Supporting the Siblings of Your Child With Special Needs

Reviewed Jan 7, 2021

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Summary

  • Recognize your child’s feelings.
  • Explain to your child his sibling’s condition.
  • Schedule one-on-one time with each child every day.  

Living with a special needs child challenges the entire family—particularly siblings. Very often, these children feel slighted or forgotten, and are left to deal with uncomfortable feelings that are hard to understand on their own. Parents may unintentionally favor the special needs child not only with time and attention, but also by unfairly disciplining or assigning household responsibilities. Parents need to realize that how their children adjust to a sibling with a disability or chronic illness affects the social, psychological, and emotional development of all children in the family.

Recognizing your child’s feelings and reassuring her that such feelings are normal and OK can help her adapt to your family’s special circumstance. You also can take specific steps to show your support and love.

Emotional responses

Your child’s emotional response to having a sibling with a special need depends a lot on his age and developmental level and will change over time. Although the following feelings are normal, they can be uncomfortable and scary and often difficult to share with family members:

  • Resentment and anger. A sibling may resent the time, attention, money, and psychological support given to the special needs child.
  • Guilt. A child may feel guilty for having bad thoughts about the sibling or for being “normal.”
  • Fear. Your young child may worry that she too will “catch” her sibling’s condition.
  • Shame. Being embarrassed of a special needs sibling is typical, and often more pronounced in a child who shares a physical resemblance with his sibling.
  • Loneliness. A sibling can feel very isolated and unimportant.

Strategies for parental involvement

  • Talk to your child about the sibling’s condition and special needs in an age-appropriate way. Even young children notice differences in people. It is difficult for children to put a disability or illness into perspective. Without information, your child may acquire a distorted view of the circumstances.
  • Spend some one-on-one time with each child every day to show that your love and commitment are equal among all your children. Reading a book, playing a game, even running errands can offer special times to connect. Try to draw out your child’s feelings during this time by asking open-ended questions. Don’t judge or criticize—just listen. A young child typically displays feelings through behaviors, so watch as she plays.
  • Encourage sibling play and interaction. Brothers and sisters play an important role in each other’s development. Let each child take a turn choosing and leading an activity.
  • Look for a sibling support group so your child has an opportunity to interact with other siblings of special needs children. A professional typically facilitates such groups, which offer a fun time to express feelings in a nonjudgmental environment.
  • Ask your child to help out the special needs sibling. Reading a bedtime story and helping to feed or dress are ways siblings can help. But, do not make involvement a chore or burden or place guilt on your child should he not want to help.

When to be concerned

Sometimes siblings need more than a parent can give. Consult your child’s pediatrician or a counselor if your child:

  • Is extremely well behaved, and usually helpful or undemanding—a sign that your child is suppressing feelings
  • Is acting out to get attention (if not addressed, this may escalate to more harmful behaviors, such as setting fires, vandalism, or using drugs)
  • Shows signs of depression
  • Is overly anxious
By Christine P. Martin

Summary

  • Recognize your child’s feelings.
  • Explain to your child his sibling’s condition.
  • Schedule one-on-one time with each child every day.  

Living with a special needs child challenges the entire family—particularly siblings. Very often, these children feel slighted or forgotten, and are left to deal with uncomfortable feelings that are hard to understand on their own. Parents may unintentionally favor the special needs child not only with time and attention, but also by unfairly disciplining or assigning household responsibilities. Parents need to realize that how their children adjust to a sibling with a disability or chronic illness affects the social, psychological, and emotional development of all children in the family.

Recognizing your child’s feelings and reassuring her that such feelings are normal and OK can help her adapt to your family’s special circumstance. You also can take specific steps to show your support and love.

Emotional responses

Your child’s emotional response to having a sibling with a special need depends a lot on his age and developmental level and will change over time. Although the following feelings are normal, they can be uncomfortable and scary and often difficult to share with family members:

  • Resentment and anger. A sibling may resent the time, attention, money, and psychological support given to the special needs child.
  • Guilt. A child may feel guilty for having bad thoughts about the sibling or for being “normal.”
  • Fear. Your young child may worry that she too will “catch” her sibling’s condition.
  • Shame. Being embarrassed of a special needs sibling is typical, and often more pronounced in a child who shares a physical resemblance with his sibling.
  • Loneliness. A sibling can feel very isolated and unimportant.

