Children with Special Needs Siblings
Children with special needs siblings often feel overlooked by their parents and overshadowed by their special needs siblings. Why? Because, of necessity, parents and others focus on the needs of the special needs children. Other children may get only peripheral attention. How do these children handle this and how can parents help?
Children with special needs siblings will respond to their circumstances in a way that reflects their environment and their personality in general. For example, children who are raised in calm home environments with parents who exhibit emotional intelligence will be better able to handle their circumstances well, putting their special needs siblings before themselves most of the time and doing so without backlash. Similarly, children who are empathetic and nurturing will also be better able to handle their circumstances likewise. Conversely, children who are raised in chaotic, self-focused families, and children who are themselves self-focused and lacking in empathy and a nurturing nature, will have a more difficult time adapting to their circumstances. These children will engage in attention-seeking behaviors (even if the attention garnered is negative, such as punishment from a parent), sporadically act out their anger and frustration, and, without remediation, will ultimately escalate into full-scale rebellion by the adolescent years, thus potentially charting the course for the rest of the child’s life. (Note: even children who handle their circumstances well will, on occasion, engage in attention-seeking behaviors and may act out if the attention is not forthcoming. However, such instances for these children are less frequent, shorter in duration, less intense, and not likely to develop into dysfunctional adult behaviors, as compared to the children who do not handle their circumstances well.)
What can parents do to help their children cope with living in the shadow of their special needs siblings? Parents need to focus individualized attention on each of their children, not just their special needs children. Yes, more time will need to be focused on the special needs children, but parents can and should devote some time each week (ideally, each day) to each of their children. Here are some tips for doing this.
- On a daily basis, ask your non-disabled children how their day is going, how they are feeling, what they are thinking, etc. Really listen to the answers to these questions. Let your non-disabled children know that you care how they experience their world.
- Know what is important to each of your children and respond accordingly. For example, you may be busy attending to the needs of your severely disabled child, but if Olympic figure skating is on the television, and you know that is something that one of your non-disabled children loves to watch, perhaps you can watch Olympic figure skating with your non-disabled child. If you have an in-home nurse, that would be an excellent opportunity for the nurse to come and spend extra time attending to your special needs child. You may also consider hiring a babysitter for your special needs child while you spend your one-on-one time with your non-disabled child. You can even make an event of your mom-and-me time with your non-disabled child. For example, you can have a cake decorated to depict two figure skaters skating . . . a treat you can eat while you watch the Olympic event. You can wear “costumes” that look like figure skating outfits while you watch the Olympic event. Or you can follow up the Olympics by taking your non-disabled child to an ice rink so that you and your child can skate.
- Parent “date nights” are excellent ways to attend to all of your children. For example, if you have two children, one disabled and one not disabled, you can designate one evening every second week as date night and you and your spouse will each take one child out to do something fun for that child. For example, you may take your disabled child to the zoo because the zoo is handicap accessible and your disabled child is fascinated with animals. Concurrently, your spouse can take your non-disabled child to the theatre to watch a movie that the child wants to see.
- If you observe that frustration, anger, or resentment is festering in your non-disabled children, speak with your children about it . . . and do so in an accepting, nurturing, non-critical manner. Accept what your children have to say. If you hear that you are a neglectful mother, that may be hard to hear; however, your children have a right to feel however they choose, even though you may disagree with their feelings. Rather than argue with your children about whether you are neglectful, it is best to apologize for how you have made your children feel. You may also say that you are trying your best to balance the needs of every member of your household. Finally, you may wish to ask your non-disabled children what they would like to see you do differently. No one parent has the corner on all wisdom: your children may come up with suggestions that you had never considered. They may suggest things that would make them feel happy, loved, and attended to . . . things that are quick and easy for you to accomplish.
- If your non-disabled children’s frustration, anger, or resent continues to fester, it is wise to seek outside assistance. Some communities have support groups for families with special needs children. Most communities have counselors who can be a neutral third party who can listen and be an outstanding resource for your family members.
In sum, non-disabled children often feel overlooked by their parents and overshadowed by their special needs siblings, but different children handle that stressor differently. Fortunately, parents can help by following the above tips.