Their sister.” “What an amazing girl.” We hear these words a lot. Spoken with admiration by the” educational staff at the various institutions. Friends and family will say them too. But raising a typical child with special needs siblings, requires special consideration as well. It’s a horrible thing to put in writing, but her piece of mind is probably going to be very important to her siblings’ futures as well. But even if it this is not a consideration she deserves happiness. In this post we will talk about parenting the typical child with special needs siblings. What kind of special attention should be devoted to the typical child, who also deserves a happy childhood.
Raising a happy typical with special needs siblings (autism and epilepsy)
Our 6-year-old daughter was born into a slightly different home. All her brothers are children with special, and quite complex needs. Before she learned to say chocolate she knew how to say autism. At her age she is already an expert in detecting seizures. The girl chose to bring a book about an autistic girl to show-and-tell at preschool. She naively told her peers that she has two such siblings. A girl who knows how to mediate to her siblings from birth, and absorbs their peculiarities with the patience of a Tibetan monk.
Raising a healthy girl alongside three unhealthy or neurodiverse brothers, requires special attention. They have to be constantly monitored and attended to, but we must never forget that she has needs as well.
Learning to notice her even during a sibling’s crisis
Above all, one of the hardest things to keep in mind all the time is how the current crisis is affecting the “typical” brother. And it definitely requires practice. Seeing your brother undergo medical trauma over and over again affects the child’s psyche. The distance from the parents and the difficulties, may impact on the other children in the home.
It is important to talk to them about the issue, to help them calm down. We need to take care of their emotions when needed. And they should be provided with pleasant experiences alongside those harsh ones..
How to handle disappointment from the way the siblings behave
Our daughter had heart breaking questions at a very young age. “Why doesn’t my brother say he loves me? Why doesn’t he hug me?”
Her need to hear that he loves her was enormous. It broke our hearts to try to explain that he doesn’t speak that language. He would bite her so often. Fortunately, this improved so much after her brother’s stem cell therapy. He was much less violent. For the first time, he began to give her (and others) more typical signs of love.
Today, two years after we started these treatments, he even invites her to play with him
Teaching an autistic siblings how to show love
Signs of love are essential for all of us. They are especially important if your children participate in caring for a special brother. This will likely happen naturally by virtue of being in the sibling’s environment. It will be easier, if you manage to produce alternative language between your children.
Our eldest was non verbal. He hardly spoke until the age of five and a half. His sister is a year and a half younger than him. His brother a year and a half younger than her. Three children in three years and a fourth four years later. She is sandwiched between two autistic brothers. Even her baby brother, who was born in November was quickly diagnosed with epilepsy. As such she does not get one “normal” brother.
And so, in times of desperation, we leaned into applied behavioral principals. When she asked for a hug from her big brother, we “forced” him. We wrapped his arms around her, and scripted the words “I love you” to him. We created act of affection in an artificial way. She would receive positive feedback from him. He would learn this is an expected behavior. He didn’t resist hugging her, so we understood it was permitted.
The importance of a good bond between siblings
Creating positive feedback between typical and special needs siblings is very important. This is especially important at young ages when sibling relationships are built. When bonds are not nurtured in childhood – the bond in adulthood will be damaged. Some of these siblings will be caring for the special sibling in adulthood. Consequently, it is worth investing resources in childhood and strengthening the bond between them.
If they have good relationships it will be easier for sibling to help sibling. It is easier for us to help a loved one. It is much harder to help someone who is perceived as a burden.
Childhood is the best time to strengthen brotherhood. Encourage them to see the humanity and good in the special sibling. Show them what each sibling contributes to the “family package.”
For example, we create joint activities for them. This way they have lots of positive experiences in childhood.
We want them to remember how happy they were together as children.
Everyone has their own private spots around the house. However, they also have a special, shared places. For instance a bulletin board to display work from school or home together.
Siblings will always have emotional difficulties, even if you were the perfect parents. Just being in the same house for years will create clashes. Raising a mix of typical children together with special siblings raises different emotional difficulties.
Give these difficulties room for venting. Talk about them with the child according to their age.
Quite a few times my daughter and I talk alone about her difficulties the boys. She is aware that they are the way they are because they have autism. There are things they do, not because they do not like her, but because that’s how they react with the autism.
It’s hard for her to think they’ll never be like her.
In such cases, we explain to her that it is difficult to know whether they will grow up and be “like everyone else” or not. We explain that we just have to make an effort to help them. She is constantly reminded that just as she grows up, they also grow and develop only differently from her.
Giving legitimacy to a family with a special child
Explain that it’s okay to be different.
Every family is different and every person is different from others. Just as there is a family with one parent, two parents of the same sex, there are families with different types of children. There are families with twin children, or children of only one sex, and there are families like us with special children.
It is very common for typical children can feel that it is “wrong” that they are the only ones with special siblings.
Explain that typical brotherhood with special needs siblings is a common and legitimate situation. Turning it into a normal situation makes it easier for children.
