Tending to Your Special Needs Child’s Sibling

Common challenges and how to approach them


Published:

Above photo courtesy of Jaren Jai Wicklund/Shutterstock.com

When you have a child with special needs, all the typical challenges a parent faces are magnified, including tending to the needs of typically developing siblings. Many of these challenges can easily be foreseen, while others can hit from seemingly out of the blue. While no two family’s experiences are the same, experts and a veteran parent discuss some of the most common challenges parents face when tending to the needs of their special needs child’s sibling(s).


Explaining What’s Going On

Siblings are going to notice if their brother or sister behaves differently, or can’t do the same things they are able to do. That’s only natural, but Shannon Erklin, a licensed clinical psychologist who practices with Family Psychiatry & Psychology Associates in Cary, says it’s important for siblings to understand their special needs sibling’s condition, if telling them is age-appropriate.

Some of the questions siblings may ask include: “Why does he have so many doctor’s appointments?” or “Why does he have meltdowns and we have to leave the store or restaurant?” Another one may be, “Why do therapists come into our house to work with him and not me?”

Erklin cautions that if parents avoid talking about these issues, siblings may think “something bad or something contagious” is wrong. “Kids are going to go there mentally,” she says. If they have the information they need, that allows them to feel more comfortable with the situation.


Parental Attention and Resources

Children with special needs almost always require more parental attention, which, in turn, may reduce the amount of attention a parent can pay to a typically developing child. Erklin acknowledges that this is “a very felt challenge for a lot of siblings.”

It’s also something Durham mom Robyn Sipe feels strongly about. She has three children: Turner (12), Will (15) and Riley (18). Will has Down syndrome and Sip says she and her husband try to treat each child equally, and focus on all three children in at least some capacity.

“We praise them equally and we punish them equally,” she says.

This often requires being more intentional on their part because it’s simply harder for Will to do certain things. That means they’re often praising him for little things Turner can do with no problem. When Turner and Will went to the same camp this past summer, Sipe and her husband realized how much they were asking Will about what he had done at the camp, and had made sure they also asked Turner the same question.

Because Will “is afforded a lot of really cool opportunities that Turner doesn’t get,” Sipe and her husband encourage their other two children to enjoy and excel at what they’re interested in doing as well. 


Riley (18), Turner (12) and Will (15) Sipe

Photo courtesy of the Sipe family


Managing Negative Emotions

Even when parents try their best to be equitable with both or all of their children, it’s almost inevitable that siblings are going to feel negative emotions toward a special needs brother or sister at some point. Sipe says Turner has admitted that when he was little, he would say that he wished he had Down syndrome. This reaction is completely natural.

“They’re going to have negative and conflicted feelings about their special needs sibling — caring about them but resenting them,” which often leads to feelings of guilt, Erklin says. “A lot of siblings are really struggling with complex emotions and oftentimes feel like nobody understands what it’s like for them.”

Therefore, it’s important that parents make sure their typically developing children know it’s okay to have these kinds of feelings — and to not shame them for feeling that way.

Parents should also encourage typically developing children to communicate their feelings, either with themselves or someone else. The Sibling Support Project’s “Sibshops” are group therapy programs specifically designed for siblings of children with special needs. The programs are located in Durham, Chapel Hill and Cary. Learn more at siblingsupport.org/about-sibshops.


Fostering Healthy Sibling Relationships

One of the most important foundations parents of special needs children can provide for both or all of their children is to foster healthy sibling relationships. Erklin says she really works with parents to “try to avoid defaulting caretaking and responsibility of their special needs child to their siblings.” In some situations, that may be unavoidable, but for the most part, she advocates for letting the sibling relationship develop naturally. 

Tiffany “T.R.” Goins is a physical therapist and co-owner of Abilitations Children’s Therapy & Wellness Center, Inc., which has offices in Raleigh and Knightdale.

“There’s a special language I see over and over between a child with special needs and their sibling,” she says. “Siblings do not always see the special needs. They see their brother or sister who, yes, may have autism, but they also took their toy. And then they fight, which is a beautiful thing.”

She says this connection can be helpful, especially if a special needs child is nonverbal, because the typically developing sibling can talk to her special needs brother or sister about what motivates him or her.

Sipe says Will can speak clearly, but if he’s talking fast, it can be hard to understand him, so Turner will often translate if there are new people around.

Another tip: Try to identify physical activities or play that a special needs child can do with his or her typically developing siblings to help nurture that natural relationship.

Sipe says when Riley and Will were at the same school last year, Riley drove him to school and walked him to class every day. In anticipation of Will starting high school and wanting him to feel included, she started a club called “Best Buddies” that pairs special needs students with typically developing students.

