“Brother for Sale.” Helping Kids Cope with their Sibling’s Disability

What would otherwise be normal sibling rivalry is even more complex between a special needs and a typical child. The child without a disability will experience a wide variety of feelings, all of which are perfectly normal and understandable. As parents, there are some ways to help encourage positive relationships between our children, while also recognizing their different emotional needs.

Here are some typical emotions that siblings of special needs children may experience:

  • Resentment: Siblings might resent the extra attention, time, and emotional focus that is directed toward the special needs sibling. They may resent it if they are given extra responsibilities for the care of their sibling, and resent any personal freedoms lost.
  • Deprivation: Siblings might feel that they are deprived of material things because of the financial burden on the family. They might feel deprived of a normal sibling relationship with their brother or sister.
  • Fear: Brothers and sisters of special needs children may secretly fear that the condition is contagious, or that their sibling might die at any moment. They may wonder about their own future children and whether they will be disabled.
  • Inferiority: They might believe that their family is tarnished in some way and that they don’t measure up to other children. They might believe that the sibling’s disability “shows” in them and that they aren’t like other kids.
  • Anger and Guilt: Children may experience feelings of hate and anger, even wishing their sibling was never born, and then struggle with guilt for having these feelings.
  • Embarrassment: Siblings may be worried that friends and peers will laugh at their disabled sibling, and that strangers will stare at their family when out in public.
  • Jealousy: They may feel that their disabled sibling gets all the special treatment, and is the “prince” or “princess” of the family.
  • Blame: They might blame their mother or father for the sibling’s disability, or even themselves. They might feel that God or fate has been unfair to their family, and may develop a negative outlook on life in general.

Here are some tips to help children deal with these very normal and real feelings:

1. Give children their own space and identity, recognizing their individual strengths. If it’s not possible for children to have their own rooms, make sure they have their own designated space, like a desk, or dresser, or area of the room which is theirs. Be sure to proudly display all of your children’s artwork and awards, and whenever possible attend their sporting events and school functions.

Some might disagree, but I’ve found it a positive thing that my son Kyle attends a different school than his brother who’s one year older. This separation has allowed my older son to develop his own identity outside of his brother’s autism. The different schools happened randomly, due to school boundaries and a better program for Kyle, so it wasn’t a specific choice. However, I think I would choose to separate anyway. They spend all their waking hours at home together, and it’s important to me that my older son can have some parts of his life apart from his brother’s autism.

2. Plan and schedule individual time with your non-disabled children, at least once or twice a month. Take them to lunch, to the park, or someplace where you can interact. A movie might not be the best activity to communicate.

3. Encourage your child to verbally express his feelings. Sometimes this is done by asking questions, and just listening. “Do you ever feel frustrated about your brother?” Don’t react with surprise or disappointment to the child’s answers. Just listen, and nod, and occasionally ask more questions. Resist the urge to lecture, but express understanding for your child’s feelings. Let your child know that her feelings are safe with you, and she can be open and honest. It may be good to avoid talking about the disabled sibling altogether. Instead, focus on that particular child’s goals and interests.

4. Pursue family counseling if problems seem serious. Through your family doctor, social worker, caseworker, or local clergy, get referrals to a good family therapist. Your family’s ability to speak openly will be encouraged, and plans to increase family bonding will be devised. Many states offer sibling programs specifically designed for these issues.

Siblings of special needs children also learn love and compassion, and are ultimately kinder and more understanding people. Don’t worry about initial problems and struggles. Sibling rivalry is normal in any home. And eventually, in a supportive family environment, love will win over all.

Kristyn Crow is the author of this blog. Visit her website by clicking here.