Thursday, March 26, 2009

Special Needs and Teasing

When I first adopted my son TJ, I looked at his special need as a fairly insignificant one. He was born without his right forearm, but after being his mom for five minutes I already could see that he would be able to do anything in life that he wanted with one hand. Our whole family quickly forgot at home that he even had a special need. However, out in public is a completely different story. Every time we venture out, TJ’s missing arm seems to draw a lot of attention. Children pull their parents over to see his missing arm, unkind children make rude comments, and even adults have said things that leave my mouth on the floor. I honestly had no idea that my son would have to almost daily defend himself because of missing a hand.

I think almost all of us have been in a situation with our children when they loudly announced that someone in their line of sight looked different, but I have found there is a definite difference between kids who are just curious (which never bothers me) and kids who are hurtful. I have also found there is a big difference in the way parents handle these situations. I have been surprised that most times parents just choose to ignore an offensive remark as if it was never said (out of embarrassment perhaps?), but in my mind that teaches the child nothing. Others have been so rude as to agree with their child that my son has a “funny arm”, and I am sure you know my feeling on that! I always struggle with whether it is my job to educate someone else’s kid, but I have to admit to reaching a point where I often do for my own child’s sake. Now if someone says “what a freaky arm”, I count to three to give the parent of the child a chance to intervene, but if they don’t….then I step in. Normally I will just say, “that was very unkind”, and then explain that TJ can do everything with one hand. It honestly is the more rare occasion that a parent will say “I am so sorry” and then turn to their child and explain that someone missing a hand is perfectly okay.

How do you think these situations should be handled? As a parent, do you take a proactive approach with your kids to let them know that children born with special needs are just kids? How have you handled it if your own child has said something unkind? If you are the parent of a child who is teased or singled out frequently, how do you manage rude comments in public? I would love to know your thoughts.

Amy Eldridge

Love Without Boundaries Foundation


  1. I try to point out to my daughter, whenever possible, that we are all different...people are different, families are different...there's just a lot of variety in the world. I point out and at least attempt to discuss the fact that some families have only grandparents and children, some have only a mom and children, some have only a dad and children, etc. I also try to make her aware (and I think she is) that all people are different...we can't all be exactly alike...some of us have blond hair, some have dark hair, some have lighter colored skin, some darker, some have two hands, some have one. We also have the pleasure of being friends with a local family whose son was adopted from China with differently-formed hands and feet, and there is a girl in her class at school (and has been in the same class since 3 years old) with possibly CP...something that causes her to have extra physical challenges, anyway. So, being around these children shows her that they are really not so different, they just have different challenges than she has. She has never (so far!) commented about someone in public...she will sometimes talk to me about it later when we see someone with SN. If she said something rude, I would apologize and let her know that she had said something potentially hurtful.

  2. Hi Amy-

    When one of my young children had a question about someone with a special need, I encouraged them to politely ask the person about their difference. For example, "why do you have only one leg?" Usually when it was an innocent question, the person with the obvious difference could educate my child using terms that they prefer.

    As my children got older, they realized that this was probably a "hush, hush" matter and were reluctant to bring it up in front of the person. That's ok too, as long as conspicuous pointing and whispering was not a part of it.

  3. In the broad sense, comments like that are not that much different from questions our family gets about our daughters though maybe not as hurtful. We have been asked the classic questions and more. "How much did she cost?" "Are they sisters?" "Does she speak English?" "Is your wife Asian?" (to which I answered "No he's not.") :)

    One of my favorites (not) was a few years ago when my wife was completing hospital registration with Olivia on my lap when the clerk said, "Does she know she's adopted?" I answered, "Well for sure she knows now." By the way, we always draw lots of attention -- you know a couple of "hillbillly" baby boomer (as in old) parents with two Chinese daughters.

