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How to Help the Sibling of a Special Needs Child

Dr. Patricia Nan Anderson


It’s one thing to feel competitive with your brothers and sisters. There’s the feeling that they have it coming and the teasing, fighting, and subterfuge of sibling life is part of the fun of being a family. But when your sibling can’t fight back, the dynamic changes.

Siblings of children with special needs can feel a little lost. Often their parents are stressed and worried. Often, time is devoted to medical care or therapy for the special needs sibling. Time, money and attention all seem to go the special needs sibling’s way. The typically-developing child naturally feels left out and resentful and then feels guilty for feeling that way. Kids who have to cope with a special needs situation are just as egocentric as other kids. But they have to try to act as selfless and other-directed as a sensitive adult.

So it comes as no surprise that siblings of children with special needs crave extra support. They may need help in understanding their sibling’s condition and prognosis. They may need help in finding ways to express their frustration and neediness without feeling guilty or being punished. And they need attention from their parents that is freely given and truly focused on themselves alone, not attention that is carved out of bits of time.

None of this is easy. If you’re the parent of a special needs child, you already know how hard things can be. To realize that your other children also have a special need for recognition and attention seems to add to the stress you feel. It’s easy to think that your other children should be able to see that there is only so much of you to go around and cut you a break.

But they are kids, so they can’t do that. They are counting on you to make them feel special too.

Every child needs to feel special. This goes double for siblings of children with special needs. What can you do?

•   Make sure to have one-on-one time with each of your children, even if you have to put it on the calendar every week so you’re sure not to forget.

•   Appreciate the talents and charm of each of your children and tell them so.

•   Little things matter: cook a favorite meal, play catch in the yard, go to a ball game.

•   Show up at your child’s school events, sports matches and performances. When you can’t attend, ask your child to give you a point-by-point account of what you missed and listen all the way through.

•   Enlist the help of grandparents or even hired help to free up time you can spend with your typically-developing child.

•   Leave your child notes, text messages or phone calls.

•   Listen when your children share their frustrations and longing for a more “normal” life. Help them deal with their feelings without making them feel guilty.

Being the sibling of a special needs child can add to your child’s personal strengths. But to do that, your child will need support from you. Make time for each of your children.

© 2013, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved.

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Dr. Patricia Nan Anderson

Dr. Patricia Anderson is a nationally acclaimed educational psychologist and the author of “Parenting: A Field Guide.” Dr. Anderson is on the Early Childhood faculty at Walden University and she is a Contributing Editor for Advantage4Parents.