Tending to Your Special Needs Child’s Sibling

Common challenges and how to approach them
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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.


Categories: Family, Parenting, Special Needs