Children and adults with disabilities or special health care needs don’t always act the way that other people in public expect or understand. And that might lead to confusing situations. It’s not always clear to other people that all you’re trying to do is be a good parent and help your child. Most of us have been there in some way – either dealing with stares and comments from strangers or faced with something more serious, like the police or protective services getting involved.
Picture your 5-year-old trying to run away into the street. Or your 15-year-old going into a rage and trying to attack you. Or your 25-year-old walking out of the house without any clothes on in the middle of winter. It’s one thing to be at home with your child, and another to be out in public with other eyes watching your family. It’s frustrating and upsetting to feel judged and to deal with other people’s opinions and misunderstandings.
So, how do you deal with these situations? What can you do so that other people don’t make things worse? This page has tips from other parents on how to deal with a misunderstanding or difficult situation and take care of yourself too.
When your child has a meltdown or someone out in public doesn’t understand why your child is doing something, you might feel overwhelmed and stressed. Or like yelling or crying yourself. Like one parent said, “If my child was having a seizure, no one would say, can’t you get your kid to quit doing that? But when he’s in a rage, they don’t know that it’s a symptom of his disability.”
Chances are, your first instinct is to jump into action to keep your child calm and safe. Maybe you need to give them certain directions, hold them until they’re calmer, or lead them away. Maybe you need the help of another family member or first responder, like a police officer. Or maybe you wish someone watching would magically know what to do to support you.
Most people who try to give you advice or step in to try to help don’t understand the whole picture. They might make things worse. They might think that your child is hurting (assaulting) you or that you’re abusing them. Especially if your child is a teenager or an adult or they have an invisible disability.
When something like this happens, your best defense is to stay focused on your child’s needs and keep yourself as calm as possible.
You are not the only parent who faces these situations. There are ways to help your child and ways to help yourself get through them.
It’s a good idea to try to think ahead and plan what you might say and do before you hear a rude comment or are in the middle of a crisis situation in public. You don’t have to tell another person everything about your child’s diagnosis. You just might need a quick line that you can say to someone who is not being helpful.
Here are some tips from parents on ways to deal with other adults:
Any person who tries to step in and help you should take their lead and directions from you. And if they’re not being helpful, you should tell them to please step back and let you decide what’s next.
Our page on navigating (dealing with) daily life has ideas to think about for any outing with your child. And our behavioral health page has ideas to help if your child is having challenging behaviors. But not all outbursts or crisis situations are about behavior -- they might be about symptoms of your child’s disability or special health care needs. And you and your doctor or therapist might have made other plans for how to handle them.
If you need support before or after a difficult situation, you can connect with other parents for ideas and advice.
There are ways to help your other children, family members, or people you see all the time (like neighbors) better understand and support you and your child.
You can teach your other children to stand up for themselves and their sibling in simple ways. They might say, “My brother has a disability" or, “My mom is helping my sister right now.” And you can explain to them that sometimes people just don’t understand what’s going on and it’s better to ignore those people if they’re not being nice or helpful. You can also make a plan with siblings ahead of time on what they can do to help you or to keep themselves safe.
Look for an ally (someone who can be friendly and helpful) in the places you usually go with your child. When your child is having an outburst, crisis, or even just getting looks from others, it may make things easier on you to have one more person out there who understands. They might be a neighbor or someone like a cashier at a local store. And you might choose to tell them a little bit more about your child’s disability and symptoms.
If your child isn’t with you, but they’re out with another caregiver, things might get stressful or scary too. For example, someone might think your child is assaulting the caregiver or that the caregiver is kidnapping your child if the caregiver needs to get your child into a car or home to be safer.
It’s a good idea to talk with the caregiver about how to handle these types of situations. Together, you can make a plan before anything ever happens.
This plan might include talking about:
When a first responder gets involved, you want them to help. But it might make your stress reach another level too. Sometimes during a crisis, you decide to call the police or the police get involved. Sometimes, even if it’s not a crisis, someone else who is worried about your child or adult child could report your family to Child Protective Services (CPS) or Adult Protective Services (APS). CPS and APS have to check out any situation where a child or a person of any age with a disability might be abused (hurt) or neglected (not cared for well enough).
Most police officers and other professionals want to help, but not all of them have the right training to deal with people with disabilities or special health care needs.
Our blog on dealing with emergency responders has tips for helping professionals, like police officers, better understand what you and your child need in a crisis situation. (Or even when it’s not a crisis.)
When you are meeting with CPS or APS workers for the first time, or if they decide to open a case on your family, try to stay calm and explain what’s been going on. You can show them documents about your child’s diagnosis, the services and care they receive (or you’re trying to get), and any behavior or other plans in place for them. Sometimes, even if there isn’t any abuse or neglect, CPS or APS cases might take months to be over. If that happens, it’s important to remember your own mental health and self-care so that you have the patience and energy to cope with it all. If you’re having a hard time, think about counseling for yourself too.
You want to protect your child and keep them safe in the world. When other people get in the way of that, you want to feel in control of your own emotions and the situation as much as possible. Above all, remember that you and your family are most important.