Caring for Siblings of Special Needs Children

A few years ago, our family of five headed to the zoo for a birthday celebration for our youngest. It was a hot, busy holiday weekend. Within minutes of pulling into the parking lot, my oldest, who has been diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder, was begging to leave. His sister was, naturally, crushed.

Until we had that first conversation about her brother's condition, all she understood was that she wouldn't be seeing the elephants that day. My son cried all the way home, not because he was in distress, but because he felt terrible that his sister's dream birthday plans had changed.

So, how do you turn situations like this into a positive experience? How do you strengthen the bonds between siblings when one of them has special needs? What's the right way to encourage healthy relationships with all of your kids, and help them do the same with one another?

It's an ongoing process, but it begins with a good foundation. Here's how to start.

Make time for each child as an individual. They crave a connection with their siblings that may be difficult for any number of reasons, and they need one-on-one time with their adult caregivers as much as any child.

Make sure your children know that your child with special needs isn't more important than his or her siblings. Keep play dates, enjoy campouts and attend dance recitals. In order for your children to grow as confident, secure individuals, these childhood rites of passage should be honored with your full support and attention. You may not be able to do it all, but you can make sure that you make commitments to each child and stick with them. It builds trust, shows unity and respect for your kids, and helps them understand just how special they all are.

Explain the nature of the special needs of your child to his or her siblings. Encourage them to ask questions and listen to their concerns. Stay open and positive; your demeanor and attitudes will impact the way your children understand this information. Using age-appropriate terms and approaches, invite your children to explore the nature of the condition.

Each child plays an essential role in the family team. To do that, they need to be aware of special considerations, abilities, strengths and limitations, and of their own unique contributions.

Acknowledge their feelings. Children with a sibling with special needs may feel jealous at times, resentful, angry, confused, hurt, and even rejected. These feelings aren't shameful and are perfectly normal. By allowing your children to communicate and express themselves in a healthy way when they're upset, parents are better able to address any issues that may arise.

Encourage your children to spend one-on-one time with their siblings. Beautiful relationships often have the simplest of rituals that bond us together. Remind them of the things they enjoy together (a favorite food or movie), support quiet times (reading to one another or doing puzzles together), and try to record these events with videos and photos when you can. When things become challenging, remind your children of these positive experiences.

Put it all together. We did eventually get back to the zoo, and we were all much better prepared this time. My oldest son held his little sister's water bottle and showed her the best vantage point from which to see the baby elephants. They'd worked it out…with just a little bit of help from mom and dad.

Finding ways to enrich our relationships with our children and taking steps to ensure that siblings have good relationships with one another is something for which every good parent strives. When a child has special needs, this requires us to be that much more resourceful. Like all parenting, however, the right approach can help turn these challenges into opportunities for enrichment and growth.

Content by Kimberly Morgan.