When you have a child with special needs, you become the kind of mother you never thought you could be. Yes, you cry "more tears than [you’ve] ever thought humanly possible,” but you also rise to the occasion, throwing yourself into the job of helping others see "the amazing kid behind the special needs," as Circle of Moms member Katherine C. describes it. But it's not necessarily that straightforward for your special needs child's siblings. As many moms who have both a special needs child and one or more typically developing kids discover, the siblings of kids with special needs have some special needs all their own.
Dealing with Jealousy
Yvonne W. has a 15-year-old daughter with mild intellectual disabilities and behavioral challenges. In Circle of Moms' community for Mothers of Special Needs Children, she confides that it’s her younger daughter she’s worried about. The 12-year-old “really resents her [older sister] and gets annoyed with her about everything," Yvonne says of the typically-developing sibling. She wants to know why she can’t have "a normal" sister. Similarly, Amanda C.’s youngest daughter has PDD, NOS, and her older daughter says she's jealous and feels left out.
According to Donald Meyer, director of the non-profit Sibling Support Project, these aren’t uncommon feelings for siblings of kids with special needs to have. His agency runs "Sibshops" — workshops for siblings of children with special needs — at Seattle Children’s Hospital. He says brothers and sisters need to know their parents care about them as individuals, and suggests the following ways to make that happen:
1. Make time to share in your other child’s interests.
Over a decade ago, when her typically developing daughter was a preschooler, Circle of Moms member Jane S. started taking one day a month to shop with her. She says this tradition has cemented their bond.
While it’s not always easy to set aside this kind of one-on-one time with each child, other moms who make use of this strategy point out that it doesn’t have to be a big event to have a big impact. You can watch a TV show together, listen to music or, like Zoe H. suggests, have a “cuddle and a story.”
2. Acknowledge the strong (and sometimes unpleasant) emotions.
As parents, it’s sometimes hard to hear our kids express the feelings of resentment and embarrassment that they have about their siblings, but listening can really help. Christine G. says she thinks her teenage son’s relationship with his sister with special needs is as strong as it is because she and her husband are “empathetic to his situation” and have allowed him to openly discuss his feelings with them.
3. Allow kids to be kids.
Asking your child to help out with his special needs brother or sister once in awhile is okay, but, as Circle of Moms member Jane M. points out, expecting him to become another caregiver isn’t a good idea. It’s not a child's responsibility to take care of his sibling, and he needs to feel secure that he, too is a child with grownups looking out for him.
4. Be honest with your child about his sibling’s condition.
Circle of Moms member Anne Marie D. provides great advice on how to talk to a young child about his sibling's special condition. She says to, ”1. Speak frankly. This is a fact of life and should not be sugar-coated. 2. After stating it on the ... child's level, explain the "specialness" in layman's terms, not child terms. This will challenge your smaller one to learn more vocabulary and expand the horizons of understanding."
5. Find a sibling support group.
A number of moms say that sibling support groups and workshops, such as those developed by the non-profit Sibling Support Project, are helpful for offsetting some of the feelings of resentment and jealousy.
If you’re worried you can’t handle the needs of all your kids, keep in mind one more thing that Katherine says of moms of kids with special needs. They “will do anything in [their] power to make the world a safer, saner, kinder, happier, more accepting place for [their] kids" — and that means for all of them, not just the ones with special needs.
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