At a glance
Talking openly about differences shows kids there’s nothing to be ashamed of.
The first conversation can be hard, so try to keep it simple.
Tell your child that everyone is different in some way.
When kids learn and think differently, it’s important to talk openly about differences. Talking shows them there’s nothing to be embarrassed about. It also shows them you’re there to listen, and that you care.
Find out what you can say, and when to say it.
When to talk to your child
Try not to think of it as a one-time conversation. It’s important to talk about learning and thinking differences lots of times as your child gets older. This helps you and your child stay connected. It also makes the message stick, which can help your child build positive self-esteem.
The first conversation is just the beginning. As your child starts to understand more and gets more self-aware, your conversations will get richer. They often get easier, too. This open dialogue builds trust. It also helps kids learn to solve problems on their own and speak up for themselves.
Early on, try to keep things simple. Using clinical terms or diagnoses can come later, if it feels right.
What to say to your child
Kids of all ages are very observant. Even young kids know if certain things are harder for them than for other kids. They also know what they’re good at, or what’s easier for them than other kids.
This is a great place to start your conversation — saying out loud that everyone is different in some way.
Here are more things you can say.
“You think differently.”
Kids who learn and think differently might worry about being “stupid.” Talk to your child about the idea of thinking differently instead. Or that your child’s brain is “wired” differently. The bottom line is that learning and thinking differently doesn’t mean someone isn’t smart. You can even point out scientists and authors who learn and think differently.
“Your challenges don’t define you.”
When your child is struggling, it can be easy to make challenges the focus. But kids need to know that what they like to do and what they thrive at say more about them than their challenges.
Point out your child’s strengths. Try to be specific. But don’t overdo it — kids can tell when praise isn't sincere.
You can also share stories of people who learn and think differently that your child admires. This might be a relative or friend. Or it could be famous athletes or musicians who haven’t let their differences keep them from thriving.
“Everyone has strengths and challenges.”
Let your child know that we all have strengths and challenges. Give specific examples. You can even tell your child what you’re really good at and what’s difficult for you. You can also say that everyone needs extra help with something. That’s how we get better at the things that are hard for us.
Remind your child, too, that differences aren’t always easy to spot. You can say, “Some differences are easy to see. Others aren’t.” There might even be other kids in your child’s class who struggle with the same things your child does.
“It’s OK to talk to me about it.”
The most helpful thing you can do is listen to your child’s questions and concerns. Being empathetic and listening to what your child says is so important. It can lead to deeper conversations about obstacles and solutions. It also encourages your child to confide in you.
Try saying things like, “I’m glad you asked that question” or “I know it can feel uncomfortable to talk about this.” This helps make your child more comfortable talking about sensitive topics.
“A disability is a difference.”
If your child is curious about the word “disability,” it’s OK to talk about it. You can say that a disability is a difference that makes it harder for someone to do something that others can do easily.
For younger kids, it helps to use obvious examples. For instance, a person who uses a wheelchair is disabled. That person can’t walk or stand as easily as others. But that doesn’t mean that person has difficulty with everything. And when that person is doing something else, like playing video games or helping out with math homework, your child probably doesn’t think of the wheelchair at all.
“I know you’re trying hard.”
Some kids who learn and think differently worry that other people think they’re lazy. Your child might be trying hard but still not finish homework on time or get an A on a spelling test.
Let your child know that you notice the hard work. And that little by little, things will get better.
It can be hard to talk to kids about sensitive topics. Still, it’s important. It shows kids that learning and thinking differently isn’t something to be ashamed of.
Learn more about how to respond when your child is frustrated, or if your child doesn’t want to go to school.
Be specific and sincere about your child’s strengths.
Tell kids about people they admire — friends, relatives, and even famous people — who learn and think differently, too.
Remind your child it’s OK to talk about what’s scary, and that you’re there to listen.
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About the author
About the author
Amanda Morin is the author of “The Everything Parent’s Guide to Special Education” and the former director of thought leadership at Understood. As an expert and writer, she helped build Understood from its earliest days.
Bob Cunningham, EdM serves as executive director of learning development at Understood.