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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The Engage Art Contest is a juried competition for original Visual Art, Music Video, Film and Performing Arts. The topic is the Spiritual Battle described in Ephesians 6:10-20 and related...

Cost: Free

Where:
Online
PO Box 78951
Charlotte, NC  28271
View map »


Sponsor: Engage Art Contest
Telephone: 980-999-1447
Contact Name: Ranika Chaney
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

Summer Garden Camps at the JCRA invite your child to investigate nature during half or full day camps.  Campers tend to the garden, harvest vegetables, catch insects, and create crafts from the...

Cost: Varies depending on week of camp

Where:
JC Raulston Arboretum
4415 Beryl Rd
Raleigh, NC  27606
View map »


Sponsor: JC Raulston Arboretum
Telephone: (919) 513-7011
Contact Name: Elizabeth Overcash
Website »

More information

Summer Garden Camps at the JCRA invite your child to investigate nature during half or full day camps.  Campers tend to the garden, harvest vegetables, catch insects, and create crafts from the...

Cost: Varies depending on camp week

Where:
JC Raulston Arboretum
4415 Beryl Rd
Raleigh, NC  27606
View map »


Sponsor: JC Raulston Arboretum
Telephone: (919) 513-7011
Contact Name: Elizabeth Overcash
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

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

It's time to play... TAKEOUT BINGO!!!  Take a screenshot or download the game board. Mark off the locations you visit. Share your progress on Facebook and Instagram using #CRTakeoutBingo. Send...

Cost: FREE

Where:
Crossroads Plaza
Crossroad Blvd
Suite 215
Cary, NC  27518
View map »


Sponsor: Crossroads Plaza/ Kimco Realty
Telephone: 864-979-2291
Contact Name: Katie Earnhardt
Website »

More information

Short class advertising for local class   I am a mom and retired CPA who is passionate about teaching teens about the high cost of their choices. I teach a fun, interactive "Game of Life meets...

Cost: $225

Where:
Hope Community Church- Apex
2080 E Williams Street
Apex, NC  27539
View map »


Sponsor: Beyond Personal Finance
Contact Name: Charla McKinley
Website »

More information

Short class advertising for local class   I am a mom and retired CPA who is passionate about teaching teens about the high cost of their choices. I teach a fun, interactive "Game of Life meets...

Cost: $225

Where:
Hope Community Church- Apex
2080 E Williams Street
Apex, NC  27539
View map »


Sponsor: Beyond Personal Finance
Contact Name: Charla McKinley
Website »

More information

I am a mom and retired CPA who is passionate about teaching teens about the high cost of their choices. I teach a fun, interactive "Game of Life meets Dave Ramsey" class that has teens experience...

Cost: $225

Where:
Hope Community Church- Apex
2080 E Williams Street
Apex, NC  27539
View map »


Sponsor: Beyond Personal Finance
Contact Name: Charla McKinley
Website »

More information

We invite all Triangle youth between the ages of 8 thru 17 with a sincere interest in the Performance Art of Magic to join Magic Youth Raleigh! This youth program teaches magic history and theory,...

Cost: $35 per Student

Where:
New Horizons Fellowship
820 E. Williams St.
Apex, NC  27502
View map »


Sponsor: The International Brotherhood of Magicians
Contact Name: Roger Way
Website »

More information

Young children and their families are invited to participate in an interactive program with books, songs, movement, and other early literacy-based activities, carefully selected to engage an...

Cost: Free

Where:
Cameron Village Regional Library
1930 Clark Avenue
Raleigh, NC  27605
View map »


Sponsor: Wake County Public Libraries

More information

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The Engage Art Contest is a juried competition for original Visual Art, Music Video, Film and Performing Arts. The topic is the Spiritual Battle described in Ephesians 6:10-20 and related...

Cost: Free

Where:
Online
PO Box 78951
Charlotte, NC  28271
View map »


Sponsor: Engage Art Contest
Telephone: 980-999-1447
Contact Name: Ranika Chaney
Website »

More information

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

Summer Garden Camps at the JCRA invite your child to investigate nature during half or full day camps.  Campers tend to the garden, harvest vegetables, catch insects, and create crafts from the...

Cost: Varies depending on camp week

Where:
JC Raulston Arboretum
4415 Beryl Rd
Raleigh, NC  27606
View map »


Sponsor: JC Raulston Arboretum
Telephone: (919) 513-7011
Contact Name: Elizabeth Overcash
Website »

More information

Summer Garden Camps at the JCRA invite your child to investigate nature during half or full day camps.  Campers tend to the garden, harvest vegetables, catch insects, and create crafts from the...

Cost: Varies depending on week of camp

Where:
JC Raulston Arboretum
4415 Beryl Rd
Raleigh, NC  27606
View map »


Sponsor: JC Raulston Arboretum
Telephone: (919) 513-7011
Contact Name: Elizabeth Overcash
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

The Community Farm at Chestnut Ridge + Growga are excited to offer outdoor yoga classes this spring!   The Little Sprouts Growga program is for ages 2-5. They learn basic mindfulness elements...

