Does your child or children with special needs have a brother or sister?
Having a child with special needs in the family not only affects the individual, but it obviously affects all members of the family.
As a physical therapist serving the special needs community and hosting sibling workshops (Sibshops) for quite some time now, I wanted to share what I’ve learned about the sibling experience–the challenges they face, the emotions they struggle with, and, of course, the silver lining.
The Challenges Siblings Face…
If you’re a parent reading this, you may be surprised to see that so many of the challenges you feel are actually directly in line with the challenges your children are undergoing too.
Routinely, support programs are offered to parents, but it is not typical to see support offered for the siblings.
It’s important that we talk about the very special younger (or older) humans that grow up alongside the child with special needs.
If you really think about it, siblings will likely spend the most time and be in their lives the longest out of anybody, including therapists, parents, and extended family members.
With that said, let’s cover the challenges and emotions a sibling may experience who has a brother or sister with special needs.
Friends Not “Getting It”
If you can think back to when you were younger, around your child’s age…especially middle school where the start of drama truly begins, I bet you can remember it being a little bit of a challenge.
It’s that weird time where you’re not really sure who you are yet.
You are certain of all of your insecurities and choose to care a whole lot about things that won’t matter ten years from now.
Finding a group of friends is hard enough already at that age.
Then let’s tack on having a sibling with special needs, it can make it really challenging to find true friends.
Not only do they have natural insecurities about themselves, but they have insecurities about their family too.
They try bringing friends over who don’t understand why their sibling yells, hits, bites, doesn’t talk, can’t sit up by themselves, the list goes on and on.
We’ve heard countless stories just about that.
Managing Their Feelings and Emotions…
I can’t tell you how many times we’ve heard how frustrating it is for them when they are held to a different set of standards than their sibling.
Yes, they realize their sibling can’t help it sometimes but they often get frustrated that if their sibling does something such as get angry, hit, yell, etc., that they don’t receive the same punishment.
They often will express that their parents will yell at them for something but if their sibling does it, they don’t receive the same punishment.
The Need To Be Perfect
We often see siblings of special needs kids being competitive to be the best or being a classic example of a “perfectionist.”
These kids are extremely special, but they place so much added stress on themselves because of everything they see you as a parent going through.
The need to be perfect may stem from a couple of reasons…
- A compensation mechanism to “make up” for their sibling’s deficits in behavior or abilities
- To not add to the stressors on their parents
Either way, it is extremely prevalent amongst these sibs.
Fear typically comes up in every single workshop.
It’s the topic that no matter what discussion we facilitate, their fears become exposed.
Sometimes it’s fear of not fitting in with their friends.
Sometimes it’s fear of being alone.
And even sometimes it’s fear of what will happen as their sibling gets older.
These fears are way beyond their years and way beyond what any “typical” sibling will ever have to think about.
No matter how much you are able to keep “normalcy” a part of their everyday life, their reality is different.
The Silver Lining
Alongside the unique challenges the sibs face, they also get to experience unique opportunities.
Let’s talk about that “silver lining”…
This has to be the number one thing listed here.
They often experience such hard times with their own family that when someone else goes through something tough, they feel it for them.
When our Sibshop kids share their experiences of something tough they went through, or a sad moment that they wanted to talk about, the others so intently listen and share in the feelings with them.
During one of our workshops, we played a game with a chart of feelings.
They had to roll the ball to a chart and whichever feeling it landed on, they could share a story of that emotion.
One of the young girls rolled the ball and it landed on ‘Sadness’.
She shared that she felt sad that she didn’t get that much one on one time with her parents. She felt sad that her sister wasn’t able to control herself and would often hit her parents when they were trying to help her. She felt sad because she saw how frustrated her mom was when her sister was having a bad day and she still tried to smile.
She described each of these moments to the group and everyone sat in complete stillness and silence to listen.
I will never forget how she told her story and at the very end of all of that said, “I feel sad for my parents because I know they are doing their best. I know they have so much to do and it must be so hard for them.”
They see your struggles and understand. They feel it with you and know you are still doing your best.
These children are faced with so much added burden and encounter situations that a typical child their age doesn’t have to, but they always pull through it.
They pull through all of the obstacles placed in front of them and always gain insight and learn from their experiences.
They’ve seen you struggle, go through stress, be scared, and face obstacles nearly every single day of their lives…and they’ve seen you pull through with resilience.
They’ve been able to learn from their hardships because they’ve seen their parents do it.
They learned it from seeing you, their parents, be resilient.
While it’s easy for them to sit there and be angry, frustrated, or annoyed at their situations, I often find that when we practice gratitude as a group during our Sibshop program, they always have gratitude for the simplest and purest of things.
Sure, sometimes it’s about the video games or a birthday present they got, but often it’s the bigger and greater things in life; health, time with family, and time with their sib.
During one of our workshops, we asked them to share their favorite memory.
They had to think of a memory that made them so happy.
You can probably guess, nearly all of them stated a memory that involved their sibling.
It wasn’t a materialistic type of memory of getting a gift or something they received.
One of our young girls told us how she can’t describe it very well but one day, her twin brother was laughing uncontrollably. She described how he likes to quote movies and shows and how sometimes she gets annoyed by it but he just happened to quote something really funny one day and he laughed. She giggled as she told the story too.
At the end of it, she said “I know it just seems like something that’s not very special but I don’t know why, it’s just my favorite memory. Seeing him smile and be happy makes me happy.”
If we all acted with an ounce of the understanding and patience these children demonstrate on a daily basis, the world would be a much different place.
Their ability to share emotions, make connections with one another, and speak with poise and understanding even if they feel they’ve been mistreated, is invaluable.
Dr. Christine Astarita, PT – Owner and Founder of Breakthrough Intensive PT
We want to wrap up by extending our gratitude to thank you for stopping by today!
What are the challenges or emotions your child experiences with their special needs brother or sister?
We’d love to hear from you in the comments below.
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