    Both girls have taken crude comments and questions from other students the past two years (1st and 3rd grades now). Olivia was really upset both times. I spent great time trying to explain why some children are hurtful and just plain ignorant. However, I am left with the thought that those children have to learn their behavior from parents. It is true that young children will be inquisitive and ask questions about differences in people but I believe they learn how to be insensitive (or how to be sensitive) from parents and other adults they are around. I have actually lectured a parent in front of their offended child. In the end I think the best we can do is to reassure our children.

    My girls are probably not immune to asking TJ a question about his arm though it would be my hope we have taught them how all of us have a purpose and are great. If not though I can assure you they would have a new lesson. Each day is a new day, a special day to learn, both for children and for us. Maybe the best we can do is to teach our children and to keep learning ourselves.

  4. I think it is wonderful that you are proactive. It has been interesting to me to realize that some of the special needs that are classified as more serious (such as a severe heart defect, for example) might be harder physically on a child, but perhaps emotionally it is many of the "easier" special needs (such as my son's missing limb) that long term could be harder on a child's self esteem. The reactions we have received in public have really surprised me, and I have to admit to being unprepared in the beginning for just how much attention he would get in public.

  5. We don't get much attention for my daughter's "special" needs...hers are mainly emotional...still an additional challenge, but not as obvious and when people do see some bits of it (because no one outside of the family sees it all), they then do their best to convince me that "all kids do that"...yeah, let's give you a child like her and we'll see how long you last with that attitude!

  6. When kids innocently ask TJ, "where is your arm?" like you mentioned in your post, it is never an issue. TJ has learned the words himself to answer them. He will just give his famous TJ smile, usually shrug and say "I was just born that way." It is any comment that uses words like "stupid, ugly, freaky, funny"....that make him very sad (of course). He now can also tell people to "stop it" when they are bothering him, and I was so proud of him the first time I heard him tell a child to quit being mean. I did read a blog recently that was on a similar topic, and the author instructed parents to 'get the heck out of Dodge' with their heads lowered if a child ever said anything rude in public. I still think an "I'm sorry" could be said before someone bolts for the door!

  7. There's something about third grade, isn't there? My daughter has had some really tough comments this year in 3rd as well. Thanks so much for your comments.

  8. Good point Lisa that many special needs are emotional as well.

  9. Both my children, adopted from China, have albinism. We get comments all the time, and have taught TA (our 5yo son) to either explain that he has albinism or smile and say, "God made me this way." when asked where he got his white hair. I have also equipped him with a few sarcastic remarks such as, "I drink too much milk" and "My other mom." Those usually quiet folks pretty quickly.

    One story - we were in a cracker barrel eating dinner and an older lady rubbed TA's hair WHILE HE WAS EATING!! He had an annoyed look and my hubby and I debated walking past her and rubbing her overpermed gray hair to see if she liked it. We resisted. It is never ending and we are the only source of education about various SN that most folks get.

  10. We have 4 kids from China, and our two sons are both cleft affected. We got our youngest son with his cleft lip & palate unrepaired, so we had many questions. He was 17 months and he didn't realize what they were asking, and I think the children really did ask innocently. However, our oldest son is very hard to understand (adopted at 7 and now 10) and people will make comments about that, as well as (as another person wrote) two old folks with 4 children from China. We have been called grandparents, babysitters, and have the same questions about whether they are related. We have explained to our boys about how they were born with mouth problems, but we've been blessed to be able to have them fixed. I think our children are secure in our family's "special" appearance, and that they're adopted (placed specially by God in our family); so they handle comments pretty well. I worked a job where I made the mistake of saying something to a man and woman who I assumed with father and daughter and they were husband and wife, so I'm much more careful myself on what I say. We do need to educate people since there are so many more adopted children, to not ask/insinuate that our children are not related - they are sisters and brothers and we are mom and dad - and that's the way it is!

