When one child has special needs, families face the challenge of keeping the stress away from brothers and sisters. Our expert offers advice on how to help siblings cope during trying times.
Caring for a child with emotional, behavioral, or mental health challenges (a type of special needs) can be stressful for a parent/caregiver as well as for the child's siblings. Often the child with special needs receives more attention from parents than the other siblings in the family. Parents may also expect a lot of children who don't have special needs. This can be a burden and a stress for these children. For example, they may have to help care for their sibling who has special needs, include him or her in activities with friends, or alter their behavior so as not to upset the other child.
Siblings or any other child that lives in the house may have conflicting feelings. They may feel alternatively alone and neglected; jealous of the brother or sister with special needs for getting all that attention; angry that their lives are being "messed up"; guilty that they are doing okay and don't have problems; afraid to express negative feelings because this will add stress to the family; unable to ask for what they need because they think their needs are not important; the need to be "perfect" to compensate.
All of these feelings may lead to withdrawal, rebellion (not listening as a way of getting attention), or acting overly helpful to get approval.
Is this true for all siblings of children with emotional or behavioral challenges? No! Everyone has different reactions, but over time, siblings of children with emotional and behavioral challenges can develop qualities such as patience, compassion, and empathy. They can learn to be supportive and helpful towards others and more accepting of differences others may have. Their experiences can make them stronger and may even lead them to be advocates for their family member.
How can you help all your children cope with this situation?
Most important, you need to make sure that all your children feel safe and secure. That means no one must be allowed to hurt another. If there is a risk that your children may hurt each other, don't leave them alone together. You can also teach your children to respect each other and express their feelings with words.
Parents need to make the time to spend with each child individually, and think of each child's needs, feelings, strengths, and successes. Make time to ask the sibling of the child with special needs how he or she is feeling. And then listen to what your child says. Allow negative feelings to be expressed. Acknowledge these feelings and ask your child what will help him or her feel better.
If finding time each day is hard, do something small each day to remind a child how special he or she is: write a note and put it in a lunchbox, or for older kids, send a text message letting them know you are thinking of them, or plan a family meal.
One way to have the time to spend with your other children is to give the child with special needs an outlet to bond with other children with whom he/she can identify. This may be through a community center, school, or Family Resource Center.
It is important to explain to your children that their brother or sister has special challenges, and describe simply what these are. You should use language your children understand. Siblings, like parents, need to understand what the problem is and what to expect in the future. Let them know that you will work through things together.
Don't forget about you.
Finally, it is important as a parent to get the support you need from friends, families, or peers. Peer support is one way. That is when you talk to other parents who have a child with special needs. Another peer will not only relate to what you are going through, but can offer support without judging you. Peers can be your best source of help by linking you to community resources and services.
Myla Harrison, M.D., M.P.H., is medical director for the Bureau of Children, Youth and Families, part of the NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.