“Should I Tell My Friend I’m Concerned Her Child is Delayed?”

From the forums:

I have a dear friend who has a similarly aged kid as mine (almost 5). I recently met up with her and her family after a long time as they were living in a different city and only moved to my city a few months ago. I noticed some communication issues with the kid — she uses no legible/understandable language, has zero eye contact, doesn’t respond when spoken to or only responds after being addressed many times, gets super upset without any visible reason, had an accident since she couldn’t verbalize that she needed to go to the bathroom, etc. The parents have withdrawn her from her daycare/preschool. It is really challenging to entertain kids at home during Covid with parents working from home, so I was curious as to why they stopped sending her to her preschool. They said the class size is too big and that she is not getting 1:1 attention. She doesn’t go to any activities or sports. I am no child behavior expert, but I think all of the 5-year-olds I’ve interacted with, including mine, can drive you crazy with their talking and their questions. So I am concerned for the kid. I don’t even know who the parent should go to if they suspect their child has some developmental challenges.

I’m wondering: Is it just shyness? Is the kid just a late bloomer? Is it autism? How do I express to the parents that they should probably talk to their pediatrician and take it from there without sounding interfering? Am I interfering? Should I just let them figure it out on their own? Any advice is appreciated. — Concerned Friend

Absolutely, 100% mind your own business on this matter. You are a friend, not an expert. Even having a similarly-aged child doesn’t make you an expert on child development and where your friend’s kid “should” be. A child’s development, especially if he or she isn’t hitting milestones at a rate similar to other kids of the same age, can be a really sensitive topic, made even more sensitive if it’s broached, unsolicited, by a friend. Please trust me on this. There are three possibilities in this scenario: Your friend’s child is delayed and your friend is aware of this and doesn’t need or want you to point it out; your friend’s child is delayed and your friend knows this on some level but is in denial and does not want you bringing it to her attention; your friend’s child isn’t actually delayed. None of these possibilities allow for a positive outcome if you voice your concern. Does that mean your friend’s child is going to suffer without support in your silence? No.

There are many ways your friend’s child can get support without your speaking up, and, for all you know, she already IS getting support and your friend hasn’t shared those details with you. Eventually (probably this fall), your friend’s daughter will go back to school – and, by the way, perhaps your friend withdrew her daughter from preschool because there was a global pandemic raging on and she was concerned that in a crowded school her daughter was at risk for contracting the virus and bringing it home. Maybe she didn’t mention this reason to you because she wanted to be sensitive to your choice and not make you feel guilty about exposing your child to said virus when the alternative choice was entertaining your child at home for months on end while trying to work. Anyway, when the child goes back to school, other adults besides her parents – adults who are experts in child development – will be privy to her behavior and will be in a much better position than you are to voice their concerns if there is, in fact, reason for concern. At school, evaluations can be conducted and services can be provided. In addition to teachers, there are social workers, psychologists, speech therapists, occupational therapists, physical therapists, and a host of supports available for kids who need them. These adults are trained to spot differences in child development, spot where support might be needed, and create programs to address kids’ individual needs. Additionally, a pediatrician would be able to detect whether a 5-year-old isn’t verbal or is otherwise showing concerning signs regarding development. This isn’t your job. Your job is to be a friend.

One way you can be a friend is to keep your mouth shut about your concerns unless your friend broaches the topic herself or you suspect her daughter is in real danger. Neither of those scenarios seems to be the case here. So treat your friend like you would any other. Discuss things you’re both interested in discussing, and should your friend ever confide in you anything about her daughter that jibes with your guess of the situation, avoid saying “Oh, I knew it!” or “I always suspected this” or anything that suggests you’ve already got it all figured out. You don’t have it all figured out. You don’t know what your friend is truly going through. If she wants to share her experience with you some day, let her guide that discussion. Comments like, “Have you been able to find support?”, “What would you like your friends to know?”, and “You’re a good parent” will be welcome.

