Raising a child with special needs can be arduous and unyielding. It can somehow muster the most introverted of parents to take arms for advocacy, change, support, and acceptance while simultaneously throwing the most extroverted on their knees in humility. It is riddled with highs and lows, laughter and tears, and though it can take everything out of you, it somehow finds the ability to put it right back with a simple smile from your child.
Anyone who has raised a child with special needs, can often see it as one of the biggest challenges in their lives, giving everything they have to improving the life of their child; But what about the siblings?
With so much attention on the children who require extra care, siblings are often assumed to be OK. And why wouldn’t they be? I’ve got 8 children, 4 whom have confirmed special needs and 3 we are waiting on diagnoses. Each of them requires extra supports at school, medications, therapies, and generally a different type of parenting. My child without special needs, however, functions very well. He doesn’t require extra supports, there is no medications, no specialist appointments, no IEP’s, and no support workers looking after his every move. Although on the outside the facade stands strong that siblings are the ones doing well, if we peel back the outer layer we very quickly discover a different narrative.
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Siblings don’t have the same knowledge we have
The majority of us raising children with special needs can probably all write our own books on the various elements of our children’s diagnoses; the causes, symptoms, prognoses and treatment. We have all likely attended numerous workshops, conferences, devoured books, and even attended therapy or counseling sessions all geared towards supporting their needs. WE have a history. A deep rooted knowledge on all things special needs related. The siblings of our kiddos, however, do not.
Don’t get me wrong, I am confident it is not from a lack of trying, and I highly recommend you incorporate knowledge into your parenting routine. I have personally shown Youtube videos, articles, had one-to-one chats, movies, and my son has even done his own research for school projects. The knowledge has been shared, but he is just a kid. I am sure we are all guilty of losing our temper, forgetting the precise way to do something our child needs, or getting frustrated that we have to parent differently, and WE ARE ADULTS! Imagine how immensely harder it would be for a child; someone who’s brain has not fully developed and is navigating their own little world of peers, hormones, and life? It is A LOT! As much as it would make things easier, we can’t expect the siblings to have the same level of understanding and comprehension that we do.
To a sibling, life is VERY unfair
It is probably safe to assume, that we are all parenting our children with special needs differently than we may parent our neurotypical child. For some of my kids, consequences are not understood. For a couple of my children, standing my ground goes very very wrong. For example, in our house, we participate in chores. I believe it plays a vital role in teaching children responsibility, the skills to maintain their own home, and the importance of working together as a family/team. As any child would, however, there is sometimes resistance on completing these chores. For my neurotypical child, I believe it is fair to offer up consequences if these chores are not completed (mild consequences, such as no playing with friends until the chore is done), or I will push the matter with gentle reminders. If I were to attempt any of these methods with 2 of my other children….things would head south, quickly. And by south, I mean Mojave dessert south. One child might throw or break something, another might start screaming and swearing, and either one of them might storm off to another room. The situation has clearly escalated and there is no point in attempting to push the matter any further or things could turn even more volatile (and I have replaced enough new glass cups to supply a wedding hall).
I get it. I’m sure you get it. But the sibling, most certainly does not. From their child-like perspective all they understand is that they have to do chores, while the other child doesn’t. Now this is only one example, and not all children do chores. But what my son doesn’t see or understand, is when my other child is in a better place emotionally, or not as overstimulated, I might gently suggest the chore again. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. If it doesn’t work, I know it is not because of defiance, but rather a break down in their executive functioning to accomplish something they don’t want to do. So the matter is not pressed further. Does my neurotypical child do more chores than my neurodiverse child? Yes. Does he do more chores than other children in the house who are capable? No. But it still seems unfair to him.
