© Cheryl Casey | Dreamstime.com
Typically developing brothers and sisters are intertwined in the lives of their siblings with special needs longer than anyone else including parents, teachers and helping professionals.
There are more than 6 million people in America with special health, developmental and mental health concerns. Most of these people have a brother or sister. Siblings of children with special needs have distinctive needs of their own.
Children with special needs require more time and focus from their parents. The non-disabled sibling will have to make adjustments. Keeping track of this adjustment process is important to the entire family. Typically developing siblings are powerful teachers and are likely to play many important roles over a lifetime with their special needs siblings. Studies have shown that many children with disabled siblings have a higher level of empathy, increased tolerance for differences, increased sense of maturity and pride in the sibling’s accomplishments.
Each sibling relationship is unique. A child’s developmental level, temperament and personality affect his or her reaction to
a sibling. The range of emotional responses to a disabled sibling is similar in most ways to siblings without special needs.
Parents naturally have a responsibility to devote attention to all their children, regardless of their abilities. Here are some ways to focus that attention.
Pay attention to how your typical child is reacting to her special needs sibling. Talk about her perceptions of the family experience and your role as parents. More attention and additional time spent with special needs siblings may be perceived as preferential treatment. Expect and acknowledge ambivalent emotions regarding a sibling’s special needs. Resentment, peer issues, embarrassment and trying to compensate for her sibling’s special needs are not uncommon.
Acknowledge that conflict between brothers and sisters is common. Expect typical behaviors from your typically developing child. Conflict with a special needs sibling however is more likely to cause some guilt feelings.
Spend one-on-one time with your typical child. Carving time out of your busy schedule will help your child feel appreciated and important.
Help your child learn about his sibling’s disability. Knowledge helps with understanding and empathy.
Celebrate each child’s achievements. Work to not let the special needs of one child overshadow another’s.
Try to assign chores to all your children. Adaptation of some chores may be needed, but some is better than none.
Share your long-term plans for care of a child with special needs. Some parents will need to make long-term plans for their children with special needs anticipating when they are no longer able to provide care. Many typical children worry about their obligation and responsibility regarding their special needs sibling as they move into adulthood. Knowing that parents are making plans for the future is reassuring. Try to keep siblings informed and involved in this process. Brothers and sisters are entitled to their own lives and future involvement with their siblings should be a choice, not a responsibility.
Make sure your children see you taking care of yourself. A parent who works to take care of his or her own needs helps models healthy attitudes for that person’s children. Parents can use respite services and community resources to find a balance in their family’s life. A parent’s attitude about a child’s special needs sets the tone for the family.
Limit caregiving responsibilities for your typically developing children. Help the disabled child learn to do as much for himself as possible. Whenever possible, parents can make an effort to find ways of helping with the demands of caregiving by using resources that do not depend on their children.
Know when to seek professional help. Pay attention to signs of depression in your typical child. Withdrawal from family members, withdrawal from friends and social activities, loss of interest in usual activities, low energy, and increased sadness or irritability are signs that your child may be depressed and in need of profession help.
Find support and information for typically developing siblings. National Information Center for Children and Youth with Disabilities (http://nichcy.org/), Sibling Support Project (www.siblingsupport.org/), Parent Advocacy Coalition for Educational Rights (www.pacer.org/) and University Of Michigan’s YourChild Development and Behavior Resources (www.med.umich.edu/yourchild/) are just a few resources.
Read up, together. There are many books for child of all ages concerning life with a special needs sibling. Reading a book with your child is a terrific way to initiate a conversation. Don Meyer, the director of Sibling Support Project, has written or edited a number of good books: Living with a Brother or Sister with Special Needs: A Book for Sibs, The Sibling Slam Book and Views From Our Shoes: Growing Up with a Brother or Sister with Special Needs.
Reaching out to others in similar circumstances can be a therapeutic experience! We encourage families with this challenging life circumstance to reach out and connect with others.
Cary and Tonja Rector are married and live with their children in Manlius. Cary is a licensed mental health counselor and Tonja is a licensed marriage and family therapist. Consult your own health care provider before making decisions affecting your family’s well-being. To comment on this article, write to firstname.lastname@example.org.