BabyCenter Guest Blogger
Lisa Lori is President of Lisa Lori Communications and mother to three boys ages 10, 8, and 7.
Most parents feel nervous bringing their child to school for the first time, signing them up for a town sport or letting them go on their first play date but, for the parent of the disabled or special needs child these rites of passage can be downright frightening. There are steps you can take to help create a positive experience for your child that will help them to thrive and be accepted.
As the mother of three children with disabilities, I believe fostering empathy – not sympathy – for them among their peers, teachers, parents and community is invaluable. You don’t have to have a disabled or special needs child to know that all children can benefit from learning to understand and care for others.
Here are 7 ways to foster empathy
1) Empathy Versus Sympathy
Empathy is more complex than sympathy, it is the ability to understand others and to put yourself in someone else’s situation. Children can learn empathy at a young age – as early as 2 or 3 years old. Empathy begins with your behavior and actions. I am amazed at the comments I hear parents ignore or tolerate – “She’s stupid” or “That teacher is terrible”. When your child hears this language, ask them how they would feel if someone called them a name.
2) Educate Your School About Your Child
Many disabled and special needs children are pre-judged because of a lack of communication about the child. Meet with teachers and administrators frequently to review your child’s needs and goals. Each year I meet new teachers and hear, “Yes, sure I understand, no problem.” When I check in three weeks later, there are many more follow-up questions. Whether it is the first time or the 100th time, it is never easy to explain to others what your child’s disability or special needs are but it is vital to communicate on an ongoing basis.
3) Visit the Classroom
Kindergarten is the age I chose to first talk to my son’s class. Ask kids if they know anyone who has been in the hospital or has glasses, and you will get a thousand funny answers. Explain how or why your child has a disability, “Luke can’t hear very well so he wears a hearing aid just like your mom wears glasses.” All of a sudden that strange thing he wears on his head isn’t so weird anymore. Soon their friends won’t see the disability anymore because they understand it.
4) Create a Community of Support for Your Child
Make friends with the parents of your child’s classmates. Don’t wait for a phone call asking you for a play date, take the first step. Get to know families and invite kids to your house to play, this will allow you to answer questions that help de-mystify the disability. I have met many parents of disabled children who say “he is doing ok in school but he doesn’t have many friends”. Begin at an early age and you and your child will reap the benefits. It is harder to make fun of the child they know than the one that they don’t.
There is no better way to make sure your child is in a safe environment then by getting to know the people who they are surrounded by at school or sports and by them getting to know you. My husband coached as many teams as possible to help answer questions and introduce our kids to other children. This gave them important moral support when they were most vulnerable.
6) Build Self Esteem
Whenever my children ask me why they have to have surgery and other children don’t, I tell them that many people have challenges, theirs are simply on the outside. I give examples of people to admire who have overcome great physical or emotional challenges. We tell them every day they are loved and we set high expectations for them in school, life and behavior. Their inner confidence exceeds any physical limitations they may have.
7) Give Your Child or Their Siblings Tools to Discuss Disabilities
My children’s disabilities are complex so I give them simple ways to explain to other children what they are. It is easy to walk away from a child that asks uncomfortable questions about your child. Instead of being uncomfortable, it can become the beginning of a friendship.
Relationships are the key to fostering empathy and understanding for all children. Kindness counts in our family and no one is ever too young or too old to learn!
Lisa Lori is the founder of LLC (Lisa Lori Communications) where she works closely with brands including IFF, HobNob Wines, the Alzheimer’s Association, New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, Grammy nominated artist Sophie B. Hawkins, The School of American Ballet, the Princess Grace Foundation, NYC Opera, and WJ Deutsch & Sons. Lisa lives in Connecticut with her husband, three sons and their beautiful golden retriever Corduroy.