My mother-in-law has bipolar and she is very, very, very dominating, mean, cunning, and controlling. Can a person suffering from bipolar take advantage of their own illness in order to dominate others? She taunts me indirectly and stares at me when no one is there. She is so competitive that she bought new clothes that are the same as mine just to show how young she looks. Because of her meaningless fights and her asking us to move out, my husband and I are not living with her anymore. There were plenty of occasions where she put me down and hurt me emotionally, and all of this was done with a completely stable mind and intentionally. I know she has bipolar, but at times I’ve had this strong feeling she has taken advantage of her illness whenever she was cornered for doing something wrong. And she always plays the victim card and puts blame on me. There are many occasion when she makes me feel inferior and taunts me deliberately. She knows nobody will say anything to her because she is bipolar, and so I sense very strongly that she takes advantage of her illness. My FIL always discusses her problem with us, but not in front of her. My MIL takes pills, but I’m not sure if the pills have been prescribed for daily use. Is it possible for someone with bipolar to use their disease as a weapon to control things and put others down? — Emotionally Hurt

You buried the lede here which is that you were living in your mother-in-law’s home and only moved out when she asked you to. I mean, how bad was all this emotional abuse you’re sharing if you continued living in her home? If it were really as bad as you suggest, why wouldn’t you have moved out sooner? Because it was free? But she’s the one taking advantage of her situation? Hmm, ok. What does your husband say about all of this? Where was he and what was he saying and doing when your MIL was emotionally hurting you? He’s the one you need to be concerned about. You know your MIL is mentally ill. You don’t know the details of her treatment and whether she is, in fact, of “stable mind.” If your husband, whom you don’t mention being mentally ill, isn’t defending you or supporting you or finding a home for you to live in so you don’t have to be under the same roof as a woman who abuses you, THAT is the problem here, not whether your MIL is using her illness against you. And if you’re so curious about bipolar disorder and want to know more about it and how it affects a person’s brain and behavior, I’d suggest doing some research on the topic. Google will be your friend here. I’d also suggest looking for books for family members of people with mental illness or bipolar disorder. Getting an understanding of the illness and how it can affect loved ones and how loved ones can best support someone with bipolar disorder will go a long way in maintaining a real relationship with your MIL, should you choose to have one, rather than something solely transactional (because she’s providing free housing and you have to interact with her, for example).

***************Follow along on Facebook,  and Instagram. If you have a relationship/dating question I can help answer, you can send me your letters at wendy(AT)dearwendy.com.


  1. LisforLeslie says:

    LW#1 – WWS – as I said in the forums, unless you are an expert in child development and learning/developmental issues keep your thoughts to yourself.

    LW#2 – Bipolar does not equal manipulative and cruel. She has gotten used to hiding behind her diagnosis as a way to deflect responsibility from her actions. Go low contact. Don’t put yourself in the firing line. Discuss options with your husband.

  2. ele4phant says:

    So…if your parents know their daughter has been struggling to the extent that they had to pull her from pre-K, they clearly know something is going on. They don’t need someone else to point out what is obvious.

    They may not want to discuss it and discuss the process they are going through to get her help with a friend they haven’t seen in a long time, they may just want to enjoy visiting with you.

    I know you mean well, but I’d leave them to this without comment. At most, you could broach with an open ended “Seems like things have been tough as of late – please let me know if there’s anything I could do to help out.”

    And obligatory, let’s not minimize how rough this past year and a half has been on everyone – including and maybe especially young children. Some kids seem more resilient than others, just as some adults have had an easier time this last year than others.

  3. Bittergaymark says:

    LW1) I dunno. If the child was younger… like two or three, I would absolutely agree.

    But at 5? These missing milestones of speech and etc are, in fact, truly worrisome. More — in life, some people are way too good at denial.

    Or your friend also may just not want to confide in you yet for some reason. (This is not a slam on you either on my part.) She simply may not be ready, etc…

    But I’d fish a little bit.
    Be ready to listen.
    Don’t make it an inquisition.
    Keep it casual.

