All children require a certain amount of care and nurturing, but that amount can be double or even triple for a child with special needs. One of the biggest worries for many parents is how one child’s disability will affect other kids in the family. Siblings may feel deep love for their brother or sister with a disability and take pride in their role as protector, helper, and advocate. But when it comes down to it they’re still just kids. Kids get mad, throw tantrums and need a great deal of patience, affection – and attention – to thrive. It can be hard for a small child to understand that parents simply cannot provide all of the attention that they want because they’re busy caring for the child with special needs. In our experiences, siblings of kids with special needs become exceptionally compassionate, responsible, and loving people as they grow. But that’s not to say there aren’t challenges.
Children are well known for their sense of wonder, of delight and interest in things that adults simply accept as an everyday part of life. Siblings of a special needs child are often able to keep this childlike feeling for much longer than other children, due to their proximity to an individual who experiences these feelings every day. Developmental milestones are always something to be celebrated, and when brothers or sisters are able to participate in helping their sibling achieve they see the true joy of helping and uplifting others. The positive effect throughout their childhood and youth is difficult to put into words, but simply watching these families together shows the deep and enduring bond that is created between siblings.
Growing in Compassion
Compassion for our fellow man is not something that everyone is born with; it must be nurtured throughout childhood and reinforced throughout our lives. Parents of multiple children find that all of their children exhibit grace, compassion, and patience in greater measures than other children. The ability to see their special needs sibling as someone deserving of love, care and acceptance provide siblings with a compassionate nature that only expands as they grow older to include others with different abilities. The sense of tolerance extends beyond family boundaries to helping others with special needs children, even if it’s only with a smile and a kind word when you see someone who is struggling.
A Sense of Independence
Children naturally wish to become more independent as they age, but siblings of children with special needs will find a special appreciation for their ability to become independent and place more value on the trait. Their siblings with severe intellectual disabilities, speech or other developmental delays may never know what it means to completely care for themselves and will always be dependent upon others for their care. Siblings that grow up and move away from home will truly realize the freedom that they have is a gift, and one that shouldn’t be taken for granted. That sense of independence becomes even stronger when they see that their special needs family members may never have an opportunity to fall in love, go to college, have a career or travel the world.
A Lessened Sense of Self
When you are focused on meeting the needs of a special sibling, it can be difficult if not impossible to spend time with your other family members. This can cause loneliness, withdrawal and even cause siblings to feel that their problems or concerns are being marginalized. While this is unlikely to be the case, that still doesn’t change the way it feels to a child. Some children are simply unable to attend special events such as birthday parties or special recitals, causing one parent to stay home while the other attends an event with siblings. Siblings may feel that their small problem, such as a bad day or a bullying incident at school, isn’t important enough to share since their special needs brother or sister requires constant and intensive care. Conversely, siblings may begin to act out in order to get some more attention and time with parents and other authority figures.
Overall, there are additional challenges with being the sibling of a special needs child, but there are significant benefits as well. What you must always remember is that a sibling is still a sibling, regardless of their abilities. Your children will let you know when they need additional attention, but it can be helpful to set aside even 10-15 minutes per day to spend with each child. This special time helps them through all the other times that may include some difficulties.