Strategies for parental involvement

  • Talk to your child about the sibling’s condition and special needs in an age-appropriate way. Even young children notice differences in people. It is difficult for children to put a disability or illness into perspective. Without information, your child may acquire a distorted view of the circumstances.
  • Spend some one-on-one time with each child every day to show that your love and commitment are equal among all your children. Reading a book, playing a game, even running errands can offer special times to connect. Try to draw out your child’s feelings during this time by asking open-ended questions. Don’t judge or criticize—just listen. A young child typically displays feelings through behaviors, so watch as she plays.
  • Encourage sibling play and interaction. Brothers and sisters play an important role in each other’s development. Let each child take a turn choosing and leading an activity.
  • Look for a sibling support group so your child has an opportunity to interact with other siblings of special needs children. A professional typically facilitates such groups, which offer a fun time to express feelings in a nonjudgmental environment.
  • Ask your child to help out the special needs sibling. Reading a bedtime story and helping to feed or dress are ways siblings can help. But, do not make involvement a chore or burden or place guilt on your child should he not want to help.

When to be concerned

Sometimes siblings need more than a parent can give. Consult your child’s pediatrician or a counselor if your child:

  • Is extremely well behaved, and usually helpful or undemanding—a sign that your child is suppressing feelings
  • Is acting out to get attention (if not addressed, this may escalate to more harmful behaviors, such as setting fires, vandalism, or using drugs)
  • Shows signs of depression
  • Is overly anxious
By Christine P. Martin

Summary

  • Recognize your child’s feelings.
  • Explain to your child his sibling’s condition.
  • Schedule one-on-one time with each child every day.  

Living with a special needs child challenges the entire family—particularly siblings. Very often, these children feel slighted or forgotten, and are left to deal with uncomfortable feelings that are hard to understand on their own. Parents may unintentionally favor the special needs child not only with time and attention, but also by unfairly disciplining or assigning household responsibilities. Parents need to realize that how their children adjust to a sibling with a disability or chronic illness affects the social, psychological, and emotional development of all children in the family.

Recognizing your child’s feelings and reassuring her that such feelings are normal and OK can help her adapt to your family’s special circumstance. You also can take specific steps to show your support and love.

Emotional responses

Your child’s emotional response to having a sibling with a special need depends a lot on his age and developmental level and will change over time. Although the following feelings are normal, they can be uncomfortable and scary and often difficult to share with family members:

  • Resentment and anger. A sibling may resent the time, attention, money, and psychological support given to the special needs child.
  • Guilt. A child may feel guilty for having bad thoughts about the sibling or for being “normal.”
  • Fear. Your young child may worry that she too will “catch” her sibling’s condition.
  • Shame. Being embarrassed of a special needs sibling is typical, and often more pronounced in a child who shares a physical resemblance with his sibling.
  • Loneliness. A sibling can feel very isolated and unimportant.

Strategies for parental involvement

  • Talk to your child about the sibling’s condition and special needs in an age-appropriate way. Even young children notice differences in people. It is difficult for children to put a disability or illness into perspective. Without information, your child may acquire a distorted view of the circumstances.
  • Spend some one-on-one time with each child every day to show that your love and commitment are equal among all your children. Reading a book, playing a game, even running errands can offer special times to connect. Try to draw out your child’s feelings during this time by asking open-ended questions. Don’t judge or criticize—just listen. A young child typically displays feelings through behaviors, so watch as she plays.
  • Encourage sibling play and interaction. Brothers and sisters play an important role in each other’s development. Let each child take a turn choosing and leading an activity.
  • Look for a sibling support group so your child has an opportunity to interact with other siblings of special needs children. A professional typically facilitates such groups, which offer a fun time to express feelings in a nonjudgmental environment.
  • Ask your child to help out the special needs sibling. Reading a bedtime story and helping to feed or dress are ways siblings can help. But, do not make involvement a chore or burden or place guilt on your child should he not want to help.

When to be concerned

Sometimes siblings need more than a parent can give. Consult your child’s pediatrician or a counselor if your child:

  • Is extremely well behaved, and usually helpful or undemanding—a sign that your child is suppressing feelings
  • Is acting out to get attention (if not addressed, this may escalate to more harmful behaviors, such as setting fires, vandalism, or using drugs)
  • Shows signs of depression
  • Is overly anxious
By Christine P. Martin

The information provided on the Achieve Solutions site, including, but not limited to, articles, assessments, and other general information, is for informational purposes only and should not be treated as medical, health care, psychiatric, psychological, or behavioral health care advice. Nothing contained on the Achieve Solutions site is intended to be used for medical diagnosis or treatment or as a substitute for consultation with a qualified health care professional. Please direct questions regarding the operation of the Achieve Solutions site to Web Feedback. If you have concerns about your health, please contact your health care provider.  ©2019 Beacon Health Options, Inc.

 

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