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Jane Healy on "Mom, what's wrong with him?"

The bestselling author of “Your Child’s Growing Mind” says that before knowing how to answer, it’s essential first to understand what is going on in your child’s mind.

By Hank Pellissier

“It’s often difficult for parents when their children see someone who is different, perhaps disabled, and their child blurts out, ‘What's wrong with him?’" says Jane Healy, child development expert and author of Your Child's Growing Mind. First, says Healy, it’s important to consider what a child is experiencing — and then help him find words to name what he’s seeing:

“It depends on their cognitive stage. Let's assume the child is 7 years old. It's important to realize that the child is asking the question because they are worried, frightened that they might be like that, too, eventually. Let's say they are looking at someone in a wheelchair. A 7-year-old thinks, ‘Good grief, that could happen to me!’ He won't understand that the odds are unlikely.

“It helps if you put language around it and name what it is. It's also best if you define it not as ‘disabled’ but as ‘differently-abled.’ You can say, ‘That child needs help with walking. Walking is challenging for him, but he might be very good at drawing or thinking or being a friend. We all have our differences, we are all challenged in different ways, but what is important is that we want to look at what our talents are. If the child is older, like 13, you could mention Stephen Hawking, the British theoretical physicist, who is in a wheelchair but has had a very rewarding life.”

Find out how 4 other parenting experts respond…

Heidi Allen GarvinRichard Weissbourd: Don't publicly shame the child...

Betsy Brown BraunBetsy Brown Braun: Kids notice differences...

Heidi Allen GarvinHeidi Allen Garvin: We don't want to hurt anyone else...

Johanna SteinJohanna Stein: It's OK. You can talk to me about it...


Hank Pellissier is a freelance writer on education and brain development, and the author of  Brighter Brains: 225 Ways to Elevate or Injure Intelligence. He is also a SAT and SSAT tutor and director of the Brighter Brains Institute