Children with special needs—such as chronic illness or developmental disabilities—present challenges as well as advantages for families. Special care requires great attention and energy for parents, along with financial burdens. Emotional adjustment including grief is also common. Support groups and information are readily available to parents; however, the challenges facing siblings of special needs kids may be underestimated or overlooked.

Research has revealed that self concept and emotional well being of siblings of disabled or ill children are generally not compromised. But they may suffer a unique ‘constellation’ of difficulties. Information, support and awareness of these needs can assure that everyone in the family receives what is needed to thrive.

sibling conflict overload?

Siblings play a significant role in each others' lives. These relationships are complex for many reasons. Disability adds further complexity that can be both positive and negative. On the positive side, siblings of children with special needs may develop profound compassion, insight, tolerance and appreciation for family. They experience unusual opportunities in their early lives that sometimes pave the way for advocacy and service.

Some of the challenges facing special needs kids' siblings include feelings of jealousy, resentment, guilt, fear and depression. Siblings may have a unique set of concerns as they grow up. They may consider their role in the adult life of their special needs sibling or worry about the risks of disability among their own offspring.

Specific issues will depend upon various factors including the severity of the disability and family coping. Another important factor is the age of the ‘typically’ developing sibling. Preschoolers may be most concerned about the parents’ functioning. Little ones are tuned into the emotional climate of the home. They lack understanding and may be confused about what is wrong with their brother or sister. They are quite egocentric and may even blame themselves for the disability or illness. School aged children may fear contagion—that they will catch the disability. They may believe their sibling is worse off than he or she really is. Adolescents may be embarrassed by their sibling. Older children may resent having to be depended upon for direct care or to pitch in around the house. Some of their accomplishments may be overlooked because attention is required to care for the special needs child.

open communication

Children of all ages need information about the illness or disability tailored to their level of understanding. Their questions should be encouraged along with emotional expression. Kids may be reluctant to ask their parents about the illness or disability because they do not want to upset the parents. On the other hand, parents may assume that if the typical child does not ask questions, the topic is better left alone.

Each member of the family has unique concerns. Typical siblings may misbehave or over-achieve to get more attention. Both of these options create stress. Everyone deserves information, support and validation. While there is no substitute for familial support, a peer group may be helpful for siblings of disabled children. Sharing with others and recognizing that their own feelings, gripes and concerns are shared by others can ease the emotional burden.

Having a brother and sister who is different has its advantages but also many challenges. The needs of the typical child may seem less urgent than those of the special needs child, but they deserve attention.  Information, a patient listener, and coping strategies are primary needs which can be addressed by parents as well as peers who share a similar experience.

 

Pat Blackwell, Ph.D., is a developmental psychologist in practice at Pelts Kirkhart & Associates. 504.581.3933.

Additional support for families

 

Support group for siblings, led by clinical social worker Nancy Timm. nolababysteps.com

 

Suggested reading:
Views from Our Shoes, edited by Donald Meyer
Living with a Brother or Sister with Special Needs, by Donald Meyer and Patricia Vadasy