Support for Siblings of Children With Special Needs
The sisters and brothers of a child with special needs may feel protective, fearful, or even jealous. Parents can help them work through these sometimes confusing emotions.
Having a sibling with special needs is a unique experience that provides both challenges and benefits. While there is no doubt that the child loves her sibling with special needs, the feelings that arise during childhood are often complicated — love, appreciation, and compassion can be mixed up with jealousy, worry, resentment, fear, responsibility and anger. Parents who are in tune to their children’s feelings can help them work through any negative emotions and turn these challenges into benefits.
Challenge: Insensitivity of others
Unfortunately, kids with special needs are often the target of teasing. Siblings of children with special needs may feel the need to constantly stand up for their sibling or may be the brunt of teasing themselves. “One of the biggest challenges in growing up with my sister was watching her get laughed at,” says Justin Lyons, brother of Kara, who has cerebral palsy. Parents can help their kids work through this by equipping them with the right answers for those awkward questions and teach them how to handle bullying in an appropriate way.
Benefit: Dependability, loyalty, compassion
After years of watching someone they love get teased, siblings of children with special needs will naturally develop a strong sense of loyalty to those they care about as well as a strong compassion toward others. Even though watching Kara get teased was hard for Justin, he also notes, “I think it made me less likely to laugh at or tease other people.” Kids who grow up in a home with siblings who have special needs typically become dependable, compassionate, and loyal adults.
Parents do their best to treat their children fairly and spend equal amounts of time caring for each. When you have a child with developmental delays or significant medical needs that balance can become extremely difficult to achieve and jealousy can develop. Kids may feel they get less attention or their parents spend more time caring for the sibling. Kids can feel guilty for having these thoughts, which makes them more upset and resentful. Try to be patient about your child’s jealous feelings. Talk to your child about it and let him know you take it seriously. If possible, offer to have him help care for his sibling, but don’t push the issue.
Benefit: Self control and thoughtfulness
It is important to remember that sibling rivalry and feelings of jealousy are normal in any sibling relationship. As your child learns to wait for a parent to be free to help him, he learns patience and self control as well as how to put others’ needs before his own.
Challenge: Worry and fear
When children are around a sibling with serious medical challenges, lowered immunity, or special needs, kids may feel worried or afraid about the health of their sibling. They may not be able to express their feelings the same way that an adult would. Kids may act out, become overly emotional, or appear aloof to what is going on around them. Parents can help kids by being honest about health concerns in an age-appropriate way. By including your child in this discussion, you can reduce their fear of the unknown and reassure them as well.
Benefit: Compassion, empathy for others
Kids exposed to someone with medical and developmental challenges become more compassionate and empathetic to others. “I attribute my sense of understanding and compassion to growing up with my sister,” says Michelle Hupp, sister to Felicia, an adult with Down syndrome.
Being a sibling of a person with special needs is a unique and sometimes challenging experience, but most people will tell you they have benefitted from the experience. As a parent, it helps to think of the long-term benefits and help your children shape their challenges into successes.
Sarah Lyons is a freelance writer.