Should You or Shouldn’t You? — 5 Minutes for Special Needs

Should You or Shouldn’t You?

by Deborah


My children and I were shopping at one of the big box electronic stores this weekend when I saw a lovely family – Mom, Dad, and two teenaged children. One of the children had Down Syndrome. What gave me pause was that Mom was walking through the store holding the hand of the teenager with Down Syndrome.

Does that bother anyone else, or am I just being hypersensitive?

My oldest daughter, now 18 years old, is intellectually disabled. I adopted her when she was 9 years old, and she soon had to learn about appropriate behavior between adults and children. For instance, by 5th grade, it was time to stop hugging her teacher. A handshake would work just as well.


I believe that if we parents don’t have high expectations for our children with disabilities, we can’t complain when others don’t. If we don’t show respect to our children, how can we expect others to respect them? To me, walking through a store holding the hand of a child who appeared to be in his late teens was not respectful to that child.

I understand that in some instances our children need support to help them walk. My youngest daughter does because she is blind. But, because she is a teenager, I don’t hold her hand – I offer my arm and act as her sighted guide.

When I am deciding what is age appropriate, what is respectful for my teenage daughters, I imagine what actions my 16 and 18 year old sons would accept. And hand holding while walking through a store, or a teacher holding their hand to go to the school cafeteria, or an aide holding their hand to go to the bus loop would certainly not go over well at all.

I don’t want to change my children with disabilities. I don’t want to make them neurotypical. I love them just the way they are. But, I do feel it is my job to prepare them for a world that can sometimes be quite cruel.

Deborah can be found writing here at 5MFSN every Wednesday, and can also be found at Pipecleaner Dreams.

Email Author    |    Website About Deborah

In addition to her job as a computer engineer and her single parent responsibilities, Deborah is president of a state-wide family support group for families whose lives are touched by deafblindness, and is a tireless advocate for all people with disabilities. She writes at Pipe Cleaner Dreams and her writing has also been featured in local magazines and newspapers. Ashley’s story has also been chronicled in a book by Jonathan Mooney titled Short Bus Stories.

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1 Linda September 16, 2009 at 6:11 pm

My daughter is almost 12, and she usually takes my hand or my arm, or puts her arm around my waist when we are out. She is comfortable that way, it doesn’t bother me, and she likes the closeness.
Sometimes my older boys take my arm, or hand. My husband and I hold hands all the time when we walk or shop.

2 rickismom September 16, 2009 at 6:45 pm

Some teens do hold hands. But I definately do draw the line and do not let Ricki hug me in public.
Certainly the hand holding should, if done at all, be optional and not the accepted way of interacting…..

3 Lisa September 16, 2009 at 7:20 pm

I have no problem holding my son’s hand and he is 9 yrs old. He has a developemental disability. He also still hugs his teacher and Eas. It’s fine with me.
Hugs are ok as a greeting..i still hug my friends..

4 julie September 16, 2009 at 7:21 pm

while i respect your thoughts on this, it is highly judgmental to comment on this parent’s interaction with their child. perhaps the ds child was needing emotional support at that moment. i have a child with prader willi syndrome who needs supervision in public so she has no access to food. supporting one another is a far loftier goal than tearing each other down. the world does enough of that.

5 Beverly September 16, 2009 at 7:47 pm

My son is 7 and we hold his hand. When he is a teen we will hold his hands if he wants to hold our hands. My husband and I hold hands. I see it as being close and loving. I have seen parents hold hands with typical teens and it looked fine to me, I saw it as loving. I have seen a teen boy hold another teen boys hand who had ds and it made me cry, with hope my son will have a friend like that one day.

6 Debbie Yost September 16, 2009 at 7:54 pm

As the mother of a 4 1/2 year old daughter with Down syndrome, I am working towards the goal of having her be more independent and maybe one day live on her own. Whenever possible I try not to hold her hand in public and believe me, she insists on it. In school she wants to be like her friends. Our local guild spends a lot of time teaching parents how to teach their children to be independent adults. You often see older adults with Down syndrome shuffling behind their elderly parent. I am not judging these parents. It is a different world for us than it was for them. These adults did not have the opportunities my child does and many parents of older children and young adults with Down syndrome have paved the way for us parents of younger children. I am forever grateful to them.

True it is hard to know what the situation was that you observed and we, as parents of children with special needs, are more accepting of behaviors others might find just “bratty”. I did not take it that you were judging this family. I think you raise an important issue that we should consider. There is a time where a hug is no longer acceptable. Sure a hug to a close friend or family member is ok, but my daughter will run up to complete strangers and hug them. Especially older men that look like grandfather figures. When is this no longer acceptable or safe. Over and over again in trainings I go to I hear that we should teach handshake over hugs. In that same respect, there may be a time where hand holding could be replaced with something else as you mentioned.

