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“You always sit with Jonny while he does his homework, why won’t you play with me?”  “How come I can’t have Dana come over after school to play just because Sam has homework to do?”  “Mommy, get Henry out of my room, NOW”

Balancing Time with Your Children
If you have a more than one child, you know that sometimes managing your time between children can be a challenge.  When one of those children has special needs, the balancing act can be even greater.  The time spent on doctors appointments, various therapies, gathering resources, becoming knowledgeable about your child’s unique needs and treatments, not to mention managing often challenging behaviors, can be way beyond time spent caring for a typical child.

A Sibling with Special Needs and Therapies
Let’s shift focus for a moment on the experience of the “other child”, the sibling of the child with special needs.  What goes on in the life of this child during all this time?  In the early years, often this child accompanies mom and sibling to various appointments and therapies, waiting in the waiting room while Jonny is interacting with another adult, doing things that from a child’s perspective look like play – rolling on big balls, blowing bubbles, playing games.  In the end, Jonny comes out with some sort of sticker or small toy, and maybe one for Sara who sat coloring to pass the time.

A Sibling with Special Needs at Home
Then there is the time spent at home.  Mom, knowing that Jonny has ADHD and can’t focus to do his homework independently, sits with him each afternoon helping him stay grounded and on task.  All the while, Sara is expected to “do her best” and “let us be”.  Of course, mom is trying desperately to pay attention to Sara as well, but knows if she strays too far from Jonny it will just make the whole process take longer.

Sibling Battles
And then there are the inevitable sibling battles.  Siblings are often destined to fight to some degree – it’s part of growing up in most cases.  But when one child has behavioral challenges that involve regulating their emotions, even the best equipped adult can have a hard time engaging positively sometimes.  Mom and dad may do their best to discipline and set limits to encourage good behavior, but unless they are constantly involved they cannot control the sibling interactions.  This can often lead to extreme fighting and frustration for all involved.

Unique Challenges of Having a Sibling with Special Needs
Finally, for some siblings, there is the unspoken expectation to be the watchman or spokesperson for their sibling with special needs.  Making sure that others out there are not increasing the burden for their sibling out of ignorance or disrespect.

Being a sibling of a child with special needs is an experience in it’s own, with unique challenges and opportunities.  Often, through their experience, these siblings develop incredible sensitivity, insight, and strength as they recognize the challenges and struggles their sibling faces.  But as parents, we need to recognize the sacrifices and challenges they face as well.

Tips for Helping a Sibling of a Child with Special Needs

  • Help the sibling understand the unique challenges their brother or sister faces.
  • Teach them strategies and give them tools to manage difficult situations they may face with their sibling.
  • Make sure to carve out special time for this child separate from the family experience.
  • Be careful not to expect them to manage and behave beyond their own maturity level – they are kids, too.

There is an excellent program available in many communities called SibShops.  It is a peer support group especially designed to allow siblings of special needs children share their challenges, get support, and mostly just have fun.  It is easy to start a group and there is lot’s of wonderful information on their website.