Erklin says Riley’s actions exemplify the positive impacts typically developing children can have on a special needs sibling in an educational setting. They “have this amazing understanding of diversity and often really become leaders and advocates for individuals with special needs,” she says.

On the other hand, if a special needs sibling is verbally or physically aggressive, or if there is general chaos in the house, the stress, anxiety or depression a typically developing sibling may experience can impact how he or she performs at school. This is something parents need to alert teachers to and be on the lookout for.

Sipe says having a special needs child has profoundly and positively impacted every member of her family. Riley and Turner are “kind, loving, compassionate, tolerant and considerate,” and for much of that she gives credit to Will being in their lives.


Robyn Kinsey Mooring is a Durham-based writer and mom to two teenage boys.

 

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Raleigh, NC  27601
View map »


Sponsor: Let's Roam
Telephone: 833-202-7626
Contact Name: Kelly
Website »

More information

Kindermusik is a research-based early childhood curriculum that includes 45-minute classroom lessons with materials and resources that encourages parental involvement . Research has linked...

Cost: $70/month

Where:
Hope Community Building
2080 E Williams St
Hope Community Building, Fuquay Varina Room
Apex/Holly Springs, NC  27539
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Telephone: 191-990-25432
Contact Name: Leigh Hamm
Website »

More information

Chip, chip, hooray! The first Zambrero in the Southeast is opening on January 24 with zingy, zesty activities! Bodacious Burritos and Bowls: $5 burritos and bowls all day Delicious Drawing: A...

Cost: Free

Where:
1 Glenwood Ave
#105
Raleigh, NC  27603
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Telephone: (919) 863-2561
Website »

More information

Just in time to keep up with those home improvement resolutions for 2020, the Downtown Raleigh Home Show returns to downtown’s Raleigh Convention Center January 24-26, 2020  with a jam-packed...

Cost: Tickets are $12 for adults and free for children under 12. Advance $9 tickets

Where:
Raleigh Convention Center
500 S. Salisbury St.
Raleigh, NC  27601
View map »


Sponsor: Marketplace Events
Telephone: 904-608-3823
Contact Name: Liz Morgan

More information

Sign up for a Raleigh scavenger hunt and put on your best Nick Cage impression as you seek out the national treasures hidden in Raleigh. Via an app, be guided through the cultural, historical,...

Cost: See website for fees

Where:
Downtown Raleigh
500 S. Salisbury St.
Raleigh, NC  27601
View map »


Sponsor: LetsRoam!
Telephone: 833-202-7626
Contact Name: LetsRoam!
Website »

More information

Skate on an ice trail or free skate on 17,000 sq. ft of ice. Located in the Upper Pond of the Whitewater Center, the skating environment features three distinct programming areas and an on-ice...

Cost: 20

Where:
USNWC
5000 Whitewater Center Pkwy
Charlotte, NC  28214
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Sponsor: USNWC
Telephone: 704-391-3900
Website »

More information

Lights is a half-mile walking trail that leads viewers through a series of immersive light installations featuring  honeycombs, vines, crystals, and other natural features integrated into the...

Cost: Free

Where:
USNWC
5000 Whitewater Center Pkwy
Charlotte, NC  28214
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Sponsor: USNWC
Telephone: 704-391-3900
Website »

More information

Triangle Restaurant Week (January 20-26, 2020) is a week-long celebration of culinary excellence designed to incorporate the premier Raleigh, Durham, Chapel Hill and surrounding area restaurants....

Cost: $15-$35

Where:
Participating Restaurants
, NC


Sponsor: Triangle Blvd
Telephone: 919-673-5784
Website »

More information

Take a hike after dark and enjoy the sights and sounds of a quiet night along the American Tobacco Trail. We will walk to the Beaver Creek bridge and back (about one mile total). Free for ages 4...

Cost: Free

Where:
American Tobacco Trail
1309 New Hill-Olive Chapel Rd.
Apex, NC  27502
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Sponsor: Harris Lake County Park and the American Tobacco Trail
Telephone: 919-387-4342
Contact Name: Joanne St. Clair
Website »

More information

Hounded by Death, the character of Everybody desperately seeks out everyone and everything they know in hope of finding something meaningful to take to the grave. These 90 minutes of theatrical...

Cost: Ticket prices start at $15

Where:
PlayMakers' Repertory Company
120 Country Club Rd
Chapel Hill, NC  27599
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Telephone: 919-962-7529

More information

Rumpelstiltskin-A Tale of Gold Book by Ellie FaggionMusic and Lyrics written by Brian Shrager and Ellie FaggionProduced by special arrangement with the author.Directed by Beth Wilson...

