7 ways to offer siblings of Special Needs Kids, support.

He’s a remarkable child. I say that with a slight bias since he belongs to me, but truly, if you’d ever happen upon my 8-year-old son Ian, you’d have a difficult time disagreeing with me.

I believe the bulk of his loving and compassionate nature is attributed to his genetic make-up; he’s inherently a kind soul who thinks of others and wants to do right by the world. But he’s also a sibling of a special needs brother and this puts him in a unique position to experience what it means to be of service to another person day in and day out.

Though Andrew is older than Ian by 18 months, Ian has been more like the older brother in the relationship ever since he began passing up Andrew physically and developmentally. At first it was a reminder of all the milestones my firstborn was missing. After a while I couldn’t help but focus on the miraculous bond between my boys instead.

There are tough days; any parent raising more than one child will tell you that. Siblings don’t always get along. In fact, it’s kind of in their job description not to. But the challenges of having a special needs brother or sister can put additional strain on the relationship and create significant stress on your child. Which is why it’s so important to provide a supportive environment that encourages them to be a helpful and commited member of the family while simultaneously celebrating their own unique gifts and interests.

Below are seven ways to support a sibling of a special needs child. These tips are taken directly out of my life raising Andrew and Ian, and I hope you find them as helpful as I have.

1. Offer an open-door policy that is free of judgment. Your child needs to have a place to vent freely and safely without fearing that there may be repercussions for sharing their frustrations with you, or that you’ll get angry or defensive of your special needs child. Having an open-door policy also allows you to bond with your son or daughter by being a place of comfort and understanding for him or her.

You’re also able to immediately intervene should it be required; for instance, there may be misinformation on the part of your child. Maybe they’re having to deal with teasing and taunting from peers for having a sibling with special needs and they aren’t sure how to respond. In any case, by developing that trust and bond with your child, you’ll hear about it without having to guess, beg, or plead.

2. Be honest. If your special needs child needs a medical procedure that requires a hospital stay, be honest about it with your other child. There’s nothing that creates an environment filled with fear and instability like deceit on the part of parents. Make sure the information you offer is age-appropriate, but don’t underestimate your son or daughter’s ability to handle the truth. Doctor visits, hospitalizations, medications, therapy appointments; these are all par for the course for most special needs families and keeping your kid in the loop by explaining the course of treatment will not only keep them informed, they’ll feel like they’re part of the solution rather than a helpless bystander.

3. Choose quality over quantity. You know how you keep trying to divide your time equally between your children? Stop. It’s not going to happen. It rarely if ever happens with families who aren’t raising a special needs child, let alone those that are. Besides, the only one keeping track in a ledger is you. And do you know what that makes you? Not fun. Of course there aren’t enough hours in the day to accomplish everything on your to-do list AND spend precious time with your kiddos. So make every second count. Relish the time you do have together by making memories instead of staring at the clock.

You already know the truth: your special needs child gets more of you. That’s the nature of your circumstances. But that doesn’t mean the time you do spend with your child ought to be spent fretting about it. Instead, find common interests and explore new opportunities for bonding. Get off the hamster wheel and take a moment to frolics slow motion with your son or daughter. I guarantee they’d much rather spend five minutes with you doing that than an entire hour with a frazzled and exhausted parent.

4. Create a personal space. Everyone needs a small corner of the universe they can call their own. Special needs children often have trouble with boundaries so their siblings are usually left having to share more than what’s typically required or expected of a brother or sister. Over time, this constant invasion of space and privacy can foster resentment in your child and serve to erode at the relationship between your kids. Creating a corner that belongs only to your special needs child’s sibling has to be a priority, particularly as they begin to age. For instance, Ian’s iTouch, baseball equipment, and treasure box are all strictly off limits to Andrew, no matter how much he may beg, plead, tantrum and demand to use them. There has to be something that belongs just to Ian and he has to trust that as his parents it’s our job to make sure it stays that way.
5. Find support groups. There are plenty of them if you just look around, so find one in your area and help your son or daughter connect with other kids who have special needs siblings. I know your child probably has a slew of friends from school and through extracurricular activities, but much in the same way that you find a specific level of understanding when you turn to your own support circles, your child will also benefit from realizing that she isn’t alone and there are kids out there who can relate to her. There’s just something to be said about spending time with people who require no explanation about the circumstances of our lives, where there’s a common denominator and the details don’t matter.

6. Instill a sense of pride in your child. Remind him often that he is truly a mentor to his sibling. Ian feels a sense of responsibility for Andrew and nothing makes him more proud than watching his brother try and emulate him. That empowers Ian and makes him strive to be his best and set a good example for Andrew. He’s taught his brother how to throw a baseball, play chase, jump on a trampoline, enjoy new games on the iPad, pour Cheez-its into a bowl, and dozens of other skills that Andrew had no interest learning from my husband or me. The fact that Andrew looks up to Ian motivates Ian to continue being a pivotal role model for his brother, and motivates Andrew to try new things that he might otherwise refuse or ignore. It’s a win-win for all.

7. Provide plenty of respite. Your child is less likely to suffer from burnout or sibling rivalry if they’re given regular opportunities to come up for air. Playdates with friends, after-school sports, engaging in a hobby – these are all wonderful ways for your child to have some down time from the rigors of daily life.

Of course, you have to choose activities that make sense for your family. Don’t over-commit by signing your child up for too much, especially if you’re already juggling a jam-packed schedule. Take some time to research your options, then sit down with your child and evaluate what’s realistic for the both of you. This way, you’ll lower the risk of a broken heart down the road when you’re forced to forfeit on that promise you made to have your son at karate practice three times a week. Remember, there’s always a compromise. Start small, then build up and adjust as necessary.

I know I don’t have all the answers, but what I do have are two boys I love with all of my heart and soul, and if you’re reading this article, you’re probably in a similar boat. I want them both to be happy and healthy, and while Andrew requires much more immediate intervention on a daily basis, Ian also needs regular “maintenance.”
Most of all he needs to know that he not only matters, but that he makes a difference in his brother’s life and our lives.
And he does. He really, really does.

Jo recently won her very first Journalism Award for Best Feature Article 2012 from The OC Press Club for her piece entitled How an iPad can give a voice to special needs children.

She covets the rare occasion she can finish a cup of coffee before it gets cold, and loves her life in a way that makes other people roll their eyes in annoyance.

© 2012 Jo Ashline. All rights reserved.

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