It’s often said that parenting is one of the hardest, but most rewarding, jobs there is. No two children are the same and caring for the household and meeting each child’s unique needs is a balancing act. When a child has special needs – or even an issue that at times demands more time and attention – this balance often becomes even more delicate. Children with more involved needs, whether physical, emotional or developmental, will naturally receive extra attention from parents and other caregivers. There are many approaches parents can take to maximize limited resources to meet each child’s individual needs for time and attention.
Help them understand
It can be helpful to explain the situation in terms that the child will understand. They probably know their sibling has unique needs, but they may not understand why or how this may change over time. Allow the child to ask questions and be as open and honest as you can.
Listen to their feelings and concerns
Even when children understand their sibling’s special needs, they may struggle with conflicting emotions. They may feel the need to be protective and care for their sibling but also feel resentful of the time and attention the sibling receives from parents. Siblings of a child with special needs may be worried or feel the need to be perfect to avoid being a burden for the parents. Siblings may themselves feel “different” or embarrassed about their sibling’s differences. Children need an adult to help them cope with these complex emotions.
Help them with their feelings
Parents can help the child by accepting their feelings and acknowledging that negative feelings can be normal. Allowing children a safe space to express and explore their feelings, helping them recognize misplaced feelings, and facilitating problem-solving to cope with their concerns will promote good adjustment. Try to make one-on-one time for these conversations on a regular basis to show your child that they are valued and to stay tuned in to their emotions which will likely change over time.
Seek support for you
It is important for parents to recognize and accept their own stress and difficult emotions such as anxiety, sadness, guilt and anger. A support system involving friends, family members, support groups, as well as mental health professionals, can be helpful in lessening the stress experienced by the family. It is important to realize that taking care of yourself goes a long way in having the ability to support your children and meet their emotional, physical and medical needs.
Find support for siblings
Sometimes children have questions or feelings that they don’t feel comfortable sharing with their parents. In this case, it can be helpful to seek the help of a trusted adult who can provide a listening ear and some guidance on how to handle these emotions. This may be your pediatrician, a counselor, another mental health professional or even a family friend. For those who have a sibling with chronic, long-term special needs, it may also be valuable to seek a support group, summer camp or another avenue for children to meet peers and make new friends in similar situations. Finding support can help children feel less isolated.
Develop a schedule
With medical appointments, meetings, medications, other responsibilities and the level of support one child may need, time and resources can become stretched thin. Developing a general schedule can be helpful for a couple reasons. First, children thrive on routines and knowing what to expect. It can also help in ensuring time for everyone to have meals, naps, homework help, baths, snuggles, one-on-one time and other important daily activities.
Foster their unique strengths
All children need to be recognized as individuals with their own strengths, skills and abilities. Find activities that each child enjoys and that provide opportunities for trying new things, building self-esteem and celebrating achievements. Utilize these activities as opportunities for positive interactions and one-on-one time with each child.
Allow them to be kids
Siblings are often tapped to help out with caregiving, chores and other responsibilities. This can be particularly beneficial in helping them cultivate the qualities of patience, compassion and empathy. Parents should be mindful that the siblings do not feel an undue burden. They need time to focus on schoolwork, friends and just being kids.
A family with a child with special needs faces multiple demands that present challenges to their daily functioning. Tuning in to siblings’ emotional needs by giving them time and resources to help them adapt can go a long way in developing strong, resilient and well-adjusted children as well as families.
By Dr. Jaee Bodas, licensed clinical psychologist