Siblings of children with special needs are deeply impacted in their upbringing. They may sometimes feel overlooked and not fully understand the situation. They may place a high amount of pressure on themselves to be “perfect” or act out for attention. However, there are plenty of ways to make sure that the whole family is feeling love and attention in the home. Like parents, siblings of special needs children, also need support and encouragement. As parents, we try to meet the needs of each child and these suggestions might help with the unique needs of special needs siblings. Liz Johnson, B.S., Speech Language Pathology Assistant and Family and Community Support Specialist suggests the following to help show support and love:
Reassure and encourage the sibling/siblings
As a kid, encouragement, affirmation and attention has way more benefits than material goods. What aspects of their lives make them proud? What are their accomplishments and activities that you can take interest in and provide support? Taking notice and providing encouraging words of affirmation reaffirm your love and that you’re paying attention.
Have family fun activities involving everyone
Set aside a game night. Or a movie night. Or a pizza party night. Whatever the choice, make sure that the whole family is involved; from the decision making to the activity choosing. Like we mentioned previously, QUALITY time is essential. These interactions between the whole family allows for learning, growth, love and fun to take control of the evening!
Model self-care as a parent or guardian
Showing strength to your other children is important, but it’s also important to show care for yourself. Modeling this behavior teaches your typically developing children that it’s okay to rest, take time for yourself by showing love, grace and patience.
Communicate clearly, in sensitive terms that they’ll understand, what’s going on
It can be easier to avoid awkward questions entirely, but you’re only hurting everyone involved when you take that route. Instead, allow your typically developing children to be mentally aware and involved in everything that’s happening. Instead, give them age-appropriate information that they can understand and digest about their sibling’s diagnosis, medical needs or anything important for them to know. This prevents the blanks from being filled in their minds with incorrect information and allows the whole family to be on a page of love, understanding and support while allowing the family to problem-solve as a team.
Some siblings might not understand why their brother or sister is different, or why they are going to therapy and getting extra attention. Parents may worry about their children having healthy relationships with each other. Typically developing siblings should be taught how to play with their sibling, but also why they were playing that way; then their role in helping their sibling is clear. When siblings understand how they can help and why they are helping, they often develop positive characteristics such as self-control, empathy, tolerance, maturity, and responsibility as a result of their experiences.
Set Aside Time
Parents might feel overwhelmed with the day-to-day needs of a special needs child. At times, siblings can feel lost among the therapy appointments and doctor visits. Carving out a special time during each month will help siblings feel special too. This time does not need to be equal time, just quality time. What matters most is the developing bond. Some simple ideas:
Read and cuddle with a book during naptime or a therapy visit; cook together and initiate their help; make their bedtime a special time for talking and listening, play a game, or let me them choose an appropriate activity.
As siblings age they might have concerns on how to answer questions about their sibling and their special needs. Creating a safe environment to ask questions is key to helping siblings understand why some things might be different. Be honest with your child if you do not know the answer to their questions. Help them develop a response for curious peers: “My brother, John, has autism. He might be hard to understand but if you talk to him about Legos, he will be really happy.”