How to Support Siblings of Children with Special Needs
Understand Children’s Ambivalent Emotions Towards their Sibling: Parents naturally hope that their children will love and support each other and may ask their typically developing child to overlook their sibling’s difficult behaviours such as pushing, shouting, screaming, and hitting. However, a young child may struggle toreact with compassion and empathy when they feel hurt and angry. By responding to those upsets with empathy and allowing all children to express their feelings in an appropriate way, parents are able to reassure their children of their understanding of the sometimes challenging family environment for all of them.
- Sharing the Positive Attention: Younger siblings who see their older brother or sister enthusiastically praised for simple tasks like going to the toilet independently, may find this unfair; they may resent not being praised for similar achievements themselves. By spending extra time explaining an older sibling’s disabilities, parents may find their young children more accepting of the attention given to a special needs sibling. Parents can also help younger children be realistic about what to expect of themselves by helping them prioritise - for example, a parent might say “I can see how hard you are trying to help Dad get dinner ready. I really appreciate it, you are very thoughtful but this is your time to do your homework. I’ll be sure to ask for your help when I need it.”
Avoiding a Sense of Isolation for Children
Sometimes adult siblings of children with special needs say they felt overlooked as a child within the family, or isolated in their social circles because their family was different to others. Families choose a variety of approaches to reduce that sense of isolation, including use of the extended family and even increasing the size of their own family. For example, Heather says that deciding to have a third child was a difficult and deliberate choice that she and her husband made, worried that their second son would grow up without a sibling he could relate to and that as an adult he would have responsibility for his autistic older brother on his own. Support groups and networks can help families with the considerable responsibilities they have by offering resources and a sense of belonging to the typically developing siblings within the family. Parents who access help, support and respite for themselves, are also modelling good coping skills for their children to follow.
- Siblings Support Groups: Organisations like Siblings Australia are specifically geared to address the needs of siblings and parents, and offer face-to-face sibling groups, on-line forums, and education and resources. Special needs schools like Sydney’s Giant Steps and disability-specific groups like Down Syndrome Victoria and Cystic Fibrosis Australia, may also offer programs and information to support siblings. Breakaway young carer and siblings camps are held twice a year on the Central Coast in NSW and are able to be used by children anywhere in Australia.
- Staying Connected: Small rituals help children feel connected to their family evenwhen a sibling’s needs take up significant amounts of parents’ time. Listening to a child’s recount of their favourite things in their school day, tying their ponytail in the morning or having breakfast together may reassure them of their parents’ care and attention. After a hospitalisation, Tiffany says she finds it important to create bonding time for her family, explaining: “It brings everyone back together and allows our family time to regroup.” ; for example, after a recent return from hospital, Tiffany and her daughters enjoyed spending the afternoon giving each other facials and hair treatments.
- Support in the Home: Meeting the needs of all the children in a family with a special needs child takes co-ordination, planning and large amounts of energy. Families are sometimes able to access additional carer support to enable more time with their other children. The Australian government's Department of Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs provides benefits and payments to eligible families. Michelle and her husband have organised for their daughter to be assisted in daily tasks such as eating meals and self-care, allowing the rest of the family to sit down and have dinner together. Michelle feels it is important for her boys to experience ‘typical’ family routines that aren’t defined by their sister’s disability. Heather uses a carer to accompany her family to sporting events so that the whole family can attend and she is able to be at the sideline to cheer on her son.
“Finding balance is the key, I think,” explains Tiffany. “Don't let everything go by the wayside, keep routine as much as possible because routine is safe; boundaries are like a net when everything is uncertain.” Parents who are raising a child with special needs are mostly aware of the unique needs of their other children and deserve all the support that community and government agencies can provide. Wanting all their children to thrive and reach their full potential, parents are often exhausted by the advocacy required for their special needs child, at the same time as being acutely aware of their other children’s sometimes “fragile shoulders”. In Innocence Lost - The Siblings Jess, mother and autism awareness advocate eloquently writes about these young shoulders, expressing her thoughts about her child growing up with a sister who has autism:
“These kids – these amazing little people – carry the weight of the world on their far too fragile shoulders.
They live in a world that we all lament is too slow to evolve. Yet they have sped past it at lightening speed – self-actualizing like a trick of time-lapse photography – Behold! Before our very eyes the caterpillar, the chrysalis, the butterfly – all in the blink of an eye because they live a life that demands that they have wings.”
Resources mentioned in this article and links are listed below.