Families of Children With Special Needs

Monet's Water LiliesChildren with disabilities receive a lot of attention these days. Unlike  a couple of generations ago, when these children were barely seen or acknowledged, now there are extensive programs and therapies available to help children with disabilities best interact with their communities.

The children that don’t get a lot of attention are their siblings. Most parents are so overwhelmed dealing with their special needs child that they might not even consider the possibility that their other children might be overwhelmed in their own way. Just because they are “normal” doesn’t mean that they’re not impacted by having a sibling who is “different”. Unfortunately,  this is rarely acknowledged.

First of all, the special needs child often requires much more time and attention. This obviously translates into less time and attention for the other children. Secondly, there is often an unspoken expectation that the “normal” children will somehow know that they cannot get out of line or misbehave, as they are expected to require as little extra attention as possible. Sibling may also be expected to  “make up” for the child who is disabled: in school, in the home, and/or emotionally in the form of being a caretaker for the parent who is struggling or the sibling who requires extra assistance. Though these sentiments may be unspoken and even unrecognized in a family, it is important to realize they are a normal part of life with a special needs child.

There are often two very different reactions to this dynamic. On the one hand you have the “perfect” child, who understands her responsibilities to serve the family system. On the other hand you have the rebel, who simply refuses to accept the situation. These roles may stay with an adult for years to come, possibly without any real understanding of their origins, and both pay a price.

It’s important to have an open dialogue with your “typical” children about their feelings and reactions to their disabled sibling. When they express their frustrations, it’s important that you listen and validate them. All too often the well meaning tendency is to say” oh but you love your brother. You mustn’t say such things about him.” The truth is, they may not, especially in that moment. They may be so angry they wish a host of horrible things to happen to that brother, and if a parent simply denies or negates those feelings, the child will feel like a terrible person for having them.

A better approach might be to acknowledge that of course your child is angry and frustrated, sometimes everyone in the family is angry and frustrated. No, It isn’t “fair” that we, as a family, don’t get to do some of the things other families do; it isn’t “fair” that sometimes we have to leave a situation because of a sudden melt down, it isn’t “fair” that people often stare at us and shake their heads. You might ask your child to come up with some benefits of your situation, which might require a little “leading.” You might emphasize that learning patience is a great tool for the future, as is fostering understanding and compassion.

It is a statistical fact that many siblings will go into helping professions, having learned the lessons about patience and compassion. Others will not be able to let go of their resentment, and may end up distancing themselves.

Having a disabled child doesn’t just effect you as a parent, it effects your entire family. How you handle the situation will make a big difference in the lives of all of your children.

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