Teaching your child about their sibling with special needs
As a parent, you make a point of treating your children equally.
It’s a goal to make sure that neither child feels left out or mistreated, which can lead to isolating feelings. But what if one of your children is made just a bit differently? Talking to your child about their sibling with special needs can be a confusing conversation to have. The discussion requires patience, understanding, and concrete direction to help your child be the best sibling they can be.
Set the Stage
Your child with special needs may require a great deal of attention, unintentionally leaving you without much alone time with your other child. Be intentional in actively finding time to speak with your child alone about their sibling with special needs diagnosis. Having a quiet and intimate conversation will create an environment where they can ask questions without feeling as though they’ll hurt their sibling’s feelings. Getting to have rare alone time with you will also aid in making the process feel more supportive and loving. Often times, the siblings of those with special needs feel as though they aren’t allow to voice their frustrations, due to the lack of privacy and expectation to behave as the mature, supportive sibling.
Use this time to help them connect the dots. After all, they spend a lot of time with their brother or sister and have probably noticed some differences in their behavior. Introduce the concept that their sibling faces unique challenges causing differences in their behavior or feelings, the help they require, or way they are treated. If their sibling is autistic and has sensory issues, place emphasis on this connection to their challenge. If they have Down Syndrome, explain why this results in a distinct facial appearance. By connecting cause and effect, you can offer rest to any confusion they may have.
Give the Facts
Your child may be too young to fully understand the complexity of their sibling’s challenges to the extent that you do, but this doesn’t mean you can’t build an awareness. Provide them with accessible mental health information that can make their introduction to their sibling’s special need smoother. Read through the resource together and provide examples of your special needs child’s unique accommodations or behaviors as a way of tying this information close to home.
Delve into more detail regarding the cause and effect you touched upon when introducing the conversation. Often times, true acceptance of these behaviors will only come with time as your child matures. Offering information, however, will provide them with context to work towards accepting. In its simplest terms, work to explain the neurological and biological differences that cause their sibling to experience life in a distinct way. Make it known that these distinct characteristics may be difficult for your child and others to navigate but is not something their sibling has control over. This can eliminate resentment down the road that their sibling is ‘ruining their life’ or behaving in ways to monopolize attention.
Why this is Important
As the parent, having this discussion will allow you to uncover various emotions your child may be experiencing as they begin and continue their journey with a sibling with special needs. This, in turn, will serve as helpful material for managing your child’s mental health, which may often times fall behind due to the amount of attention their sibling’s challenges require.
When living with a special needs sibling, a child may experience conflicting emotions. On one end, they may feel worried about their sibling and the way they are treated. On the other, they could feel resentful that what they view as ‘normal’ activities or family outings become much more taxing with their sibling with special needs present. They could also feel pressure to be ‘perfect’ for their parents while experiencing anger that the attention from family, teachers, and other resources are focused on their sibling.
Getting the chance to address these overwhelming emotions will remind your child that you are present, care about their feelings within this unique situation, and are always an open resource for them. This sometimes gets lost in translation within the trials and tribulations of having a special needs child. Let your child know that, although their sibling does require a lot of attention and special resources, their needs aren’t forgotten.
Explain How they Fit in
As much as you want your child to take on the protective sibling role, this has the potential to quickly lead to resentment. Framing your child’s role in their sibling’s life as that of the protector will place immense pressure on them to transition into a parental figure at a young age. This can lead to more anxiety over needing to be perfect as well as anger towards having to focus a great deal of their life on their sibling.
Refrain from words like “protector” or “role-model” when discussing their part in their siblings life, and don’t set strict guidelines for how they must treat their sibling. You can suggest ways that you’d hope your child would react to specific things that their sibling does, but more often than not it’s better to let your child take the lead. Each child goes through their own process of coping with having a sibling with special needs, and you need to be prepared to let them go through these steps in their own time. Some children may adapt quickly and with great patience. Others may experience embarrassment when their sibling has difficulty in public or anxiety about how to introduce them to their peers, and this may result in them pulling away.
Much of this process depends on maturity. Continue to frame their sibling’s challenge in a positive light, seldom showing frustration in front of your child. Instead, frame their challenges with as much light-heartedness and humor as possible to convey that their presence in your family is not a burden but a unique blessing. In time, your child will adopt this similar mindset and reintegrate their sibling into their life. No child fits into a single box- this you know having a child with special needs. Your other child is no exception, and enabling them the freedom to navigate the information you’ve given them at their own pace can ultimately help build a better relationship with their sibling.
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