The unfair aspects of life, however, can often be unending. Depending on the special needs, perhaps your child gets to eat a different meal (food sensory issues), perhaps they get to sit in the front seat all the time (over stimulation sitting next to other children), maybe they get extra treats (reward system), and perhaps they do not get consequences for seemingly poor behavior (does not understand cause and effect). From the outside world we are use to being viewed as crappy parents for many of these choices, but for the sibling, it just seems unfair. Although this is a tricky element to maneuver, since there will likely always be differences in how you parent one child vs. another, it is possible to try and bring “justice” in different ways. While it may not be possible to have the child with special needs do everything their siblings do, you can provide extra validation and support to the child who is completing tasks. Even simple things like taking your child for a special outing for completing their chores, encouraging notes on the positive language they are using, a treat to make them feel appreciated and special, or encouraging words that you value them and everything they do. These are all small ways to lessen the unjust attitude and foster a more positive relationship for all.
A final note on justice: I was recently discussing the challenges of ‘talking back” from my neurotypical child with a professional. I was reminded, that although we want to encourage respect and obedience in our children, it is even more beneficial that they feel heard. Particularly when siblings with special needs are part of the environment; Making sure you allow your children to have a voice will go a long way.
Siblings can get very annoyed
The truth is, sometimes the behaviors of our neurodiverse children can be rather annoying. I love my kiddos, but if they screamed a little less, I can’t say I would complain. As parents, we are far more accustomed to these behaviors, and manage it because we know we must as the parent. As a child, however, it can be frustrating. While this particular issue is not the most serious of the bunch, I think we all want to provide our children with the most positive childhood we can. Instead of explaining for the millionth time why their brother or sister just did something, focus instead on the siblings feelings; Validation can go a long way.
“Hey sweetie, I know it is pretty loud in here right now, did you want to go outside and get some extra basketball time in?”
“Hey honey, I bet you are really frustrated your Lego was just broken. I would be mad too. Did you want me to help you tonight to fix it?”
“I know it is pretty hard being the only person cleaning up right now, why don’t I help you?”
“Sweetheart, I know you really want a turn with that toy right now and it seems unfair so how about you get some extra time tonight to use it?”
These are just a few examples of validating the sibling, and offering an alternative solution to the current obstacle causing strife.
Siblings crave attention
It is no secret that kids with special needs take up a lot of our time. Whether it be from appointments to therapies, or even just constant supervision to keep everyone safe. While I am sure it is not the goal, often our kids with less needs, end up getting less attention. Sometimes this is a simple fix that requires the awareness of the situation in order to focus more attention on other children.
Often, however, this is just not possible. Although it hasn’t always been this way, we currently have one kiddo that requires constant 1:1 supervision and attention. It is almost impossible to leave him on his own unless he is very engaged in a particular activity. In situations like these, it is OK, and even recommended, to ask for help! I have found huge success in having aunts or uncles, grandmas or grandpas, taking out one of my other kids for special one-on-one time. They love it because they get the attention they are craving, but they also get the opportunity to build up other relationships. I also love doing one-to-one outings with each of my children as often as I can. When possible, we hire a babysitter to take them out for special date nights. Since babysitting is not always available, however, I try and incorporate special time into the every-day tasks and errands. Something as simple as grocery shopping, can be turned into a special opportunity with the right attitude! I alternate between who gets to come and they love getting the free cookie at the bakery, getting to choose their favorite flavor or food item, and getting the responsibility of helping mom load up the van. I try and fit in a quick extra stop when possible, like the bookstore or even corner store, to make sure a little bit of fun is thrown in. While this isn’t as fancy as a designated date night, it is more readily possible, and can still provide the attention your child craves.
Other ways to carve out special time when childcare is not available can include allowing your child to miss a day of school (provided the child with special needs is in school too). This doesn’t need to happen often (don’t want to get you in trouble!) but the occasional day is good for the soul 🙂 I have also been persuaded on many occasions to allow my oldest son to stay up extra late to have one-on-one time with mom and dad. I know it goes against the “rule handbook for good parenting” but I can see the joy he takes from it and I know the positive outweighs the possible sleepiness the next day. By providing these extra attention-focused opportunities, we are allowing our children to see and feel that they are important; a crucial piece in a neurodiverse family!
Hopefully these points will bring some awareness to the world your child lives in, and will provide some pointers on how to understand the life of a child with siblings with special needs. Do you have other suggestions? Be sure to post them below!
If you would like to know why I recommended rewarding bad behavior, be sure to check out this post!
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