  11. Thank you for the laugh about rubbing the lady's hair. I also like the "too much milk" line. Maybe TJ could say "shark bite" with all seriousness. :-)

  12. I have wanted to give my daughter such a overflowing cup of love and acceptance that when the comments come up that she would KNOW
    that it wasn't her that needed to explain or feel bad but look to the comment as being peculiar. She is headed into third grade so I am sure that the cup is going to get some "sloshing" but she did say to a curious little girl who asked her if she was adopted,
    Yea, by my mom. She looked up at me,with eys that said,isn't that silly? At a few over the top comments, I have gone to eye level and quietly told a child or two, that she/he is never to ask a question again. If they have questions about us, they need to talk to their parents about them. It is not a subject we will be discussing with them. It did stop. Fools explain, wise men refrain. That is a line from a song makes me smile and a philosophy that works for us.

  13. Often I think the high road is best. Respond always with kindness if it can be mustered. The child/parent may still not react as you might hope, however, you bet they won't forget that interaction and think better of it the next time the urge to make a rude comment comes over them. In fact, I think a child might learn more from what YOU might say to them vs what their own parent might say.

    I have some relatives who quite frankly are racist people. My husband & I have done our best to interject when we can if they are making inappropriate comments. Their children mimic the parents behavior for sure. However, a small miracle has happened. One of their daughters has fallen in love with our sweet Chinese daughter. I know that the racist feelings she was brought up with are melting away. Yes, kids learn from their parents but sometimes they also watch their parents and decided that they do not like or agree with what they see.

    I guess what I'm saying is that you may never be able to change the parent's attitude but you can have a profound affect on a child's attitude if you go about it the right way.

  14. Both our daughters have hand deformities and our oldest has foot/leg differences also. They react quite differently to comments. Our oldest is more sensitive by nature and will become sad and take herself out of the situation. Our youngest can be very feisty and the last time this happened, dragged me over to the little girl who had said something and told her off in front of me (they are good friends now).

    So we usually respond with "That's how she/he was born and she can do anything she wants." That normally is the end of it especially with kids they are with all the time. Last year, our oldest had problems with some older boys at school and I had to go to the teachers to get it stopped. This year the same boys taunted her by calling her "China girl" and making unkind comments about people born in China (and this is a very diverse school -- I went back to the teachers). We've had some comments from adults, but I usually say the same thing and no one has pushed it so far (though we do get the "how much did they cost?" type questions too).

    We brought our 5 year old son home 4 months ago, he has all his fingers and toes but has knee deformities that cause gait and balance problems. We've had a few comments and responded the same way as with the girls. So far, he hasn't really reacted, but as his English gets better we will see how he responds.

    Our kids will sometimes make comments about people they see and we try to take those situations and the times they on are the receiving end of comments as opportunities to talk about how everyone is different and that's what make you who you are. Our oldest doesn't totally buy into that. She wants to be like everyone else. Really, though, all of them are able to do pretty much anything they want and I think that sometimes has more of an impression on people than words. Annie loves shoes and especially flip flops. We never bought them for her because she only has one toe and we didn't think she could wear them. She convinced me to get a pair last summer and she wears them all over - I think she keeps them on by sheer force of will.

  15. I agree with Colleen, it is better to take the high road. Our children are likely to learn more from how we respond than from what the stranger says. I think it is good for a child to learn to deflect remarks. When I was a child, if someone made fun of something about me, my Mom would say, "That comment says more about them than it does about you." I have carried that lesson into my adult life.

  16. Thank you all for this great discussion. I have really taken to heart the comments. I love this line:

    "you may never be able to change the parent's attitude but you can have a profound affect on a child's attitude if you go about it the right way." I also think this is a great response that parents could use with their kids: "That comment says more about them than it does about you."

    Had to smile about the comment about keeping on the flipflops by sheer force of will. Those strong wills certainly served our children well while they were orphaned.


  17. Amy, I answered this last night, but my reply didn't show.

    Anyway, the long version of what I sent to you privately is that there are quite obviously different stages of questions. Some are very innocent and deserve a kind, well-thought-out answer. And then there are those that get your hackles up, the mama bear pops out and you contemplate the best way to make the parent of the other child burst into tears. Ok...maybe tht doesn't happen to everyone, but it does to me....the desire to make the other person hurt as badly as you do, or your child does. 99.9% of the time, I can rise above this.