Cost: $150

Where:
The Community Farm at Chestnut Ridge
2902 Mt. Willing Road
Efland, NC  27243
View map »


Sponsor: The Community Farm at Chestnut Ridge
Telephone: 919-304-2178
Contact Name: Erica Romkema
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

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

It's time to play... TAKEOUT BINGO!!!  Take a screenshot or download the game board. Mark off the locations you visit. Share your progress on Facebook and Instagram using #CRTakeoutBingo. Send...

Cost: FREE

Where:
Crossroads Plaza
Crossroad Blvd
Suite 215
Cary, NC  27518
View map »


Sponsor: Crossroads Plaza/ Kimco Realty
Telephone: 864-979-2291
Contact Name: Katie Earnhardt
Website »

More information

We invite all Triangle youth between the ages of 8 thru 17 with a sincere interest in the Performance Art of Magic to join Magic Youth Raleigh! This youth program teaches magic history and theory,...

Cost: $35 per Student

Where:
New Horizons Fellowship
820 E. Williams St.
Apex, NC  27502
View map »


Sponsor: The International Brotherhood of Magicians
Contact Name: Roger Way
Website »

More information

Young children and their families are invited to participate in an interactive program with books, songs, movement, and other early literacy-based activities, carefully selected to engage an...

Cost: Free

Where:
Cameron Village Regional Library
1930 Clark Avenue
Raleigh, NC  27605
View map »


Sponsor: Wake County Public Libraries

More information

The park comes alive after dark! Let the moon guide your way as we stroll around the pond in search of these night-time critters. Play fun games and try to catch some nocturnal bugs! Don't forget a...

Cost: FREE. Registration required for everyone; children must have adult accompaniment

Where:
Crowder County Park
4709 Ten-Ten Rd
Apex, NC  27529
View map »


Telephone: 919-662-2850
Website »

More information

Show More...
Show Less...

The Engage Art Contest is a juried competition for original Visual Art, Music Video, Film and Performing Arts. The topic is the Spiritual Battle described in Ephesians 6:10-20 and related...

Cost: Free

Where:
Online
PO Box 78951
Charlotte, NC  28271
View map »


Sponsor: Engage Art Contest
Telephone: 980-999-1447
Contact Name: Ranika Chaney
Website »

More information

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

  Meet at the Waterwise Garden (first parking lot on right) Join our bird enthusiast, Vernon, for an easy walk while looking and listening for our feathered friends. Discover...

Cost: FREE

Where:
Lake Crabtree County Park
1400 Aviation Pkwy.
Morrisville, NC  27560
View map »


Sponsor: Lake Crabtree County Park
Telephone: 919-460-3355
Contact Name: Carol Cunningham
Website »

More information

Summer Garden Camps at the JCRA invite your child to investigate nature during half or full day camps.  Campers tend to the garden, harvest vegetables, catch insects, and create crafts from the...

Cost: Varies depending on week of camp

Where:
JC Raulston Arboretum
4415 Beryl Rd
Raleigh, NC  27606
View map »


Sponsor: JC Raulston Arboretum
Telephone: (919) 513-7011
Contact Name: Elizabeth Overcash
Website »

More information

PARENTS JOIN OUR DHHS APPROVEDCPR/AED & First Aid Certification ClassesFoster parents are required to be CPR & First Aid certified. Parents, bring your child to class with you. Children 10 years...

Cost: 50-80

Where:
Holly Springs, NC
1001 Silverstone Way
Holly Springs, NC  27540
View map »


Sponsor: Save A Life Now Training Center LLC
Telephone: 919-215-6942
Contact Name: Valentina Cordoba
Website »

More information

Summer Garden Camps at the JCRA invite your child to investigate nature during half or full day camps.  Campers tend to the garden, harvest vegetables, catch insects, and create crafts from the...

Cost: Varies depending on camp week

Where:
JC Raulston Arboretum
4415 Beryl Rd
Raleigh, NC  27606
View map »


Sponsor: JC Raulston Arboretum
Telephone: (919) 513-7011
Contact Name: Elizabeth Overcash
Website »

More information

PARENTS JOIN OUR DHHS APPROVEDCPR/AED & First Aid Certification ClassesFoster parents are required to be CPR & First Aid certified. Must register in advance. Space is limited. Parents, bring your...

Cost: 50-80

Where:
Holly Springs, NC
1001 Silverstone Way
Holly Springs, NC  27540
View map »


Sponsor: Save A Life Now Training Center LLC
Telephone: 919-215-6942
Contact Name: Valentina Cordoba
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

Enjoy a wonderful springtime Brunch with the Bunny and photo op on Saturday, April 4, 2020 at Patterson Farm Market & Tours. Our Brunch with the Bunny is always a popular event! Tickets must be...

Cost: Ages 2 – 6: $10.00 includes tax Ages 6 – 12: $12.00 includes tax Ages: 13 – 54

Where:
Patterson Farm Inc. Market and Tours
10390 Caldwell Road
Mount Ulla, NC  28125
View map »


Sponsor: Patterson Farm Inc. Market and Tours
Telephone: 704-636-4005
Contact Name: Megan Hedrick
Website »

More information

Opportunities to explore all 4 levels of the mill don’t happen often! Learn the history of milling in North Carolina, test your mill trivia, and discover what interesting machinery is preserved...

