How About ME?

Helping your children deal with their special-needs sibling.

Love. Frustration. Compassion. Embarrassment. Jealousy. Guilt. Admiration.

Children commonly struggle with a variety of intense, conflicting emotions about a special-needs sibling they love but find very trying. Worse, they usually struggle alone.

That’s because your entire household is likely to revolve around a child that has a serious emotional, mental or physical challenge. Add your worries about his current problems and uncertain future to all of his doctors’ appointments, special school meetings and your extra load of daily caregiving chores, and your other children can easily get lost in the shuffle.

Some children act out to distract from a sibling who garners so much parental attention in an effort to get some for themselves. But a more common reaction is to follow parents’ lead and focus on the special-needs child to the exclusion of virtually all else. Many tots serve as helpmates, fetching diapers and doing other small but important chores. By elementary school, many children sound like professionals when discussing their sibling’s progress, problems and prognosis. Middle school children may serve as full-fledged surrogate caregivers for a challenged sibling and confidantes for their overwhelmed parents.

Despite the many drawbacks, a special-needs sibling provides some character-building benefits. Because you are too busy to respond to your children’s every demand and cannot fulfill their every whim, they are more likely to learn to delay gratification, tolerate frustration and persevere. From witnessing their sibling’s struggles, they develop empathy and compassion and become more accepting of differences. Managing important household tasks builds self-discipline, and your other children are likely to be exceptionally conscientious and responsible. After spending years nurturing a sibling, many children go on to become therapists, physical therapists and doctors.

Nevertheless, these other children have emotional needs of their own. Too many youngsters end up suppressing their feelings, wants and desires to the point that they cannot even identify them. They may keep their problems to themselves so as not to add to your burdens. While your special-needs child gets support, your other children may not have anyone to talk to. This puts them at risk for depression.

The best thing you can do for your children is provide them with some much-needed individual attention. Carve out five or ten minutes of uninterrupted time each day to talk about subjects that interest them. Or, if they are doers rather than talkers, take a daily walk or bike ride together, wrestle or play a game of cards. Stave off interruptions and avoid discussions about their sibling.

Alternatively, enlist a guidance counselor, relative or neighbor to spend an hour a week with your other children. And consider your own need for an hour a week to kick back and do your own thing. A short break will undoubtedly help you be a better parent to all of your children.