    “Isn’t five such a fun age? Can you believe kindergarten is just around the corner?”

    But I wouldn’t just stand by silently here.

    LW2) With this one, I am team Wendy all the way. Frankly… Some of your examples are kinda strange. The clothing one especially seems almost paranoid on your part. Like… She’s copying your wardrobe choices in some devious plot to mock you by fiendishly looking so young herself?! What? Huh?

    1. As a special needs parent, I really do know what I’m talking about for question one and I stand by my advice. Prying out of concern isn’t going to help the child, and it will likely hurt the friendship. There are adults in the kid’s life who are experts – an expert on the kid herself and an expert in child development – who are in a better position than the friend, who doesn’t even know the child well, to figure out whether there’s reason for concern and how to best address it.

      1. My advice would be different if the LW were a child psychologist or a special needs parent herself, but she’s isn’t. Fwiw, I had friends who were both of these things – a child psychologist and a special needs parent – who expressed concern to me and I have to tell you, it was jarring to hear, even in those circumstances. You need to be really sure about what you’re talking about and either really secure in the friendship or ok messing up the friendship to express concern about someone’s kids not hitting developmental milestones.

      2. Bittergaymark says:

        Wendy: I understand your point but have personally witnessed up close a situation where one parent is totally in denial (and was for years) to the point where it resulted in divorce and a court battle over the child getting the help they need. I watched my friend and her ex battle over this fir years and years. In the end, my friend won. And decades later, the father is STILL in denial.

        So, My — Yes! There definitely are some kids out there with special needs that simply aren’t getting all the help they need and deserve with their special needs. Due to bad parenting.

        That makes me feel this is an issue worth politely exploring. Especially as my faith that most out there are great parents is rather shaky as of late. I no longer assume anybody knows what they’re doing.

      3. LisforLeslie says:

        My mom is an expert, now retired. Speech pathologist and lead of the child study team responsible for needs evaluations. When she meets or sees a kid, she goes into eval mode and sees how they respond to her actions, words/sounds, etc. It’s not immediately evident, she looks like she’s just making baby noises and waving around, but I know she’s listening to which sounds they are making, whether they can mimic her, whether they can respond to certain audible or visual stimuli. However she’ll only point out the markers they are hitting, she does not share her evaluation unless someone specifically asks her for help and even then she’ll usually advise to reach out to practicing professionals or resources.

      4. ele4phant says:

        BGM – I ask this sincerely, not with any snark, but…what help would have an outside friend have been in the situation you personally witnessed?

        It sounds like one parent was quite clear what was going on, but the battle was between the two parents. Surely this parent had advocates in their corner, like doctors and teachers, but the other parent was immovable, to the point the marriage collapsed.

        So…what help would have been a friend, if their own partner couldn’t get them to see the need?

        I’d say it wouldn’t be out of line to say something along the lines of – things seem difficult for you right now, know that I’m here if you need any help. But you don’t have to say anything more specific.

      5. Bittergaymark says:

        Ele4phant: With my friend, it actually was another mom friend chiming in and voicing concerns that mirrored her own private worries that ultimately propelled my friend into action — to go against the wishes of her husband and start looking more into autism. This was over 20 years ago when autism was much more unknown to many.

    2. ele4phant says:

      I still don’t think it’s the place of friend (and who doesn’t have any specific expertsize beyond having their own five year old) who hasn’t seen child in a year to bring it up.

      Surely this kid as a pediatrician and at five they still have regular check-ups, and within the next year will be entering kindergarten where a teacher will get to know the child and will also have a handle on what is concerning or not.

      These sorts of people can be the ones that flag the need for intervention, if the parents themselves haven’t already (and just don’t feel like getting into it with the LW).

