Families of Children with Special Needs: What About the Siblings?

Often parents ask what they can do to make sure that their other children are getting all that they need within the hustle and bustle of a family where the brother or sister has a disability. As with other suggestions about what it takes to do a good job as a parent, it is important to remember that there is no magic formula that works for all families or in all situations.

What follows are five basic tips to keep in mind to guide you as you think about your family and what will work best.

1. INFORMATION: Children need to have at least basic information about the disability so that they can better understand their sibling’s needs. Providing the name of the disability as well as having a clear understanding about its cause (if known) is very important. Often very young children think that their brother or sister has special needs because of something they said or did. They might also wonder if they can catch what their sibling has. Alleviating these fears by offering the information is very beneficial.

2. QUALITY TIME WITH PARENTS: All parents feel that there is not enough time in a day. In a family where one of the children has special needs, there is a good chance that there are many appointments with doctors or therapists or possibly even hospitalizations. Oftentimes, the child with a disability takes more time to do things or needs more help. Given these situations, there are times when the sibling may feel jealous that their parents are not giving them enough attention. In this case, it is essential to take a step or two back and think through your day to find a little bit of quality time for your other children. At the same time, rather than trying to clone yourself, it is easier on everybody to accept that there are some inequities in life and to talk about them with your children.

3. OPEN COMMUNICATION: Being able to talk openly about family members’ positive and negative experiences
related to the disability is encouraged. Siblings need to learn how to express their feelings and understand that it is normal to feel angry, embarrassed, sad, and worried as well as proud, compassionate, and accepting, regarding their brother or sister.

4. RECOGNITION: Parents need to recognize that each child needs their own individual identity and to be acknowledged for their strengths and accomplishments. Children need to have a clear sense of their uniqueness and have the chance to be their own person. Try not to compare your child or family with anyone else’s or to live your life according to someone else’s idea of what that should look like.

5. SUPPORT: Brothers or sisters often feel like they are the only one in their situation. Contact with siblings from other families may be supportive. Meeting and talking to other siblings reduces feelings of isolation and offers reassurance that there are other children who share similar experiences.

Please connect with the professionals involved with your family to find out if there are sibling support groups or resources in your community.

Written by Barb Juett, Social Worker
Ottawa Children’s Treatment Centre

Reprinted from the ACCESS Integration Fall 2009 issue