Having a sibling with special needs is a unique experience that provides both challenges and benefits. The feelings that arise in children are often complicated. The love, appreciation and compassion they feel towards their sibling can be mixed up with worry, resentment, fear, frustration and anger. Parents who are in tune to their children’s feelings can help them work through negative emotions and turn them into positives.
1. Challenge: Insensitivity and meanness of others
Unfortunately, kids with special needs are often targets of teasing. Kids (and adults) who don’t understand people’s differences may make insensitive comments, ask inappropriate questions, or make fun of someone who is different. Typical siblings of kids with special needs may feel the need to stand up for their sibling, explain their situation to others, or may be the brunt of teasing themselves. “One of the biggest challenges in growing up with my sister was watching people laugh at her,” says Justin Lyons, whose sister Kara has Cerebral Palsy. Parents can help by equipping kids with appropriate responses and teaching them to identify and report bullying.
Benefit: Development of dependability, loyalty and compassion
Siblings of kids with special needs naturally develop compassion and a strong sense of loyalty to those they care about. Even though Kara being teased was hard for Justin, he says it made him less likely to laugh at or tease other people. Kids who grow up in a home with a special needs sibling typically become dependable, compassionate and loyal adults.
2. Challenge: Frustration
Parents may try to treat children fairly and spend equal amounts of time with each child, but when a child has developmental delays or significant medical needs, maintaining balance is extremely difficult. Frustration (or even jealousy) can develop. Kids may feel they get less attention and that their parents spend more time caring for the sibling. When these feelings develop, it is common for kids to feel guilty that they even have the thoughts, causing them to be more upset and resentful.
As a parent, try to be understanding and patient about your child’s feelings. Talking it through, listening, and taking your child seriously will help him feel loved and included. If possible and appropriate, encourage your child to join you in caring for the sibling, but don’t push the issue.
Benefit: Self control and thoughtfulness
Remember that sibling rivalry and feelings of jealousy are normal in any sibling relationship. As your child gets older, help him learn patience and self-control. He will likely learn to put other’s needs before his own.
3. Challenge: Worry and fear
When kids have a sibling with serious medical challenges, lowered immunity or other special needs, kids may feel worried or afraid about their sibling’s health. They may not be able to express feelings the way an adult can. Kids may act out, become overly emotional or appear aloof. Parents can help by being honest about health concerns in an age appropriate way. Including children in discussions reassures them and reduces fear of the unknown.
Benefit: Compassion and empathy for others
Kids who are exposed to someone with medical and developmental challenges naturally become more compassionate and empathetic to those who have struggles. “I attribute my sense of understanding and compassion to growing up with my sister,” says Michelle Hupp, whose sister is an adult with Down syndrome.
4. Challenge: Complicated and mixed feelings
Each person is different and kids will have a variety of feelings related to their sibling with special needs. Some kids may feel pressure to live up to parents’ expectations because the sibling may never reach certain milestones. Kids may feel resentment, anger or frustration that they miss out on activities because their sibling’s care puts restrictions on the family.
“Siblings often feel guilty about negative feelings such as jealousy,” says Hupp. “The rewards outweigh the negatives, but sometimes the negatives are hard to talk about.” Parents may not know exactly what their child is feeling or how to address the topic. If you suspect your child is struggling or feelings are difficult to overcome, consider seeking professional help. Support your child’s healthy development and encourage an appropriate relationship between your kids.
Benefit: A variety of positive characteristics develop
While all of these challenges are realistic, kids with siblings who have special needs typically also develop a variety of wonderful characteristics such as kindness, patience, empathy, compassion, acceptance of differences and helpfulness.
As a parent, it helps to think of the long-term benefits and help children shape challenges into successes.
Sarah Lyons is a freelance writer and mom of six kids.
Find more articles and resources for families with special needs at www.SNRFSD.org -- the website for the Special Needs Resource Foundation of San Diego.