      1. Sibling of a severely special-needs kid here (we are close in age). Believe me, even in a shitty public school setting in the 80s, concerns were brought to my parents’ attention. They definitely did not want or need friends or even family members to tell them shit. And definitely wouldn’t have done anything about any observations like this. They were legit struggling and doing the best they could, and would not have appreciated hearing from the peanut gallery of non-professional, non-special needs parents who wouldn’t have any useful advice except to point out that their kid is messed up. Like if you’re obese, do you want a naturally thin person who knows nothing about fitness or nutrition pointing out to you that you look overweight? Just because maybe you weren’t aware?

      2. ALSO my brother’s special needs, as far as I know, are due to an accident when he was a toddler which happened on one of my parents’ watch. There’s obviously guilt about that, which makes the situation more fucked up and painful if anyone were to make observations. Which honestly I think most people are nice and decent enough not to do.

  4. When I moved to Reno, I started spending a lot of time with a cousin who had a son the same age as my daughter. He was lagging in his developmental milestones and his grandmother (my aunt) noticed and got appropriate care for him. It’s not your place to point this out to your friend. I heartily agree with Wendy.

  5. Bittergaymark says:

    I fear too many good people have a lot of bizarre misplaced faith that each and every child out there who needs help just will somehow magically sorta get it.

    Look around, pollyanas. Sadly…. That is simply SO not the case.

    1. ele4phant says:

      I think its not that people think every child will magically get the help they need – it’s just who is in the best position to say something?

      Is it the friend that hasn’t seen them in over a year, that has their own five year old but otherwise doesn’t have any specific expertise on child development?

      Or is it professionals like pedestrians, teachers, or other trained childcare experts they will come more regularly into contact with the child?

      It’s not that NO ONE should say anything, it’s about *who*. And in this case, I don’t think it’s the LW’s lane.

  6. anonymousse says:

    It seems likely that her parents are aware of how their child is doing. They pulled her from pre k because she wasn’t getting enough 1 on 1 time. To me, that is very clearly indicative that they are aware she needed more than that program could give, because she needs more.

    People get to choose what they share with you. No one owes you their child’s private medical information or to tell you of any diagnosis. If you are actually concerned that these parents are oblivious, why not wait and see what happens over the next few months?

    I can assure you that the amount of people who choose to share their unsolicited opinions about other people’s kids and parenting skills are not in the minority, even from other parents.

    I know kids all too often slip through the cracks, but that doesn’t sound like what is happening here.

  7. For letter 1, could it be that some people at pre-k WERE flagging potential problems and that’s why they pulled her out, out of denial? That they do not want to address any potential issues the child may have? That would be something to explore, especially if they don’t plan on returning the child to school. Ensure she is seeing experts and people who can support whatever’s going on. Maybe that’s something to check -(casually and from a place of caring/support?)

    1. LisforLeslie says:

      It’s entirely possible. Some parents jump on support services, some parents are really good at hiding their head in the sand and still some other parents demand special services even if their children don’t actually have a need (in that case, the parents usually figure any advantage is a benefit).

    2. ele4phant says:

      By the same token – if this is what happened, they pulled her from Pre-K because they are in denial and didn’t want to hear it, what makes you think a friend is going to be a better messenger? If they tune out the caregivers that took care of their kid everyday, they are definitely not going to listen to the friend that hasn’t seen them or their daughter in a year.

      Its not that NO ONE should say anything to the parents, it’s who is in the best position to say something. And it is not the friend that hasn’t seen them in a year that doesn’t have any specific training in developmental issues.

  8. All I know is when my family member had a baby that was clearly special needs all the people pointing it out to her made her feel much worse in an already stressful situation. At the time she was already looking into help and what to do but none of these ‘well meaning’ people knew any of that because she was keeping it private. You don’t know what your friend is up to about it OP and nothing good is to be gained from interfering. The best you can do is be supportive and hopefully it’ll shake out for the best.

