Monday, June 29, 2009

Siblings of Specials Needs Kids

For many of the families who are working so hard to do what's best for their special needs child, there's also a typically-developing sibling who is heavily impacted by the situation as well. Having a special needs brother or sister has both positive and negative facets, and most parents are extremely aware of both.
Because I spent many years working in school settings, I frequently had the opportunity to work with several siblings from one family, including the special needs child and the typically-developing sibling. From this experience, I've developed suggestions that could make life easier for your typically-developing child. Certainly, this is not a comprehensive list in one article, but instead a few tips for what I've found to be most important for the siblings of special needs kids.
1. Acknowledge everyone's mixed feelings.
If you only consider one item, this is the most important. Siblings of special needs children typically struggle with guilt. Of course they love their brother or sister, and may enjoy many aspects of their relationship. Kids with special needs are more than just a diagnosis, and family life can be filled with fun and joyful moments. However, realistically, special needs kids have "special needs" and much of the family energy will revolve around getting those needs met. It's tough for the sibling to be feeling embarrassed or resentful of a brother or sister, when they can see the difficulties they may be having. At the same time, when they look to their friends with more typical families, they are aware of how much easier that family life can be.
As parents, you have mixed feelings about the special needs as well. The best thing you can do for the typical sibling is to acknowledge your own mixed feelings, and give your child permission to feel that way as well.
2. Spend time alone with the typical sibling.
All kids need time alone with their parents, especially in this situation. Time alone will allow you to do activities that may not be possible with the whole family, and allows you to focus on just one child. When fun parent activities aren't possible, even a trip to the grocery store can be special if it's just the two of you.
3. Find kids a neutral person to talk to.
It's especially tough for children to share all these mixed, guilty feelings with their parents, who are far from impartial. It can be a real gift to your typical child to find them a understanding adult to talk to, whether a family friend, a coach or teacher, or a professional. Sibling support groups, if run by skilled leaders, can be useful as well.
4. Don't make your kids responsible for their siblings.
It can be tough to manage all the responsibilities of a special needs family, and the typically developing sibling may be very mature, responsible, and even eager to help. It's easy to fall into the trap of depending on this child to make your life easier and help with a brother or sister, but it can backfire. Children develop best when they are treated like children, not little caretakers. When you want to give your kids responsibilities, it's better to find household chores for them, while you take care of the family members.
5. Remember the advantages.
My intent is not to add a heavier load onto what may already be a very stressed family.  Kids with special needs siblings generally learn to be especially compassionate, thoughtful, and caring adults. The sibling relationship can be much closer and deeper than in other families. And the most important thing any child needs is a loving parent. So do the best you can for everyone in the family, including yourself, and never feel guilty about being less than perfect.