Balancing Needs of Children when One Has a Disability

Balancing the demands of more than one child is never easy, but it can be especially challenging if one of your children has special needs. Generally the needs of a child with a disability must be prioritized over the rest of the household, but that can cause some tension within the family.

Siblings of someone with physical, mental, or emotional challenges often experience a wide range of challenging emotions with their sibling, such as embarrassment, frustration, anger, resentment, isolation, anxiety, and guilt. In addition, some teen siblings place a lot of pressure on themselves, either to be the perfect child for their parents to make up for what their sibling can’t do or to avoid becoming a burden to their parents.

Despite these warring emotions, there is also evidence that these siblings often develop more patience and empathy than their peers and are more accepting of differences.

If you have a special needs child in your family, it goes without saying that you will have to prioritize the needs of that child within the family. Many accommodations will naturally need to be made. If you’re worried about how that will affect your other children without special needs, here are some tips for parenting your typical child(ren):

Keep the lines of communication open.

Establish early on a policy of honest communication. That means that you make time to talk when your teen expresses an interest, listen actively in order to fully understand their point of view, and avoid making any judgments. Being an active and understanding listener will let your typical child know that you are there to listen, support, and honor their concerns. Additionally, keep your typical child in the loop about their sibling’s disability, offering more information as your child matures. Letting your typical child become an “expert” on their sibling’s disability helps them to pass on knowledge to others and feel less anxious about the future.

Acknowledge feelings.

As mentioned earlier, being the sibling of someone with physical, mental, or emotional challenges can instigate a lot of intense emotions. Regardless of whether your teen feels that life is unfair or that their sibling is embarrassing or that they resent all the necessary accommodations, they are entitled to their feelings. Listen to what your teen feels (you should listen more than talk), work to understand their point of view, and let them know that their emotions are normal in these situations. You don’t have to agree with your teen’s opinion or emotions (in fact, some of their emotions might offend you); your typical child simply needs to know they have been heard and valued.

Set realistic expectations.

Have high, but realistic expectations for each of your children with regards to behavior and chores. This will allow your typical child to achieve their best and will help your special needs child develop some independence. In addition, this can also help reduce resentment for what a typical child may see as two sets of rules.

Support interests.

When a family member has special needs, it’s easy to stay focused on that child or their particular concerns. To avoid anger and resentment building, be sure to encourage every member of the household to pursue their interests. Even when it’s difficult to manage a schedule, your other children should have the opportunity to explore an activity of choice, whether that be sports, arts, or other passions.

Spend one-on-one time with each child.

Every child, regardless of their lifestyle, family, or ability, needs to know that they are important and are valued by their parents. While it’s not easy in a family with a special needs child, one of the very best ways to ensure each child receives the support they need is to spend regular one-on-one time with each one. That might mean a few minutes of uninterrupted talking before bed each night, a special activity once a week, or a monthly date where you go out somewhere.

Celebrate everyone’s successes.

All children have milestones and achievements. It’s important that one child’s special needs do not overshadow their sibling’s accomplishments. Make a point to recognize the important moments in the lives of every member of your household.

Involve your family in the community.

Make sure that your family doesn’t just revolve around the disability. Being involved in your community helps others learn about and accept your child with a disability, while also offering all of your children the opportunity to develop social skills and feel helpful and valued.

Build a wide support system.

Families should create a support network so that caring for a special needs child doesn’t become an overwhelming burden to anyone in the household. Garner assistance from extended family members. Contact your local government to find out what programs are available in your area. Ask the school about after school programs. Reach out to your local United Way to discover what local nonprofits offer that could assist your special needs child. These types of programs can help spread out the responsibility and benefit your special needs child as well.

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