Special Needs Siblings

Caring for a child with special needs can be a demanding job. Parenting your child is of course a labor of love, and pays back in dividends no other “job” could provide. But with extra appointments, your child’s more intensive demands on your patience and teaching, and the stress of higher emotional needs, you may find that you don’t have the time and energy you wish you did to care for the rest of the family. And that stress might also be affecting your other children, who could feel lost in the shuffle. Stress in children can manifest as crankiness, headaches, stomachaches, clinginess, and trouble sleeping. But don’t despair!

There are some easy ways to help decrease the burden that siblings of children with special needs sometimes feel.

1. Give them information that is developmentally appropriate.
For young children, this may be as simple as “Annie learns things differently than other people, and she needs to hear things more than once.” For your middle-school-aged child, you may share more details: “Jack has a disability that makes it harder for him to talk to people. He also really needs a routine and has a hard time when things change unexpectedly.” High school children can handle, and should be privy to, more information: “Laura has Autism, which is a disability that affects her social functioning. She doesn’t always understand how people are feeling or why they feel that way. She likes to have things a certain way and it’s tough for her to be flexible or handle new situations.”

2. Point out the strengths and lovable qualities of your child with special needs.
When a child feels like she’s always “playing second fiddle” to her brother with special needs, she may have trouble recognizing the many good qualities of her sibling. Help her by pointing out the things your child with special needs is particularly good at.

3. Validate their feelings (but hold them responsible for their actions).
It is crucial that you listen to and accept the feelings- even the negative ones- that your child has about his sibling with special needs. Try not to disagree with him when he says, “John always gets what he wants! He is so mean to me and makes me so mad!” When your child is angry, it is not the time to teach a lesson about having a sibling who needs more help. Instead, say “I know it is so frustrating for you that John gets extra help. And I know it’s so hard when he says mean things.” While you should always validate your child’s feelings, you should also hold him accountable for his actions. If he excessively teases, takes advantage of, or physically hurts his sibling with special needs, he should be reprimanded and reminded of his sibling’s vulnerability.

4. Make special time for them a part of your schedule.
It can be draining for a child to be kind, patient, and understanding of her sibling with special needs. And no matter how mature your child is, it is hard for her to understand and accept that your other child may need more of your time and attention. Make special time with your child who doesn’t have special needs a high priority, and make it a recurring event. Plan one day a month of one-on-one time when you let your child who doesn’t have special needs determine the agenda. Enjoy your time together, and spoil her with your undivided attention. It will be a treat for you both, and it may help your child be more patient and understanding when you have to focus more on her sibling.

No parent can do all of the above in any given day, and none of us are perfect! Use these above tips when you can, and you will be well on your way to ensuring the emotional well-being of your whole family. If you are concerned about the toll stress is taking on your children, please contact us at In Step. And one last tip: remember to carve out a little bit of time to take care of yourself! When you take care of yourself, you set an example for the whole family that emotional well-being should be a priority.

Melanie Kaplan, LCSW
In Step, Sterling