Making your typical children feel as loved as your special needs child is not as hard as it may seem … and it makes for wonderful parenting.
It goes without saying that being a parent is hard. There’s truly no preparing for parenthood — and with each new addition to the family comes greater responsibilities and challenges. This is especially true in special needs families. Parents will do whatever it takes to ensure the well being of their special needs child, and it’s humbling to see the lengths to which many parents will go for that child.
However, often overlooked in this discussion is what becomes of the so-called “typical” kids in these families. With parents juggling special classes, therapy sessions, and doctors’ appointments for their special needs child, the typical child might end up feeling left out of the equation.
Julia Ann Smith is a Cincinnati mom with four kids. In addition to the hectic juggling act of raising them, her oldest has autism, so her life’s filled with doctors’ appointments, meetings — and worry.
“There is not a day that goes by, that I don’t worry about my son. In some ways, you are so helpless. I have no control over my son’s autism or the insurance company that refuses to pay for his treatments.” Smith says she must always be prepared for anything — even a simple trip to the grocery store requires extensive planning and meticulous organization.
It’s a similar story for Ruth Grant-Bailey, a local mom with three kids, ages 6, 12 and 15, and co-owner of Leap Beyond Therapy. Her second child was born with Cerebral Palsy, so she is very busy managing her son’s doctors’ appointments and therapy sessions. She admits that its impossible to give her kids equal attention — someone is bound to feel left out. Also, the constant stress and worry of raising a child with special needs is something parents must overcome so it doesn’t affect the family, she notes. When a child is physically impaired, simply transporting a child from place to place takes a lot of additional time.
In this environment, it can be easy for “typical” children to feel left out. But it’s not as difficult as parents may think to make sure all of their kids get the attention they deserve.
Communication is key
As with any other relationship, the communication between parent and child is something that must remain a priority. “Have sensitivity and awareness to communication (verbal and non-verbal) from the child,” says Michael Flick, professor of special education at Xavier University. “This will help the parent make the child feel involved,” he says.
Grant-Bailey agrees. “Encourage and allow your child to express his feelings — do not disregard angry spells or behavior changes,” she says. This is a very difficult situation for typical kids to be in, and they need to feel like they have a voice.
In other words, make sure you remain open as someone your kids can talk to about their feelings. There are many ways parents can do this: turn off the cell phone when driving your kids to/from school or soccer practice; let your child help you with dinner preparation; make yourself available so your kids feel they can confide in you.
Make dates with your kids
Just like you do with your spouse and friends, you should also make spending one-on-one time with each of your children a priority. This can often be difficult in a house with a special needs child, but it’s very important, says Katie Walsh, a special education teacher at Camden Station Elementary in Crestwood, KY.
“I know a lot of parents find it nice to make special dates for their other children where they go out to lunch or a movie — something without the other child.” It can be something as simple as a monthly date to your child’s favorite restaurant, or perhaps an afternoon at the new 3D movie. “This one-on-one time can go a long way in making that child feel special,” Walsh explains.
Parents should also let their kids decide what they want to do on these special dates, says Flick. Often, typical kids will feel like they don’t have a say in the day to day routine, as special needs kids generally have a busy regimen of appointments and activities. Letting kids decide what activities they want to do gives them a sense of ownership and control, which is crucial. “Freedom of choice is important to all children,” Flick explains.
Let them collaborate
Allow the children to collaborate when it comes to family outings. It’s good to have the kids all working together, Walsh says. Plus, group dates are equally important as time alone with your kids, notes Walsh, who recently took a group of special needs students to a local amusement park.
Grant-Bailey agrees: “Look for all-inclusive playgrounds, events, and places (bowling alleys, camps, etc). One of the most remarkable places we have found for our whole family is the Center for Courageous Kids in Scotsville, KY. They do family weekends and the experience is incredible for everyone!”
Plan, plan, plan
Recognize that group outings may not be as easy as simply loading up your family in the car and taking off. Outings with special equipment require a bit of planning — and you may need a partner or a friend to help chaperone. “Sometimes there is a quiet place the child with special needs can sit with one parent and do a preferred activity for them, like a video game or snack, while the other parent watches the other kids,” Walsh suggests.
This “tag team” effort is something Smith has perfected. “One of us will be our son’s buddy, and hang with him, while the other is driving from one place to the other for the other three. We often meet in the middle for a quick dinner, and then we switch, and off we go again. We don’t want our other children not getting to go places or do fun things that our oldest can’t handle, so we split up and one takes the kids out and the other stays with him.” In this way, Smith says her family can do activities together.
Let your kids bring a friend on your family outings — it’s critical that your kids’ friends get a sense of what your day-to-day life is really like. As Grant-Bailey explains, “Children are resilient and able to adapt to change and challenges; quite frankly more so and more willingly, than adults sometimes. Children just need an explanation (i.e. he was born with problems with his legs), or direction (you just need to help him up the steps) and they are ‘good to go.’”
She says that it’s best to be willing to bring up the topic “because that is the biggest issue — the fear to bring up the topic.” Doing this will go a long way in helping your child feel accepted about his special needs sibling.
GIVE YOUR KIDS OUTLETS
Both Smith and Grant-Bailey agree that support groups are key. In fact, Smith started her own support group, Families with ASD, as a way to connect with other families in the same situation. She says the organization has become a second family. “My children get to play with other children who have siblings with autism,” she notes. “My husband and I get to talk to parents to share our stories, and our son loves being around others who have autism, just like him.“ By being a part of this community, Smith’s kids “know they are not alone.”
Grant-Bailey suggests sibling classes, or “sibshops,” as a way for kids to connect with others in the same boat. “Having friends in similar situations provides a great coping mechanism and gives children an outlet to express their feelings away from their parents and family,” she explains.
Finally, trust that you already know what you’re doing — and you’re doing a good job! Being a parent to a special needs child requires strength, energy, patience, and love — and these attributes will just make you a better parent to all of your kids.
In fact, many mothers agree that having special needs children makes them better mothers — and it makes their kids better individuals as well. “I think it makes my other children compassionate, patient, loving, and most important, tolerant to differences. I am not saying it is easy for them, but it is a life lesson they will never forget,” Smith says.
Sarah McCosham is a Cincinnati writer and mother of one.