What about the sibling of a child with learning challenges?
Written by: Heather Bragg
Being the sibling of a child with a developmental disability, learning challenge or other special need can be complicated.
As with any sibling relationship, these brothers and sisters will play a variety of roles throughout life; playmate, confidant, teacher, protector, friend, enemy, follower and role model. Sibling relationships are often the longest-lasting relationships, and the “typical” sibling’s role will change over time, often taking on many of the concerns around caregiving that had been their parents’ jurisdiction during childhood. With over 4.5 million people with special needs in the United States, that leaves many brothers and sisters with a wide range of concerns and need for support.
So what can we, as parents, do to support our “typical” children as they face a long-term journey with their special-needs sibling?
Expect typical behavior—this includes conflict. Normal conflict is a part of healthy social development, even if it is difficult to watch. Typically developing children, like all children, get angry, misbehave and fight with their siblings sometimes. While it may make our lives more difficult, telling them “You should know better” or “It is your job to compromise” can result in feelings of guilt and undue pressure on the typical child.
Have the same expectations around chores and responsibilities, to the extent possible and reasonable. Holding all children to similar expectations promotes independence and helps quell resentment that often stems from having two sets of expectations.
Celebrate the achievements of everyone in the family. Having a child with special needs in the family makes attending events more challenging. As much as possible, one child’s special needs should not steal the spotlight from another child’s achievements. Acknowledging milestones of other children often requires arranging respite resources, creative problem-solving and flexibility on the part of all family members.
The greatest influence on a child’s understanding of his or her sibling with special needs is the parent’s perspective. The meaning and purpose we find in life’s challenges has a greater impact on our well-being than the challenges themselves. Parents who find and utilize information and resources, and whose interpretation of their child’s disability is infused with peace and grace, model a healthy interpretation for all of their children.