Cost: varies

Where:
Spiritual Twist Productions
1250 Aversboro Road
Garner, NC  27529
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Sponsor: Spiritual Twist Productions
Telephone: 919-977-1976
Contact Name: Kathy MacDonald
Website »

More information

David Burney, lead singer for the acclaimed Johnny Cash tribute band Johnny Folsom 4, brings his one-man show to The ArtsCenter for three shows, January 24-26, 2020.  In “Hello, I’m...

Cost: $15 to $20

Where:
The ArtsCenter
300-G East Main St.
300-G East Main Street.
Carrboro, NC  27510
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Sponsor: The ArtsCenter
Telephone: 919-929-2787
Contact Name: Patrick Phelps-Mckeown
Website »

More information

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Forget tourist-filled museums, make your own memories with a photo scavenger hunt tour in Raleigh! On a Let’s Roam scavenger hunt, you and your team will work together to wander throughout...

Cost: $11

Where:
500 S Salisbury St
raleigh, NC  27601
View map »


Sponsor: Let's Roam
Website »

More information

Amongst the ancient oak trees is the heart of Raleigh. We'll help you see the forest for the trees and all its magic splendor. Tourist, local, or new to town, this is a lively small group activity...

Cost: $11

Where:
Downtown
500 S Salisbury St
Raleigh, NC  27601
View map »


Sponsor: Let's Roam
Telephone: 833-202-7626
Contact Name: Kelly
Website »

More information

Join the Museum and the Raleigh Astronomy Club to help you see the big picture — of the Universe! From comet crafts to solar observing, lectures to rocket launches, space enthusiasts of all ages...

Cost: Free

Where:
NC Museum of Natural Sciences
11 W. Jones St.
Raleigh, NC  27601
View map »


Website »

More information

Join us for the Kids Exchange Spring/Summer Consignment Sale in July! This FREE ADMISSION event is the largest kids consignment sale in the nation and is held at the NC State Fairgrounds at...

Cost: 0 – $10

Where:
Jim Graham Building
1025 Blue Ridge Road
Raleigh, NC  27607
View map »


Website »

More information

Join us for the Kids Exchange Spring/Summer Consignment Sale in February!   This FREE ADMISSION event is the largest kids consignment sale in the nation and is held at the NC State Fairgrounds...

Cost: Free

Where:
Jim Graham Building
1025 Blue Ridge Road
Raleigh, NC  27607
View map »

More information

Family Wildlife Series: Tricky Tracks Saturday, January 25 10-11 a.m. Come dressed for the weather so you can roam the park learning the fine art of “tracking”.   Make a cast of an animal...

Cost: Free

Where:
Blue Jay Point County Park
3200 Pleasant Union Church Road
Raleigh, NC  27614
View map »


Telephone: 919-870-4330
Website »

More information

Kindermusik is a research-based early childhood curriculum that includes 45-minute classroom lessons with materials and resources that encourages parental involvement . Research has linked...

Cost: $70/month

Where:
Hope Community Building
2080 E Williams St
Hope Community Building, Fuquay Varina Room
Apex/Holly Springs, NC  27539
View map »


Telephone: 191-990-25432
Contact Name: Leigh Hamm
Website »

More information

RALEIGH (Jan. 16, 2020) – The North Carolina Association for Public Charter Schools will host its first school fair during National School Choice Week on Saturday, Jan. 25. The fair will take...

Cost: Free

Where:
Raleigh Convention Center
500 S. Salisbury Street
Raleigh, NC  27610
View map »


Sponsor: NC Association of Public Charter Schools
Telephone: 336-669-9996
Contact Name: Rhonda Dillingham
Website »

More information

Join the statewide kickoff to Black History Month at the North Carolina Museum of History in Raleigh. Named a Top 20 Event by the Southeast Tourism Society since 2015, the 19th...

Cost: 0

Where:
North Carolina Museum of History
5 East Edenton Street
Raleigh, NC
View map »


Website »

More information

Just in time to keep up with those home improvement resolutions for 2020, the Downtown Raleigh Home Show returns to downtown’s Raleigh Convention Center January 24-26, 2020  with a jam-packed...

Cost: Tickets are $12 for adults and free for children under 12. Advance $9 tickets

Where:
Raleigh Convention Center
500 S. Salisbury St.
Raleigh, NC  27601
View map »


Sponsor: Marketplace Events
Telephone: 904-608-3823
Contact Name: Liz Morgan

More information

Sign up for a Raleigh scavenger hunt and put on your best Nick Cage impression as you seek out the national treasures hidden in Raleigh. Via an app, be guided through the cultural, historical,...

