Do siblings of children with disabilities need help?

unhappy-little-boyBrothers and sisters of a child with special needs are often negatively affected according to a July 2013 study in Pediatrics

If you have a child with special needs, you know all too well the enormous time, energy and resources you expend to take care of her. You do it lovingly and willingly, and often to the exclusion of everything else. But what happens when you have more than one child? As much as you try to divide yourself among all of your children, it may be impossible to give attention to your other children when your child with a disability is in need of support or attention at that same moment. You can’t read a bedtime story to Johnny if Susie needs her therapy. It would be like going out for coffee instead of putting out a fire. It just doesn’t work. You try to divide yourself as equally as possible, but the responsibilities of caring for a child with a disability often make it impossible to be equitable. But, will there be long term effects on the “typical” siblings?

The results of this study

Although there have been other studies that have looked at the effects on brothers and sisters, this study was much larger. More importantly, it looked at families with children who live with a sibling with a disability and compared them to families with children who live with siblings who are typically developing.

This study examined how the parents’ care of a child with special needs impacts the other children in the family. The study found that children who have a sibling with a disability are more likely to experience difficulty functioning at school, in sports or activities, and with friends. They tended to get sick more frequently and experience more relationship problems, especially with their mother. They also experienced more psychological or emotional difficulties than children who did not have a sibling with a disability. But, children who had another typically developing sibling (in addition to a disabled sibling) tended to do better than a child with only one sibling who is disabled. (You can read more about this study here.) 
 
I don’t find these results surprising, do you? When you parent a child with special needs, your world centers around your child with a disability – it is only natural. Often, this is such a time-consuming task that your other children may feel that they do not get enough time to bond with Mom or Dad. You do your best, but your typically developing children definitely get a different kind of upbringing. The study authors commented “It is not that parents overlook their other children who are typically developing. Parents worry that they can’t provide enough for all their children.” Sound familiar?

This study emphasized the financial, physical and emotional toll of caring for a child with a disability. All of these stressors can lead to not noticing or having the time to deal with early signs of trouble in your “typical” children. If left untreated, these problems can lead to mental illness (such as depression and anxiety) and behavioral problems that negatively impact a child’s life. (Not to mention that all of this stress can affect you and your spouse or partner, too!) But don’t beat yourselves up parents – you are not super-human. Instead, let’s look at possible solutions.

So, what is the upshot?

First of all, not all siblings wind up having problems. But if they do, the study authors suggest “a family-based health care approach for all family members.”  Interventions aimed at helping parents learn better ways of juggling and managing stress, as well as providing strategies to help the brothers and sisters cope, can be very helpful.

   • Check to see if your town has any support groups for parents of children with special needs. You may learn time management skills and other tips to help you balance the parenting load, and spend more time with your “typical” children. The extra coping and parenting skills for Mom and Dad will have a trickle down effect and help everyone in the family.

If you see any of your children acting out or turning inward and withdrawing, explore getting him help as soon as possible. You can do this in a several ways:

   • take your child to his pediatrician for a check-up and discuss your concerns;
   • have your child join a siblings support group;
   • have your child speak with the counselor, social worker or psychologist at his school. Often, in a private setting with a non-family member, a child will open up about his feelings. This relief may go a long way in modifying his behavior and lifting his mood.

Try to get the ball rolling on getting your typical children help as early as possible. Early assessment and interventions can make a huge and lasting difference.

Bottom line

There is no doubt about it – life with a child with a disability affects all family members. You are not alone in your journey. Reach out for assistance and you will see that every little bit of help…helps.

What has worked for your family? We’d love to hear from you.

Note: This post is part of the weekly series Delays and disabilities – how to get help for your child. It was started on January 16, 2013 and appears every Wednesday. Go to News Moms Need and click on “Help for your child” on the menu on the right side to view all of the blog posts to date. As always, we welcome your comments and input.

Have questions? Send them to AskUs@marchofdimes.com.

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2 Responses to “Do siblings of children with disabilities need help?”

  1. Judy McKeown Says:

    My daughter has two children: a 9-yr old special needs son with mild CP and some autistic tendencies and a 6-yr old daughter who is typical and very bright. I’m am concerned about the 6-yr old’s social interaction with classmates and other children in general. Are there any support groups for families with disabled children in the LaVergne/Smyrna area or in Murfreesboro in Rutherford County, Tennessee?

    Thank you for any assistance you may be able to offer.

    Judy McKeown

  2. Barbara Says:

    Hello Judy,

    Yesterday’s News Moms Need post, “Caring for the siblings of a child with special needs” discussed how to find resources for your typically developing children. I think you will find the info that you need in that post. Hope it helps!

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