It is important to remember that alongside every child’s need to naturally be unique, there is also a tremendous need to integrate into society and be like all children. The very explanation that this type of family is a “normal” family, despite the unique situation, is important for the child, so they can feel they are integrating into society successfully.
Emotional compensation for the typical child with special siblings
We are often forced to wipe away tears at our home as a result of clashes. Sometimes even compensating her with extra one-on-one time with us. For example, buying ice cream or baking together. She needs a few more tokens of love and reassurance from us.
Like any child with unpleasant experiences, typical children with special siblings need comforting.
It is not always possible to change the behavior of the other child. Therefore, it is important to remember, that although the special sibling sometimes has unpleasant behaviors, the typical sibling should not be absorbing these behaviors without any consolation.
Consolation does not have to be a gift bought with money. It can be a simple hug, to provide comfort after being bitten. In fact, the only thing that is important, is that the consolation helps on the emotional level to overcome the distress that was caused by the sibling’s behavior.
For example, our eldest son would push or bite a quite often. His way of saying he is not interested in physical closeness to others.
Our response method:
- Explain to our daughter about her brother’s need for physical space in a way that suited her age at the time.
- Provide her with an alternative way to get what she wanted. For example, she wanted him to participate in a game with her. We created an activity for them that they could both do at the same time next to each other. This way she will feel that he is playing with her despite the differences between them.
- Comfort when she feels hurt by him. This includes a conversation about the situation that occurred, and a joint parent-child activity that can include anything that involves one-on-one attention. For instance: reading a favorite story, sitting in a hug on the couch or baking activity, etc .
Emotional therapy at a young age
At the moment, emotional therapy, because she is young, focuses on indirect therapy such as dance class and therapeutic horse riding. She gets parent time in activities of creating, baking and reading together. During one-on-one time we talk about topics she is interested in talking about.
As they grow older, it’s time to move on to other sources of support. For example, sibling groups, emotional therapists like psychologists, art therapy and more. Emotional therapy can still be in a conversation between the child and the parent. One-on-one time can be regularly allocated for venting emotions or therapeutic activities such as creation and art for the issue, a trip outside and more.
Sibling care in adulthood
We do not want our daughter to feel that she was shaped to be a caregiver for her brothers. We want the help they get from her in adulthood to be from her choice. That’s why we’re focusing on strengthening the connections between them right now.
Even if your children will not be the brother’s primary caregiver, at some point you will probably need to transfer authority and guardianship.
The typical child is likely to have an active part in caring for their siblings in adulthood. Guardianship will pass to our children, and they will make the decisions. Therefore, it is worthwhile to continue to provide emotional support in adolescence and adulthood.
Airing out outside the house
One thing that’s very helpful for young typical children with special needs siblings, is going out. This gives them a sense of “Normalcy” for a few moments. Time outside the intensity of the special siblings. Rest from the natural need to help their siblings.
A visit to friend. Going to the grandparents alone. Spending time alone with a parent.
Meeting their peers
One of the outlets that was destroyed during the corona pandemic was peer group. Your child’s age group in which they are a part of, and where all the social tasks that the child needs to develop take place.
For most of us it is an educational framework. A child who does not have typical siblings and is deprived of his or her social framework as well, is subject to additional emotional distresses.
My own corner
So many things in the home are “nationalized” according to the special needs. The living room becomes a therapy room. There’s a certain set up for the kids’ and parent’s bedrooms. The kitchen is full of locks and barriers.
It is important to designate a spot for your typical child that is only theirs. Our daughter has her own “princess” table, and only she plays on it. Is her private anchor, and is dedicated only to her.
A special corner is a critical thing.
It can be a drawer, shelf or special bag. Anything or anyplace that allows for being themselves.
They need something private in a world where everything else is devoted to another person. Especially when they have to bend to the needs of another. (Something that is not really easy for children).
“The special corner” is a private space characterization method that is good for any child. It should also be given for the children with special needs as well. When children reach an age where privacy is important, (for every child it comes at a different stage) one way to allow them privacy is to allocate “the special corner”. Our eldest son (now 7 years old) has a small suitcase, where he puts his important belongings (currently a building blocks game he especially likes). This is the way for him to declare – “it’s mine”!
Being a typical child with special needs siblings is not a simple situation. An effort should be made to give them their place. Do not turn them transparent because they don’t have special needs. She too deserves a happy childhood.
As a sister to siblings with special needs, our daughter is given countless tools for coping in the world, which certainly would not have been given to her in any other way. These include a more developed sense of compassion, sympathy, empathy and inclusion. She has learned the ability to delay gratifications. And she has the ability to “hear” the other’s need, even when they are not speaking.
But all of these good traits come with an emotional price to pay. This situation comes with quite a few difficulties.
The desire to sometimes be first priority for your parents should occasionally come true. Every child needs to spend time with their parents. They need warmth and love and a feeling that they will be accepted in any situation, and be seen.
This need is so natural to all of us, but gets pushed aside quite a bit.
In families like ours, parents must make a conscious effort, take into account the expected difficulties in the unique situation created, and create an emotionally healthy place for the child’s development in a family with siblings for children with special needs.