We need to be able to have a forum where we can ask questions without fear of being attacked or reprimanded. Sometimes in order to educate or learn, we might ask some difficult questions. I always appreciate the chance to discuss an issue as long is the person is asking from the heart and not just trying to be negative or hurtful.

7 Sharon September 16, 2009 at 8:29 pm

It really doesn’t bother me either. Of the things I view as inappropriate behavior – hand holding is not one of them.

8 Sara Evans September 16, 2009 at 8:40 pm

My nine year old son is “typical”, and likes to hold our hands all the time. He’s just a cuddly, loving kid. Perhaps that boy just likes to hold his mom’s hand? Who knows, maybe he tries to run away if she doesn’t hold his hand?

9 Linda September 16, 2009 at 8:46 pm

I grab my 23 year old daughter’s hand sometimes when we’re out, as a silent “I love you”. I see your point, but nobody can possibly know what was going on at that moment between the mother and her teenage child, disability or no disability.

10 Terri September 16, 2009 at 8:48 pm

My 16 year old will sometimes insist on holding my hand or hugging me when we are out. If I refuse, her insistence becomes loud and ridiculous, but if I give her a quick hug and then say “are we home?” She will say “no, the lovey stuff belongs at home, MOM!” as if I was the one that started it and then she will stop…

I don’t know about the particular situation you saw, but I do agree that appropriate social distance is learned. Not learning it also can endanger our kids, making them easier to abuse… We try, but we are far from having it down pat.

11 Janet Doll September 17, 2009 at 10:29 am

First, I don’t think you were being judgemental. You saw a situation that caused you to think about your way of doing things. Good discusion so far.

My ultimate goal for my son (1st grade, ASD, non-verbal) is that he be a productive member of society. A couple of situations come to mind where I am not able to treat him like a typical 1st grader.

In the car he is still in a 5 point harness carseat (our state requires a booster until 8 or 80lbs). When he is in a booster (in my car) he will get out and climb on my lap while I am driving. Not a good thing. Fortunately, when he is in someone else’s car, he will stay in the booster.

The second is I use a “hand-holding strap” when we are in public. One end is attached to his belt loop, the other to mine. He is non-verbal, so when we are someplace like the zoo, this is very much a safety issue. In places like the grocery store it shows him his boundarys and he behaves appropriately. Actually his behavior is such that you would think we don’t need it, that is until it isn’t there. I really HATE having to use this. And I am working really hard at not needing it. But until then, and regardless of the stares, it is safety first.

12 Cindy September 17, 2009 at 11:08 am

When I was a teen, I used to hold my dad’s hand all the time. I still do from time to time, and I am an adult. My son, 9 and autism, will hold my hand sometimes – because he likes it. Lots of people, disabled or not, like to be affectionate. I don’t see it as a problem at all. That’s my 2 cents, FWIW.

13 Deborah September 17, 2009 at 11:38 am

Thank you all for your comments. I really enjoy thoughtful conversations like this, and like that we each share our own perspectives.

In this particular situation, there are so many variables, and I think it is impossible to come up with a ‘right’ and ‘not so right’. What works for my family, in my particular corner of the world, with my child’s particular disability, etc. might be completely different for someone else.

I appreciate reading your different viewpoints, and will definitely replay them all in my head each time I encounter a similar situation.

With that said and just so you know, it is really, really, really, really hard for me to NOT hold my 14 year old daughter’s hand. She is my youngest, my baby, and at times is just kills me that she is growing up so fast 🙂

14 LJ September 17, 2009 at 2:19 pm

I will take as much hand holding and hugging over violence anyday! No matter what my child’s age, whatever he needs he will get it no matter where we are. People need to learn an example of what love really is. It’s not inappropriate to love your child, at home or in public.

15 Ingrid September 17, 2009 at 3:02 pm

Some of my teenage friends liked holding hands with their mothers. I thought it was odd (I’m not one for too much physicality) but I didn’t make fun of it or anything.

16 Megan September 17, 2009 at 7:16 pm

Granted my daughter is only 2 and 1/2, and just learned to walk…so therefore needs my hand for assistance. But the way I see it, as parents we really have to choose our battles, you know? And for me, holding hands whether at home or in public isn’t worth the battle. But I do like the point you bring up about appropriate physical contact with other people like teachers, etc. Something to think about:)

17 Azaera September 17, 2009 at 8:52 pm

I guess when it comes to safety, I would be afraid if the child had tendances to grab the hands of or hug any random person. If you’re trying to teach them to be independant and they don’t have the concept of “stranger danger” something horrible could happen. But if the teen knows the difference between hugging family and that it’s not safe to hug strangers then I don’t see the harm really, of holding hands or hugging family members. As long as it’s their choice or for a good reason.

