what they have.
4. "I could never do what you do"
It's probably safe to assume most people intend this as a compliment to the CP mom's parenting abilities. She's a supermom! She's amazing! You don't know how she holds it all together! The problem is that she might need you to put yourself in her shoes at some point because she needs help. The truth is she is a mom, just like you, and all moms get overwhelmed from time to time. This is especially true for moms with a special-needs child. Should she ever find herself feeling helpless and needing your help, this comment could make her feel as though that door is closed.
5. "I read that [fill in the blank] could help"
Sigh. This is a tough one. You want to help. You want to be able to relieve some of the CP mom's worries. Still, hearing a play-by-play of that article you read once about how drinking carrot juice cured someone's CP is unhelpful at best. Realize that, as a mother, they've done the research. They've spent countless sleepless nights educating themselves on alternative treatments. They are also likely working with a large team of highly trained medical professionals who specialize in CP. If there was a cure-all for CP, the odds are good the mother of a child with CP would know about it before that news made its way to the rest of us.
6. "I'm sorry"
These words are not meant to be malevolent by any stretch. And while parents of kids who have CP appreciate the sentiment you are trying to say, they aren't that crazy about hearing these two words in reference to their child. Why? It's simple: They aren't sorry. While CP isn't something they would have wished for their child, they aren't sorry — they are grateful for every moment they get to spend with their child. They celebrate the small victories and embrace their child's uniqueness. They take heart in just how far their little fighter has come. And that's not something to be sorry about.
What you can say
All these "don'ts" might make you nervous when it comes to talking to parents of children with cerebral palsy, but there's no need for that. It's actually much easier to talk to CP parents than you think. Think about they way you like to talk about your child, and give them the opportunity to do the same. Instead of dwelling on the difficulties they face or the reasons for their child's disability, take a minute to point out the positives.
Start your conversation with a compliment, by saying something like, "He's doing awesome!" or "She has such a great smile!". Give mom or dad a chance to do what parents do best—brag on their kid.
This post was brought to you by Gillette Children's Specialty Healthcare.