As I ponder my experiences with siblings of children with special needs both in my professional experience and within my own family, I am compelled to convey the different family dynamics that are resultant.
Siblings of special needs children often process an array of emotions and experiences that are far removed from a neurotypical household. Their experiences do not destine them for a lifetime of maladjusted lifestyles. If support, attention and understanding is present, these children often grow up to be empathetic and perceptive adults who will proactively fight for those who cannot fight for themselves.
In order for siblings of children with special needs to grow up and obtain positive self efficacy, basic ingredients are needed. A cup of acceptance, a teaspoon of validation, a spoonful of support, two cups of love and most importantly someone to lend them an ear to speak with in a non judgmental environment.
I recall a conversation that occurred long ago with my eldest son. Learning disabilities can prove challenging and necessitate investing more energy into the child with challenges than the sibling who does not have any. There was so much guilt. When we cheered our child with special needs on and helped him with challenges we worried that we were ignoring his brother. When we supported his brother, and cheered him on, we felt as though we might be ignoring our younger child
It is a tough balancing act supporting both children and making sure their needs are being met. This conversation with my eldest son heightened my level of awareness regarding the fact that typically developing children with special needs siblings indeed have special needs as well. He said, “Mom, do you realize that you and dad talk about my brother allot? Can we talk about something else for a change?
My response to my son was, “I am so sorry. Sometimes mom and dad worry about your brother’s future. We know that you will be OK. But that is no excuse; we love you both and are proud of the talents and wonderful character that you both possess. Son, do me a favor please. If I start babbling about your brother, will you please remind me so I stop?” My son was satisfied with this answer and I kept my promise.
What occurred here was that I validated my sons concerns. I have created a communication style that makes it safe for our kids to communicate any concerns or thoughts to me without fear of judgment or reprisal. I as a parent have to admit when mistakes have been made by me as well.
This reminded me of the delicate tightrope of uncertainty and guilt that parents with both learning disabled and non-learning disabled children grapple with everyday.
Years ago, two siblings were enrolled in my school age program. The older child, a boy age ten had pervasive development disorder and an I.Q. of 65. His younger sister was age seven and typically developing. A sibling dynamic which occasionally occurs between special needs and typically developing siblings presented itself. The little girl acted in a parental manner stepping in to constantly speak for and care for her older brother. In working with this boy I gained an awareness of skills he possessed.
When this boys younger sister would attempt to take care of her brother ie pouring drinks for him, speaking for him when he could speak for himself and otherwise, I would squelch her concerns by letting her know I would look out for her brother.
My goal was to allow this child to be just what she was, a child herself. I reassured her through my interactions with her brother that I was the adult in the room and it was my job therefore, to ensure her brothers care not hers.
As I conducted spelling homework with her brother, she attempted to spell the words for him. I proceeded to have her brother write one of his spelling words on the white board so his sister could see the capabilities her brother had.
In doing so, the older special needs sibling was empowered by exploring his capabilities and his sister gained an understanding that she did not have to be a second parent to him. As frequently as she would step in to take care of her older brother, I would encourage her to go join the other children her age in their games.
Although, assisting a special needs sibling occasionally, ie watching them while parents make dinner, answer the phone, take a shower etc. is acceptable, the typically developing child should not be encouraged to be a second parent.
They are children themselves and require parental support, the freedom to have play dates and more. In a nutshell, it is unhealthy to expect siblings to parent special needs brother and sisters thus becoming little adults. It is important that they feel comfortable and are allowed to have a childhood as well.
If too many expectations are set for typically developing siblings, resentment towards the special needs child and family will develop. When growing up with special needs siblings, typically developing siblings can become perfectionists. The unrealistic expectations they develop can cause anxiety issues. Remind the typically developing sibling that you are proud of them, note their successes and support them when they feel that they have failed (imagined or not).
A plethora of emotions can arise within the typically developing child. They may develop a type of “survivor’s guilt”. The child may feel guilty because their sibling has a disability and they do not. They may feel guilty that they occasionally are embarrassed by their sibling’s condition, particularly when friends come over to visit. Talk with your child and reassure them that they can speak with you about their negative emotions in a safe non judgmental zone as well as positive issues.
If children believe they cannot talk about the negative experiences in their life because this will overwhelm you they will only speak to you about positive topics. Again, this is emotionally unhealthy because selectively suppressing what is self perceived as their (bad side) will be deleterious to emotional health for sure. No young child should have to worry about protecting adults from stress, special needs or not. They need to know the adult will protect them.
Parents with children that have special needs must plan for the future as well. All special needs children become adults. Attempt to plan ahead regarding what services will be available for the special needs child down the line. Parents will not be around for ever. Special needs children will all become adults.
Typically developing children will become adults as well avoiding placing undue pressure on typically developing children to take a sideline to special needs children is of the utmost importance. However, allowing typically developing children the freedom to live their own life as adults void of becoming caretakers for siblings and giving up their dreams is of utmost importance as well.
Look into special needs sibling support groups, parent support groups and counseling for siblings and families of special needs children. You need support as well as the special needs individual. Here is one of many places to start.
Find a Sibshop Near You — The Sibling Support Project
http://www.siblingsupport.org › Sibshops
The Sibling Support Project
Parent to Parent USA: P2PUSA
Council for Exceptional Children
Council for Exceptional Children
Attempt to explain to siblings in a manner that matches their emotional and cognitive level what their siblings’ diagnosis consists of. Remind your typically developing child that although their special needs sibling requires more attention at times that you love your typically developing child as well. Note their milestones as well. Most of all remind them that you will always be supportive in a parental role to all of your children. Reinforce the fact that you may love all of your children for their individual characteristics and needs, but LOVE them ALL you do.
Giving the typically developing child small responsibilities regarding their special needs sibling will make them feel involved. The main point here is SMALL responsibilities. Every child deserves a childhood special needs or not.
Parenting a special needs child and supporting other family members is quite a balancing act. It is one of the toughest jobs in the world. Remember, you are up for the task. You are stronger and more knowledgeable then you think. Never underestimate your skills. Special needs parents have gone to the most difficult college in the world. They have received a Ph.D. from the college of hard knocks. Stay strong and hold your head up high.
I am a published author and focus on books pertaining to autism and Aspergers Syndrome. I have had special needs articles published in several magazines. I have been interviewed several times in print, on pod casts, and internet T.V. regarding the autism spectrum. I have presented autism workshops to staff, management teams, and parent groups. I offer tips on curriculum development and behavior modification within the classroom and through in-services. I am certified by the Department of Early Childhood Education as a lead preschool teacher, an infant and toddler teacher, and site coordinator qualified to manage school age programs. I have recently ventured into public speaking engagements to educate both parents and educators on autism and Aspergers Syndrome
I want my experiences and challenges to be used productively as a learning tool for other parents and for educators as well. When my son was diagnosed with Asperger’s a decade ago it was a foreign word among many parents and professionals alike. I fought for help never giving up. Through my books I wish to help parents feel like they do not walk in the dark, that they are not alone, empower them and that there is light at the end of the tunnel. I also want to educate society at large on the topic of the autism spectrum. I believe all parties involved need to work as a collaborative team in order to insure a special needs child’s Amazon.com at Mari Nosal : Please stop by my site at Amazon Books and check out my published books on autism aspergers special needs and more you like my articles, aside from being the parent of an adult with Aspergers Syndrome/ A.D.D and an educational professional, I am also a published author of many special needs and autism related books written to inspire and support parents, families, educators and society at large as well. Please stop by and check out my books on http://tinyurl.com/kdspqy9