Monday, October 31st, 2011
Sibling relationships are always complicated – there’s love, there’s hate, there’s companionship, there’s rivarlry. But what’s it like having a sibling with special needs?
I’ve had an opportunity to work with kids who have a sibling with medical and/or developmental special needs as part of a program run at the Schwartz Center for Children in Dartmouth, Massachusetts. In small group meetings conducted over a 5-week period, these kids – who were between 7 and 12 years old – would talk about their relationship with their siblings. And for the most part, they deal with the same positives and negatives of having a sibling as would any other kids. There were two things, though, that were especially salient to them:
- Sibling aggression. Some of the sibs would sometimes hit or yell, seemingly out of the blue. This was typically when a sibling had autism and was younger – not so much the case when a sibling had a medical special need.
- Intrusion on their time. Parents have to devote special time to kids with developmental and/or medical issues. This can not only take time away from a sibling, but also interfere with everyday pleasures. A few kids mentioned how they can’t always watch a favorite TV show. Other kids talked about how plans can change quickly. And things like going out to dinner aren’t always easy or fun.
These siblings were keen observers of their siblings and their families. They also were able to explore, via games and conversation, ways of making sense of their siblings’ behavior. They developed a deeper understanding of the communication challenges their siblings face (this was achieved in part through the perspective-taking games like charades and the telephone game). At the end of the 5-week period, they all said that they learned that their sibling did not mean to hurt them or be annoying – even though those things would still happen. Most importantly, they each came up with one thing to change at home to help them cope with their sibling (e.g., asking a parent to spend more time with them).
Most of all, they all could easily describe positives in their relationship. In particular, they all enjoyed finding ways to make their sibling laugh – and they were quite good at it! And they took pride in knowing that they often help their parents and directly help their siblings.
This was a very inspiring group to spend time with! They taught me a lot.