Raising a child with special needs affects the whole family, and siblings often struggle with jealousy. Parents.com's "Ask Your Mom" columnist, Emily Edlynn, Ph.D., shares some simple strategies parents can follow to help a sibling feel important, connected, and their own unique brand of special.

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An illustration of a little girl tugging on her mom's pant leg.
Credit: Illustration: Caitlin-Marie Miner Ong.

Parenting a child with special needs takes an extraordinary amount of time and energy, which while of course, it's worth it, is even more taxing as a single parent of two. Kudos to you for having the emotional bandwidth to notice and attend to your daughter's understandable jealousy.

At age 7, it is normal for your daughter to not be able to fully understand others' perspectives, and for her emotions to dominate reasoning. The way you are tuned into your daughter, however, will serve you well in coping with this situation. You may not be able to reason with her quite yet about why her brother gets more time and attention, but you can use a range of strategies and resources to show her how much you care and that your relationship is just as important.

Reserve Special Time

Finding time in the schedule that you and she can spend with each other is not only important because of the uninterrupted attention she gets from you, but it can be contact for her to count on. So, when you cannot listen to all the details of a story in a hectic moment with her brother, she knows she can share this story with you during your special time later. One strategy is to give her a journal where she could put down a few words or a picture to help her remember what she wants to talk about with you. During your special time, she can pull out this journal for sharing.

There are two ways to include this one-on-one time in your lives: in your weekly routine and occasional extra special outings you can put on the calendar. For your weekly routine, think of a time that her brother does not need you – like when he's asleep. It might mean a bit later of a bedtime for your daughter, and I know it might be hard to give up your down-time as well, but it does not need to be every night. You and she can pick an evening that you get to hang out for a clearly set length of time. This helps her know what to expect when, and that she can rely on it as part of her routine.

For the extra special outings, I do not know the details of your son's needs or your support system, but I often help families to problem-solve this very issue of leaving their child in someone else's care for a short period of time so they can connect with other people and parts of their lives. In my work with children with complex medical needs and their families, this common struggle often has solutions when looking at the full array of possible resources. If you do not have people in your immediate support network, many nonprofit organizations offer respite care services, including for parents of children with Autism or other disabilities.

Get Her Involved With Her Brother

Young children often respond well to feeling like you need their help. Finding ways your daughter could assist with her brother's care may help her feel included and important. You could notice what she appears to enjoy when it comes to helping, or what she is good at (e.g., making him laugh), and highlight those.

If she seems interested in taking on more responsibilities to embrace her role as the older sister, you and she could make a list together of possible tasks to designate as hers. Some parents worry that this places their child too much in a caregiver role, but when you and she decide together on how she can be helpful, she can feel empowered, and a more instrumental member of your three-person family.

Address the feelings

Even if she is too young to fully take perspective or use reasoning, you can talk to her about her brother in ways that validate her feelings and encourage ongoing dialogue as she gets older. I have found that siblings need to hear, "you're right; it's not fair." As tempting as it may be to talk her out of it, validating her jealousy as an understandable emotion can help her move through it better.

While validating her feelings, you can also keep talking about her brother's needs and why he needs more attention and help. Concrete explanations like how his brain works differently than hers can improve her understanding. Around age 7, developmental shifts in thinking typically occur, so she is also likely on the verge of taking more perspective, using more reasoning, and understanding more abstract concepts such as what it means for her brother to have "special needs." As you keep regular conversations with her about what it's like to be an older sister to him, you may notice some of these developmental gains, so stay tuned in and keep talking!

Seek Out Sibling Support Resources

In my years working with seriously ill children and their families, I discovered the value of sibling support resources. These exist across types of diagnoses and needs for the affected sibling. These resources can offer ways for the sibling to feel special and connect your daughter with others going through a similar experience (e.g., care packages; camps). This resource list from the Pacer Center includes books and videos for children of all ages, and a list of several organizations offering networks of sibling support for children with siblings who have special needs.

The Bottom Line

At 7, it may be hard to effectively explain the reasons you cannot give her more attention, but putting together these different approaches can build your relationship and her sense of importance in the family. While her jealousy may never completely disappear, the constancy of your support and her feeling special to you, will help her weather the tough feelings and even encourage a big sister role of which she is proud.

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Emily Edlynn, Ph.D., is the author of The Art and Science of Mom parenting blog and a mother of three from Oak Park, Illinois. She is a clinical psychologist in private practice who specializes in working with children and adolescents.