Playing the Role of Protector for their Siblings
Another problem many siblings of kids with special needs face is the desire to overcompensate for and protect their brothers or sisters. “Siblings of kids with learning challenges tend to feel the effects of ‘resource depletion’,” Morin explains. “There’s a social-emotional impact, and kids tend to feel more responsibility and the need to compensate for their sibling’s shortcomings. Some of that social-emotional piece is a trickle-down effect. Parents may socialize less, so kids aren’t socializing as much either.”
A study conducted by the University of Southampton’s Centre for Research into Psychological Development explored the experiences of siblings of children with physical disabilities and found many siblings worry about the future of their brother or sister. Trust and communication between children and parents are key in alleviating these fears. An open line of communication can help parents and their kids create and maintain healthy relationships when managing life with a sibling with special needs.
Tips for Supporting Siblings of Children With Challenges
There are several other steps parents can take to support children who have siblings facing various physical and mental challenges.
Make time. Simply setting aside 1-on-1 time with each child can make a world of difference. As a parent, Morin says, she is aware of her daughter’s feelings of being left out or not receiving the same amount of attention as her brothers who have learning challenges. “Over the years we have tried to make extra time for her in ways that don’t seem compensatory or artificial. It’s hard to do!” she says. Despite being difficult, spending quality time with each of your children will keep the lines of communication open and help you deepen your understanding of each child’s individual needs.
Set expectations. Parents should be clear about what their expectations are for each child, even if those expectations are different for each child. (And parents should be prepared to explain why they’re different.) Parents can help kids understand they don’t need to take on a caregiver or protector role and are instead free to be just kids.
Explain the situation. “Unlike their parents, siblings may have no knowledge of life without a brother or sister with a disability,” Helen Featherstone writes in her book A Difference in the Family: Life with a Disabled Child. So it is important as a parent to educate your other child. “Parents should respect the non-disabled sibling’s need to be recognized as an individual who has concerns and questions as well as his or her right to know about the disability,” Featherstone explains. Be conscious of your other child’s age and maturity level, and appropriately help her understand her disabled sibling’s possible limitations—and the status of his condition.
Recognize and celebrate differences. For children who are managing a disability, parenting requires a strong sense of patience and understanding. Be sure to extend praise and support to your other child. Let him know he’s appreciated. When she helps clean up while her brother or sister is unable to, praise her for her contribution. When he meets a personal goal, celebrate with him.
Although her struggles are different from those of her sibling with special needs, they are still struggles—and your recognition of her ability to meet her own challenges and overcome them will go far in helping her ward off any potential resentment of her sibling. Each child in the family doesn’t have to be treated the same. But it’s important for all the kids to feel that their needs count.