    Our son from Haiti has a bilateral unrepaired cleft, the worst his surgeon has ever seen, interfering with breathing in a major way, and virtually no nose. We get lots of cute questions, mainly from sweet little children -- "Did God forget to give him a nose?" "Why doesn't he have a lip?" Those questions are so sweet and asked with no guile. It's easy to reply with kindness and a grin, with Pierre giggling in my arms. Then we get, "EWWWW!!!!", "That's GROSS!!!!" and "Why did you WANT him?!?!?!" And these have come from children and adults. Right after Pierre came home and we were at the airport heading to Florida for our other son's Make A Wish trip, there was a family who just stared. The youngest son said, "YUCK!" and pointed straight at Pierre. I waited for the parents to say something, but they didn't! They just kept staring as well. The son repeated it, and I ended up saying kindly, "It's not yuck. It's the way he was made." And he said it AGAIN. And I looked incredulously at the parents who heard every word and said nothing. They looked away and didn't say anything to their son.

    A bad reaction can teach your child that it's ok to lash out in anger. That it's ok to make someone hurt as badly as you hurt. And it's not ok (not in my book, anyway). It's a juvenile reaction to react out of anger. is difficult when you see someone disgusted with another human life. It's the worst when you know the value of that life.

  18. For sure communication plays the largest role here. As parents we need to talk to our kids about all subject matter, however uncomfortable it may make us feel.
    Our 2.5 year old daughter likes to read this book, It's Okay To Be Different.
    We're not expecting it to solve all of her questions, but discussions during reading will hopefully help her realize that when she sees someone different, that it's really not that different at all.

  19. I just wanted to say how moved I am by this thoughtful item, and the considered comments. It is so sad that so many of you have had to face such remarks and seen your dear children hurt by them. I can only say that with parents like you, who care so much and have developed your own strategies for coping with ignorance, your children stand the best chance of dealing with this behaviour.

  20. Thanks for this post, Amy. My son was born without his right arm so gets daily comments and stares. He's only 2.5, but I can't wait until he can talk, because I know he'll show me the proper way to respond.

    Currently, I'm a mama bear when someone indicates "What is wrong with him?" I'm shocked by that comment and usually abrupt back, because if they took a minute to get to know him, they'd realize HE has so much that THEY don't.

    They should try to be more sweet like him, rather than wondering why he isn't like them. If the world was as loving and patient as my son, the world would be a better place. That is as obvious as his missing arm, so why don't people comment on that more.

    In this so called "diverse" world, I'm shocked that people look at the outward appearance of a child rather than the inside.

    Thanks again,

    mom to Mia, Ava (sn=cl l/p) and Kai (sn=LB), adopted 2005, 2006 and 2008

  21. Amy,

    Our son has a facial difference - one side is smaller than the other, his eyes are different shapes and he is missing an ear.

    We get many stares but few comments from anyone other than curious children. I think his difference is severe enough that people are often shocked into not saying anything at all.

    What I always do, particularly when someone is staring, is to reach over and gently stroke his face or kiss his little ear - it lets people know that I love him just the way he is. And most importantly, it reinforces for him that I love him to pieces.

  22. I have really been thinking today about the education part for children who say inappropriate things, and I think many of you are so right that perhaps the offending child has learned to be mean from what they hear from their parents. Perhaps no one has ever taught them the importance of being kind. I've gone back over some of the public encounters that have bothered me the most, and realized that most of the times the parents didn't seem to care at all what their child said, which certainly is telling, isn't it? Realizing this now is going to give me an extra reminder that how I react truly could be a good life lesson for the child who was being cruel. Thanks for that advice. your idea of the kisses as well. A lot of times I just play 'pre-emptive strike' by coming between TJ and any child heading our way, but I also know that I won't be able to be by his side forever, so I want him to learn what makes him the most comfortable as far as a response. Since I've now parented babies to adults, I have to admit to feeling a bit sad that my son will have to hear these things as he heads into school days without me. One friend told me that her daughter with a limb difference came home upset one day because no one wanted to hold her "little hand" in gym class when they were making a circle. I find myself watching my older kids do things and already thinking ahead to how it will be for TJ to have constant reminders that he is "different". Keyboarding class and the year long "playing the recorder" ordeal in fourth grade already come to mind!