18 Tarasview September 17, 2009 at 11:24 pm

honestly? I think it is beautiful that that mom was willing to hold her sweet son’s hand no matter what anyone else thought. But I also have no problem with a child- of any age- hugging a teacher or another safe respected adult.

I think physical contact has become somewhat taboo in our culture and that is unfortunate. In other cultures grown men hold hands in friendship- nothing sexual about it. When I was in Nepal I found it amazingly refreshing to see such wonderful displays of platonic affection.

My autistic son is only 7 but he NEEDS physical contact. He needs that reassurance that he is ok, we are ok, he is loved and he is safe. I can’t see that disappearing anytime soon.

I do completely agree we need to teach boundaries and social acceptability… but those boundaries clearly are different for each person.

19 Attila The Mom September 18, 2009 at 1:11 am

Ah, Deb, I think maybe you’re being a little oversensitive about this.

Outside the US, especially in Europe, being physically demonstrative in companionship (hugging, holding hands)isn’t the bugaboo it seems to be here.

Sometimes my Little Guy, who is 19, will grab the hand of those in our family who is nearest to him when we cross the street, or if he’s feeling anxious, or just in joy of swinging when we walk along.

I don’t see what’s inappropriate about it. I’ll hold my mom’s hand, or my husband’s hand the same way.

I have to say that I’m actually proud of his older brother, or our nephew who is living with us, when they aren’t embarassed when this happens with Little Guy. They know he somehow “needs” this contact, so when he grabs their hands, they grab right back on, no matter who’s looking.


20 Barbara September 18, 2009 at 8:55 am

This issue highlights the hazards of “one size fits all”. Or, everyone must be the same vs. acceptance of our differences. Other commenters have said it well. Depends on the family/child relationship. Caveats for other people.

21 Achelois September 18, 2009 at 10:20 am

I completely respect your opinion. I am not bothered at all at public holding hands. I have two children (young adults 19 & 17 respectively). We are an affectionate family and my daughter and I often walk arm in arm when out & about in public. My son the younger is at the age where he is not so keen but would put an affectionate arm around me and me him without giving it a second thought. I walk arm in arm/holding hands with my either of my parent’s and I am in my forties. I don’t see it at all as anything other than a natural occurence. Sometimes we do sometimes we don’t. Unless the individual seemed distressed by a physical restraint, I personally wouldn’t view it as anything other than natural interaction. A parent who is also a carer also has the natural love & affection within the family relationship. I agree that appropriate behaviours should be strived for outside of the family unit, close friends & family members. Over here in England one can often see a carer with a disabled adult for example in a supermarket holding a reassuring hand. I think it is difficult to judge what is appropriate in this instance without personal knowledge of the unique needs & best interests of the individual. I support the ethos of optimum independence but am not sure that this should include lack of human contact if it is a naturally occuring and spontaneous event/a supportive gesture. This is entirely different to preventing abuse and all the safeguarding elements required to protect. An interesting and thought provoking post.

22 Deborah September 18, 2009 at 12:29 pm

Again, thank you all for your opinions. These are the kinds of discussions I love to see – everyone has been respectful and spoken from their heart. Such discussions are the things that make us all better parents and better people. I know you have all given me food for thought.

23 k September 18, 2009 at 11:02 pm

I am 18 and I still hold my mum or dads hand if we are somewhere unfamiliar, or keep a hand on my sisters back pack. It makes me feel much more comfortable.

I don’t think that there is anything wrong with holding hands with family, but I guess it is a personal thing, and it will depend on each person whether they want their child to hold their hand or not.

24 Sandi September 21, 2009 at 12:36 am

Hold hands. Life is short. Have faith others won’t judge. There are so many other issues to worry about. Good discussion. Mom to one with Ds and a few more hand holding kids including two teens.

25 Gilda Horgan September 23, 2009 at 8:55 pm

I love to hold my kids hands. It reinforces our bond and the trust we have for one another. I hope my son, who has autism, would hold my hand if he wants, no matter his age. Sometimes moms need a helping hand more than kids do!

I hold hands with my mom, who’s 76, to this very day.

26 Cathy June 25, 2010 at 4:09 pm

I have an autistic daughter who is 19 who goes pretty much everywhere with me when I run errands. She still holds my hand because she knows that she still does not have safety rules down, doesn not look both ways when crossing streets or parking lots. She will become distracted, as autistic kids do, by many things in stores whch would easily cause us to become separated. My daughter does not have the problem-solving skills of knowing what to do if she could not find me. It is easy to look at someone with down syndrome and think they are similar to other downs kids we know, but they are all different. You have no idea what their mental capabilities are. He may developmentally be a two year old!! Every child is different. We must all remember that and not be quick to assume that parents are not doing right by their child. There are no hard rules as far as what one must teach their child anyway. Perhaps that family never intends for their child to live away from home…those rules would not be necessary. Everyone has different plans for their children. To each his own I say.

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