It's been said that being the parent of a child with specials needs is like traveling to an unexpected destination. That can leave the siblings of children with special needs feeling left out while the rest of the family goes on vacation. Parents of children with special needs don't intend to leave siblings behind, but sometimes in the hustle and bustle of doctor's appointments, IEP meetings and specialized care, it just happens.
Being a typically developing child in a household where a brother or sister has a disability or chronic illness can be scary and isolating. How can parents change that experience? The first step is to let kids know what's going on.
"Education is a big piece," says Maryann Roth, a school psychological service provider and guidance counselor. She says that in her thirty-some years of experience, she's seen many well-intended, supportive parents who just don't think to educate children about their sibling's condition. "Parents know that their child isn't developing typically, but kids don't have a measuring stick, they don't know what normal development should be," Roth says. She encourages parents to speak honestly about the condition, and explain what can be expected and how it may affect the family.
Donald Meyer, the director of the Sibling Support Project in Seattle, Washington, says: "Brothers and sisters have an ever-changing need for information about their sibling’s disability." There are a number of other things Roth and Meyer agree parents can do support and include siblings with special needs. Here are their top three suggestions?
- Set aside time for typically-developing children. Roth acknowledges it's sometimes easier said than done, but she also says that time doesn't have to be anything special, it can be enough to "just be sitting and watching T.V. together and discussing whatever is going on in the show." Meyer's feeling is that what siblings really need in this regard is to know "that their parents care about them as individuals."
- Allow siblings to be children. A child with special needs can present challenges for caretakers, but it's important to remember that siblings are also children who need care. It's okay--healthy even--to ask a child to help out. However, Roth provides caution. "You have to be careful that you don't turn that sibling into another parent. It doesn't allow that child to have freedom to be a child in the family."
- Provide opportunities to attend a support group. Meyer's project organizes and runs Sibshops, a series of support events and gatherings designed for and by siblings of children with special needs. More information can be found at www.siblingsupport.org. Programs like these can provide a strong support system for special needs siblings. What if your child doesn't want to go? Roth advises not to push it, but continue to offer because, "Sometimes kids feel real alone even though they're not letting you know they feel real alone."
Siblings of special needs kids don't have to feel left out. With a little extra support parents can make their typically-developing son or daughter feel like a integral part of the family, and still be a kid.