Cost: $10/Adult; $8/Senior (ages 60+); $6/Child (ages 10-16);Registration is required

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


Telephone: 919-856-6675
Website »

More information

Beavers are such busy creatures and have many unique features that allow them to survive in their aquatic world. Learn about their special adaptations through our "Build a Beaver" program then walk...

Cost: Free

Where:
Harris Lake County Park
2112 County Park Dr.
New Hill, NC  27562
View map »


Sponsor: Harris Lake County Park
Telephone: 919-387-4342
Contact Name: Joanne St. Clair
Website »

More information

The Town of Holly Spring's annual spring event, Spring Fling, is taking on a new location that has a nice ring to it. This year’s Spring Fling at Ting! will take place on Saturday, April 4 from...

Cost: FREE

Where:
Ting Park Baseball Stadium
1151 N. Main St.
Holly Springs, NC  27540
View map »


Sponsor: Town of Holly Springs
Contact Name: Rachel Downey

More information

Join us for an egg-cellent time on the farm Saturday, April 4 & 11,  2020 from 10 a.m. – 5 p.m. Explore the farm while you hunt for eggs and enjoy spring farm fun activities. Search for 12...

Cost: $10.00 for Hunters $7.00 for Non-Egg Hunters $6.00 for Non-Egg Hunters Senior (A

Where:
Patterson Farm Inc. Market and Tours
10390 Caldwell Road
Mount Ulla, NC  28125
View map »


Sponsor: Patterson Farm Inc. Market and Tours
Telephone: 704-636-4005
Contact Name: Megan Hedrick
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

Many wildflowers bloom in spring.  Join us for a leisurely hike through our fields and woods as we learn to recognize some blooming beauties and appreciate their stories. Age: 5yrs. and up;...

Cost: $2

Where:
Annie Louis Wilkerson. MD Nature Preserve Park
5229 Awls Haven Dr
Raleigh, NC  27614
View map »


Telephone: 919-996-6764
Contact Name: Bryan England
Website »

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

Want to get inside Historic Yates Mill? Join us for a half-hour tour (starting at 1, 1:30, 2, 2:30 or 3 p.m.) to view the main power drive and milling machinery while exploring the mill's history...

Cost: $5/Adult, $4/Senior (60+ yrs), $3/Child (7-16yrs), Free/Child (6yrs & younger)

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


Telephone: 919-856-6675
Website »

More information

Bring the whole family for this fun interactive Growga family class. Siblings and parents come together for a fun Growga hour, combining elements of our Little Sprouts and Growga Kids programs...

Cost: $150

Where:
The Community Farm at Chestnut Ridge
2902 Mt. Willing Road
Efland, NC  27243
View map »


Sponsor: Chestnut Ridge Camp & Retreat Center
Telephone: 919-304-2178
Contact Name: Erica Romkema
Website »

More information

It's time to play... TAKEOUT BINGO!!!  Take a screenshot or download the game board. Mark off the locations you visit. Share your progress on Facebook and Instagram using #CRTakeoutBingo. Send...

Cost: FREE

Where:
Crossroads Plaza
Crossroad Blvd
Suite 215
Cary, NC  27518
View map »


Sponsor: Crossroads Plaza/ Kimco Realty
Telephone: 864-979-2291
Contact Name: Katie Earnhardt
Website »

More information

We invite all Triangle youth between the ages of 8 thru 17 with a sincere interest in the Performance Art of Magic to join Magic Youth Raleigh! This youth program teaches magic history and theory,...

Cost: $35 per Student

Where:
New Horizons Fellowship
820 E. Williams St.
Apex, NC  27502
View map »


Sponsor: The International Brotherhood of Magicians
Contact Name: Roger Way
Website »

More information

Young children and their families are invited to participate in an interactive program with books, songs, movement, and other early literacy-based activities, carefully selected to engage an...

Cost: Free

Where:
Cameron Village Regional Library
1930 Clark Avenue
Raleigh, NC  27605
View map »


Sponsor: Wake County Public Libraries

More information

Topper the Bunny can’t wait to see you at the 5th Annual Egg-ceptional Egg Hunt at Hubb’s Farm in Clinton, NC, features age-appropriate egg hunts with a grand finale airplane egg drop at 3pm...

Cost: 10

Where:
Hubb's Farm
10276 US HWY 421 N
Clinton, NC  28328
View map »


Sponsor: Hubb's Farm
Telephone: 910-564-6709
Contact Name: Tammy Peterson
Website »

More information

Garner Sports League Opening Day Ceremony will be held at South Garner Park at 9am on Saturday April 4, 2020.  Come join us as we kick off the Spring season for recreational baseball, fast-pitch...

Cost: 0.00

Where:
South Garner Park
1210 Poole Drive
Garner, NC  27529
View map »

More information

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