If you are the parent of a child with special needs you definitely feel the stress of being pulled in many directions on a daily basis.
Whether you’re dealing with a child with ADHD, Autism, or any sort of medical, developmental, or mental health diagnosis, the fact is that it requires a lot of emotional and physical energy from you as a parent. Add in the extra time and money needed for treatment and managing your child’s needs, and there’s no doubt it takes a toll on you and the siblings of your special needs child.
Most parents try to meet the needs of all of their children, but it’s not uncommon for siblings to feel overlooked. Rather than add guilt to your already full life, here are some suggestions to help you meet the unique needs of your other children:
1. Set Aside Time: You’ve all heard the expression, “It’s not quantity but quality that matters.” This has never been so true as in the case of siblings of kids with special needs. With all the time spent on their brothers and sisters, it’s important to set aside time just for them. What do they like to do? Whether it’s window shopping at the mall or doing their nails, put it on the calendar and do your best to stick to it. These activities, no matter how small, show your other children that you value them enough to spend time doing what they enjoy.
2. Ask Them How They Feel: If you’re stressed out over the fifth teacher meeting in a month regarding your son’s meltdowns, it’s safe to say that your other child/children feel stressed out too. Then again, they might not! Some siblings are very independent and tune out other family dynamics. The point is that you don’t need to guess. Just ask them… “Sally, I know I’ve been really cranky lately. Billy has had a lot of issues. How are you feeling about it?” After that, just listen. It doesn’t matter if Sally says, “I’m totally okay with everything,” or “I hate having Billy as a brother. He’s embarrassing!” What matters most is that you create a safe space for your other child to hear what they have to say and not judge them. Reinforce with them that how they are feeling is valid, even if it hurts you to hear it.
3. Give Them Information: While it can be tempting to avoid talking about what is going on with your special needs child, or to assume your other children aren’t aware, this is a mistake. Siblings don’t need to know all the details, but they should have age-appropriate information about their sibling’s diagnosis, needs, and anything else that is important. Hiding these things from your other kids will only cause them to make up stories in their mind that may not be true, and can leave them feeling unnecessarily scared or frustrated. The more information everyone in the family has, the better you can all understand and support each other.
4. Slow Down: It can be hard to just “take it easy” when it feels like you’re being hit in a million directions, and have way more items on your to-do list than you can possibly get done. As counter-intuitive as this sounds, it’s important to slow down and focus on keeping your life as simple as possible. When you’re not constantly overscheduled you will feel calmer and can start to prioritize things better. While there’s no doubt your child with special needs is at the top of your priority list, your other children need to be, too. Work on making sure that their activities, interests, and needs get time and attention too. Here’s another blog post on “Slowing Down For Better Behavior” that offers some steps you can take for you and your child to slow down and greatly reduce overstimulation.
5. Be Realistic: It’s important to recognize that it’s impossible to be all things to all children. When it comes to children who do not have special needs, it’s okay to explain that to them. “Sally, there’s nothing more I would love than to focus all my time on you today. While I can’t spend hours at the mall with you due to your brother’s doctor’s appointment, I can spend a half hour reading with you instead.” Sally might not understand completely now, but at some point, she will – and she’ll thank you. Why? Instead of you overpromising and under committing, you’re setting realistic expectations for life. Be realistic and honest about what you can do, and then stick to it.
6. Get Support: As much as you’d like to be your other child’s only go-to for parental help, you just might need to ask a trusted friend or relative to step in. Is there someone in your life you can ask to take your son or daughter to the library once/week? What about a sleepover? This will not only give your child some alone time with an adult, it will ease your mind to know that her needs are being met by someone you both like and trust.
If your other child is struggling to understand their sibling or has a significant amount of anxiety or distress about things, then seek out professional support. Periodic counseling, siblings support groups, or other options can provide the extra information, support, and coping skills some siblings need. The Sibling Support Project (LINK: https://www.siblingsupport.org/ ) is an excellent organization dedicated to information, support, and training around the needs of siblings. There are groups all over the world that provide activities, and chances are you can find one in your area.
7. Encourage Them: Kids need encouragement more than material goods. What is your daughter’s sweet spot? What makes your son beam with pride? Whether it’s complimenting her on her hair, his grades, or those amazing cookies they made – speak up about the positive things you are noticing the do. Words of encouragement, especially sincere ones, show your child that you are paying attention and value them and their accomplishment.
8. Thank Them: Have you ever considered thanking your other children for their patience with special needs? It can be easy to take them for granted. Putting up with their brother who has autism, or a sister with learning and behavior problems is just what they do to be part of a family, right? Yes, but it doesn’t mean it’s always easy. Thank them for being patient, kind, loyal and loving – to their sibling and to you!
Have you found any of these strategies helpful for your family? What other tips do you have for supporting siblings of kids with special needs? Please share them with your community, in the comments below.