Why “Debbie Downers” Are Detrimental on the Special Needs Journey

Claire Smyth by Claire Smyth Additional Needs

Claire Smyth

Claire Smyth

It doesn’t matter what we call them as long as recognize that they do exist and that they can have can have a significant impact on us as parents and our children on the special needs journey.

These people can be a therapist, a doctor, a family member, a close friend or sometimes that occasional stranger we’ll pass on the street.

I remember our first Debbie Downer – a NICU nurse who did all she could to encourage us to remove life-support.

We’d hear things like “He’ll have no quality of life,”or, “You’re young enough to start over.

And, “It’s the humane thing to let him go.

These types of continual pessimistic perspectives can take a huge emotional toll on a special needs parent.

We are already in a state of balancing bouts of grief and joy and we desperately need something positive to cling to.

I kept searching for Positive Polly or Pete.

Where was he or she?

Where was that person that came in and said hang in there, he’s a beautiful little boy, he’s strong, give him a chance, only time will tell, never give up hope, or I’ve seen children who have overcome bad odds, it can happen, just keep believing.

Where was that person?

Shortly after I  started finding a field of Debbie Downers.

Therapists in particular lined up to hand me sheets on milestones that I was told my child would, “inevitably never be able to reach.

Coaching me to be realistic that gait trainers, and adaptive assisted devices would be a waste of time and energy because he lacked potential to succeed.

One therapist even encouraging me to discipline my child at a tender age of three months by not allowing him to be comforted by his mother as punishment for not participating in therapy because that’s all that a severely child could ever do – is learn not to act out as they existed through life and entered into group homes where they were cared for by staff.

Let me tell you, a Debbie Downer has the real potential to emotionally scar a special needs parent.

Our emotions are already so incredibly raw and tender that you add someone who throws nothing but negative things your way and you feel like you are going to sink.

Your only life line is to swim and pray that Positive Polly is out there and that she’ll throw you life-jacket back to shore.

I started to view Debbie Downers as hope killers and dream squelchers.

I once had the guts to actually confront a Debbie Downer to ask them why they felt this was a successful and appropriate approach when dealing with special needs families, and the response was that they didn’t want parents to get their hopes up so it was better to give them the worst case scenario all of the time and have them be pleasantly surprised if their child surpassed the prediction.

And these feelings filter down to our children.

Debbie Downers may not even recognize that our children can feel this negative energy that someone doesn’t believe in their potential.

And you are dealing with children that need every ounce of positive feedback they can find in their lives.

And it’s not just the medical community or therapists.

This can also happen with family members or friends.

You can hear things like “You are just babying him.”

She’ll always be disabled so why try?

Friends throw their two cents in, “How long do you plan to care for him at home?

I bet it’s really hard to have a life and go on date nights, you must be so miserable,” or, “I am sure that this must be a strain on your marriage… have you considered divorce yet?”

So how do we go about handling this situation when we come across someone who is deserving of one of these less than positive titles?

Change Gears: 

Recognize quickly that a Debbie Downer might not be a good long-term match to be a care provider, doctor, or therapist in your child’s life.

Likewise, if your Debbie Downer is a family member or friend, consider placing some intentional distance.

It’s okay to say this person is not the right match for our family’s needs.

There are lots of amazing professionals, friends and family that can be the Positive Polly that you need.

Look for them.

Keep them close, let them be a big part of your special needs tribe.

You will inevitably need them on your hardest of days to fuel your hope and inspire your child to reach new heights.

Give Leeway: 

Sometimes we all can have a bad day.

Sometimes, a Debbie Downer might just be mistaken for a person having a hard day and it may not be necessarily a predictable pattern.

If something happens but it’s out of the norm, try to put it in the back of your mind to make sure this person isn’t habitually throwing negativity your way.

Approach it Head On: 

Be bold.  Speak up and don’t be afraid to let a Debbie Downer know you recognize their approach and it doesn’t work for you.

Invite a polite and respectful conversation and let that Debbie Downer know how their choice of words and philosophy is affecting you and your child.

Sometimes, people are don’t recognize they are doing it, and in their eyes they simply think they are sparing you from having hope.

It could be a good learning tool for them and may put them on the path to eventually becoming a Positive Polly.

Most importantly make a conscious effort to be drawn to those who are truly positive about everything in your day.

You will need to feed off of positive energy on the hardest, most challenging aspects that come along with special needs parenting.

Find those cheerleaders and keep them in your close circle of trust.

Know whom you can confide in who will not offer you any negativity but rather who will put that positive spin on everything.

Those who help you cultivate and grow hope, to remember to have faith, and know that each new tomorrow holds the promise of possibilities.


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