Challenges and Benefits of Having a Sibling with Special Needs
Having a sibling with special needs is a unique experience, both challenging and beneficial. Although children undoubtedly love their special needs siblings, complicated feelings can arise, and coping with them is a big job. Love, appreciation and compassion can mix up with jealousy, worry, resentment, fear, responsibility and anger. Parents who are in tune to their children’s feelings can help them work through the negative emotions and turn those challenges into benefits.
Challenge: Others’ insensitivity
Unfortunately, kids with special needs often find themselves the target of teasing. Kids—or even adults—who don’t understand other people’s differences may make insensitive comments, ask inappropriate questions or just make fun of someone who is different from them. Siblings of special needs kids may feel the need to constantly stand up for their sibling, explain their situation to others or may be the brunt of teasing themselves. “One of the biggest challenges in growing up with my sister was watching her get laughed at,” says Justin Lyons, brother of Kara, who has cerebral palsy. Parents can help their kids work through this challenge by equipping them with the right answers for those awkward questions and teaching them how to handle bullying in an appropriate way.
Benefit: Development of dependability, loyalty and compassion
After years of watching someone they love get teased, siblings of special needs kids naturally develop a strong sense of loyalty to those they care about, as well as a strong compassion toward others. Even though watching Kara get teased was hard for Lyons, he says, “I think it made me less likely to laugh at or tease other people.” Kids who grow up in a home with a special needs sibling typically become dependable, compassionate and loyal adults.
Parents do their best to treat their children fairly and spend equal amounts of time caring for each one. But when a member of the family has developmental delays or significant medical needs, that balance can become extremely difficult to achieve, and jealousy often develops. Kids may feel they get less attention or that their parents spend more time caring for the sibling. Guilt over these feelings often strikes these children, causing them to be more upset and resentful. As a parent, try to be understanding and patient about your child’s jealous feelings. Talking it through and having someone listen and take him seriously will help your child feel loved and included. If possible and appropriate, welcome your child to join you in caring for the sibling, but don’t push the issue.
Benefit: Self-control and thoughtfulness
First, remember that sibling rivalry and feelings of jealousy are normal in any sibling relationship. As your child learns to wait for her parent to be free to help her, she will learn patience and self-control. She also will learn to put others’ needs before her own.
Challenge: Worry and fear
When children are around a sibling with serious medical challenges, lowered immunity or special needs, they may experience worry or fear about their sibling’s health. Children may not be able to express those feelings the same way an adult can. They may act out, become overly emotional or appear aloof to what is going on around them. Parents can help kids by being honest about health concerns in an age-appropriate way. By including your children in this discussion, you can reduce their fear of the unknown and reassure them as well.
Benefit: Compassion and empathy for others
Kids exposed to someone with medical and developmental challenges naturally become more compassionate and empathetic to others with struggles. “I attribute my sense of understanding and compassion to growing up with my sister,” says Michelle Hupp, sister to Felicia, an adult with Down syndrome.
Challenge: Complicated and mixed feelings
Just as each person has individuality, kids experience a variety of feelings related to their sibling with special needs. Some kids may feel pressure to live up to their parents’ expectations for themselves—and for the sibling who may never reach certain milestones. Kids also may feel resentment, anger, frustration or like they are missing out on activities or experiences because their sibling’s care puts restrictions on certain activities. “Siblings often feel guilty about any negative feeling such as jealousy,” says Hupp. “The rewards more than outweigh the negatives, but sometimes the negatives are hard to talk about.” None of these feelings are fun to discuss and often grow guilt, causing children to feel even more resentment toward the sibling. Some of these feelings may be difficult to overcome, and parents may not know exactly what their child is feeling or how to deal with him. If you think negative feelings are becoming a problem, consider seeking professional help to support your child’s development in a healthy way and encourage an appropriate relationship between all of your children.
Benefit: A variety of positive characteristics
These emotional challenges are a reality, but kids also develop a wide variety of wonderful characteristics from their experience: kindness, patience, compassion, acceptance of differences, helpfulness and empathy. All of these qualities are wonderful and will serve children well as they contribute to society.
Being a sibling of a special needs person is a unique and sometimes challenging experience, but most people will tell you they have benefitted from it. Parents can take heart as they think of the long-term benefits that will enrich their children and help them learn to shape their challenges into successes.
Sarah Lyons is a freelance writer that lives in Olathe with her family.