Loving on Siblings of a Child with a Disability, and Helping Them Cope

Eddie with his sisters in 2014

We have two children; both girls, sixteen months apart. My oldest was given a “failure to thrive” label very early in life, which has yet to be removed, and my youngest has developed typically. Madeline, the oldest, well, I worry about her! At any given meal I’m questioning, “How can I get Madeline to eat more?” “Is she choking again?” “Is she not eating because…” “Should I be concerned about…”. You probably know the routine. Our mother (or papa!) bear mindsets are protective, worried, and all too often hyper-focused on our child who struggles to meet a milestone, make a friend, or in our case, gain a pound.

This isn’t always negative. The siblings of a child with a label or disability learn to share attention, consider others, wait patiently, be helpful, and act supportively. These are certainly positive aspects.

But our time and attention far disproportionately showered on one child can be quite confusing to “siblings”.

So let’s brainstorm together.

What can we do now, over this summer, and beyond to show each child how important and worthy of our attention they are? I’ll give you my ideas and I hope you comment with yours.

  • Invite each child on a separate “date” with you. Forge new memories as you participate in activities of each child’s interests. Your undivided attention will speak volumes.
  • Create a picture memory book or short biography of each child, with the help of each child if he or she is interested. This can be as simple as journaling the child’s birth story, milestones, accomplishments, and interests. Each child will recognize his own story and understand that you think it is significant.
  • Recognize each child’s accomplishments. You can celebrate positive behavior, progress in recreational activities, and improvement in school.

What can we do to help “siblings” identify and cope with their feelings?

  • Consider encouraging “siblings” to attend a summer camp for siblings of children with special needs.
  • If you haven’t already, connect with other families who have children with disabilities. The “siblings” can share feelings and can understand they aren’t the only ones to have a sibling with special needs.
  • Ask your child with a visual impairment to describe her experience with no or minimal sight to her siblings. Additionally, each “sibling” can wear a blindfold while engaging in an activity and the child with a visual impairment can teach her sibling how to accomplish the task without sight. The sighted siblings will learn that their visually impaired sibling requires more direct instruction, which feels like more attention.
  • Remember to talk with “siblings” about their feelings (including adoration, protectiveness, worry, anxiety, embarrassment, fear, resentment, jealousy, and anger) toward the child with a disability and don’t hesitate to seek professional counseling for “siblings” and the entire family if needed.

As always, I would love your thoughts and suggestions. We need each other.

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