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Parenting Siblings of Children with Disabilities

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.

What can parents do for siblings of children with disabilities?
Because the needs of typical siblings often get lost in the process of raising a child with disabilities, parents need to give the typical child special one-on-one attention. It doesn't have to be expensive -- a Saturday morning breakfast out at a deli or fast-food restaurant with one parent while another parent or family member stays home to watch the other siblings. A walk through the mall and an ice cream, or even time together at the playground can satisfy a child's need to feel special and be the focus of a parent's attention.

Typical kids also need to have their own toys and their own space. Not everyone can have their own room but they can have their own place within a room -- a locked box, or locker with a key, somewhere they can call their own.

Don't hold your typical children within the limitations of the child with special needs. You can find activities like a sports team, Cub scouts, or social activities where the typical children can feel good about their accomplishments and express their individuality.

Typical siblings can also benefit from support groups. It gives them a chance to vent, to talk freely without feeling they are disloyal, or that their parents won't approve of what they say. Hearing the experiences of other children can make them feel less alone and isolated.

What can childcare workers or preschool teachers do to help the typical siblings?
These children need to be recognized as individuals with their own skills, abilities, and needs. Childcare providers and teachers can create a place where children aren't expected to be mini-mommies or mini-daddies, but can just be kids.

Self-esteem can be a problem for these children when they see their siblings being rewarded and applauded for achievements that are routinely achieved in the typical child. Typical siblings can use a lot of reassurance and affirmation of their self-worth. Sincere appreciation and compliments for their abilities help them feel good about themselves and their accomplishments.

 

Originally published on HealthyKids.com, October 2006.

The information on this Web site is designed for educational purposes only. It is not intended to be a substitute for informed medical advice or care. You should not use this information to diagnose or treat any health problems or illnesses without consulting your pediatrician or family doctor. Please consult a doctor with any questions or concerns you might have regarding your or your child's condition.