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Siblings & Their Special Needs Brothers & Sisters


Having a child or children with special needs doesn’t just affect parents or those immediate caregivers. Siblings of children with special needs play a very important, unique role in their care and their development. Traditionally parents serve as the main care provider – regardless of the amount of care. However, what happens when mom or dad age and are no longer able to provide physical care or support. Siblings will be in the lives of family members with special needs much longer than anyone else. Brothers and sisters are there to provide support, love and care and can help ensure their siblings are able to live a dignified life.

Brothers and sisters are there defending their sibs from bullies at school, making sure they are getting to doctors appointments, job interviews and are providing a lifetime of love and support. While they love their brothers or sisters unconditionally and are there for support, they also have their own needs and experience many of the demands of being a caregiver. Which unfortunately could lead to resentment, embarrassment, issues with friends or feel overly pressured to be successful.

Siblingsupport.org outlined some great insights as to what siblings of those with special needs would like you to know.

  1. They also have the right to their own lives. Often accommodations are made for the brother or sister with special needs. Parents can easily get wrapped up in the day-to-day needs of caregiving and expect brothers and sisters to just jump in and help. While in most cases the willingness to pitch in is there, the basic right of siblings to live their own lives must also be remembered, and that they have their own interests, passions and unique lives to lead.

  2. Set realistic expectations for everyone. Including your special needs kids. Typically-developing kids will often set high expectations for themselves to feel as though they are somehow compensating for their siblings’ special needs. By offering unconditional support and making expectations clear parents can help their children be successful and not as though they are letting anyone down by not performing to unrealistic standards. What are your expectations for your children with disabilities? Parents and siblings can help develop their family member’s independence by assigning chores and giving them responsibilities. Not only will this help foster independence, but will help lighten the load for their brothers and sisters.

  3. Remember kids are kids. Your typically-developing kids may behaviorally be acting beyond their years, however. Kids fights, they argue and misbehave, even with their special needs brother or sister. A little harmless arguing or “fighting” may help with all children’s development, helping to educate on conflict resolution and how to manage emotional outbursts.

  4. Making friends with other siblings of special needs children. Parents often have support groups, or other peers to lean on when they need advice. Siblings can use the same type of support. Often there isn’t anyone else who truly understands what siblings are going through, other than other siblings of special needs kids. They can relate to parental pressures, emotions, and to the “everyday” routines.

  5. Communicate. Don’t leave siblings out of decision-making. As everyone gets older, keeping siblings in the “know” of medical care, therapies, developmental stages, milestones, etc., will help when the times comes for parents to hand over the proverbial reigns. Siblings talk to each other. You special needs kid may share with their brother or sister information that they may not share with a parent. Keeping an open line of communication between kids and caregivers and allowing siblings to be a part of the decision-making process will help care become “family-centric,” rather than parent focused.

  6. Consider options for the future. Brothers and sisters will worry about obligations very early in life. Parents can reassure their children by making plans for the future of their special needs children and listen to what their typically-developing children have to say. Their feelings and attitudes will change and evolve so there should be back-up plans and again an open line of communication between everyone in the family. Everyone has a right to their own lives, and this includes the amount and level of involvement of care for their siblings as they all enter into adulthood.

  7. Don’t forget one-on-one time. Taking time to spend alone time with each child individually can give relationships a recharge. This will provide an opportunity to talk and catch up and to give parents the chance to reinforce they are “there” for them as well and love them just as much as their brothers and sisters. Take the time to celebrate individual achievements and milestones. Celebrate the uniqueness that is each child.

Brothers and sisters have a unique bond and having a brother or sister with a disability makes that bond even more entwined. Siblings can pose a high risk of “caregiver burnout” as they often, will be the longest care provider their brother or sister will have. Establishing a strong familial foundation will help care for the siblings as well as the brother or sister with disabilities. Love and compassion and thoughtfulness will keep those relationships and family ties strong.

To learn how programs of the Allen County Board of Developmental Disabilities can help your family, call 419-221-1385.

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