Having a special needs sibling can be challenging for even the most compassionate, gentle child. Depending on their age, they might feel neglected, angry, or confused about the situation. They may also worry about what the future will hold for their sibling.
Disabilities aren't uncommon in childhood. Research shows that about 1 in 6 children are developmentally or physically disabled with conditions like autism, blindness, cerebral palsy, learning disabilities, and ADHD. Of course, these conditions range in severity, and every child's symptoms are different.
It's no secret that parents often feel stretched for time and resources. As a result, they naturally shift their focus onto the child who most needs their support.
But parents need to understand how to best look after all their other child (or children). Doing so can enhance family life and help siblings feel more connected and supported by one another.
Let's get into what you need to know.
It's Normal for Siblings to Feel Angry or Resentful
Raising a child with disabilities is tough. At times, the parents' burden is heavy, and it can sometimes feel like you're drowning.
You may oscillate between many emotions: anger, fear, guilt, confusion, exhaustion, and gratitude. You might also struggle with regret, denial, control, or perfectionism.
Sometimes it's easier to contain these emotions if you have an only child. But when you have multiple children, you need to be mindful of their experiences as well.
From a young age, a child can distinguish when their sibling is different from them. So, as a parent, it's important to try to validate your child's feelings. Their feelings are authentic and valid, and it isn't advised that you try to challenge or even reframe them. The more you can embrace your child's truth, the safer they will feel confiding in you.
Don't be afraid to ask direct questions about how they feel about their disabled brother or sister. Sometimes children need prompts to feel it's okay to share their needs.
Your Other Children Need to Feel Special and Loved
Some children feel like their sibling's disability receives all the spotlight in the family home.
If you suspect this is the case, don't beat yourself up. But do try to self-reflect. Imagine how it might feel for your other child to feel like their needs don't matter as much as their brother's or sister's.
All children need to feel comforted and cared for by their parents. This is true no matter how old they are or how mature they seem.
Try to set aside regular 1:1 time with each of your children. This is especially important for younger kids, but it matters for children of all ages. Remember that quality trumps quantity, so even if you can only devote a few minutes before bed, prioritize that activity and make it non-negotiable for yourself.
Be Careful of Parentifying Your Other Son or Daughter
Do you lean on one of your children to help with household tasks? Do you expect them to assist with caretaking duties? Do you value that they seem to know how to naturally look after other members?
While there's nothing wrong with having a responsible, compassionate child, be mindful of how this dynamic may impact their emotional well-being. Many children feel obligated or resentful in their current roles. They might also feel pressure to "be perfect" to support their parents or keep the family together.
Remember that, no matter what, kids need permission to be kids. It's okay to expect them to help out around the house, but it's not okay to treat them like miniature adults. It's also important to be aware of any tendency to lean on a child for emotional support. Doing so places the child in an awkward position to feel like they need to protect the adult.
Be Mindful of Siblings Downplaying Their Problems
Some children believe they can't complain or talk about their feelings. They might assume their own issues aren't as important as a sibling disability.
Over time, this pattern can cause children to suppress and deny their experiences. This tendency may persist into adulthood, and it can significantly impair their mental health. They may feel disconnected from their own family and grow a deep resentment towards their disabled sibling.
You can be mindful of this issue by continuing to show an interest in each child's life. For example, make it a point to regularly check in about their school, friends, and hobbies. Actively listen to what they say, and aim to take a curious (rather than judgmental or knowing) stance.
If you notice your child dismissing their problems, aim to redirect them gently. Ask more questions about school or their friends or their general thoughts about the world. Let them know that you want to support them in the best way you can. Ask them how you can provide guidance.
Siblings of Disabled Children Often Need Additional Support
Parents are often quick to act when it comes to seeking support for their child with disabilities. However, they might not recognize that their other children also need resources. This can cause other siblings to feel neglected, particularly if they're going through something serious themselves.
Professional help can make a difference. Siblings of disabled children may benefit from family therapy, individual therapy, and building their own support network during this time. They may also thrive when they're involved in their own activities and hobbies outside of the home.
Finally, be mindful of tendencies to compare problems. Your special needs child, on the surface, may have more imminent issues for you to address. But that certainly doesn't mean your other children don't have needs and obstacles as well.
Your Disabled Child Has Their Own Feelings, Too
Children with special needs may struggle with their self-esteem, mood, and emotional regulation. They may resent how their condition affects the rest of their family. They might feel ashamed or sad about their disabilities.
Keep in mind that you can't hold all responsibility for improving your child's circumstances. You can be a loving and present parent, and you can build a meaningful relationship with your child. But you can't fix what you can't control.
It's often helpful to connect and spend time with other families with special needs children. This can support you in understanding your situation. Other people can also provide you with tips on how to best support your child.
Final Thoughts About Raising a Child With Disabilities
You want what's best for all your children, and it's important to remember that there are no perfect parents. But doing your best entails being conscious, patient, and aware of each child's circumstances.
At Mental Health Transitions, we are here for your family. We understand how disabilities can impact relationships, and we work with our clients to build meaningful, connected lives. Contact us today to learn more.