  23. Thanks for the book recommendation. You have found my weakness....I do so love books! And hey, if you enter through LWB's website first, we get 4%. ha ha.... couldn't resist! :-)


  24. My son missing both legs and one arm completely is very open about it. He will just talk about how that is how he was born. We have explained to him that most people we meet have never seen someone with no legs before. It makes him more understanding. I usually when kids are persistant or rude will ask them why they have blond, or brown or whatever hair. They will usually say they were just born with it, and I will say that is the same with him, he was just born that way. For kids it's enough. Some adults can be rude. Especially since his Roma looks don't match our pale ones. He also gets a lot of people speaking spanish to him. I also get lots of people asking me if I adopted him for the money. I always ask what money? It seems according to some people I am supposed to be getting tons of money from the government for having a "disabled" kid. I have to explain to them that no, we don't get any, but if they want to contribute towards his care, we will take donations, LOL (OK I usually skip that last part, but I sure think it!)

  25. I wanted to share our family story - my older brother was one of those boys who said rude things about any one with a special need - he did not do this in front of our parents thou. When my brother was 19 he was in a car accident and be came a quadriplegic. Well I wouldn't wish that on anyone but I have often thought if it wasn't payback for his rudeness.

  26. As much as comments can get my own blood boiling, I don't want my daughter to live a life of anger and sadness so I really have had to work on my reactions. I want her to know that 90 percent of people who approach her are curious...just as she herself would be. That other 10 percent...they just aren't worth ruining your day over, and you don't have to take any garbage off them. The best thing I have found to do it to turn my back on the little creep and acknowledge to my daughter, "Wow, some people just don't get it, do they?" and give her a kiss or a hug or just a look with all the love I can muster into my eyes. People still do hurt her from time to time, but I think she is getting the picture that she should never give that kind of person the power to make her unhappy.

  27. I love this topic. It has brought tears to my eyes. I truly had no idea people would react the way that they do to my daughter. I have three children adopted from China. I was used to the adoption staring. The Transracial family staring. Nothing prepared me for what I am experiencing with my daughter with a limb difference. To be honest, I have not responded well in the past. I have had to ask kids to stop staring numerous times. I have even had to say to kids...You know she is missing a hand. It is time to move on.... My daughter is two years old, and I dread the day she goes to Kindergarten. I worry about a child not wanting to hold her "little arm." I know I can't protect her from the hurt she is going to experience. The one thing I hold onto is a study my doctor told me about. She said children with limb differences have a higher self esteem than children who do not. The reasoning is that all children get teased, but a child with a limb difference can not hide what they will be teased about it. It will more and likely be their limb. Other children it might be more hidden what they are teased about. So, my doctor said kids with limb differences learn from a very young age how to handle the situation. I also have corresponded with a family whose daughter is in college who has a limb diffence like my daughter. She said the elementary school years were the worst (Go figure..I expected the teen years.)because little kids don't know how to handle their curiosity in a positive way. The biggest challenge I have is my daughter has a 5 year old sister, and a four year old brother. So, my response is always a teachable moment for them to. Somedays I do well, and somedays I just don't. I love what you all have shared. Amy, thank you for being so vulnerable. I try to be so tough for my daughter and my family. It is nice to come to a place, and say as a mom it hurts me to see how people react to my beautiful daughter. The good thing about this whole situation is I am learning compassion on a deeper level. I am much more respectful and sensitive towards others. Thanks!!!!

