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How siblings cope with a disability

What about me?

Doing my daily chore of dirty dishes, I glanced out my kitchen window to see my daughter jumping off the truck repeatedly.

Fearing injury to not only her, but also her new school clothes, I rushed out to reprimand her and demand an answer for her actions.

"I'm trying to break my leg. I want attention," she screamed in her furious 8-year-old voice.

It was then that I realized the incredible impact my son's epilepsy was having on his siblings. I questioned my parenting skills, and wondered how I had not seen what was happening to our family as I ran through the myriad of doctor's appointments, medications and specialized testing on my never-ending, autopilot, mommy mode.

According to child psychologist Joyce Anthony from Eerie, Pennsylvania, it's not uncommon for siblings to act up to call attention to themselves. A special needs child takes up a lot of time and energy, she states. Often parents don't realize their other children are feeling ignored.

Anger and resentment are common for a sibling of a child with a disability, so to handle frequent outbursts, like the one with my daughter, Anthony recommends placing the child in time out until he or she has calmed down. At that point, you should take the time to talk to the child and find out what the issue is -- is the child feeling stressed? Neglected? Forgotten?

Anthony continues on to say, "A parent needs to understand that the two basic emotions of love and fear are what cause the rest- often anger is brought about by a child feeling some basic need is threatened."

Embarrassment can be common as well to siblings, especially older children such as teenagers who are often facing challenges of their own. Anything that is not considered normal to the outside world can bring a flush face to a sibling. Behavioral issues, seizures, or being bound to a wheelchair can cause stares from the everyday public.

Debbie, from Virginia Beach, states her 15-year-old son is often embarrassed by his 3-year-old sister's autism.

"My kids understand that she has problems," Debbie explains, "but she can really embarrass us sometimes. My older two kids frequently ask me, 'is that an autism thing, or just a three-year old thing???'"

When behavior problems start, or seizures come on fast and furiously leaving a child in a post-ictal state, it's not uncommon for a family to have to cancel or change family plans to accommodate the child.

"Usually we'll pick one of us to stay home with her," Joanne from Arizona comments about her 4-year-old stepdaughter with bipolar disorder. "It's always behavior related. The kids have gotten used to it," she continues, "But it's a strain on my husband and I because we never seem to get to do anything all together as a family anymore."

"Another problem arises when the non-disabled child feels responsible for protecting and caring for the disabled child," Anthony comments when asked if it's common for siblings to feel protective or nurturing of their disabled sibling.

Linda, from London, Ontario, who is now an adult thinks back to when she was growing up with a stepbrother who had brain damage and was bound to a wheelchair. She remembers the protectiveness she felt towards him.

"I used to get very angry at other kids for how they treated him and me," she said.

"I remember by sister and I started to teach him to read and we were so proud of him when he started grasping some of the basic words. It meant a lot to us," she said.

When Joanne talks about her other children and their part in the care giving, she states, "I don't allow the other kids to deal with the behavior issues"

She currently has two children with learning disabilities, out of the six children in her household.

"I do allow my eldest to baby-sit occasionally, but if there are behavior problems with either of my step kids, she has to call us," Joanne said.

It's important for the overall health of your other child to feel special and loved. You can help hold back future resentment by following these simple rules of thumb:

  • Set up one on one time with your child, on a consistent basis;  
  • Encourage your child to express their feelings, even if negative, so you can discuss concerns. Remind them to speak respectfully, and not yell out;
  • Give your child a notebook, or journal to jot down their feelings when they're feeling overwhelmed;
  • Writing notes back and forth between my daughter and I helped considerably when she was too frustrated to talk or didn't want to listen. It helped to express feelings, and take some of the added stress off her shoulders until she was ready to sit down for a one-on-one discussion.

Anthony recommends setting up a date with your child, and sticking to it, even if it means getting a babysitter. Make sure it's regularly scheduled so they have something to look forward to. One-on-one time shows them that they are special too, and worth spending time with. Just as a parent needs a break from care giving, so does the child.

There can be plus signs though, to growing up in a special needs household, and I think Linda can sum it up best from her years of experience.

"I have to say that I am glad we grew up in a special needs family. It taught me about a lot of things that many people don't understand, or even care to understand," she said.

Parents with children that have special needs know how hard it is to balance a family life when one child requires extra attention. Making sure your other children have their special time with you, can lead to a lesson that they'll be grateful to have learned in their older years.

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