Parenting Siblings of Children with Disabilities

What parents need to consider for their children who are siblings to a child with special needs.

Sibling Rivalry

Red haired mom and freckled son smiling at breakfast table

Elizabeth Goulding-Tag, LMSW, coordinator of the Family Support Program for children with developmental disabilities and their families at North Shore Child & Family Guidance Center, gives guidance to parents of multiple children, some who have disabilities.

What is it like for children who have a sibling with special needs?
It's very anxiety-provoking. They know their siblings are different, not like their friends' brothers and sisters. They wish they could have the kind of relationship other children have and that everyone could participate in the same family activities. But they also care deeply about their special-needs siblings. Regardless of the age, typically developing children act like mini-parents. They observe their parents taking care of their siblings and learn to take a nurturing role, watching out for their sisters and brothers.

What about sibling rivalry? Does it exist in these families?
Definitely, and the rivalry can be even more intense. By the nature of the disability, these siblings require more individualized attention than the typical siblings.

When a special-needs child achieves something it's a big deal but when a typical child does the same thing parents may barely notice. And children keep track. They are very aware of how much and what kind of attention their siblings are getting. The typical children often wish they received that attention. So the rivalry can be more pronounced because the issues are more intense.

What do typical siblings do when they feel this rivalry?
The families have the same issues, but everything is intensified. Much like other children they may act out, become disobedient and defiant. Then the parents have their own issues -- depression, strained marriages, financial concerns that exist independent of having a special-needs child. Parents also grapple with difficult feelings that influence how they respond to their children.

As odd as it sounds, can this can be a positive experience for the typical siblings?
It's not easy, but it can be a positive experience. The behavior of the special-needs child can be embarrassing to the typically developing child. The child with a developmental disability or emotional problems may bolt from the house and run to a friend or neighbor. Now the sibling has to help get the child back home. Or facial or vocal tics (i.e., grunts) that happen in public embarrass typical siblings. But the positive side is that these children develop some really good coping skills. They learn to shut out the reactions of others and to accept their sibling's behaviors as something that they can't control -- and to love their brothers and sisters anyway.

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