Helping our disabled children understand that difficult experiences don’t define them or their future

Place2Be’s Children’s Mental Health Week 2022 is supporting the theme of ‘Growing Together’. The aim is to help and support children to understand and learn from previous experiences that they are able to grow both emotionally and mentally and that difficult experiences do not have to define their future.

There is a range of resources to access on  Children's Mental Health Awareness website. There are some really interesting videos from celebrities, musicians and sports personalities, sharing their journeys to adulthood. Check out the one by Andy Lewis MBE as he mentions briefly how his ADHD impacted his growth.

What about disabled children?

While I think Place2Be encompassed a wide range of growth stories, most of these are more relatable for non-disabled children and the impact on disabled children has been overlooked (remember that around 20% of children in mainstream education have an additional learning need) 

Also, we want to acknowledge that both the overall goals and the challenges SEND children face every day are often very different to their non-disabled peers. Whilst their peers may be contending with anxiety over a sleepover or trying a new vegetable, SEND children are mostly contending with an ableist, judgemental and oppressive society.

Place 2 Be describe growing together as:

Growing emotionally and finding ways to help each other grow. Challenges and setbacks can help us to grow and adapt and trying new things can help us to move beyond our comfort zone into a new realm of possibility and potential. However, emotional growth is often a gradual process that happens over time, and sometimes we might feel a bit ‘stuck’.


It is so important to remember that children (and adults) will grow WHEN they feel safe. If they feel unsafe then this will halt, and in some cases, reverse emotional growth.

Helping disabled children to grow and thrive safely - some extra tips

The suggestions below from Place2Be for supporting growth are intended to be helpful and will be for many people. But for disabled and SEN children and young people, we thought we'd add a few enhancements...

1. Talk about when your child was younger

Most children enjoy hearing their parents tell stories about when they were younger. Recall stories that highlight how your child has developed and changed over the years. For example, how you enjoyed teaching them to learn to ride a scooter, a bike or to swim. Or how proud you were when they took part in a school assembly – even though they were nervous.

If you are an adoptive parent, foster or kinship carer, you will still have lots of memories to share from when you first came together as a family.

SNJ says: For some disabled/neurodivergent young people, talking about when they were younger can be traumatic. For example, those who have complex medical childhoods, or who are unable to attend school due to traumatic experiences. It can be helpful to talk about successes in your own childhood and then branch out from there. Giving an example of a struggle you faced and then dissecting that together can be more helpful and less intense. Naming your own pride in their school play might be too embarrassing or shaming. We also risk making and projecting assumptions about their experience, if we say we were proud, as they may feel that their experience is less valid. Therefore, communicating with your child about their experience and being curious about it will likely be more validating for your child.

2. Notice when your child has developed and grown

You may have made marks on the walls to recognise how tall your child has grown over the years, or looked at old photos together. It is important to also recognise and praise emotional growth. This could be letting them know how proud you are when they have learnt to walk away rather than fight with a sibling, or how they have learnt to ask others to play when they used to be too shy to do so.

SNJ says: Sometimes it can be scary for children to look back. Knowing your individual child is important here; I remember with my own son, Monty who, when we looked at pictures of him as a toddler, used to cry as this would cause high levels of distress.  We discovered he couldn’t identify the current version of him with a younger version. Therefore, we had to find another way to do this and would often use the family dog as an example ie ‘Do you remember when Daisy used to do x..y..z. She’s stopped doing that now hasn’t she?  It sounds like it won’t have any bearing, however, this may create a thought process which, as a result, can create and nurture emotional growth in your young person.

3. Encourage your child to try new things

This could be new foods, a new activity or a new experience. Praise their willingness to ‘give things a go’ rather than whether they were ‘good’ at it. This will give them confidence to continue to develop and grow.

SNJ says: Encouragement to try new things is not to be discouraged of course. However, validating your child’s interest is what might make them feel safe to consider new things. Monty says that what would have helped him would be to suggest there are other things ‘out there’ to give him time to think about them, but with no pressure to ‘do’ the thing. Perceived pressure will have been a setback and not helpful. I would say have time to look through alternatives – For example, trying a new holiday destination was not likely to be an option until the adverts for this destination on TV began and we brought into conversation how fantastic it looked. It gave Monty the autonomy to think about it and come to us when he felt safe enough to try it.

4. Listen to your child’s hopes and dreams for the future

Encourage your child to see that everything they are doing right now is a tiny step towards who they might want to become in the future. For example, your child staying away from home for a night is a step towards them being able to leave home for study or work in the future. Your child helping another child is an important step towards them becoming a counsellor, a doctor, a nurse or a teacher etc.

SNJ says: For our children just focusing on the here and now is often enough. The future can be scary to even think about (both for parents/carers and children). So focusing on the achievements of what it felt like is usually good enough – and that is all that is needed. Just to give things a try and if it’s too much, to try again another time.

For Monty, if I had mentioned future careers as a motivator to try sleeping elsewhere it would not have worked. By saying it would mean he'd get to his favourite place quicker in the morning would have been enough (as long as it was the truth). Then once it has happened (the sleepover for example), do a little bit of talking through what it was like. Things like this can build courage to try something again. Also, be sure to be on hand if it is too much and they need collecting early. It’s the feeling safe that is important as that will the biggest growth factor for any child.

5. Support your child to learn from tough situations

It can be really hard when your child is not getting on with friends or having a problem with a teacher or is disappointed with how something has worked out. Acknowledge the difficult feelings but help your child to see that these situations help us to grow and develop so that we are better able to cope with life’s ups and downs.

SNJ says: Validate your child’s difficulty, then dish out lots and lots empathy. We can't always save our children from bad experiences, no matter how much we might want to. We know that our disabled children often experience a significantly higher number of disappointments and setbacks that can crush self-esteem and self-belief leading to a lack of confidence. Remembering to include the positives of how surviving and overcoming difficulties takes courage and strength too.

By just being there, not trying to fix anything, but being a strong consistent empathic buffer can often help get through the toughest of days.


On a final note, one of the things that is often applauded and encouraged is emotional resilience. I personally (and I know many others who do too) strongly dislike this when used with emotional growth. Our disabled and additional needs young people are some of the most resilient people you will ever meet, when you consider what they have already had to contend with in their young lives, and that is what we need to remember.

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Angela Kelly
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