  28. We recently came home with our daughter who is 2 and is missing her right arm. We don't even think about it . . . she can do anything and everything. Just this week we took her to a giant swim/wave park!! She had a great time, but i was shocked at the reactions from people. I knew when we adopoted her people would stare, but the reality is harder to deal with. Kids pointing, parents reacting poorly to their children, inappropriate questions . . . it was crazy!! I was left not knowing really what to say, so this post comes at a good time!! Thanks for bringing it up. I just ended up saying "she was born that way and she's no different than you" and ended up giving her lots of hugs and kisses.

  29. What a great post! My 2 yr old daughter (adopted from Vietnam in April, 2008) was born without her right hand. One thing we get that no one has mentioned here yet is touching. Do your children get other kids grabbing/touching along with the questions? That really bothers me. My daughter stares at other people a lot and when another kid comes up and stares she just stares right back, LOL! I love it; she has this, "what are you looking at" or "you stare at me; I'll stare at you" look on her face. My little one can be shy especially with adults but she's a tough kid when it comes to dealing with other kids. She'll yell "no" in their face and pull her arm away (most of the time). We want her to be tough but would like to teach her a simple response of "I was born this way" response to questions. We're glad she doesn't tolerate the touching but would like to work on a softer "please don't touch me" approach as she gets older. At what age did you teach your child some responses? At what age did your child understand he/she had a limb difference?

  30. Lorraine, just when I think I have heard it all you made my mouth fall open again. Can't believe anyone would ask if you adopted for the money. Wow.

    Very interesting about the study that kids with limb differences have higher self esteem since they learn to deal with it from an early age. Wonder if there have been studies with similar results about any special need? Time to google. :-)

    And Stevens family...YES on the touching. Isn't that crazy? I guess it is the same as people randomly wanting to touch a pregnant woman's stomach? But I have been amazed at how total strangers want to come up and feel TJ's arm. Even at preschool his teacher told me that kids like to sit by him at story time because they want to "hold his arm". He is really good at telling kids "stop touching me."

    One thing I was thinking this morning is that I have become pretty "hyper vigilant" when we are out in public, which makes me sad, but I guess it is like a child who flinches if they have been hit a lot when they see someone raise a hand. Now as soon as I see anyone staring or coming our way, I internally "flinch" and get ready because I don't want anyone to hurt TJ's feelings. I know I have to be careful about that though, because we can miss beautiful moments as well. One day I was in an airport with TJ and this older couple kept staring and staring, and then finally walked over. I just knew it was going to be another bad moment, but then the woman said, "I am so sorry if you noticed we were staring, but our grown son was born with one arm and lives across country, and seeing your beautiful son just flooded me with the best memories." She went on to say that her son actually went to college on a tennis scholarship (you can do both front and backhand with one hand) and that he has the best outlook ever. It was great to get to speak with them. I asked her if there was anything her son couldn't do and she smiled and said "the only thing he still doesn't do is tie shoes." But then she smiled at TJ and whispered, 'but that is what velcro is for.' It was a great encounter. Another time this enormous man with a shaved head, lots of leather and chains, and tattoos all over his scalp kept staring at TJ, and again I braced myself for the worst. He walked over and asked TJ to give him five. He kneeled down to my son and said, "my brother only has one arm and he is amazing, so don't ever let anyone tell you that you can't do anything you put your mind to." It was a great lesson for me because I realized that I had assumed something about him simply because of his appearance as well. We never stop learning, do we? Sure wish all our encounters over TJ's limb difference could end so positively!


  31. Walk In My Shoes
    by Mike Mahathy

    Walk in my shoes just for a minute
    And you will see that I am brave.

    Walk in my shoes just for an hour
    And you will see that I am smart.

    Walk in my shoes just for a day
    And you will see that I too get hungry.

    Walk in my shoes just for a week
    And you will see that I can get sick.

    Walk in my shoes just for a month
    And you will see that I contribute.

    Walk in my shoes just for a year
    And you will see that I love you.

    Walk in my shoes
    And you will see that I’m just like you!

  32. Mike...thank you so much for posting that wonderful poem! I have always loved the words "walk in my shoes". It is a great reminder that we can't fully understand someone until we grasp what they themselves are living.