Cost: See website for fees

Where:
Downtown Raleigh
500 S. Salisbury St.
Raleigh, NC  27601
View map »


Sponsor: LetsRoam!
Telephone: 833-202-7626
Contact Name: LetsRoam!
Website »

More information

Skate on an ice trail or free skate on 17,000 sq. ft of ice. Located in the Upper Pond of the Whitewater Center, the skating environment features three distinct programming areas and an on-ice...

Cost: 20

Where:
USNWC
5000 Whitewater Center Pkwy
Charlotte, NC  28214
View map »


Sponsor: USNWC
Telephone: 704-391-3900
Website »

More information

Lights is a half-mile walking trail that leads viewers through a series of immersive light installations featuring  honeycombs, vines, crystals, and other natural features integrated into the...

Cost: Free

Where:
USNWC
5000 Whitewater Center Pkwy
Charlotte, NC  28214
View map »


Sponsor: USNWC
Telephone: 704-391-3900
Website »

More information

Spanish Alive is providing Family Spanish classes starting in January! Join us to learn Spanish as an entire family in an immersive, fun environment. Our teachers are trained Spanish educators and...

Cost: $75-$216

Where:
Spanish Alive
156 E. Chatham St
Cary, NC
View map »


Website »

More information

Rumpelstiltskin-A Tale of Gold Book by Ellie FaggionMusic and Lyrics written by Brian Shrager and Ellie FaggionProduced by special arrangement with the author.Directed by Beth Wilson...

Cost: varies

Where:
Spiritual Twist Productions
1250 Aversboro Road
Garner, NC  27529
View map »


Sponsor: Spiritual Twist Productions
Telephone: 919-977-1976
Contact Name: Kathy MacDonald
Website »

More information

Winter days find many animals curled up in their dens. They sleep warmly, awakening in spring ready to enjoy the renewed Earth. Discover how animals deal with cold weather and which ones hibernate...

Cost: For all ages; FREE. Registration is required for all family members,& childre

Where:
Historic Yates Mill County Park
4620 Lake Wheeler Road
Raleigh, NC  27603
View map »


Telephone: 919-856-6675
Website »

More information

Triangle Restaurant Week (January 20-26, 2020) is a week-long celebration of culinary excellence designed to incorporate the premier Raleigh, Durham, Chapel Hill and surrounding area restaurants....

Cost: $15-$35

Where:
Participating Restaurants
, NC


Sponsor: Triangle Blvd
Telephone: 919-673-5784
Website »

More information

Join us in Arendelle for Frozen-inspired STEAM activities for the whole family! Included in the ticket cost is dinner and dessert for the whole family, make your own sock Olaf and Frozen bouncy...

Cost: $35 per family

Where:
Kidzu Children's Museum
201 S. Estes Dr.
Chapel Hill, NC  27514
View map »


Sponsor: Kidzu Children's Museum
Telephone: 919-933-1455
Website »

More information

AML Wrestling presents our 5th Anniversary Celebration! WHEN: Saturday, January 25th, 2020WHERE: Winston-Salem Fairgrounds in theHome & Garden Building 408 27th Street NW/Gate #9 Winston-Salem, NC...

Cost: $5

Where:
Winston-Salem Fairgrounds
408 27th Street NW/Gate #9
Winston-Salem, NC  27105
View map »


Sponsor: AML Wrestling
Telephone: 336-831-0646
Contact Name: Tracy Myers
Website »

More information

Hounded by Death, the character of Everybody desperately seeks out everyone and everything they know in hope of finding something meaningful to take to the grave. These 90 minutes of theatrical...

Cost: Ticket prices start at $15

Where:
PlayMakers' Repertory Company
120 Country Club Rd
Chapel Hill, NC  27599
View map »


Telephone: 919-962-7529

More information

David Burney, lead singer for the acclaimed Johnny Cash tribute band Johnny Folsom 4, brings his one-man show to The ArtsCenter for three shows, January 24-26, 2020.  In “Hello, I’m...

Cost: $15 to $20

Where:
The ArtsCenter
300-G East Main St.
300-G East Main Street.
Carrboro, NC  27510
View map »


Sponsor: The ArtsCenter
Telephone: 919-929-2787
Contact Name: Patrick Phelps-Mckeown
Website »

More information

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Education Guide

The 2019-20 Education Guide offers 718 education resources in the Triangle, including area preschools, private schools, public school systems, charter schools, boarding schools and academic resources.

The Triangle Go-To Guide

Our Triangle Go-To Guide connects you to family fun resources across the Triangle. In our 2019-20 issue, explore 1,028 resources for family fun.