Originally Sent: 8/8/2013
August 8, 2013
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Taking Care of Siblings
By Krisa Winn
Most of the parents I speak with who are raising children with special needs are also raising children who are developing typically. In terms of parenting, these moms (and dads) are dealing with more issues than the normal sibling rivalry and clash in personalities.
Sure, they’re concerned about their children with special needs. But they are still challenged with providing their other children with “normal childhood” experiences: giving them enough attention, not overloading them with worries, balancing out household responsibilities, meeting emotional needs, and more.
While preparing for this article, I was amazed when I recalled the number of people I know personally who have either been the sibling of or are the parents of a child with special needs. I also learned about Joe and Cindi Ferrini, a husband and wife team who have recently written a book called Unexpected Journey. The Ferrinis have three children, one of whom has significant special needs. Their experiences, along with those of my personal acquaintances, have been helpful in putting together the following parenting tips for taking care of the siblings of children with special needs.
It is hard to demonstrate love to people who don’t reciprocate that love in return. This is a reality for many children who have brothers or sisters who can’t “pick up” on body language or social cues, or who recoil at physical touch. Although it can be heartbreaking to observe your child being seemingly rejected by his or her sibling, it provides a real-life picture of what God has done for us. (See Romans 5:6-8). As parents, we can take these opportunities, and use them to share biblical truth with our children.
Joe and Cindi Ferrini encourage families to “create an environment in the home where you treat each other kindly.” This sounds so simple, and yet when we allow love to filter our conversations and interactions, everyone benefits.
When it comes to developing the character quality of self-control and the subsequent discipline of children with special needs, parents need wisdom and discernment. In the case of a child with ADHD, for instance, it is often difficult to determine what behavior is intentional and what is truly uncontrollable (or at least hard to control). One thing is certain; however, typically developing children have a strong sense of justice. When their sibling seemingly “gets away” with something they would never get by with there’s going to be trouble in paradise! In some cases, it may be necessary to have a behavior plan in place for the child with special needs, and to explain this plan to the other children in the home. Being open and explaining that their sibling is being disciplined, just in a way that is more appropriate to their needs, usually is enough to calm their worries about being treated unfairly.
Along those same lines, a friend of mine who has a child with autism feels that it is very important to help a child with special needs develop a sense of responsibility and self-discipline. She points out that even though these children may have areas of weakness, they are still very capable of doing some things for themselves and carrying out routine chores—even if it is as simple as feeding the dog each day. My friend is also a special education teacher and worries that very often parents are doing too much for and expecting too little of their child with special needs. The end result is a young person who has learned helplessness and perhaps siblings who resent the fact that they had to carry so much of the “load” during the growing-up years.
It is critical to acknowledge and celebrate each family member’s strengths. We all have something we can contribute to the family. Speaker and author Barbara Newman has developed a wonderful tool called the Inclusion Awareness Kit. It includes a lesson plan and supplies that tangibly demonstrate to adults and children how we all fit together in “God’s Body Puzzle.” This would be a great activity to do as a family to emphasize how we all need each other and how each person in the family has an important role to play.
The Ferrinis point out that “caring for a child with special needs can be hard on a marriage, but don’t forget that it can be hard on your other children too.” Did you know that even in the womb, an unborn child is aware of and sometimes affected by the emotions of his or her mother? Neuroscience research is confirming that God has created us to be empathetic. (For more information on empathy during early development see the links listed below.) Children pick up on things. And with that in mind, it is important not to marginalize what your typically developing children may be experiencing or feeling. Talk to them individually about “how they’re doing;” share with them in age-appropriate ways the needs of their sibling; allow them the opportunity to spend time doing things they love; provide for counseling if necessary. Pray together; laugh together, and name things you are thankful for. These are all great ways to build up joy in the midst of stressful situations.
At a recent event, the Ferrinis spoke about other ways to have fun as a family, even when one or more of the family members has significant needs. In their own home, they found things they could do together as a family unit. It may have been a simple game or activity, but it was fun to enjoy each other’s company. At other times though, it’s good to find someone who can care for your child with special needs so that the rest of the family can spend time doing things that are often limited to them. It could be as adventurous as taking a trip down white water rapids, or as simple as spending a quiet evening at a special restaurant. As I mentioned in my article, “Rest, Respite and Relief”, it’s all right and even healthy to take breaks from caregiving from time to time. Not only will you be having fun, but you’ll also be speaking volumes to your other children as you demonstrate your commitment to their happiness and well-being.
In reading and talking to others, I’ve heard over and over again how growing up with a brother or sister with special needs has had positive effects—not negative. Many parents relate how caring and loving their typically developing children are towards “the least of these” outside their family circle, and how some have even chosen careers that allow them to work with children who have special needs or significant medical challenges. However, I completely acknowledge that is not always the case and that concern for siblings of children with special needs is a legitimate one.
Some of you reading this article may still be in the stunned stage. This isn’t the reality that you imagined when you planned your future, and you’re anxious beyond words. I hope that you will be encouraged and recognize that you don’t have to walk this journey alone. God still has a good plan you and for every single one of your children.
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