  9. My almost 7 year old has a speech & language disorder & other special needs. Its painfully obvious when your precious kid is lagging behind other typical kids. No need to point it out

  10. Thank you everyone for your opinions. I completely get it- I dont know how much the parents are aware of or are concerned about their kid, I havent probed to that extent. (my gut feeling though is that my friend is in complete denial, not her husband but its just a gut feeling). Maybe they are already exploring options. The only thing my friend kept saying is that her daughter loved spending time my kid and she really ‘opened up’ during her time. My reason for even asking this question is that I believe that a real friend tells you when she thinks you ‘might’ be making a mistake instead of just sitting and observing. But I understand. IN CASE they are already aware of the problem, my saying something might be totally inappropriate. And I’m not sure how ‘secure’ the friendship is, as one the readers pointed out, if that happens. I hope its just a case of the temporary covid situation where kids are suffering staying at home.

  11. Anonymous says:

    As both a child development expert (speech language pathologist) and a mother of a child with language delay, I see both sides of this difficult situation. I would, and have offered to friends my opinion if they wish to hear it. I also offer information about who to contact if they want to look into further evaluations. Unfortunately, pediatricians often miss early signs of developmental delays, and the earlier the interventions, the better the outcomes. Many parents don’t know this and want to take the wait and see approach, but there are often wonderful therapies and supports available that would make a crucial difference early on. I find these conversations easier since having my own child with a delay. I can be sensitive to the fact that no one wants to hear that others are noticing their child’s difference, and also reassuring that many other parents are in the same boat, and support is out there. I find that when I open up about my own concerns with my sons development, other parents are more likely to feel safe sharing with me. I prefer to be non judgemental and fact based, and always say an evaluation never hurts! If nothing else, it will just tell you strengths and weaknesses and any supports that might exist!
    It is such a challenge, but if you truly think that they are in denial, or have no idea how to access resources, dipping a toe in by providing information about the local school district or a trusted doctor may be all the information they need. Also, I would encourage you to consider that neurodiversity is not a nail in the coffin. Some of my favorite people are on the spectrum. They are passionate and wonderful, they needed some support when they were children, some still need support now, but they lead full and wonderful lives. You didn’t find a tumor on this child, neurodiversity is not a death sentence. Its a different way of experiencing the world.

    That said, I would immediately back off if you have any hint that they don’t want to discuss this with you further. It is a very sensitive topic, and you just being a supportive friend may be more valuable than your input into their child’s development.

    My god what a rambling answer. sorry! I have a lot of feelings about this topic!

    1. allathian says:

      There’s a crucial difference, though. You’re both an expert in child speech development and a parent of a child who has developmental delays in that specific area, so you clearly know what you’re talking about. A friend who hasn’t seen the kid in a year and who can only compare to their own kid who’s about the same age but more advanced developmentally doesn’t have those advantages.

      Sure, being neurodivergent isn’t a death sentence, but every neurodivergent kid is going to have to deal with a lot of issues that don’t affect neurotypical kids. Parents are entitled to mourn that their kid isn’t “normal” or that their life is going to be different from what they hoped for, although it is to be hoped that they end up embracing their kid as the person they are. Not every neurodivergent kid is that lucky. Some suffer a lot completely unnecessarily because their parents are in denial and don’t seek the help the child is entitled to.

      I certainly hope that the parents withdrew the kid from pre-k because of Covid and that they’ll enroll the child in a school in the fall, where professional adults will be able to evaluate them.

  12. I say this as a parent of a severely disabled child, you do NOT need to tell them. They know. Trust me.

    It’s simple logic, really.
    Most humans talk.
    Kid not talking = red flag (for even the most clueless/oblivious of parents).

    1. Agree. I know my mom might have seemed to be in denial about my brother, but she was 100% aware of the problems. My dad was less seemingly in denial, but I wouldn’t say any more aware of the situation than my mom. I do think moms might be more prone to go into like a mama bear protective mode where dads may be more pragmatic.

  13. Bittergaymark says:

    The child in question MIGHT not be severely affected. But still very much need help. It’s children with mild developmental issues that often slip through the cracks.

    I’d speak up. I’d rather do so and be wrong than stay silent and be right.

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