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Karen Wang
BY Karen Wang

10 Ways To Give Attention To A Sibling Of A Child With Special Needs

At every IEP, I announce that the most important member of my 12 year old son’s support team is his 6 year old brother.  My younger son knows his brother better than anyone else, and will probably be a part of his team longer than anyone else, too.

I haven’t hidden the truth from my little one: he knows about his future responsibility.

But he needs to be a 6 year old.  And sometimes he still wants to be my baby.  In the flurry of activity that surrounds my older son’s disability, it’s too easy to put his younger brother’s wishes on the back burner.  So I’ve thought about how to re-prioritize the needs of kids like him who have a sibling with special needs.  Here are 10 steps to get started.

10. Sib Nights

My 6 year old says that his favorite activity is Sib Nights at the Friendship Circle, which meets every other week for one hour.  There he plays games, works on an art project and talks with other siblings who understand his life experience.  Sib Nights follows the same structure as the SibShops curriculum, which is practiced internationally with proven long-term positive impact on the lives of siblings.

9. Daily rituals

Rituals or traditions can help build relationships, provide emotional security and develop self-regulation.  Rituals may be religious or secular – a special moment shared when waking up in the morning or a bedtime routine are meaningful rituals to maintain.  Every morning after the school bus picks up my older son, I announce to my younger son, “Mommy Time!”  Then we share a story and a snuggle before he goes to school.

8. Validate

Siblings often express negative emotions, thoughts or worries that may be surprising.  Try to listen calmly, without judgement.  Make sure that he or she knows that your love is unconditional.

7. Kid swap

I know a family whose children are close to the ages of my children with similar needs.  When the sibling tension is running high in both families, we swap kids – younger siblings go to one house, older siblings go to the other house.  Everyone wins in that scenario.

6. Volunteer in the classroom

My younger son requested that I volunteer in the school library with his class once a week.  It’s only half an hour, and my son usually acts “too cool” to interact with me in the library.  But privately at home, he tells me that he loves to see me in school – he knows that I’m there just for him.

If once a week doesn’t fit your schedule, consider signing up for one school event or program.  Some teachers ask parents to come in and talk about their career choice or area of expertise once a year, some schools have an art appreciation program run by parent volunteers a few times per year.

5. Focus on friendship

Encourage friendships outside the world of special needs.  The social skills learned in those friendships can help make life more peaceful for everyone at home.

4. Develop interests  Guinea Pig

Sports, art and drama classes, scouting and hobbies are all wonderful opportunities to develop an identity that is separate from a sibling’s.

3. Special outing with grandparents or other relatives

Allow time for siblings to develop relationships with grandparents and other relatives.  These relationships will provide strength that is needed in the long run.

2. Special time with Mom or Dad

Arrange for respite care for your child with special needs so that siblings can enjoy your undivided attention.  Go somewhere that you wouldn’t usually visit with your child with special needs.

1. Recognize the strength

Take a moment every day – or as often as needed – to acknowledge the fact that your child is trying to be strong for the sake of the family.  Remind your child that he or she doesn’t have to be strong all of the time – every person has needs that the whole family works together to meet.

Here’s a video that explains what it’s like to have an older brother with autism, narrated by a compassionate and loving young man.

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Karen Wang

Written on November 4, 2013 by:

Karen Wang is a Friendship Circle parent. You may have seen her sneaking into the volunteer lounge for ice cream or being pushed into the cheese pit by laughing children. She is a contributing author to the anthology "My Baby Rides the Short Bus: The Unabashedly Human Experience of Raising Kids With Disabilities"

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