Growing Up with a Special-Needs Sibling

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Kids gain adaptability, increased empathy and tolerance when a brother or sister has a disability.

While there is no doubt that a brother or sister loves a sibling with special needs, the feelings that can arise during childhood are often complicated. The love, appreciation and compassion they feel toward their sibling can be mixed up with jealousy, worry, resentment, fear, responsibility and anger. Parents who are in tune to their children’s feelings can help them work through the negative emotions and turn these challenges into benefits.

Challenge: Insensitivity of Others

Unfortunately, kids with special needs are often the target of teasing. Kids, or even adults, that don’t understand other people’s differences may make insensitive comments, ask inappropriate questions, or just make fun of someone who is different. Siblings of special needs kids may feel the need to constantly stand up for their sibling, explain their situation to others, or may be the brunt of teasing themselves.

“One of the biggest challenges in growing up with my sister was watching her get laughed at,” says Justin Lyons, brother of Kara, who has cerebral palsy.

Parents can help their kids work through this challenge by equipping them with the right answers for those awkward questions and teach them how to handle bullying in an appropriate way.

Benefit: Development of Dependability, Loyalty and Compassion

After years of watching someone they love get teased, siblings of special needs kids will naturally develop a strong sense of loyalty to those they care about as well as a strong compassion toward others.

Even though watching Kara get teased was hard for Justin, he also notes, “I think it made me less likely to laugh at or tease other people.”

Kids who grow up in a home with a special needs sibling typically become dependable, compassionate and loyal adults.

Challenge: Jealousy

Parents do their best to treat their children fairly and spend equal amounts of time caring for each child. When you have a child with developmental delays
or significant medical needs, that balance can become extremely difficult to achieve and jealousy can develop.

Kids may feel they get less attention or that their parents spend more time caring for the sibling. When these feelings develop it is very common for kids to feel guilty that they have these thoughts, causing them to be more upset and resentful. As a parent, try to be understanding and patient about your child’s jealous feelings. Talking it through and having someone listen and take them seriously will help your child feel loved and included. If possible and appropriate, welcome your child to join you in caring for the sibling, but don’t push the issue.

Benefit: Self Control and Thoughtfulness

First, it is important to remember that sibling rivalry and feelings of jealousy are normal in any sibling relationship. As your child learns to wait for their parent to be free to help them, they will learn patience and self control. They will also learn to put others’ needs before their own.

Challenge: Worry and Fear

When children are around a sibling with serious medical challenges, lowered immunity, or special needs, kids may feel worried or afraid about the health of their sibling. They may not be able to express their feelings the same way that an adult would. Kids may act out, become overly emotional, or appear aloof to what is going on around them. Parents can help kids by being honest about health concerns in an age-appropriate way.

By including your child in this discussion, you can reduce their fear of the unknown and reassure them as well.

Benefit: Develop Compassion and Empathy for Others

Kids who are exposed to someone with medical and developmental challenges naturally become more compassionate and empathetic to those who may have their own struggles.

“I attribute my sense of understanding and compassion to group up with my sister,” says Michelle Hupp, sister to Felicia, an adult with Down syndrome.

Challenge: Complicated and Mixed Feelings

As each person is different, kids have a variety of feelings related to their sibling with special needs. Some kids may feel pressure to “live up” to their parents’ expectations for themselves and for the sibling that may never reach certain milestones. Kids may also feel resentment, anger, frustration, or like they are “missing out” on activities or experiences because their sibling’s care puts restrictions on certain activities.

“Siblings often feel guilty about any negative feeling such as jealousy,” says Hupp. “The rewards more than outweigh the negatives but sometimes the negatives are hard to talk about.”

None of these feelings are fun to talk about and often result in guilt causing the children to feel even more resentment to the sibling because they have these negative feelings. Some of these feelings may be difficult to overcome and a parent may not know exactly what their child is feeling or how to deal with them. If you feel that these feelings are becoming a problem, consider seeking professional help to support your child’s development in a healthy way and encourage an appropriate relationship between your children.

Benefit: A Variety of Positive Characteristics Develop

While all of these challenges are realistic, kids also develop a wide variety of wonderful characteristics from their experience such as kindness, patience, compassion, acceptance of differences, helpfulness and empathy. All of these qualities are wonderful and valued in our society.

Being a sibling of a special needs person is a unique and sometimes challenging experience, but most people will tell you they have benefitted from the experience. As a parent, it helps to think of the long-term benefits and help your child shape their challenges into successes.

Sarah Lyons is a midwestern mom of six children, including 2-year-old triplets.

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