What About Me?

Maintaining fairness among special needs and typical siblings.

As a parent, you may be challenged meeting your children’s many needs. You may be challenged further if you believe that you should love and treat your children equally. The notion of “equal” for each child is unrealistic. Children aren’t the same; they have differences and, therefore, deserve to be treated according to their real needs. Treating your children fairly is more desirable and attainable than trying to treat them equally. The quandary is how to put fair into practice among siblings.

Parenting typical siblings is complicated. They have rivalries that naturally accompany having a sister or brother. When one child has special needs, those rivalries exaggerate and become especially complex. The child with special needs may feel he is under the microscope— overwhelmed, scared, frustrated and anxious about what is wrong with him. Yet, he might like the extra attention, whether it is positive or negative. The child without special needs may feel left out, unseen or that so much is expected of him, which in turn may cause anger, anxiety, jealousy and self-blame.

As a parent, it is possible to be unaware of these dynamics because feelings are intangible. Plus, coping with concrete issues absorbs time and energy, and the focus of your attention may become skewed. As a result, children’s withheld feelings often fester into resentment and guilt or explode with overreactions.

When you feel overwhelmed by your children’s competing needs, you may resort to thinking that life isn’t fair. That’s when you know the “fairness quotient” is off kilter and in need of altering. Life in the outside world isn’t fair; life at home needs to be as fair as possible.

Prevailing wisdom advocates that parents let children work out squabbles on their own, not take sides nor get trapped figuring out who started what. These sibling arguments are often disguised attempts to get parents’ attention. This short-term approach might not always be best when the undercurrent is about fairness between the typical and special needs child. For a long-term solution, let’s examine the fairness principal. First, you need to see the big picture.

Questions to Prompt a Reality Check

  • Are your child’s special needs acute or chronic?
  • Do you feel you have nothing left to give your typical child?
  • Do you sometimes excuse your child’s behavior due to his special needs, when in actuality he’s doing something typical that needs managing?
  • Are your expectations appropriate for each child? Or are you bending over backward with one child, while holding higher expectations for the other?
  • Are you viewing one child as needy and the other as not?
  • Is one child receiving significantly less attention from you, whereas the special needs child is getting a lot more of your time?
  • Can you imagine yourself in each of your children’s shoes and what it might feel like to be each child with you as a parent? Every child experiences his parents differently.
  • If one child frequently tells you “You’re not being fair,” do you take this seriously?
  • Is anyone showing unusual signs of irritability, sullenness, anger, withdrawal, anxiety or sibling rivalry?

Ways to Improve the Balance Between Your Children

1. Give fair, not equal, attention to each child. Schedule regular special time with each child. During one-on-one time, chat about what is important to your child and continue as much involvement as possible in his normal activities. This doesn’t mean substituting your loving attention with digital games, over-scheduling or indulging as a means to reduce guilt. The key is to find creative, simple and balanced ways to spend nurturing time with your children when you can be fully present without preoccupation, interruption or rushing. This includes making good eye contact, being affectionate with your heart open, and relishing time spent together by tuning into your child’s interests. This way, when you must be in your “doing” mode, your children will be more accepting of it.

2. Reduce the polarization gap. Polarization means you compare each child at far and opposite ends. When these extremes occur, one child may be seen as either the self-reliant, easy or good child, while the other is considered the bad, difficult or needy one. Each child internalizes what you believe about him, contributing to silent or pronounced rivalries. If this is happening in your family, it may be advisable to seek professional help.

For example, in the Daniels family (names have been changed to protect confidentiality), the younger son, Sam, has learning disabilities and ADHD. The mother, Susan, has been diligent about obtaining school services as well as getting a specialized reading tutor at home. She tends to view Sam as good hearted and unable to help himself, and her older son, Justin, as demanding and negative. This situation has become polarized. And ever since Sam’s disabilities were diagnosed, Justin has felt neglected. Justin pushes Mom away while wanting her to stay close by. When Susan and her husband Tom brought in Justin for individual therapy, family therapy was recommended instead.

Susan and Tom were unaware of the polarization they created between their sons. They had lost sight of how their attention had been unfairly directed. As a result, the boys’ rivalries exacerbated. After several family therapy sessions, Susan and Tom stopped comparing the boys and found novel ways to give each child the kind of attention he needed. Justin became less angry and anxious, and the relationship between the brothers improved as the parents stopped over-attending to Sam.

3. Hold family meetings to solve problems and spend time together amicably and respectfully. Maintain a tone that is neither blaming nor reactive. Each family discussion should be proactive, safe and cooperative, by saying something like “let’s work out this problem.” Then the atmosphere becomes conducive to sharing, communicating and problem solving.

Years ago I heard Fred Rodgers from Mister Rodgers’ Neighborhood say, “Whatever is human is mentionable. Whatever is mentionable is manageable.” By choosing to make sibling rivalries mentionable, they can be made manageable. Family meetings can give children a chance to air feelings and participate in solving sibling struggles. Meetings also help parents approach issues in a fair and balanced way. Every family member shares responsibility for improving the situation among siblings.