Guest Post by Vicki Miller of Macaroni Kid – Aurora, CO
Having a child with a special need or an illness is challenging enough. It consumes your heart, mind, and soul and leaves you worrying most moments of the day. What is even more challenging is when that child has a sibling. It becomes extremely hard to balance the two children without leaving one feeling left out and alone, hurt and resentful. No parent wants to make their child feel this way, but sometimes they are so overwhelmed they don’t even know how to begin to balance their childrens’ needs.
Depending on the type of illness, challenge or diagnosis the child receives; the reaction of the siblings can vary greatly. The age of the children is a huge factor as well. You may notice some, or all, of the following emotions:
- Resentment towards the sibling that doesn’t have to do chores, go to school, or gets “extra attention”.
- Neglected, worry that they will be “lost in the shuffle”. Get upset when their appointments are changed, games are missed, or achievements (no matter how small) are not acknowledged.
- Become afraid that they will catch the sibling’s disease or problem.
- Anger that their parents are focusing their time and energy on the sibling. May become hurt and disappointed if their colds or flu’s are not treated with as much care as a surgery or hospital stay.
- Anxiety or fear that their sibling will die, and what that means.
- Resentment that the family can’t do certain things due to lack of money that is being put towards hospital bills or other such treatments, or because the sibling cannot attend.
- Guilt because they are healthy, and possibly guilt for being angry at their sibling and feeling like they shouldn’t be.
- Anger and resentment that what is okay behavior for their sibling is not okay for them.
- Hurt because their parents don’t seem to care as much for them. As much as it isn’t true in your eyes, they just don’t see it that way sometimes.
Remember the importance of accepting help. Having a friend or a loved one hang out at the hospital with your sick kiddo will allow you to focus MUCH needed attention on the sibling that is not ill. As much as the one child needs you, you are there for them enough that they may think it is kind of cool to spend time with someone else. The child that you are away from, that doesn’t have to go to the doctor and get special treats after, the one that does homework while you are researching, that watches from the doorway as you give hugs and take temperatures and learn ways to work around autism or whatever it else may be…that child needs special time with YOU.
Don’t schedule an appointment for the day of a big game. For that matter, don’t keep your kids out of other activities due the sibling’s special need. And if you HAVE to do so, don’t use this as the reason. Don’t miss a field trip if you can help it. And definitely give extra special treatment for a cold or flu, or even just a break up or a bad day. You may be surprised to find that the time spent with your children not in the hospital or with special needs gives you a chance to relax. You may be able to see some beauty and relaxation in the world that you haven’t looked at in a while. And it is OKAY TO HAVE FUN!! Don’t feel guilty for laughing or enjoying yourself! And when you are with your other kid, let them lead the conversation. Ask a question or two to let them know it is okay to ask questions or talk about it if they want to, but don’t pressure them to talk about their sibling or the situation and don’t discuss any problems or conflicts associated with it. This is the other child’s time.
Teach your children that their needs are different and that is okay. Imagine how frustrated you would feel if you were eight and your sister didn’t have any chores, missed many days of school, and got ice cream after all their big doctor’s appointments. Or if it was okay that their autistic sibling was able to behave in ways that are TOTALLY unacceptable for them. Keep communication open. While they are complaining, remind them gently that their sibling doesn’t feel it is fair that they get to go out with friends when they don’t. Be sure to recognize even the smallest of accomplishments for your child that doesn’t have special needs. Have an ice cream date before you head to the hospital for the night. Have each sibling buy a present for the other to let them know they are thinking of one another while they are apart. Have dad or a friend stay the night at the hospital and have a movie night with the sibling.
Keep the lines of communication open and consistent. Be sure you tell the siblings that they will not catch the special need or illness of their brother or. Spend specific time each week talking about their fears, problems and thoughts (try to do this at a separate time from your special time with them, though). Remind them gently all of their feelings are normal. Continuously reinforce to them that you love them, are proud of them, and appreciate all they do to help the family. Don’t make them feel bad when they are angry, talk them through it.
Educate yourself and your children and get support. Take the time to visit a library or get information from your doctor and hospital. Find age appropriate books for your child that will give them a good sense of what their sibling is going through. Another fantastic suggestion from a friend of mine is to join a support group for special needs families. This would really help your child to see that they are not alone, and that there are other siblings that feel the exact same way they do, and have the exact same questions. It will also help them to see you are just as concerned about them, and you realize that this is having an effect on them as well.
Just as each child is different, each family is different. Have faith in yourself and your parenting that you will learn as you go along. Allow yourself to be flexible. And be sure you are listening to your mom instinct. It will guide you the direction you need to go. Further, have faith in your children. A wonderful mom I know has one healthy child and one child with special needs. They did go through all of the jealousy and guilt that families go through, and now her son has grown up to be an extremely empathetic young man. He has given back to the special needs community, and he did so without his parents prompting him or encouraging him to do so.