Cover photo: Francesca Rausi
Just like any other parent, a parent of a child with Down’s Syndrome wants nothing more than to have understanding and supportive friends and family.
But sometimes people don’t know what to say when they find out your child has Down’s, and just end up blurting the first thing that comes to their mind.
Other times, they could have the wrong assumptions and be misguided in their entire idea of what it means to have a child with Down’s.
And instead of being supportive, their comments can come of as ignorant, condescending or just straight cringe-worthy.
So we’ve spoken to some Maltese parents of Down’s Syndrome as well as national organisations to find out what things people need to stop telling the parents of children with Down’s Syndrome.
1. “Wow you’re lucky, your child barely looks like he/she has Down’s Syndrome”
Saying that a child that has Down’s doesn’t look like a child that has Down’s can be offensive. It can come off as if you are trying to gloss over the fact that the child is what they are, and that the child is still “pretty” in spite of their extra chromosome.
It’s also good to realise that not all people with Down’s look the same.
Just skip the whole “barely looks like” bit and say “your child is beautiful” if that is how you really feel.
2. “You are so brave and strong, I could never do what you do, you’re a hero”
If said in an encouraging way, this could a sweet thing to tell someone, and it’s always good to express your admiration for someone.
But more often than not a parent will not want to hear something so sanctimonious, especially if said in a way that implies anything negative.
You’ll want to avoid putting parents on an pedestal. Parents of children with Down’s are regular parents in an irregular situation, and they deal with many of the same things that other parents deal with.
If you want to show your admiration and respect to a parent of a child with Down’s, just treat them with the respect you would any other parent.
3. “A child with Down’s is a special gift from God”
This is a triple whammy. Not only does it imply that the parents are ‘special’ parents in God’s eyes to to receive a child with Down’s, but it implies that the child is also a unique burden that the parents are destined to carry.
It also implies that all other children are not as special, and could be very offensive if said to a parent who has a child with Down’s and other children without Down’s.
More than anything, it continues the idea that a child with Down’s is different. All children are gifts from God, and putting children with Down’s on a pedestal will only separate them further.
4. “No wonder the child is always happy, he must never get sad or angry”
This just comes from a basic misunderstanding of what Down’s is.
There’s a stereotype that people with Down’s are just generally happier in general, and very rarely, if ever, gets angry or sad.
This is far from the truth. Parents of children with Down’s will be the first to tell you that their children can throw an effective tantrum just like any other child.
They are still human beings with have the same range of emotions just like anyone else.
5. “It’ll be like having a little child forever, even when they grow up”
The idea of ‘the eternal child’ has been problematic for decades now.
Treating adults with Down’s Syndrome as a childlike entity, as someone with fewer rights and who needs to be taken care of, is condescending to everyone involved.
Adults with Down’s are not just kids stuck in the bodies of adults. They do everything that anyone else does, from having dreams and life experiences and falling in love or getting hurt.
And just like everyone else for the most part, they strive to be independent as well.
6. “I’m so sorry”
One of the most common and worst things you can tell a parent of a child with Down’s, especially a pregnant mother or a mother of a newborn.
Instead of saying “congratulations”, they say “I’m sorry to hear that”.
People might say this because their mind goes blank and they are caught off-guard, but it makes it clear that you think that having a child with Down’s is a negative thing, which it is not.
A child with Down’s syndrome has it due to having an extra chromosome. It is literally in their DNA.
So telling someone you are sorry that the child has Down’s is pretty much saying you are sorry the child exists.
Don’t do it. The parents are not apologetic for their child, and you shouldn’t be either.
7. “If only abortion was legal in Malta”
If you say this, you are assuming a parent doesn’t want to have a child with Down’s syndrome.
Being condescending and ignorant to a parents life choices is not going to be useful if you are trying to make a good impression.
One needs to remember that as soon as the parents find out their child has Down’s they will be receiving pressure from many people to go abroad and get an abortion.
The last thing they need is you adding more pressure to do something they don’t want to do.