It’s touching when we see our children become friends, teachers, protectors, coaches, and companions to our child who has a disability or special health care needs. Over the years, however, – or even tomorrow – we also might see a sibling’s frustration, jealousy, and anxiety.
Although these emotions are found in all sibling relationships, it’s important for parents to be aware of the unique benefits and challenges faced by siblings in families with children who have disabilities and special health care needs.
Our children live uniquely complicated childhoods. Whether bringing a friend home and worrying about a sister’s embarrassing behaviors, or wishing for a brother able to play baseball with them, they are always facing situations many of their peers don’t face. Having a sibling with disabilities or special health care needs is a complex experience but can also be rewarding. Some siblings feel their place in the family gives them an understanding of difference, diversity, and helping others. Other siblings do not feel this connection and might struggle with these differences.
As our children grow up, they usually become more conscious of how they look and how the world sees them. They might suddenly become more aware of people staring at their sibling in public or of what their friends think. They may even grow angry and consider their sibling who has a disability or special health care need a burden. But, as parents we can work with all of our children to create a home life that includes acceptance, love, and honesty.
There will be times when one child needs more care, but there are always things parents can do to tip the balance and make siblings feel more supported:
One way to help your family come together over chores, activities, and daily family life is to hold a family meeting. Making family decisions together can encourage a family to share opinions, seek understanding, and solve problems - all good life skills. These meetings can range from a chore list to TV schedules or more serious topics of jealousy or anger.
“My brother and I are on parallel lines on the same plane. We both have a form of autism, so I understand some of his perspectives of the world. We don't talk to each other, play with each other, or do much with each other. However, when he sees me, he has this huge smile on his face, and the same goes for me with him. I think that's really all that matters for us.”
“Everyone else in my sibling’s life will treat him like he’s different – take care of him, enforce rules, try to teach him things most kids his age already know – but you are their normality. You can play together and laugh together. If they take your things you can get mad, and if someone is bullying them you can stick up for them. They don't need another parent or teacher in their life; it's okay for you to just be the brother or sister.”
You are working hard to create a world that accepts and celebrates differences; don’t leave your typically developing child out! Show that you value and celebrate them, too. Remember: How we, as parents, frame a disability or special health care needs will largely determine how our children experience it.